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The well of joy

As a clinical psychologist, I spend much of my professional time helping make sense of what happens when things go wrong. Anxiety, depression and other struggles can dominate conversations with my clients.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the same can be true for many of us. Wars are raging around the globe. Here, in one of the world’s richest countries, millions live in poverty. Our government seems to be in a perpetual state of chaos. It is easy to reside in a kind of existential dread that permeates our hearts, minds and souls.

While it is important to reckon with the reality of the suffering that exists in the world, it is also important for us not to become overwhelmed by it. Joy is an essential antidote in a suffering world.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” For believers, joy is not just a perk of the Christian life; it’s a spiritual resource that helps us carry out our work in the world.

A dictionary might define “joy” as a state of happiness in response to external circumstances. But our kind of joy is one that rests in the knowledge of what God has done and will continue to do. Our kind of joy is not dependent on what is happening in the world; it is a commitment to see good and recognize the presence of good in the world and in ourselves, regardless of our circumstances. Joy is the product of our ever-present knowledge of God’s movement and work in our lives.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that joy means we ignore all the bad. While some of us may have a tendency to use our faith to try to pretend our trials away (a process we mental health professionals call spiritual bypassing), the joy I’m suggesting does not negate the presence of evil or suffering in the world.

In fact, tapping into joy in our lives is what helps us fight injustice and work toward good for all. Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

As many cultures that have experienced historical violence and trauma can attest, joy is often the thing that helps us survive the unspeakable. As the proverb says, joy is a medicine and a healing balm, and when we lose it, our vitality dries up and disappears. It is no accident that we find moments of laughter at memorial celebrations, no accident that we spent the first few months of the pandemic lockdowns making jokes on the internet. Joy reminds us that we are alive when things feel perilous.

Because we live in a world that can exhaust and overwhelm us, we must be intentional about organizing our lives in a way that allows us access to the gift of joy. Ross Gay writes in “The Book of Delights” about his decision to find delights intentionally on a daily basis. He says of the process: “I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.” We must remember that joy and sorrow can, and will, coexist.

To be intentional about accessing joy is to make a practice of holding sacred time for the things that help us feel most content, at peace and close to God. For some, it may be physical exercise or spending time with our most beloved friends or family. For others, it might be time in nature, crafting or cooking. For others, it might be listening to music, committing to a devotional or other spiritual practice, or playing a game.

In her book “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” Tricia Hersey proclaims that resting is an explicit resistance to a capitalist society that demands we treat our bodies as dispensable and our souls as inconsequential. While joy and rest are not the same, joy can most certainly be found in rest. And rest can help us be more open to the joy in our lives.

There is no single right way. The point here is that to have joy as a resource, we must decide to make it a part of our lives. We must actively seek out joy rather than waiting for it to come to us.

When I am helping clients navigate depression or recover from burnout, I often ask them to identify the drains and wells in their lives. Drains are things that deplete and exhaust us. Wells are things that energize and excite us. Wells refill our proverbial cups, while drains cause them to empty.

Both are necessary parts of our lives. But when we are able to identify the wells, we can be intentional about having access to them all around our lives so that we never have to get empty. This is the power of joy! Our ability to access it regularly and often allows us to operate from a place of overflow rather than depletion. Simply put, joy sustains us for the journey.

For each of us, this is an individualized process. Ask yourself: What lights me up? What makes me feel most alive?

What would it be like to organize our lives around our joys, just as biblical cities were built around wells? What if those wells in our lives — those things that sustain and revitalize us — become nonnegotiables, so that all the mundane tasks of our lives have to fall into place in relation to them?

To organize ourselves around joy in this way is to participate in a reparative process, declining to sacrifice ourselves and our spirits to an unjust world, instead claiming a holy retention of our goodness and our “godness.” To recognize the reality of our goodness is to acknowledge that we are deserving of light, joyful, playful moments. Those moments can then become the home base from which we navigate the world.

Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

The formerly enslaved artisans who constructed First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, sometime after the Civil War didn’t use nails. Metal was expensive and often hard to come by for Black builders less than a generation from bondage.

The Rev. Alexander McBride, First African’s senior pastor, explained how the laborers built the church in Gothic Revival style, noted for its signature pointed arches and windows. The current building replaced an antebellum praise house, an open one-room clapboard space with little furniture so the enslaved could engage in a more mobile, joyful service removed from white surveillance and sit-quiet worship styles.

First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina
First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, was constructed by master craftsmen more than a century ago.

“They used the mortise-and-tenon method, where they interlock the wood. And this church has withstood every hurricane” that has rolled through the coastal city, said McBride, the 16th pastor at First African in its more than 150 years of existence.

And there have been many storms. An 1893 hurricane drowned many of the town’s Black residents, stranded in low-lying areas or swept to their deaths. But even that massive storm didn’t cause significant damage to the church, thanks to the unnamed craftsmen who may have lacked nails but had possessed the skill and wisdom to use the strongest joint known to woodworkers.

The church’s biggest current enemies are time, termites (which have eaten their way through some of the structure’s undercarriage) and moisture — largely unavoidable menaces for a century-old building in a humid seaside town.

Earlier this year, First African was among dozens of historically Black churches to win grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Those monies, through the Preserving Black Churches initiative — $4 million in this funding cycle — will support projects that recast their sites’ history through new interpretation or exhibits, grow capacity through staff hires and community outreach, and repair aging or damaged buildings.

Diversity of spaces

The grantees highlight the diversity of Black worship spaces and the history of how Black Americans have fought for religious freedom and built their own institutions amid racism and violence. They include institutions such as 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which just marked 60 years since the Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four girls and damaged the church; the elegant Black-majority Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia; one-room churches built by hand and heart; and churches in places with historically small Black populations, such as Alaska and West Virginia.

Two images side by side, one of a brick church steeple, one of a white basilica
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, (left) and Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, are both grant recipients.

“Black churches are living testaments to the achievements and resiliency of generations in the face of a racialized, inequitable society,” said Tiffany Tolbert, the Action Fund’s senior director for preservation. “They’re foundational to our Black religious, political, economic and social life.”

In some places, a church is the only building that remains as an artifact of a Black community that no longer exists. Scotland AME Zion Church in Potomac, Maryland, not far from the nation’s capital, is one such example from a community swallowed by encroaching development and urban sprawl.

Religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln once described the Black church as the unchallenged “cultural womb of the Black community.” Fellowship halls and sanctuaries in Black churches have long functioned as multipurpose rooms, where worship and politics meet. Churches like Beaufort’s First African have been incubators for Black social enterprise; during Reconstruction, First African was the site of a school for freed people, hungry for the literacy denied them during slavery.

Numerous historically Black colleges, civil rights protests and social movements trace their origins to Black pulpits and pews. Preserving church spaces can thus have a multiplying effect, documenting as well the stories of Black communities at large and the work of Black architects, artisans and mutual aid.

Worthy of preservation

It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?

Image of a church made with stone bricks
Design features of the Halltown Memorial Chapel are tangible history of the people who worshipped there.

That’s the case with the Halltown Memorial Chapel, built in 1901 not far from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown and his band of brigands in 1859 had raided an arsenal in hopes of ending slavery. The one-room chapel is small, only about 40 feet by 50 feet, with room for 13 pews. It was built of rubble stone by church members, stone masons and laborers who also constructed a nearby turnpike or worked at the local paper mill, which has since closed. Services continued there for decades, only ceasing after World War II because of a dwindling congregation. After that, it hosted the occasional gathering until its last event — a wedding of one of the founders’ descendants — in 1988.

Kim Lowry, the treasurer of the Halltown Chapel Memorial Association, cataloged the many repairs needed via email. “Water damage from a hole in the roof and from water seeping in under the foundation was the culprit. And without regular events or services, the chapel suffered from neglect. The plaster walls needed to be rehabilitated, the flooring had rotted and deteriorated and required replacement, and exterior work was required on the wood window sills and frames and the Chapel entrance area.”

