In this week’s two-part episode, Dr. Reyes and Rev. Dr. Janet Wolf discuss her itinerant childhood, her early faith formation, and the communities that challenged and loved her into her vocation. Through her work with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), Janet focuses on public theology, transformative justice, and nonviolent direct action organizing to disrupt and dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline.
Janet was one of the founding members of the CDF’s Proctor Institute’s Dale P. Andrews Freedom Seminary. She is a member of the Coordinating Committee with the National Council of Elders. She is also the author of Practicing Resurrection: The Gospel of Mark and Radical Discipleship.
Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine, a podcast where I talk to scholars and religious leaders about how they found meaning and purpose in their lives. I’m Dr. Patrick Reyes and today we get to hear a story from one of my mentors, Reverend Dr. Janet Wolf.
And in part one of this two-part interview, we get to hear how Reverend Wolf discerns a call that marries her passions of social justice, community organizing and radical ministry that includes everyone in the decision-making and worshiping body. From children to those who are incarcerated, she radically redefines church. And as you will hear, when you do that, when you include those who are most marginalized in the church, sometimes the formal structures of the church find ways to create obstacles for you to pursue your call. I’m so glad that you get to hear Reverend Wolf’s story.
All right, Janet. It is good to see you as always and be with you in person-ish, to be able to talk and hear a little bit about your story. How are you doing?
Janet Wolf: I’m doing great, I’m delighted to see you. I always say, as far as co-conspirators go, you win; Collaboration, creativity, persistence, fierce friendship. Thanks.
Patrick: I appreciate that. And we’ve known each other for a while now. I know what we’ve been doing together for the last five or so five/six years, but I am curious to what happened before. Tell me where you grew up and about your family if you can.
Janet Wolf: Sure. My parents were both from farming families, one in Minnesota, one in Nebraska. My dad was the only son and when he left the farm to go do some other things, it was a shock to the family. He actually never dreamed he would get off the farm. But he graduated from high school at 15 and it was two weeks before college started and his uncle showed up and said, so what are you going to do? Dad said, well…farm? And his uncle said, nope, got $200 and three jobs for you. You’re going to college. And so one of the things that is true about my family is my dad, and my mom too, would say over and over again, that nobody gets there on their own. And every door that has opened for them was opened by someone else. And so that was kind of a core part of growing up was hearing those stories. My dad was getting a PhD when I was born. He was taking his final exams. My mom hemorrhaged and had to go back to the hospital and they wouldn’t take me because I had already been home. And so my dad had to take care of me and he asked his professor if he could take the exams, you know, much later, and the professor said sure, you can take them next year if you want. So I went to my dad’s PhD exam in a box. And it was always a story that wove together the history of the family so that from the beginning, it was my dad who rocked me. I still got the cradle that I was rocked in. I was in New Jersey for two years then we moved to Delaware.
My dad was the first PhD in weed science in the United States, so an agronomist. And we all grew up being taken out to the fields. Other people would go see adventurous sites in cities and travel to big cities. We would be driven through rural areas and everybody would have to get out and look at the crop. And what was the crop and how was the crop doing and were there any problems and what might be the solution? So that was growing up. And in the second grade, my dad was doing research in California. And so we all moved out there for nine months. We’d never seen an elevator or a swimming pool or a hotel or an apartment and it was an extraordinary experience. It was like going to a different planet.
And in the fifth grade, by now my dad’s a traveling salesman working with farmers, and we moved to Atlanta, Georgia from Delaware. And that was a shock to our family and our system. Most folks didn’t know Delaware was a state. So I was there when Lester Maddox was passing out ax handles when Dr. King was speaking. We went to a downtown Lutheran church, fourth and Peachtree. I think it was 1962 when the civil rights workers sent notes to all the downtown churches and said they would bring integration teams on a particular Sunday in February. And so the churches met, my dad was on the church council and what should we do?
And after much discussion our church put out this little tiny sign that said, all who want to worship are welcome here. And the morning came and we always sat up in the balcony. And I remember the integration team coming to the front of the church and sitting down and people saying hi, and then they left and everybody was like, oh, that’s it?
And we walked outside and the Southern Baptist Church across the street had their members holding hands around their one square block city property with the larger men, threatening and pushing any of the civil rights workers who were attempting to cross the line. And it was, for me, the first time I really saw the sermon come out of the pulpit and walk into the streets.
It was the first time I understood that there was no neutral ground, that you had to make a choice and take a stand, that this faith tradition required some very concrete decision making. We then had SNIC come and talk to our youth group. Our church was defaced, people spray painted it. Our church parsonage, the garage, was bombed. And it was such a tiny thing we had done and yet it was so threatening. I remember being in marches in the streets. I remember losing my youth group, cause I had stopped to fix my shoe. When I looked up, I couldn’t find any of them and I was frightened. I couldn’t figure out what to do. And so I was in this alley and there was an older black woman who was sitting on a stoop and tying her shoe. And when she got up, she simply took my hand and said, come on baby. And it was the beginning of my understanding that it’s not that I have to find the courage to do something, but I do have to be in a community that’s willing to hold onto me and willing to pull me along when I’m not quite sure what I either want or ought to be doing.
Atlanta was a shock too. I remember I woke up late at night and I heard crying and I saw my mom and dad and this other man in our living room crying. The other man was a traveling salesman like my dad. He also was new to the south and he had been in a rural area in Georgia and hit a black woman who was walking on the road at night. He stopped and got out and went to the nearest house and called an ambulance and went back to the woman.
And when the ambulance came, it was a white ambulance, and they refused to take her. She died in his arms. And so my parents and this man were saying you know, what world have we come to? They didn’t realize the segregated ambulances would be like that. Atlanta was just…it was for me a change in how I understood faith and what I thought I was called to.
