The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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On Faith

In the inaugural issue of Clerestory Magazine, contributors examine the frustrations and invitations of "faith."

Dear Reader,

When I shared with friends and colleagues that I was leaving my job at a prestigious non-profit in New York City to go to divinity school, I received stunned responses. “I’m sorry…You’re planning to do what?!” “Religious studies?? What on earth are you going to do with that?!” These were slightly annoying albeit fair questions. I was not interested in formal ministry. I did not attend church regularly. I couldn’t name my denomination without a series of complicated asides and caveats.

I visited Yale Divinity School the Thursday after the 2016 presidential election. There, the Dean of Admissions said to me, “Sarah, here you will learn to navigate difference with grace, to understand what makes us human, to help communities heal.” In that fraught, foreboding time, her words resonated deeply with me.

Could ancient wisdom offer blueprints to social healing? What does make us human? What is suffering? What is love? What is beauty? What happens after we die? Does God even exist? These questions and more I packed and carried with me to graduate school. I chose divinity school not for dogma, but for virtue. Not out of zeal, but out of curiosity. I wanted to read the works of theologians, decolonial scholars, mystics, and advocates… and so, I did.

It strikes me now, writing this, that Clerestory meets the public world exactly four years from the time I visited Yale: the Thursday after the presidential election.

In many ways, what we all feared most about the 45th president’s election came to pass. It became clear Russia interfered in our election. His administration put children and infants in cages. He refused to condemn white supremacy, fanned the flames of racial injustice, and instigated violence. To say he mismanaged the pandemic in the United States is a huge understatement. He was just as xenophobic, racist, bigoted, incompetent, misogynistic, and authoritarian as we all expected.

Here we are, four years later: weary, exhausted, worse off, grieving, and stuck within a deeply broken system. Here we are, still facing enormous crises: an ongoing refugee crisis, pervasive racial injustice, economic instability and inequality, and climate change, to name a few. Our world is violent; our culture dehumanizing. If we seek a more humane world, in which all human beings flourish, then we must think together about the spiritual, ethical, and existential dimensions of our collective life.

Clerestory Magazine is named for a clerestory (pronounced clear-story) window, which allows light and air into the body of a church. Likewise, Clerestory stories breathe life into complex discourse, personal experiences, social issues, and institutions. I imagine it this way: these pieces are windows into the human experience; windows through which light shine; life-giving examples of resilience, joy, grief, transformation, and beauty.

In our inaugural issue, contributors will explore the meaning, promises, and complications of faith by mining their personal experience and texts for wisdom to share with you. In their stories, they will ask big, fundamental questions and intimate, personal ones.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Faith is not the clinging to a shrine, but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” It was he who also said, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”

Richard Rohr, in The Naked Now, writes, “In the West, religion became preoccupied with telling people what to know more than how to know, telling people what to see more than how to see… It has been like trying to view the galaxies with a $5 pair of binoculars.”

In our series on faith, we will shed the what to know, what to see stories for better ones: how to know, how to see stories. By reading, listening, and holding space, I hope that we will practice making space for divine presence, for wonder, for living wholeheartedly.

I hope you will join us, as we dwell in the mystery together.

Thank you for being here,

Sarah James

Editor-in-Chief and Founder

Clerestory Magazine

Sarah James is the editor-in-chief and founder of Clerestory Magazine. A graduate of Yale and Middlebury, Sarah is a biracial South Indian-American woman of color and a writer. You can find her work elsewhere in The Porch, Darling, and Relevant, among others, or on her website.

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