Powderpost beetles had chomped on the pews, spreading ruin with every bite. One of the church’s three stained-glass windows was missing altogether, and the others needed restoration. One is a poignant tribute to Edna, a church member’s child who had died in infancy. Such design features — with references to congregation members who fundraised for such elements — are tangible history, traces of people long gone and their efforts to build beloved community.

“It’s impossible to talk about American craftsmanship without talking about the Black and Indigenous hands that constructed it even before 1776,” said Brandon Bibby, a senior preservation architect with the Action Fund. “It’s important to preserve that aspect so that we as a society don’t forget. By preserving, we are saying, ‘This place matters in the whole context of the American landscape.’”

“What I want most is that through this project, Black congregations and communities will see the value and beauty in their places and see they are worthy of preservation,” he said.

Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?

Image of a man inspecting the foundation of a building
Repairs being made at 16th Street Baptist.

Recognizable elements of church design can be particularly vulnerable to deterioration. Steeples are both symbolic and pragmatic communicators; their towering presence in a landscape announces where people can worship or seek shelter. Yet sitting aloft, largely inaccessible, placing strain on dramatic, heaven-pointed roofs and often channeling rainwater to places it shouldn’t go, steeples can be a source of problems that go unnoticed until a leak sprouts or cracks appear.

Many of the Preserving Black Churches grant recipients need steeple repair. When congregations are forced to choose among costly repairs, a steeple can sometimes take a back seat to high-traffic areas with more visible problems, such as the sanctuary itself.

Funding a range of needs

What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?

Declining church attendance has meant less coin in the collection plate and, in turn, fewer resources for maintenance and repairs. Black American church membership has dropped in recent years, from 78% in 1998-2000 to 59% in 2018-2020, though Black Americans remain one of the top populations most likely to be church members (along with conservatives and Republicans), according to a multiyear Gallup poll released in 2021.

A 2012 Kellogg Foundation report also found that Black people give more of their income to community-based causes than whites, in part because of a culture of mutual aid, lack of access to white-dominated institutional funding and traditions such as tithing. Even so, when an evangelical research firm surveyed church financial well-being, more Black pastors said their congregations had less than seven weeks of cash reserves — perhaps because they are dependent on a community with lower wealth in the first place. Getting money to repair churches can be particularly difficult.

Following the first grants that went to 35 churches across the country, recipients of another $4 million will be announced in January, Tolbert said, as part of a plan to distribute between $8 and $10 million, with support from Lilly Endowment Inc. In total, $20 million will be invested through Preserving Black Churches across all of its program goals.

If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?

headshot of Tiffany Tolbert
Tiffany Tolbert

That funding will go not only toward capital needs, Tolbert said, but also toward planning, to help churches understand how to undertake preservation. Matching grants will help churches create new preservation endowments so that invested income can be used to support maintenance and preservation of existing buildings. Emergency grants are also available to address immediate issues such as damage caused by floods, fires and even acts of vandalism.

And the Action Fund is working with six churches — four in Alabama and one each in California and Chicago — to help develop comprehensive stewardship plans that will address restoration and rehabilitation of the buildings along with programming and interpretation, activating space for community, and bringing in arts and social justice programs. They will benefit from a consulting team of architects, engineers, business planners and capital campaign fundraisers.

“It is essential that these places are activated,” Tolbert said. “They are centers of worship, but also, they continue to serve the community.”

Action Fund executive director Brent Leggs told The Washington Post in an interview that Black churches are exceptional lenses through which to view Black and American history. “It’s amazing to see centuries of Black history told at historic Black churches. Some of the stories include formerly enslaved Africans moving through emancipation, beginning to form communities, … and some of the earliest buildings founded by African Americans in the United States [include] a Black church. These places are of exceptional significance. Their stories matter, and they are worthy of being preserved.”

Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

Questions to consider

  • It’s commonly said that the church is “more than the building,” yet buildings are material remnants of history and culture. What kinds of meaning do church buildings have for you?
  • Does your church have a historic role in your community? How has its role changed over the years?
  • Steeples are a traditional element of many churches, yet they can be difficult to maintain. What traditional elements of your church are difficult to maintain? Would your congregation be OK without them?
  • If you were asked what in your church is worth preserving, what would you say? What would your congregation say?
  • How is your space “activated” for your community? Would members of your community benefit from learning more about your congregation’s past and its role in local history?

When Robert Shetterly taught himself to draw and paint, he became fascinated by the themes of nature, animals and religious forces. He began making a living by creating art from his home in Maine. But eventually, that wasn’t enough for Shetterly, who’d been an activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War during his high school and college years.

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the United States’ subsequent invasion of Iraq to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” Shetterly found himself in a rage over what some have since called flawed intelligence and others have called lies.

“All I could do was rant. And I was really making myself sick,” Shetterly said. He wondered whether he should leave the country or stay and use his talents to have a voice.

Robert Shetterly

The desire to speak out won, and Shetterly started painting portraits of people from the 19th century who were courageous in standing up for what they believed in, such as Harriet Tubman, who had helped lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

“I thought, OK well, ‘How can I use this enormous energy that I’ve got right now, because of how I feel, and do something positive? Something that’s about love rather than hate?’”

Since then, Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project has grown to more than 260 portraits of those living and dead.

“[T]he more I did it, I realized this was not just about my own personal relationship with the country or my own therapy. It was really about education,” Shetterly said. 

Today, he continues to connect to communities through painting and through exhibitions and other events. His work travels to settings like museums, schools and faith communities. The documentary “Truth Tellers,” directed by Richard Kane, shares the story of the artist’s work and journey, and encourages people to connect and discuss themes of truth, justice and equality.

Values of faith and honesty

It’s no coincidence that many of Shetterly’s subjects are people of faith and that faith communities have exhibited his work.

“We are encouraged often to think about finding our ethics in our economy, in how many jobs have we got, are people being paid a fair wage, what kind of innovation can we do,” Shetterly said.

But in faith communities, he said, fundamental values like compassion, dignity, truth telling and courage are the ones that must first align.

Shetterly said his faith-focused subjects are people who believe in these values and understand that they can’t live with themselves if they don’t act on those values. When his work is exhibited in faith communities, it can spark conversation and introspection.

What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?

In 2022, Shetterly was a guest speaker for chapel at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, focusing on themes of truth and justice. Speaking to an audience of 650, including 500 students at the residential school, Shetterly shared the story of one of his portrait subjects, Claudette Colvin, who as a Black teenager in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, refused to cede her seat to white passengers months before Rosa Parks would famously do the same.

St. Paul’s students attend chapel four days per week. There, they grapple with big spiritual questions like, “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to be a good and ethical person?” said the Rev. Charles Wynder Jr., the school’s dean of chapel and spiritual life.

Robert Shetterly in his studio
Robert Shetterly discusses a portrait of Bayard Rustin.

Shetterly’s visit, including his discussion with art students later in the day, brought to life the work, sacrifice, vision and life’s journey of people who have sacrificed for the common good, Wynder said.

For Bethany Dickerson Wynder, the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives, Shetterly’s artwork complemented the school’s efforts to lift up “unsung heroes” in the Black community and supported the school’s focus on education in the arts.

Prophetic voices

Shetterly’s portrait of the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and an elder in the Church of God in Christ, features the subject wearing a dark-colored blazer and a matching hat that reads “Resist.”

“Often, the greatest leaders come out of that tradition — that prophetic tradition in the churches,” said Shetterly, who explained that he didn’t want to paint his subjects as icons or people on pedestals.

“This isn’t the work of a few heroes and giants — this is the work of people,” he said.