Maybe the next big piece in the faith formation is I was married my high school sweetheart. We had two boys and then he left and it was the 1970s and I had never even met anyone who was divorced. So this was a huge shock to me. Our wedding rings said One in God. And I had no clue what to do. I didn’t even tell anybody but my sister for six months. I went to my church, I’d been in the church my whole life. I was an adult Sunday school teacher. I worked with the youth group, I was on the church council, I participated in national anti-poverty pieces, and I believed that the church would be my source of comfort and strength. And I went to talk to the pastor and the pastor said, you know, Janet, you are always welcome to worship here, but you’ll need to resign from your leadership roles because you’re no longer an acceptable role model. And for me in that moment, he was saying what I was thinking God was probably thinking, you know, you just don’t measure up. You’re not worthy enough. There’s really no place for you. It was a hard and harsh moment.
I ended up taking my two boys over to a little tiny church. They met in the garage in the middle of a housing project. And the only reason I knew about it is because sometimes we were allowed to invite kids, younger kids, who were in state care to stay with us for a weekend. And they never had dress-up clothes. And so I had found this little church where we could go in jeans and t-shirts and sneakers and kids were welcome and you could be rowdy.
And at the time I remember, I mean, I was angry at God, angry at all male human beings except my two children, angry at the world, angry at the church. And the pastor Bill Barnes, I would tell him all those things and he’d say that’s fine. Just keep coming back. And that church really loved us back into life. I’m not sure where we would have been without them. It’s the reason I became Methodist, not because I somehow thought about whether I wanted to be Methodist, but because this little house church loved us at a time when I was really unlovable, angry, prickly. So that was huge to find a place where we belonged. I was a single mom with three part-time jobs and these two boys, and that was all just fine in this little congregation that loved us.
Except then it came to Christmas Eve and the pastor said, well, you know, our Christmas Eve services are at the prison. What? Yeah, the Christmas Eve services are at the prison because, read the Christmas story! This is what shakes up the world because Jesus is born in the middle of a community that is oppressed, and day after day battered, pushed against the walls…Howard Thurman would say, “so their backs are against the wall, pushed there by these systems.”
You can’t do that just any place you got to do it where it’s really plain what empire is doing. Yeah, we go to the prison. That’s how we hear the gospel. I was not enthused. I admit that I was grumpy about the whole thing. And we went to the prison and something had happened inside and they were on lock down. So now we’re not even allowed inside. We had this handful of people in the parking lot and even though it was Nashville, Tennessee, it is snowing and sleeting. And I am convinced that the only thing we’re getting out of this is earaches and sore throats. I’m going to miss work. My kids are going to be sick. Misery is coming. Nevertheless, this is the community that has loved us. So I’m tryin to hang in there.
We are working hard to get the Christ candle lit because wind is blowing. And so we huddle around and somebody hands me the Bible and says here, read this. And it’s Isaiah, for the people who sat in darkness upon them has light shined - and we do finally get the Christ candle lit and we’re trying to light our little candles.
I’m remembering our suburban big church with poinsettias and candle light and choirs and trumpets, and the pageantry of little kids dressed up as shepherds. But I lean in trying to light my candle, get the kids to light theirs and all of a sudden one of the kids tugs my coat and says, “mama look!”
And I turn and in cell after cell, folks are holding up lighters and matches to the window so that by the time we sing Silent Night, I’m convinced the chorus is inside and out. And for me, that’s another turning point, right? That we require community to help us turn to see what God is doing in the world. That we ought to be ready to be startled by what God is doing in the world, because our assumptions are usually wrong. And that the place to hear the radicality and the hope and the grace of the gospel is in the very place where folks are struggling hardest just to get through this particular day. And that started my connection with folks inside prison, which has continued, since 1975 and has been a source of life and hope.
The next big piece for me in my journey…so this little church, we held a series of sessions on hunger and poverty. And we decided we would raise money and we would hire a community organizer. And we couldn’t find anybody who wanted to apply for this amazing job that we were offering. And I was on the committee for the job search.
So eventually they just say, well, Janet, you ought to do this. I took it as another one of my jobs, and had not the slightest idea what I was doing. I remember the first time a group of women, who are doing organizing around poverty rights, invited me to speak before a legislative committee on the cuts that were being proposed. And I remember standing up and saying, well I don’t think you should do this because it’s a very bad idea. And then I sat down. And the astonishing thing was that the women invited me back.
And that’s where I really found my voice and my vocation, because they didn’t give up on me and they kept inviting me back. And so for all the ways I felt like I was inadequate, couldn’t cope, couldn’t figure out how to survive, I learned from them persistence and the power of community to both heal and foster hope. I learned the incredible gift of collective power of not having to figure out things on my own or not needing to rely only on myself, to belong to a community that both held me and held me accountable. And so that was an incredibly powerful experience. I ended up doing community organizing on poverty rights at a local level and then a state level and then a national level.
I think sometimes that if we had understood really how big the powers were against us, we never would have waded into most of the battles. But we really accomplished some things. I mean, it was for me a visible, tangible, concrete illustration of what collective power can do to change the world.
So then I got remarried, married a community organizer. So we had now four boys, the first two are three days apart, the second two are 48, and the last one’s 38. I’ve been a mom for 50 years. And when our youngest son was born, I decided I really couldn’t do community organizing anymore because that requires so much intense energy and you have to be ready. You just have to be ready to roll.
So I worked as a maid and I worked as a yard keeper, and I worked as a farm worker. And then I decided I would go to divinity school, not to be a pastor because I didn’t believe that people ought to be ordained. Cause I thought pastors sucked up the ministry from people in the pews and claim too much power. But I went to divinity school, both because I got a scholarship for older women and because I wanted to figure out how people could read the Bible and not do justice. I thought if I went to divinity school, I would learn some magical language that would convince churches to come into the streets and change systems and do organizing. And then somewhere in divinity school, I was pushed over and over again by folks who said you can’t really nurture a justice congregation. I mean, you wouldn’t get any money, you’d have members mad all the time, everybody would be upset. So that’s an interesting notion, but it’s not really possible.
