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Worldlings gather together in Asheville ()

Sophia's World

We are Worldlings

A common mission and purpose unites the WORLD family

If you follow WORLD reporters and correspondents on Twitter (and if you don’t, you’re missing out on a lot of joy), you would have noticed that we’ve been quite social lately. We’ve been retweeting each other’s articles, posting photos of our best reporterly faces, and tagging each other with the hashtag #WorldRetreat. So yes, dear internet sleuth, we were indeed at a WORLD work retreat last week. And it was fabulous.

Many readers already know this, but for a publication that calls itself WORLD, we are a very small content-creating team. I recently watched (and reviewed) a Showtime documentary called The Fourth Estate, a four-part series that takes a behind-the-scenes look into The New York Times’ newsroom as they cover the first year of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. The Times has 1,200-plus reporters, and though the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not covet,” I confess and repent that I did covet The Times’ deep resources and enormous editorial team. 

When I saw Times reporters gather in their newsroom to watch Trump’s inauguration speech together, I wished our staff had been able to do the same and discuss it in a roundtable. As I watched Times reporters swing about on their swivel chairs in their cubicles, trading banters and story ideas, my stomach knotted with envy. As I saw editors looking over their reporters’ shoulders at their computer screen, offering suggestions and corrections as the reporters banged out last-minute stories, I longed for that kind of in-person, direct teamwork. And when I saw the Times gain access to the president’s direct phone line, his Air Force One, and other exclusive events, I salivated.

You see, WORLD is headquartered in Asheville, N.C., but most of us are scattered throughout the nation and the world, from New York City to Los Angeles to Taipei to Abuja. That means we’re basically one-man offices, working out of our basements or bedrooms or coffee shops. It means we mainly see each other’s faces on our online profiles, and maybe once every two or four years in person. That means journalism can be a very lonely job—and in my case, it looks like a frizzy-haired, coffee-chugging woman sitting alone in the middle of her 400-square-foot studio apartment, clanking on her keyboard and flicking away donut crumbs while her tuxedo cat Shalom meows and yeows and sheds its fur all over her bare feet. You can’t tell me that woman is not already on her way to becoming a kooky cat lady.

But all of that is not so blatantly problematic compared to our biweekly conference call at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time, which means it’s 6:30 a.m. my time. I do not have the gift of morning perkiness. I do not wake up smiley and chatty; I wake up frowny and grouchy. That early in the morning, my brain is like a rusty, decades-old tractor creaking over muddy slush, and I often have trouble fitting words together into coherent sentences. Sometimes I don’t even speak English. I didn’t think anyone noticed until last week, during our first WORLD retreat in two years, my colleagues ran a running joke that I sound like I’ve just rolled out of bed during our conference calls (which I insist is utter FAKE NEWS).

All that to say, I so appreciated the opportunity finally to get together in person with my fellow staff members. Last week, about 45 of us on the editorial team—full-time reporters, editors, and freelancers (plus members of our design, development, administration, and marketing teams)—sat together in Asheville to get to know one another, discuss work-related topics, and break bread.

Over Subway wraps, bagels, and Chick-Fil-A biscuits, we remembered the history and mission of WORLD, certain stories we published that risked our organization’s future, and how God pulled us through each crisis. We discussed things we need to improve on at WORLD (your suggestions are welcome), future fundraising goals (your dollars are also welcome), and social media guidelines (cue in every WORLD reporter frantically logging onto Twitter at the same time after months of inactivity). We talked about our social lives, our favorite movies, funny anecdotes from our reporting trips. We laughed, we prayed, we sang hymns.

We also hugged each other. A lot. Remember, I have a cat. I do not hug; I pat shoulders. But there is something about being in the physical presence of fellow WORLD writers whose bylines and voices you recognize that somehow fattens my too-small heart—and suddenly, I am hugging people, and liking it. Partly, it’s because after a long absence of physical contact, you kind of want to touch your colleagues to make sure they’re real. But mostly, it’s because we share a common mission and purpose as the WORLD family, whether we’re writing or broadcasting or designing or meeting supporters—and that connection is too powerful and inspiring and compelling to restrain our greetings to shoulder-patting.