The Rev. Dan Smith, the senior minister of First Church in Cambridge (Massachusetts), Congregational, United Church of Christ, has helped share Shetterly’s art in a faith-based setting. Smith engages with the church’s collaborative staff on social justice tasks as well as deep spiritual formation work.

Before the pandemic began, Smith’s church had reached out to Shetterly’s team after seeing the artist’s work in Maine. The church had been doing a deep dive into its own legacy of slavery — finding that there had been more than 30 enslaved people in its historic membership and doing the spiritual work of repair by visiting sites like Selma, Alabama. But the timing wasn’t yet right to connect with Shetterly.

Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?

In 2022, the church reached out again, looking ahead to the theme of “Truth that sets us free” for the season of Lent. First Church went on to offer an exhibit that ran from February to June 2023.

The staff chose portraits that connected with the church’s story, whether by geographic proximity or because their words inspired the community. For example, there was a special local connection with the unveiling of Shetterly’s portrait of Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist and author who had freed herself from slavery and run a boarding house near the church grounds after her escape, Smith said.

“The congregation loved having the portraits. They were immediately inspired when they walked into the building,” he said, noting that staff had scattered the art inside and created a ritual of standing before two images at a time and having a short prayer along with time to hear the subjects’ biographies.

He said the hope is that the exhibit will return, noting that there is a connection between the branches of social justice and the spiritual roots of worship.

How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?

Portraits by Robert Shetterly
“Harriet Jacobs” and “Reverend Jim Lewis” by Robert Shetterly

“When a congregation gets too focused on prayer life without looking out beyond itself to what’s going on with its neighbors, that’s problematic. I think when a congregation is all about social justice and doesn’t tend to its prayer or worship life, that’s also a problem,” Smith said. “I think the sweet spot is when there’s a real sense of balance and integration and alignment.”

One example from Shetterly’s work would be the portrait of the Rev. Jim Lewis, who has focused on issues like health care and criminal justice as an Episcopal clergyperson and author. It depicts Lewis looking out stoically from a blue-green background, with his quote reading, in part, “Turning the other cheek is a revolutionary idea.”

A documented legacy

If the unveiling and display of Shetterly’s portraits is an experience, so too is the act of painting them. The process is so inspiring, in fact, that it spurred director Richard Kane to document it.

“‘Truth Tellers’ is the most important and most difficult film I have made in my long journey of producing almost 100 films,” Kane wrote via email.

“I began following Rob around 2003 in his process of selecting his subjects, interviewing them about their beliefs in the ‘American experiment,’ selecting a quote from their writings, and painting their portraits,” Kane wrote.

“It soon became a series about his belief in returning to the founding ideals of our country — liberty, equality and justice for all. It became a series of discovering one’s moral courage. And it was courageous of Rob to select many lesser known but significant Americans who symbolized our fight for justice — racial, indigenous and moral justice.”

Kane noted Shetterly’s deep belief in democracy is what drove the desire to create the film.

“At a time when there is a pattern of states denying the right of students to study slavery, inequality, diversity, critical race theory, preventing students from learning about our true history, ‘Truth Tellers’ is here to tell the truth and give teachers a tool to have students understand our real history,” Kane wrote.

For his part, Shetterly remains committed to sharing his message and his craft.

“The first thing I do with each painting is I paint the eyes,” he said. “As soon as you paint the eyes on a wooden panel, [it] actually seems like there’s a life there.”

Instead of relying on brushes, Shetterly said, he paints a lot with his fingers, building up thin layers of paint using a technique called glazing. Eventually, the light comes through the paint, and the emotions of his subjects begin to surface, allowing Shetterly to then scratch their words onto each wooden panel, using a dental tool, to bring the elements together.

Early on, for historic subjects, Shetterly painted from existing images. But for subjects still living, he has also traveled to those who are willing to meet in order to understand their stories and capture their images in real time. Today, he has a list of hundreds of people he can paint, including names suggested by others.

Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?