I got a Jonathan Daniels scholarship to go to Nicaragua for six weeks and live with base Christian communities. We, as a family, had been part of the sanctuary movement. We had housed families from Central America trying to escape the death squads. We had housed people from South Africa, struggling against apartheid. So I knew pieces of a different version of church but this allowed me to spend six weeks with these Christian communities. And it was incredibly transformative. In base Christian communities, for folks who have not been in the middle of them, there’s no one leader. In Nicaragua everybody was called “a delegate of the word.” The person could be seven or 77. I mean, there’s no one leader, which is why you can’t kill a base Christian community. And there’s no one place where it might meet, it moves all the time. It doesn’t need a permanent building. There’s no staff person.
In fact, I remember the first time I went to a worship service in Nicaragua and I was prepared, right? I had my notebook, I had my tape recorder, I had my camera, I had read about it. I had studied up on it and I had interviewed people in base Christian communities. But now here I was, I was up in the mountains of Nicaragua. I had hiked up, I’m coming to the little house where they tell me there’s going to be a worship service. And I realized that I’m not going to fit in the house because there are too many people in the house.
I perched myself or try to perch myself by this open window but there are chickens perched on the window sill and they are clucking and I’m having a really hard time hearing the people inside. And then kids who are running around in the dirt road right behind me, chase a pig between me and the window and the chickens. I can feel myself getting madder and madder. I’m like, I have come all this way. I have studied, I have prepared and I have my camera and my tape recorder, blah, blah, blah. And the man next to me says, it is good, is it not, to be among the people and worship? I’m like, yeah. Okay. I remember what I came to see. And it was for me again, a moment that reminded me how much we have forgotten about what church might really be and was in the beginning. A handful of folks who were caught by this spirit, that empowered them to defy all the powers around them, engage the forces of death in the name of this God of life.
So I came back and decided I would be ordained because yes, we could have such a community, even in Nashville, Tennessee. And the professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School refused to sign my ordination paper, the Methodist professor. I had been in his class, I had taken copious notes and in the anonymous evaluation at the end of the semester, I had written suggestions for moving away from the sexism, racism, heterosexism that was embedded in the course and so he said, perhaps I could find someone who was not racist or sexist to sign my ordination papers.
Yeah. And then the United Methodist board of ordained ministries voted three times not to ordain me, arguing that my community organizing was confrontational and not pastoral. And that my work around inclusivity, sexual identity, was contrary to the gospel. In the United Methodist Church there’s like a Supreme Court and the supreme court basically said, well, I mean, we don’t like her, but you are going to be forced to ordain her because technically we can’t figure out how to exclude her. When they ordained me in the United Methodist church the district superintendent told me, we’re going to send you someplace where you won’t last six months. We may be forced to ordain you, but you won’t make it. And so they sent me down to the Alabama/Tennessee line and I was in an area, deep in Appalachia, where in 13 surrounding counties, they had never had a woman who was a full-time pastor.
And this was seen as a threat by a number of denominations, my coming. I was assigned to four churches, one of the churches said they would burn down the church before a woman ever preached from their pulpit. So members from the other three congregations, some of them left and went to that fourth church that the district superintendent assigned a part-time male pastor to take care of.
So before I ever came, before anybody ever met me, there was already this crisis among these four churches and the clear indication from the district superintendent that I would not be supported. Our kids - who were in high school and our youngest was just starting kindergarten - when they got on the bus, the other children would call them children of the devil and would not sit by them and would move away. Our high school kids got beat up a couple of different times and our youngest, no one would sit with him during lunch. It was a really hard experience and yet over and over again, folks took enormous risk, put flesh on grace to stand with us.
The bus driver decided to pick our kids up first so no one could move away. They’d already be on the bus. We had an older woman who lived a little bit down the road and she baked fresh bread almost every morning and stood with the kids as they got on the bus. We had a cafeteria worker who lived not too far from us, and she took her lunch break every day to sit with them in kindergarten for his lunch. There were folks who risked everything. They had lived in this county their whole life, and they would remain there, in order to welcome us into the community. And it was an amazingly hard and wonderful experience.
One of the things I did was to start a Bible study group that was open to anybody in the community. We would put specific texts in a basket and then we would choose some to work on. And it was participatory Bible study so I invited people to take a role in the story and try to figure out, not the whole story and not be Jesus every time but be one particular place in the story and what could they hear. When we took the story of Luke 13, the woman who’s been bent-over for 18 years, it really engaged everyone with such incredible passion that we couldn’t figure out how to finish the story on the Wednesday night we were meeting. I mean, the first time they spent the time thinking about what is it that bends women over double? And they talked about living in a county where the sheriff was elected two weeks after he beat his wife in public so badly she ended up in the hospital. They talked about what it meant to live in a county where poverty was so high and the high school graduation rate was so low.
And the first people to lose jobs were women. To live in a county where there was not one woman in any position of power. And in a county where domestic violence was high and tolerated. Everywhere you looked, women were struggling. So they decided that we needed another week on Luke 13 and the bent-over woman - talked about what bends women over double, but what gets her to stand up?
So the second week they just kept saying what would it feel like, in front of all those folks who intended to keep you bent over double, to hear your name called as central to the covenant community, daughter of Abraham? You are a daughter of Abraham. I mean, in front of all the folks who have labeled you everything else, you’re called as an incredibly important partner in this covenant community.
So they didn’t finish it that night. We went over to a third week, and that week was why would she stay standing up? So here are these authority figures, and they’re really angry. They’re mad. Jesus moves on, but the woman is stuck in this community where there’s clear anger against her. Plus she’s been bent over for 18 years. I mean, she would have grown accustomed to it. And they decided that it was the crowd - that whenever she forgot who she was, they would remind her she was a daughter of Abraham.
