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Book Review: No Cure For Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear) By Kate Bowler

Published February 25, 2022 in Fidelia Magazine, a publication of Young Clergy Women International

“Someday we won’t need hope. Someday we don’t need courage. Time itself will be wrapped up with a bow, and God will draw us all into the eternal moment where there will be no suffering, no disease, no email.

“In the meantime, we are stuck with our beautiful, terrible finitude” (191).

When History of Christianity professor Kate Bowler received her stage IV colon cancer diagnosis at the age of 35, it rocked both her world and the Duke Divinity community. Many of us looked up to her, and saw ourselves in her, and prayed fervently for her. I had just taken her “Women and Power in the Church” course, so it was quite the shock: You mean the glowing, brilliant, hilarious, young associate professor who challenged and inspired us had cancer growing in her body that whole semester and none of us knew it? They’re only giving her a year or two to live? 

It almost felt like a betrayal. 

But of course, it wasn’t betrayal, because promises of perfect health were never made to her—or to any of us—in the first place.

So what now?

That is one question Bowler asks in both of the New York Times bestselling memoirs she’s published since that fateful diagnosis, as well as in her TED Talk and the popular podcast (https://katebowler.com/podcasts/) she hosts. No matter the mode of communication, Bowler has proven herself to be a master storyteller specializing in vacillating between the heartwarming (yes, she will make you laugh out loud) and heart-wrenching (soon thereafter you’ll be crying). In her latest book, she acknowledges that “so often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t pick” (183) as she wrestles with how to be a better human when those unthinkable experiences happen. 

Bowler’s first book published in 2018 Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) revises the narratives we tell ourselves and each other when the truly tragic happens. She critiques the words of well-meaning friends and acquaintances who offer easy answers and “God just wants one more angel in heaven”-style trite assurances.

That same skepticism towards American compassion culture is interspersed throughout her second memoir, No Cure For Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear). She questions the cult of professional ambition and productivity: “But what if I die this summer? My final moments on the planet will be spent writing a stupid historical book no one will read” (109). She questions the allure of “best life now” self-help marketing: “I have seen the guides to endless progress for sale in airport kiosks . . . the formulas for a meaningful life,” and yet knows the truth that “there is no formula. We live and we are loved and we are gone” (xiv). And she questions our society’s obsession with looking youthful via eliminating one’s extra weight and crow’s feet and stubborn grays: “Should we hate the evidence that we have survived? . . . Aging isn’t the enemy. I am really hoping to age” (168). Her cancer has given her wisdom about life in America she wishes she didn’t have to learn this way.

But the book goes much deeper than its cultural critiques. No Cure is also a memoir of grief and living well in uncertainty, a celebration of the depths of friendship and familial love, and a profoundly powerful case for finding God in “regular surprises.”

After the funeral of his great-grandmother, Bowler explains to her almost 4-year-old son Zach where to find God after he says he can’t see God:

“‘Sometimes we feel God here,’ I say, putting my hand on his small chest. ‘If we are lucky, we see God in something really mysterious, like a miracle. But mostly we see God in regular surprises like love and forgiveness’” (132-133).

And those regular surprises are everywhere in this book. Bowler’s community of family and friends offer deep love and support to function as a protest against despair—everyone rallying around her in whatever ways they can. At one point, Bowler organizes a team to run for colon cancer research sporting t-shirts that read WE’VE GOT THE RUNS. At another point, she gathers a group of fellow historians with a knack for research to compile a sprawling database with the latest cancer treatment information, a project that earns itself the nickname: No Kate Left Behind—“referring both to a bygone Bush-era educational policy and to the odd fact that all of us are named Kate” (93). And she sprinkles the prayers and wisdom of her community throughout the text, like sugar that makes the bitter truth of her (and our) “terrible finitude” more palatable. So whether she’s on a gurney ready for surgery or in a church service, we hear from Kate’s own father, her sister, her best friend, or respected leaders like Will Willimon, Luke Powery, and Richard Hays as they offer their pastoral care. 