Capturing emotions

Shetterly’s meetings with the subjects might require less than an hour of guided conversation that he hopes will shape their facial expressions, and he then may take just 20 to 30 photographs that capture their emotions in the moment. These days, he can even carry out the initial meeting via FaceTime instead of an in-person visit.

When it comes to the actual painting, Shetterly can finish in about a week to 10 days, but he often spends more time traveling and researching each portrait.

Some of those he approached were wary to participate at first, he said. But after the publication of his first book and the launch of his website, subjects could see the company they were going to be in, he said, and would rarely refuse to sit.

And even though many of the people he’s painted were first unknown to him, many — like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and public health advocate who revealed the truth of the inhumane conditions in Flint, Michigan — have become friends and even guests for related events. Regardless of whether subjects follow up with program events, the experience can be meaningful.

Kathy Kelly, who was co-founder of the grassroots campaign Voices in the Wilderness and now is president of the board of World BEYOND War, remembers sitting for Shetterly in the early 2000s. At the time, she’d returned from overseas travels where she’d seen children, who couldn’t get pain medication or antibiotics due to economic sanctions, withering away in hospitals.

“It was at a point in time where I felt a little fragile. I think in the painting maybe I look a little fragile,” she said, recalling that it seemed clear that the economic war would become a bombing war.

“Our group really wanted to raise the voices for people who had no voice in the United States,” Kelly said.

In contrast to the difficult scenes she’d witnessed overseas, Kelly’s portrait session was set in a welcoming space by the water, she said.

“Rob Shetterly exposed many, many truths through his amazing portrait artistry that would never have seen the light of day,” she said of his body of work. “And I love it that he does it with [paint] and a few words.”

Portraits by Robert Shetterly
“Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha” and “Kathy Kelly” by Robert Shetterly

Portrait subject Louis Clark had a similar positive experience, coming from his work representing and protecting government and corporate whistleblowers via the Government Accountability Project (GAP).

After helping Black voters register and get to the polls in 1960s Mississippi, he had earned his master of divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion before obtaining his law degree from American University in 1977 and becoming director of GAP in 1978, just after its launch. With Clark at the helm, the organization assisted whistleblowers.

Today, Clark calls out the role of faith in the work his portrait highlights.

“A pretty significant percent of the people that come forward are coming forward because they have ethical concerns and convictions, very often religiously based, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “Because, essentially, what we’re doing is helping people in the workplace to realize their ethics and their morality. And to me, that’s exactly what it’s all about in terms of religion. That is the narrow path — the narrow path of righteousness is truth itself.”

This kind of work — and the willingness to go beyond accepted norms — has historical significance in the church.

“What we know about the history of Jesus is that he was a radical,” added Clark, who is ordained in the United Methodist Church.

“For example, he ate with unclean people. His ministry included — in leadership roles — women, which was pretty unheard-of in the day,” Clark said. “[Jesus] recognized the humanity of all people.”

It’s this kind of action that Shetterly’s project continues to recognize and share for discussion and contemplation. The portraits, and the related documentary, can help inspire and encourage others to tell their own truths, explore their own stories and look out into their own communities.

“What Robert Shetterly does is he tells narratives of truth so that those who look at his images, his paintings, and hear his story … will live into a truth that is loving, life-giving and liberating,” said Charles Wynder, of St. Paul’s School, noting that the essence of truth allows us to liberate ourselves.

“Developing global leaders who pursue truth — seek to live it, strive to tell it, work to protect it — is foundational to not only our faith journey but the aims of religion and faith: to see the divine in others, to find ourselves together [in a way that] recognizes our connectivity and our particularity,” Wynder said.

What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?

Questions to consider

  • What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
  • Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
  • How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
  • Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
  • What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?

For leaders and those seeking a more liberating vision of life abundant, the 2023 Women’s World Cup teaches us the importance of expanding the table, the power of investing in those who have historically been denied resources, and the pleasure of affirming joy.