They would remind her that she was named by grace with a power that could not come undone, and they were taken with that. It was a big celebration. That was on Wednesday night. On Saturday night, I don’t know, one/two o’clock in the morning, Deanna called and everyone knew that Deanna’s husband beat her with some regularity.
He was part of a family that was the wealthiest family in the county, the largest landowners. And he had kicked her with steel toed, cowboy boots, and she needed to be taken to the hospital. So I took her to the hospital and the doctor said what I would hear over and over again, so what did you do this time? Could you just not keep your mouth shut? Deanna had stitches and we took her back to our house and then it was Sunday and I had three services to do at nine, 10 and 11. And the nine o’clock, was her church with this family. And I’m up in front of the church and it’s prayer time. And I’m asking people what’s on their hearts and minds, what celebrations and concerns do they bring?
And in walks Deanna and by now her face is swollen and multicolored. And she doesn’t say anything, tears streaming down her face and she just stands at the back of the church. And I have no clue what to do, not one. And then her sister-in-law, so sister of the man who beat her, stands up and says, you are a daughter of Abraham. And then other folks in the congregation stand up as well and repeat, you are a daughter of Abraham. And those congregations went on to start the largest battered women’s shelter in rural Tennessee.
The power of the gospel rooted in a community that really is broken open, by what is, and what might yet be is incredible just to watch, to see, to be a part of. And there were lots of experiences like that. Just so many moments of grace that was larger and thicker than ever I had imagined.
The Methodist church of course moves us. And so after two years, they moved me. I thought it was going to be a great move cause I was going back to the congregation where I interned for two years and so the pastor loved me. I loved the congregation, I knew lots of people. I had done lots of community organizing work with folks, I had deep roots in the congregation. But the Methodist church published this column in the newspaper, arguing that I was the first cross gender, cross racial appointment in the Tennessee UM conference cause I was white and female. It confused people for a moment, yeah. And right before I went, they moved the pastor that I had worked with and had a good relationship with. They brought in a pastor from North Carolina who did not want to work with a woman and especially didn’t want to work with a white woman.
And that division was exacerbated by the fact that he was new and I knew so many people in the community and in the congregation and so already had those relationships. And that was a hard three years there. Every Sunday I had two powerful moments the first was kind of being in awe that I was part of this community and the second was being reminded that this one person with a whole lot of power, really, really, really didn’t want me to be there and reminded me of that over and over again. Again, it was a struggle about what’s it mean to be the church what’s it mean to be in some role in the church and what are the possibilities even so? Lots of incredible, wonderful, powerful moments.
So, yeah. I kept asking to be part of a team and I was moved from there to a church that at one day had been the largest white Methodist church in Nashville and had shrunk to 30 people because the neighborhood had changed and the church would not. And not only 30 people, but everyone was over the age of 65. I’m over the age of 65 and I like people over the age of 65, but the average age of leadership was 81. When the district superintendent called me to say this would be my appointment, I said I don’t think I can do that. And so he said, well, that’s not what we do in the Methodist system. I call you and I tell you where you’re going to go and then you go. And then the Bishop called me and said, we need you to pray harder. I was like, I’ll pray, but I don’t think this is gonna work.
So I do meditation when I do meditation sometimes I get these images. And the first time after that call that I did meditation, I had an image of a houseboat. And I’m on the houseboat and I know nothing about houseboats.
I’ve never been on a houseboat. I don’t how to drive a boat. And I’m on this houseboat. And as far as I look out one side, there is just water. And as far as I see out the other side, there’s just mud. I have no idea what to do. I’m a good swimmer. I think I can swim, but I can’t see any land except this mud.
I’m just sitting on the back of the boat, staring out and thinking, wow, I surely hope this is for someone else and not me. And then later I think, you know, whoa, that’s your problem, Janet. You just want to take the boat with you. Maybe you can leave the boat. So that meditation comes again and I am still sitting on the back of the boat and I decided that’s exactly right. I will leave the boat. And I climb out, but it’s the kind of mud that sucks you under. There’s no possibility for going anywhere. And it takes me forever to climb up back into the boat. And I’m sitting again staring at this thing, profoundly depressed and really hoping that some other word comes. The third time I do meditation, after the Bishop’s call, same image comes to me.
And I’m sitting there and I think, well, you know, the only way through this is I take a piece of the boat and I put it on top of the mud. I take the boat apart piece by piece and begin walking on top of this mud. And that became for me, and I told the Bishop, this was the answer to my prayer. That I would go if they would understand that I thought the only way was to dismantle the church that had been and take pieces of that to move to a different place. And so I would go, if they would promise to leave me there for three years, no matter what. If everybody walked out, I would still stay for three years.
There were people who walked out in the beginning. There was the volunteer piano player. If she thought I’d preached too long, she just start a song in the middle of my sermon. It’s like, oh, I guess we’re done. And I think, again, that what helped us was the participatory Bible study because biblically, there’s no such thing as people showing up in one place, singing a few songs and going home as if nothing has happened. I mean, there’s no version of church that says that’s what we’re called to be and do. So wrestling with images of the church, biblical images of the church and trying to figure out what that looked like for us, was life-giving and the beginning of dreaming. And part of the dreaming came when I kept staring at the land - they owned a lot of land.
This was a church that had been part of the Southern split from the Methodist church over support for slavery. So they had all these buildings and all this land and nothing happening at all. We began imagining what would happen if we talked to Habitat for Humanity about what to do with this land.
And so Habitat got excited. The congregation would say things like, well, we always dreamed of putting in a tennis court. We thought that would be good for the neighborhood. But with the push of Habitat, we eventually ceded the land to them. And so we partnered with Habitat for Humanity and 500 volunteers to build five houses and a playground right next to the church. And it was so transformative. People would drive by and say, whoa, I thought that church was dead! And folks in our congregation struggled with it in the sense that they really want to choose the families who were going to live in the houses. They wanted to make sure they were Christians. No, you can’t choose the families. No, they don’t have to be Christians. Yes, they can come to church if they want to, but they don’t have to.