Our editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky fondly calls us “Worldlings.” And last week, I felt a comfortable paradox of both pride and humility as I looked around the room and saw how much we Worldlings have grown under the WORLD family.

We’ve come a long way since our founding days as a struggling Southern Presbyterian denominational publication with 5,000 subscribers. We don’t do everything perfectly, but we acknowledge our shortcomings and strive for better. And at every step of the way, we check to make sure we’re in line with our mission to seek and speak God’s wisdom in an era where the journalism field is cacophonic with the skewing of truth, sensationalism, meaningless blabbers, and God-rejecting folly. We call ourselves WORLD—but, WORLD members, please never let us forget that the world we report on is God’s world, and the stories we tell are His story.

By the way, this web journal has been proofread and approved by my colleague Onize Ohikere, who nibbled a chocolate chunk cookie next to me while I wrote this.

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Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP

Patterson (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP)

Sophia's World

Reclaiming the #MeToo movement

Why hasn’t the church led the way in calling attention to harassment, abuse, and assault?

Last week, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) board fired Paige Patterson from his position as president following revelations of his history of statements and decisions many people say were dismissive and demeaning to women. 

At first, SWBTS had simply demoted Patterson—a highly esteemed figure in the conservative evangelical movement—to “president emeritus.” But then the board moved more forcefully to strip him of all “benefits, rights and privileges” after confirming new information that while Patterson was president of another seminary, a graduate student reported her rape to him and he encouraged her not to go to the police but to forgive her alleged rapist. That news came in the wake of public outrage regarding various statements Patterson had made in the past 18 years, including encouraging an abused wife not to divorce but to pray for her husband, criticizing female seminary students for not dressing up, and making sexually charged remarks about a girl as young as 16.

Many leaders in the denomination applauded the SWBTS trustees’ decision, but asked for continued prayers. Lauren Chandler, writer and wife of megachurch pastor Matt Chandler, said she felt “a sigh of relief,” but added that she was also saddened for the people who felt bullied and silenced and for the loss of the Pattersons, who had made a tremendous positive impact in their community. Author and Bible teacher Beth Moore praised SWBTS trustees for “their tremendous courage in what has surely been a brutal process,” but also warned that it’s not over: “These are sobering days. These are days for each of us to go on our faces before God, searching our own sin-prone hearts, repenting for our own transgressions and asking God to dislodge planks out of our own eyes.” 

Perhaps this hard, painful reckoning over how we treat women within the conservative evangelical body is one repercussion from the #MeToo wave. But if that’s true—if it’s true that the church really needed a secular social movement to jolt us awake to the need to challenge beliefs and behaviors and attitudes that we once deemed acceptable (or to “clean house,” as Moore calls it)—then I’m embarrassed. 

I’m embarrassed because we are the salt and light of this world. We should be the first to set the trend toward treating men and women with greater dignity, compassion, and love. So how is it that we’re only now questioning what Patterson said many years ago? How is it that when another pastor, Andy Savage, stood in front of his mega-congregation and confessed that as a 22-year-old youth pastor he once had a “sexual incident” with a 17-year-old girl (who claimed sexual assault), his church stood and applauded him? What message does that send to that woman who had for so long stayed silent? What testimony does it send to the world about the head of the church, Jesus Christ?

This issue is not just about women. It’s about how we Bible-toting Christians, who read and hear and preach the Truth, who pray in the name of a God of justice and mercy and love, can so misunderstand Truth and misuse the name of God—especially with the best and most sincere of intentions.