In this 2023 World Cup played by women’s national teams, FIFA expanded the field from 24 to 32 nations (up again from 16 prior to 2015). With the 2023 expansion, many mainstream sports pundits tutted that the quality of play would decrease as less-talented teams were invited in. The 2019 World Cup saw major blowouts, like the 13-0 win of the U.S. over Thailand. Instead, the expanded 2023 tournament has seen far closer scorelines. The expanded field has set records for ticket sales and domestic viewership.

While some Americans treat this as a passing event, we experience it as a taste of heaven — a joyous celebration of multicultural life. The World Cup teaches us to get comfortable with the idea that even if it’s not about us, it’s still interesting. Even though the U.S. women’s national team lost in the round of 16, there are still compelling teams for whom to cheer.

The tournament also has lessons for leaders. Instead of clinging to an elitist mindset of limiting seats, we can learn that expanding the table has actually made for a better tournament, more interesting matches and a far more enjoyable experience. With expansion, the world has gotten exposed to young, dynamic talent from across the globe and clashes of styles.

When the table is expanded, we get introduced to brilliant and talented people. The world got a chance to meet the emerging Haitian star Melchie Dumornay and experience her high soccer IQ and skills against an ill-prepared England. Panama’s Marta Cox’s booming free kick against France launched a joyful last game in the group stage that had the group leaders on the edges of their seats.

At 18 years old, Colombia’s young phenom Linda Caicedo is not only the future of women’s football but the present.

With an expanded field of teams also comes increased awareness of the need for equality at the table. Global economic inequality applies to soccer too. First World nations have more economic resources for their teams and better chances of winning the tournament.

There is stark gender inequality as well. FIFA began the men’s World Cup in 1930, while the first Women’s World Cup was allowed only in 1991, 61 years later. The women’s teams have endured chronic underinvestment from their national federations in development, training, research, and physical and mental health support. And as in the church, in the places where we underinvest, sexual, racial, emotional and economic abuse festers.

Almost every team in the tournament has been in conflict with its national federation. After years of pay inequality, the U.S. team just settled the equal pay lawsuit against its federation. Spain’s team quit en masse over a work environment that harmed the players’ emotional and physical well-being. Canada’s team has been in a pay and labor dispute for over a year with its federation. Members of France’s team went on strike over an abusive coach. Some players on Zambia’s team accused their head coach of sexually assaulting his players. The Nigerian team is owed back pay for over two years from its federation. Jamaica’s players were denied training camps, pre-World Cup warmup matches and compensation by their federation and had to crowdfund support to compete in the tournament.

As SkyE’s Shea Butter Football Club podcast co-host, Sylvs, has said, “There is not a talent gap. There is an investment gap.” This is the Pentecostal reality of the Spirit that falls on all people. This tournament shows that all nations have talented players, even as there is unequal investment. Leaders would do well to remember to constantly cast our nets wider and trust that talent is everywhere.

Teams at this tournament show that when there is robust investment, there are also hopeful results. Morocco is a case study in what happens when a federation invests in both its men’s and its women’s teams. As a result of that investment, both have achieved historic success, including the women being the first Arab nation women’s team to make it to the round of 16.

Around the world, investment in women’s domestic leagues has allowed for explosive growth of the sport in home countries while increasing the quality of national teams. In this new landscape, multiple traditional powerhouses have met early exits in this tournament (the U.S., Canada, Germany and Brazil), a sign that the game is growing in a beautiful way. When we invest in development, not just senior leadership, we build strength across generations.

This World Cup teaches us the embodied joy of celebrating, rejoicing, cheering and being alive, especially after such a long, hard season post-COVID. It’s not lost on either of us that in a world that seeks particularly to control Black, queer and women’s bodies, soccer players and fans enact embodied joy. This itself is an act of resistance against powers and principalities.

The communal celebration of fans in the stands rejoicing along with players on the field in being alive feels like church at its best. Many of the Nigerian team’s songs are also worship songs. Colombia and Brazil dance as a team after goals. In the words of the gospel song, “This joy that we have, the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.” Despite remaining inequality, this World Cup gives us an opportunity to cheer.