The spilling over of community, the visible shift in what was happening, people beginning to imagine, we let go of this little bit we were doing nothing with and look what happened. What might happen if we opened our hands and hearts just a little bit more? Kids came from the neighborhood to see what was happening. Kids who had never been in church before, kids who had no notion what church was, but here was a building, looked like cool stuff was happening. So they started coming to the worship service, which was a shock for everyone. There were no kids in the congregation at all.
During prayer time, I say, what’s on your hearts and minds? What are the celebrations and concerns you bring? The adults just sit there silent forever, but the kids go on and on and on. “Uh, yeah, you know, I’m really thankful. I got a lollipop. I’m so thankful because I got muffins for breakfast. They weren’t mine, but my sister gave them to me and they go on and on and on, there was a scary dog it almost bit me, but then it didn’t, and that was really cool…”
And it changes the life of the congregation. They begin to re-imagine what it is to be church. And then there’s the morning that Parvati who lives in the nearby housing project, keeps raising her hand saying I gotta pray, I gotta I gotta pray. I say, yeah, it’s not time for prayer time yet. We had by then cards that people could write their prayers on and invited the kids to draw pictures if they couldn’t do words. And she had drawn a picture of a body, blood coming out of it and a little person standing next to it.
And she said, “this is my friend who got shot and me who almost did. And all the kids who aren’t dead yet need prayers.” And it shifted how people understood prayer. There’s this kid who believes that if a community really holds on to this, like somebody is going to take this card home, put it in their pocket, something will happen. Kids might be safe.
The building was falling down. Adults got so tired of trying to figure out how to stop the leaks and pay for all the repairs. But kids, who are from the streets, found a safe place and they could put a picture on the wall and it would still be there two weeks later. The kids taught us what it means to be church. And because kids came, neighborhood adults started showing up, including folks from the streets, and that changed everything. And if you have someone who does not live in a house, who’s on your finance committee or on your trustee board, suddenly there are whole new possibilities for what you can do. Because nobody in the street says, oh, we got to wait until we take up a collection and raise this amount of money before we do the next thing we really need to do.
Nobody who lives on the streets sits on a trustee committee and says, you know, we really can’t have kids in the parlour, they might spill Kool-Aid and that’s not going to be good. No, they’re looking at every nook and cranny for how we use the church building. One of my friends, a Catholic priest called me up, I think it was two weeks before Christmas. And this is Charlie Struggle. He says, “Janet, have you read the gospel?” Uh, yeah Charlie. He says, “it says there was no in the inn so we have to open the doors of the church for people in the streets now.” That is such a good idea, we’ll set up a committee. By next year I think…No Janet! This year right now, you read the story go back and read it I’ll call you tomorrow.
We got all this stuff planned! No the time is full. Two weeks, uh uh, not happening. And Charlie calls back the next day and says, “oh, so I got an idea, here’s how it’s going to go. “ And within two weeks, I think we had five churches who had agreed to open their doors, and it turned us upside down on what it means to celebrate Christmas, like being at the prison all over again.
So Christmas Eve, we were at the church. folks from the streets stayed there. We had cots, we had a big Christmas dinner. We sang Christmas carols at the local bar and the laundry mat and Walgreens, and the gas station. We made decorations, we made silly gifts for each other. And then we woke up on Christmas morning and we had a service with everybody, the congregation and whoever spent the night there.
We all participated in cooking a big breakfast feast. It was a new understanding of Christmas. For me, whether it’s Nicaragua or the prison, or that first Christmas Eve, we’re so seduced into empire as a version of what the church should be, that it’s hard to even imagine something different.
It is moving our social location, listening to the voices of folks who, again, whose backs are against the wall that can help us hear, because we’re never going to get it right on our own. As long as we’re sitting at a distance, as long as we are steeped and separated by our own privilege and power, we simply become theological justifiers complicit with the various systems.
Yeah, I’m not supposed to be talking about my theology, but we tried to change it in the sense that Christmas is sort of the church’s worst example of how we distort a gospel story so that it props up the very systems we say we’re against. So they want to collect Christmas gifts for the poor kids and then we’ll have a party and it’ll make us feel good. And we’ll take pictures and put it on the bulletin board. And they have a special little sharing for people with money who want to get more money now because we’re such nice people. The whole time we leave the systems where they’re impoverishing the kids, the systems that are battering them day after day after day in place, and never ask kids what it is they want.
So we began to ask kids what they wanted. And we decided we would have a children’s ministry committee. Some of the adults, I think, felt threatened by the children who were coming. And after church, we go in the room and it’s filled with kids. “Oh we didn’t know grownups came to children’s meetings!” They assumed they were in charge, it was after all a children’s ministry committee. And they had some great ideas and it was again, a wonderful shifting, you know, like apocalyptic, where it unveils the ways we have been complicit, and requires a shakeup. There’s lots of stories that come out of Hobson.
So we partner with this large wealthy white church, cause we’re going to do vacation Bible school and we got no money and we’re in an impoverished neighborhood. And our neighborhood has the highest rates of HIV/AIDS, it has the highest juvenile incarceration rate, it has the highest school dropout, it has the highest crime rate on and on and on. We think they understand us. We look at the Methodist curriculum. We know that we can’t use it - it’s written for white middle-class kids. So we’re gonna have to come up with something else. we decide to bring our team of teachers together. Our team represents our congregation so it includes people from the streets, it includes former sex workers, it includes lots of different kinds of people. I know this is not going to be easy, but I think that it’s possible. And we’re there at our first meeting to create a curriculum. We start with the given text and the first one is Luke 4: So the spirit of the Lord is upon me bring good news.