Ever since I wrote a feature story and two columns on spousal abuse, I’ve been receiving emails from readers—both men and women—who tell me they’ve been abused by a spouse, too. After being told repeatedly by their church leaders and fellow Christians to submit, to forgive, or to pray more, they tell me they’ve learned to keep silent. But inside them brews a thick, sour frustration: How? How do they stay in a marriage that ravages their soul, how do they forgive a person who’s still harming them, what else must they pray to overcome the anguish of abuse and change the heart of their unloving spouse?

I understand Patterson’s reluctance to advise divorce to an abused spouse. Divorce shouldn’t be the first solution. Since the gospel is true, there is always hope for repentance, redemption, and restoration in the most broken, messy marriage. It is right and good for the victim to one day forgive his or her abuser. It is right and good for the victim to pray for his or her abuser, especially if the abuser is not a believer. 

But to get there is a long, complicated, messy journey that requires a lot of intricate, tender care. When hurting spouses approach their spiritual leaders with very real, very urgent questions and trauma, they’re usually not asking for approval to divorce. They’re asking for answers that require sensitivity, nuance, and empathy guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. They’re asking for precise, specialized surgery, not a Band-Aid. They’re asking for brothers and sisters to walk—and sometimes carry them—through this excruciating process together. They’re asking for hope, encouragement, strength, providence, and protection. And it takes more than one pastor to deliver that. It takes the whole church. 

The #MeToo movement in its original purpose sought to rip away the invisible tape over the mouths of women who have faced sexual aggression. Last year, the world watched as hundreds of thousands of women lit their social media platforms with #MeToo hashtags claiming that they, too, have faced sexual harassment or violence. It was meant to empower the vulnerable, spread global awareness, and stir empathy. 

But the scepter of justice can be hard and cold and even lead to further injustice. Even now I see the #MeToo wave growing into a tsunami of bitterness, hurt, vengeance, and destruction. Simply voicing “Me too” is not enough to heal the shame, anger, and pain of wounded individuals. We need more than raw anger and public shaming. We also need more than beating people over the head with Bible verses without shepherding and equipping the saints in their daily struggles.

The Scriptures (Psalm 89:14, Psalm 58:11, Micah 6:8, Proverbs 21:15, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 61:8, to name a few passages) point to God’s extremely high standard of justice. They also point to the only person who fulfilled God’s standard for justice by submitting Himself to the greatest injustice in history: Jesus Christ, who dwelled among us in flesh and lived through all the pain and struggles and betrayals of mankind, who then bore all our shame, self-righteousness, grievances, and guilt on the cross. What a powerful, beautiful paradox! I wonder what the #MeToo movement would look like if it began, continued, and ended with the cross at its center. It’s time to reclaim it.

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Sophia Lee

Mary on Venice Beach (Sophia Lee)

Sophia's World

Thursdays on the boardwalk

Am I wasting my time passing out free burritos to the homeless?

Ever since I began reporting on homelessness, I’ve been going to the Venice Beach Boardwalk almost every Thursday evening to volunteer for a nonprofit that passes out burritos to the homeless.

I thought volunteering would be a good way to stay in touch with the homeless realm—not just from interviews with nonprofit CEOs and government officials, but from people actually on the streets who are still fighting their vices or hustling to beat the system, people who have become hopeless and live each day for no better reason than that their hearts are still beating.

Having written about how food isn’t a solution to homelessness, and in some cases even enables it, I at first had my reservations about volunteering for a food-serving organization: What were we accomplishing, really? Has anyone kicked his drug habit, or checked into an AA program, or earned a key to an apartment because of us? What do we do, besides fill an empty belly for a night?

For nine years, volunteers of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds have gathered each night to slop curry beans and rice on flour tortillas, roll them into burritos, then walk the streets passing them out with bottled water. Volunteers call out, “Anybody want a burrito?” Heads poke out of tents, individuals halt their bicycles, and high-as-a-kite tweakers curled up in corners grunt.

Sometimes we bring donated clothes and shoes and hygiene products. The most popular items are clean socks, razors, tampons, and bananas. Many of these people have health problems due to lack of potassium, so they cheer when they spot us with bananas: “Yes! Potassium! Time to get our potassium!”

