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“Can I Get a Witness?…” profiles social justice activists, famous and less well-known

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Can I Get a Witness? Thirteen Peacemakers, Community Builders and Agitators for Faith & Justice,” edited by Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle and Daniel P. Rhodes. William B. Eerdmans Publishing (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019). 398 pp., $26.99.

Just as spring eclipses winter’s gloom, “Can I Get a Witness?” will ignite hope in the most downcast soul.

This moving collection shares the stories — and photos — of 13 social justice activists whose religious convictions drove them to peaceful protests on behalf of the poor and marginalized. The profiled men and women are a varied group: Catholic, Protestant, gay, straight, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds– but each had a profound impact on American culture.

It’s not surprising to find Dorothy Day, Father Daniel Berrigan and Cesar Chavez included here, but chapters on Mahalia Jackson, Yuri Kochiyama and others offer unexpected treasures.

In his well-researched essay on Jackson (1911-1972), the writer W. Ralph Eubanks details how her gospel singing served as a true form of ministry. Jackson used her musical gifts “as a means of bringing her listeners to God” (as she once told Studs Terkel in an interview that Eubanks quotes). And, as Eubanks notes, “she witnessed to the state of life in America for black people and sought to end racial injustice in America through what she sang.”

Jackson’s performance of classics such as “In the Upper Room” and “Move On Up a Little Higher” powerfully affected audiences all over the world. She aimed not to provide simply “a balm in Gilead,” an “escape from the pain of discrimination,” but to inspire people to take action to further civil rights.

Another fascinating figure is Kochiyama (1921-2014), a “Nisei” (second-generation Japanese American). She was imprisoned with her family for two years during World War II, one of about 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans whose civil rights were violated in this way. In her informative essay, Grace Y. Kao writes that Kochiyama recognized similarities between this treatment of Japanese Americans and that of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.

Kao, an ethics professor at Claremont School of Theology, offers many insights about how Kochiyama went on to become a leading social justice activist for all people of color. For instance, she sought to learn about black culture through the Harlem “freedom schools” in the early 1960s and went on to participate in community organizing and sit-ins to protest racism. In 1977, she took part in the nonviolent occupation of the Statue of Liberty to bring attention to the plight of Puerto Rican political prisoners. Her many activities included volunteering at church-run homeless shelters and soup kitchens in New York and teaching English to international students at Harlem’s Riverside Church in the 1980s.

While Sister Mary Stella Simpson (1910-2004) may not be as well known as some of the others profiled, her story is no less inspiring. This accomplished, compassionate Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, “one of the leading nurse-midwives of the 20th century,” is pictured in full, spotless-white habit circa the 1950s.

Her large, capable hands cradle an infant she studies through old-fashioned wire-rimmed spectacles, as she gives the hint of a smile. In 1967 at the age of 57, she went to serve the African American community of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, at the request of the American Nurses Association.

Over her long life, Sister Mary Stella revolutionized medical care for mothers and infants, and indeed was the first health care provider to encourage fathers to be present at the birth of their children. The author of this gracefully written chapter, M. Therese Lysaught, is a professor of Catholic moral theology and health care ethics at Loyola University of Chicago. She thoughtfully interprets Sister Mary Stella’s achievements in the context of health care history, offering many original insights about the important work of nuns who care for the sick.

In another strong essay, Soong-Chan Rah, a professor at North Park Theological Seminary, pays tribute to Richard Twiss (1954-2013). He describes Twiss as “a strong, fearless man and gracious witness to the humanity of Native Americans in a world that often diminished them.”

Born on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Twiss at a young age saw the damage done to Native self-perception by the white supremacy of the American Christian church. Earning a doctorate at Asbury Theological Seminary, he pursued racial reconciliation and sought to develop a Christian theology that embraced indigenous peoples’ spiritual traditions, including through his books such as “One Church, Many Tribes” (2000). Rah observes that Twiss “spoke prophetic words to a community enamored with the latest hotshot white superstar pastor.”

Other chapters, each illustrated with a striking photo of its subject, explore Howard Thurman, Ella Baker, Howard Kester, John A. Ryan, Frank William Stringfellow and Lucy Randolph Mason. Commendably, all of the book’s well-documented essays aim not to be biographies, but to offer well focused attention on the connection between these individuals’ spirituality and their activism.

The authors are a well chosen group of academics, writers, community builders, and others who invariably provide fresh, original takes on their subject. An appendix lists many suggestions for further reading and the index is well detailed.

“Can I Get a Witness?” can be enjoyed in short bursts, as each chapter is free-standing, but it’s also engaging enough to command a straight-through reading.

Also of interest: “Beating Guns: Hope for People who are Weary of Violence” by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin. Brazos Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019). 288 pp., $19.99.

— Reviewed by Nancy L. Roberts, Catholic News Service

Roberts directs the journalism program at the University at Albany, SUNY, and has written/co-edited two books about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.

 

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