And so the woman from this large church says, oh wow, I have such a good idea! You know, we have so many crayons in our art department and we could melt the crayons and we could make some new crayons for you for children, and we could collect pennies and then we could give them to you. And then the children would have something and they could buy something and she’s going on and on.
And, a woman who had been a sex worker says, “there ain’t no f!#$ing good news! Good news is like I got a job! Good news is I got a place to live where nothing leaks through the ceiling and nobody’s bashing in the door. I need some good news!” And again, a transformative moment, an invitation to really say this text is not about easy good news. This text is about good news that turns things upside down and right side up.
There are lots of Hobson stories. I was there seven years. After seven years I took a sabbatical year. I was more and more aware of the damage that the institutional church continued to do. And while we had, by this time become a congregation of 200 wildly diverse, dramatically diverse, frightening for some people diverse congregation, it seemed to me it was time to allow them to move and for me to listen in some different ways. We did have a member of our congregation, a musician who wrote a song and at the end of every service, 200 people would make a circle around the sanctuary and we would sing this song: I see the love of God in you, the light of Christ comes shining through, and I am blessed to be with you a holy child of God.
In those moments we had folks from so many different places of living and being, we had different languages, we had different cultures, we had different races, we had different income economic groups, different educational levels, and every time it was like being startled all over again, that it was even possible that we had become this community.
So then I spent a year, I was in particular struggling with the United Methodist church around sexual identity and the increased witch hunts. I was a trained mediator, I volunteered and I would testify at trials. We had by then gotten a piece on restorative justice into the United Methodist discipline. But just the institutional harm that was being done seemed so big. And so I took a year off and was invited by congregations in Canada and South Africa to do work around a lot of things around transformative justice, around mediation, around evangelism - redefining evangelism, and so I did that.
After the year, I’m still United Methodist clergy so I’m still going to be appointed, and I asked to be appointed to a little tiny group that has a very long name: Religious Leaders for a More Just and Compassionate Drug Policy. It was an interfaith group that intended to end the drug war.You can see, we did not succeed. But we did harm reduction. Even in Nashville, Tennessee, we passed out clean needles, collected the old ones, sat with folks, looked at mediation as an alternative to convictions in prison and jail. And then I was invited to be a professor at American Baptist college, a historically black college that produced the largest number of national civil rights leaders of any college in the country. Little tiny college, but you’re talking about Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis and James Bevel and CT Vivian, folks who then were rooted in the national movement for justice. I had done some community organizing with them before. And so I was professor there for seven years, and loved it and loved teaching.
Patrick: I have appreciated this conversation so much and hearing the stories. What you just gave us was like 20 year fast-forward. So, you know, I am going to say that I would love to do a follow-up so we can get like, you know, part one part two, in this cause there’s stories there that I don’t want to miss. I got lots of time! I think it’s important. I want to make sure, we get a question in where I’m trying to recap everything you just said so that way we can get some threads, at least that I’m hearing for our listeners.
Janet Wolf: Well and I realized that I haven’t done anything about the prison.
Patrick: Yeah, I think we need a part two. I think we need a follow-up interview. But just to say for this interview, what we have so far is I am seeing a thread here going from the daughter of an agronomist, stopping on the side of the road seeing weeds, paying attention to what’s happening in the fields - literally what’s growing, what’s not growing, being able to name what’s happening in the land in front of you, to these moments in that Southern Baptist… men linking arms, to the white ambulance and those moments of deep pain in Atlanta, even this time working with battered women or the Christmas outside the prison. These moments of almost conversion or imagination or where you’re really kind of seeing the gospel come alive. I mean, this isn’t like this is something I just felt was needed, it’s coming out of deep call for ministry. And then, you know, with the children I just love let children come. I mean, that’s just, it’s just biblical, like get out of the children’s way of course they’re going to come to church.
But I also hear in this, this tension, because it is a showing you of what ministry is, but I’m also hearing that most of these steps…that phrase that was said to Deanna in the hospital about what’d you do now? Or what’d you say now you just couldn’t keep your mouth shut? And I’m hearing that not just for the people that you serve for the children, for the sex workers, for folks in prison, who, are not used to having spaces in church or any place to really be able to speak up, but also you as a minister in the United Methodist church, as you’re going along, that that phrase resonates from institutions that are saying to you, Janet, you couldn’t keep your mouth shut again? Like, come on, you couldn’t just sit in the houseboat and mud and just, hang out? And everything you needed was there. You didn’t need to dismantle this, you know, like I am thinking about how are you thinking about ministry with that, with that kind of, this call to being able to stop and see what’s happening and pay attention and say, you know, we can do something about this as a call, but also hearing all that noise that the church isn’t ready for you, isn’t ready for that transformation. Is not like that you’d never received a welcome in by like, hey, yeah, we’re ready to transform. Come over!
Janet Wolf: I challenge one word you used, because your my friend – Serve. I don’t think I serve anybody. I think that the gift of being in community that really will challenge and change me, has been my understanding of ministry, particularly as a white, formally educated woman, economically secure, who has every reason to believe the lies of the empire. I think that I have to be startled, converted, transformed, awakened over and over again.
You know, I’ve been going into prisons since 1975. And I remember sitting in a meeting, not that many years ago where we’ve got maybe 15 folks, formerly caged and someone says, “how long did it take you to get out the front door?” I have no idea what they’re talking about, but everybody else seems to get it immediately. It’s like, ah, man, I had to, like, I just put the chair in the kitchen, near the refrigerator and just thought about it for a while. And then they talk about moving a chair closer and closer to the front door. The fear of opening the front door after being caged all those years, battered all those years, facing the world that criminalized and condemned them and wrote them off. I would never have gotten that. And over and over again, I know depending on me, I’m going to get it wrong. Whether it’s about prisons or it’s about poverty.