Most of the beneficiaries are grateful: “You guys have no idea how much this means to us,” many have told us. Others exclaim, “You all rock. Thank you, thank you!” A few complain that the burritos have no meat, or are too spicy, or not spicy enough. One homeless woman asked if our burritos were organic and non-GMO, and was only mildly satisfied when we told her they’re vegan.

It’s been 16 months since I started volunteering for this nonprofit, and I’ve seen the number of volunteers grow. It used to be a small, cozy group—at most a dozen showed up, rain or shine—but when more people heard about us through social media and online communities, the number grew to over 30. Many nights, we were like a small army marching along the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Imagine 30 people surrounding a homeless person, waving burritos and water bottles in his face.

Most of these people came only once or twice, but every week we saw new waves of first-time comers eager to do a good deed. Some were parents wanting to teach their children to give back to society. Some were neighbors alarmed about the spike in visible homelessness and wishing they knew how to help. And then we’ve also had the few people who post selfies showing off how lovely they are to feed the unfortunate.

Recently, I began feeling disgruntled and annoyed. In a self-righteous, self-important way, I wanted to wag my finger at these selfie-snapping, one-time volunteers for using this service for a photo op. I wanted to preach that homelessness is much darker and more complex than physical hunger. I wanted to do more than just smile and hand out stuff. Deep down, I was frustrated that I couldn’t visibly see any impact I was making. I felt useless, helpless, hopeless. I wanted to turn people’s lives around—but I felt like all I was doing was rolling burritos ... and well, the problem felt very big and I felt very small.

I wanted to turn people’s lives around—but I felt like all I was doing was rolling burritos ... and well, the problem felt very big and I felt very small.

One Thursday evening, as my boyfriend David and I were driving to Venice Beach for our regular volunteering, I unleashed my complaints in the car. “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing,” I said. “This is a waste of my time.”

David looked surprised: “Where is this coming from? You know it’s never been just about the food. We go there every week to show that we care, and sometimes God helps us meet certain people like John.” He was referring to our friend John Simpson, who drinks a bottle of vodka every night.

“But John’s still on the streets,” I objected. Sure, we’ve prayed for him, talked to him, bought him a birthday cake and camping mats because the concrete was hurting his back. But, as I pointed out, “We haven’t truly helped him. Nothing’s changed very much. He’s still drunk every night.” 

“You know, you never did have to go volunteer,” David said. “Nobody forced you.”

That response further irritated me. “Well, whatever, fine,” I snapped. “I won’t go anymore then.”

David gave me a pointed look: “Is somebody having an attitude today?”

No,” I harrumphed, folding my arms and stomping my feet. David did the right thing and let me steam.

And then we met Mary. Strong-willed, spirited, 63-year-old Mary, who has been sleeping near the boardwalk since last August, who dotes on the other homeless young’uns around her, whom everyone calls “Grandma” because she’s the oldest woman on the block. Mary doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink alcohol, and landed on Venice streets because her last boyfriend abused her. She immediately caught our attention, because what’s an elderly woman with osteoarthritis doing sleeping on the pavement with her walker?

We got Mary’s number and email address and resolved to find a solution for her. Now every Thursday evening, we make sure to look out for Mary. And boy, does she have marvelous and heartbreaking stories to tell.

Last week, we invited her out for dinner at the famous Sidewalk Cafe, a Venice Beach landmark since 1976. And there, out on the restaurant’s patio as the sun dipped into pink clouds, Mary downed a 14-ounce, well-marbled, bone-in rib-eye steak, along with a plate of steak fries, a cup of clam chowder, and an ice-cold margarita with extra salt.

“I enjoy good food,” she said, stating the obvious. She licked the salt off her fingers and polished off every morsel from her plate except the broccoli. And with each bite, she lifted her head up with her eyes closed, her mouth squeezed into a delighted small “o,” in silent worship for the joy of a good meal.

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