I was a single mom struggling with endless jobs and I still remember when I’m doing local poverty rights organizing and a mom walks in with two little kids and she wants emergency services - food. We don’t do much direct service, but she’s heard about our work so she’s come in asking. I say, when was the last time you ate? And she said, two days ago, I’m pregnant. I said, what? You’re pregnant? Do you know how important it is for your baby that’s not yet here, to eat? And she says, I feed the one who’s cries I hear.
My arrogance, right? I was a single mom struggling to put food on the table. And years later, I’m sitting with a pregnant mom, but I forget. If that’s not where I am right this moment, if my back is not really against the wall, I forget. I am seduced all over again.
And so for me ministry is exposing ourselves to the radicality of the gospel in ways that shock us, shake us up. And happens by changing our social location, by working on partnership instead of programs, by persisting in proximity, and really authentic power sharing. By knowing that no prison ministry can ever be defined by someone who has not been caged. No children’s ministry can ever be defined without the voices of children who just ache for a place to belong, who are hungry to be loved and affirmed and encouraged and included. That church cannot learn who or how to be without being immersed in the communities that are struggling the hardest and for whom good news and liberation and forgiveness and salvation is not some theoretical questions we sometimes include in Sunday school. It’s a matter of life and death. It’s urgent. Folks are aching to hear what might be real.
For me, ministry is the willingness to relocate and to listen consistently. And to be held and held accountable by communities who allow us to partner.
Patrick: Janet, I just want to say thank you for sharing your journey with us. You know, one of the things I’m taking away, not just the fact that it’s community, but in the challenge to relocate, often has taken you places where language has not been present, not been heard, not been expressed or not given voice or amplified enough and these moments that that’s where ministry is. It’s uncomfortable. That if you’re doing ministry, you’re gonna put yourself in places where maybe your own language, your own culture, your own ways of being have not yet been. And that is a place of learning and growth and challenge and it is only expressed in community.
So I’m just so grateful that you are able to do this work, or you were doing it as a ministry, as call, as community. I’m glad to be a part, small part of your very large community. And we are going to get you on for a part two for sure, because I think what you’re talking about in community, there is no limit to, like you said, this is not a program it’s not about starting this new thing in your church. It really is about being in partnership with people which takes you down the many avenues of ministry that may or may not have a budget line attached to it, or get voted on at the end of the year.
So I’m really curious about a lot of that stuff. So thank you for this, what will be considered part one. I’m just grateful for you as a human and for all that you bring and the gifts you bring to the world and into my life. So thank you.
Janet Wolf: Thank you. Thanks for persistence and patience and open heart and large dreams. Thanks.
Patrick: Hey, I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Reverend Wolfe’s part one of her two-part series. In order for you to get that second part, make sure to subscribe to this podcast. And if you want more resources, more stories, more insights about call, or finding meaning and purpose in your life, head on over to www.fteleaders.org.
I want to thank my executive producer Elsie Barnhart and the rest of the FTE team, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks and @siryalibeats for his music. And the entire FTE crew for helping put this story out into the world. We’ll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.
Patrick: Welcome back to the Sound of the Genuine and part two of our story with Reverend Dr. Janet Wolf. I’m Dr. Patrick Reyes and in this second part of this interview, we will hear how she redefines theological education from sites that have been previously left out - from those who are incarcerated to children. We hear how she collaborated with over 26 seminaries to help form and found the Dale Andrews Freedom Seminary, now under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Starsky Wilson at the Children’s Defense Fund. And those seminar leaders are bringing together seminarians from across the country at the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy and Ministry to redefine how we think about the sacred worth of every child. I’m so grateful we get to hear Reverend Dr. Janet Wolf’s story.
All right, Janet. I am so glad that you’re back for a part two, because I feel like, you know, we missed out on so much good storytelling and I want to jump off from one of your beginnings, one of the stories you did tell us about Christmas with the family outside of prison, and that defining your kind of new call, new sense of ministry.
I know a lot of stories go along with that, about what you’ve done since that moment, but if you could tell us a little bit about, like, how did you first get engaged in prison ministry? And what does that look like over the distinguished career that you’ve had?
Janet Wolf: Prison ministry is a really questionable term for me, because I think traditionally it’s been defined by the good people coming from the outside to fix up the poor, sad, terrible people. So Ndume is a friend who was on Tennessee’s death row for 20 years for a crime he did not commit. He’s out now, got out in 2012, but he would say all those years, church folks coming in trying to save my soul. Hell I didn’t need anybody saved my soul, I need somebody to save my ass! And so that the notion of prison ministry, I think, compounds the problem. We end up doing charitable works, thinking church folks have the answers and we prop up the system by doing that. We justify, theologically, the criminalizing and caging of human beings, including kids. And so for me, prison ministry would actually have the opposite definition, which is I go into the prison to be ministered to. Being inside prison circles I’m a part of is as close to raw church as I get. It is thick with folks who risk everything to embody love, to bet on community, in defiance of everything that surrounds them, all the voices they hear, all the stuff that is coming at them, all the systemic brutality. You know, on Tuesdays, I’m on death row in a circle. So people who have execution dates - and members of our circle have been executed, and yet in spite of all that, they embody this extraordinary love and hope.
I always say I go to the prison grumpy because there’ll be a new correction officer, they won’t find the memo, I won’t get in, it’ll take too long, there’ll be some new rule, they’ll be locked down. Whatever. It’ll take me forever to get through and I might not even get through, and I might not even get to my class. and I have a lot to do, and this takes so long. I mean, not even the time with the guys, just getting in and getting back out. And I always come out laughing and hopeful. I always come out laughing and hopeful. Just the experience of being among folks for whom questions of liberation are not theoretical but life and death - redemption, salvation, forgiveness, community, calling, vocation. On death row, we train mediators. Our mediators take this same course as someone who is certified by the Tennessee Supreme Court as a certified mediator in the state of Tennessee. And on the wall of the office where officers go are the names of our certified mediators so that officers can call on them and not the goon squad when conflict erupts. Here in this place where part of their identity is I have been sentenced to death, I either have or will have an execution date - the state intends to kill me, they have a different identity, which is a mediator with SALT. It’s called the Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation. And this particular circle is community building and conflict transformation. So how amazing that folks, who are deemed the most violent, worthy of death, actually are the sources of conflict transformation? Transformative justice, looking at all the different form of harms that come and figuring out how healing might happen through community. So prison ministry for me is an invitation for the church to be baptized in the radical faith of folks inside who are not only surviving, but defying a system that has bet everything on violence and brutality and punishment and no form of redemption.
In the beginning, I just started visiting folks that I knew from the streets who had gotten in trouble, but I knew from my own experience. So it was just individual visits. And then in the late seventies, early eighties, we still had lots of latitude in prisons. I could take in recording artists and did. I could take in artists. In the pre-release prison I could pick up people in my van and bring them outside to some church event and then take them back in, at the end of the day. That changed dramatically as the drug war escalated and more and more people were caged. And so we started circles. I think our first class was in 2002. That’s when we started SALT. And the notion was that people on the inside were doing a theology that was both challenging and invitational to anybody who had any version of faith community. And so what would happen if we had folks on the inside define what some version of prison ministry would mean, some version of a class would mean? And we got a partnership with Vanderbilt Divinity School and there were three of us who agreed to split one adjunct salary for teaching a Vanderbilt Divinity School course in which half the students would be from Vanderbilt and half the students would be from Riverbend maximum security institution, and all classes would take place inside the prison. And in the beginning, some of the Vanderbilt students, which included PhD students were like, oh my God, give me a break. I can’t take my computer? I’m on a waiting list? I can’t do what? I’m going to sit with convicts and criminals? It didn’t take two weeks until they were really challenged to up their game because folks inside, whether they had high school diplomas or had ever gone to college, were so hungry for the conversation - so really deeply engaged with the writings and the work and the thinking. And what would this mean? What’s it mean? What’s it mean, what’s it mean for the church to read this shit and not do anything? Hey, talk to me!
So that was the beginnings of SALT and our notion…let’s see if I remember this, was three pieces. One is we always sit in a circle. We believe in the circle process. We believe everybody’s a learner and everybody’s a teacher, so there are no triangles. There’s no one head person who thinks they know everything and can grade everybody else. Even if there’s a professor, there are inside facilitators who take part in the planning, the processing, the grading, the decision-making. The inside always has the loudest voice. And that was the second part - it’s always a partnership, a really authentic long-term partnership. We don’t do anything that’s for flash. We don’t do sort of voyeurism stuff where people come stare at us and have one session and then walk away as if nothing has happened. It has to be some long-term engagement so that there’s some learning going both ways. And the third one is the symbol of a cage. Everything we do is focused on systemic injustice and not an individual. And we want to really identify all the wires in that cage. What is the cradle to prison pipeline? What pushes, what forces, what theology justifies what has happened to so many folks? So those are our three hallmarks and then it’s taken lots of different forms.
We have a number of seminaries that we’ve done trainings for, who have then gone on to start some version of this. We’ve worked in Pennsylvania and New York and New Jersey. New Jersey was our biggest one. We worked with a group that became New Jersey STEP, that offered for-credit college programs in seven prisons. I mean, I would hope at one point that every college student would have to take one class where half the students are inside and the course takes place inside. I actually started a DMin program in New Brunswick Theological Seminary. It only lasted for one cohort because of disagreements about how it might go, but it was a DMin in prisons, public policy and transformative justice. And so the notion was any version of ministry you want to look at can be redefined and grounded in the radicality of the gospel if you sit inside the prison and listen to and learn from folks who are caged day after day. Our courses, some of them had to take place on seminary campuses. They also took place in different prisons around the country, in the circles that we had started with - think tanks. And then the other thing I was going to say about that is the adjunct salary split three ways was the highest I’ve ever been paid for any work in the prison. Everything else is for free, which in some ways, is a gift because it means none of the systems own you or can define you, which is really, really important when you’re trying to do work and hold on to credibility with folks inside the prison. Because they take a risk simply to be seen with you, to invest in a community that goes so deeply against the system. To trust outside folks to hear some of their stories and honor them and hold them close to the heart and not go out and splat around on social media. It’s a lot, it’s a big risk for folks inside to take. This honoring of that and some kind of building trust takes a while.
One of the things that has been interesting to me is in prisons all over the place including this one in New Jersey, where we had such a creative, courageous think tank; And it was mostly younger folks who can be quite intimidated by the formal world, you know the college folks, and our requirement is that any professor - seminary, college, university professor who wants to teach inside the prison has to be trained by the inside think tank, and then has to partner with them. And Cornell West missed the training and so he could not teach his class until he had come in. And so they did a solo session for him, so it’s only Cornell West. And initially the guys were like, oh my God, Cornell West, we’ve already read the book. I don’t know whether we can do this. And so we went back to the drawing board about who are we? Why do we do what we do? What’s the importance of bringing people in no matter if it’s Cornell West or anybody else? James Cone had made it to the training sessions. Three things happened, I think, that were extraordinary. One is I have never seen Cornell west so attentive. He was totally present. And two is the guys lost any sense of intimidation and they were their own incredible, amazing, strong, witty, wise selves. And the kind of spark that happened was so powerful. And three, Cornell West changed his syllabus and his teaching approach because of the collaboration that happened with the think tank. And so I think that no matter who you are or what your experience is, ministry can be redefined if you figure out a way to be in community with an ongoing partnership with folks who are caged.
Patrick: I mean here’s my follow-up question, Janet to, what is four decades of working with caged and formerly caged folks now, you know, when they get out and, you know, folks, aren’t always locked up - thinking about sitting with folks who do have a date, you know on death row, there’s a date there.
And the challenge that all that comes with. I mean, for you as a minister, I mean, you said you did an adjunct salary. My imagination is no dean, no bishop, no wa