As No Cure progresses, it’s clear that Kate has defied the odds—her experimental treatments have paid off and she’s celebrating her 40th birthday, living longer than the couple years originally predicted. But of course, there’s little cause for celebration, as there is still a good chance she will soon leave behind friends and a husband and a child who will never recover. 

And so she names that there is no resolution to our lives—that life is beautiful and terrible, full of hope and despair, and that we’ll never actually arrive at where we’re headed: “How lucky, then, that we are not failing. Our lives are not problems to be solved. We can have meaning and beauty and love, but nothing even close to resolution” (192). 

There may be no cure for being human, but Professor Kate Bowler teaches us that there are remedies for despair—the love of each other and of God. Despite the looming fear of death, all of her work points towards things that are life-giving. And so, at a tiny chapel off of Route 66 on the way to the Grand Canyon, Bowler stubbornly pens a prayer to join with hundreds of others graffitied on the walls. She writes: dum spiro spero. 

Which means: While I breathe, I hope.



The Samaritan Woman’s #MeToo Moment: Questioning 2,000 years of blame and shame

Published in the October 2018 issue of The Mennonite magazine (pages 25-27)

Photo credit: JESUS MAFA. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48282.

The Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus (John 4:1-42) has been with me for the last few years, in the back of my mind . Ever since my (Bible scholar) mother said to me, “You know that the woman at the well is most likely not a prostitute, right?” I’ve been trying to recast her into a different role. She has been typecast in most every performance as not only an enemy of Jesus’ Jewish tribe because of her identity as a Samaritan, but as a loose woman who should be ashamed of herself. But I’ve been looking for who else she might be, what other story she might have to offer me or the church.

When I look again, I see this woman is curious and intelligent. She asks good questions. She listens closely and offers her own insights on everything from history (vs. 12) to comparative religion (vs. 20).

She is a spiritual seeker who has the humility and wisdom to recognize the Savior of the world when she sees him.

She is a passionate and articulate preacher, convincing many from her city to see the Messiah for themselves (vs. 39). And she is courageous, speaking to the very folks who had rejected her.

Unfortunately, many commentators overlook these positive traits, and heap on ways to other her. One Saturday, I went to the local seminary to grab a pile of commentaries to see what they had to say about this unnamed woman who meets Jesus. The writings about her that I came across spanned from around 400 C.E. to 2011.

Not one was kind to her. They called her “markedly immoral”(1) and full of “evil deeds”(2) because she was “fornicating with a sixth man, not her husband but an adulterer.”(3) They called her “nonspiritual” and “selfish” because, in asking Jesus about living water, “all she wanted was something to save the effort of the long, hot trip from the village.”(4) Instead of curious and courageous, she was “a promiscuous flirt . . . holy men scurry from such women.”(5)

Making a woman feel less than because of her body and sexuality is a tool of control, a tool to keep her afraid and in her place. It is a tool of violence used to dehumanize a woman. This tool is so old it seems it should be falling apart by now, yet it finds new iterations every day. Whether it’s the woman who’s up for the promotion or the one who speaks up against her abuser, women know that they are vulnerable to being othered through insults like “slut” or “whore” in a way that men are not. A recent study found that male public figures get an average of 3.7 threatening or sexually explicit messages on social media per day; for women the average is 100 per day.(6)

But are the commentators’ words, though overly harsh, based on a grain of truth? Was the woman at the well a prostitute?

The word used for her past relationships is “husbands” (ἀνήρ), as opposed to her current relationship. She has not been sleeping around with random men, she has been legally wedded five times to five different husbands. And while some of those husbands may have died, more than likely at least a few of them divorced her. Since women could not initiate divorce in first century Palestine, each of those divorces was forced upon her; they were not her choice. She is not using the men in her life but is being rejected by them, over and over again.

Why would one woman be rejected by so many men? The text doesn’t give that answer. It is not because of her unfaithfulness—cheating women in Jewish and Samaritan societies were punished (i.e. stoned)—not divorced and remarried. The most likely reason for perpetual rejection in first century Palestine would be infertility: no children produced, she’s rejected; no children produced again, she’s rejected again. There could be other reasons: maybe she had a disability or a mental health issue, or perhaps she burned the coffee one too many times. The text doesn’t say.

But we can say with confidence that she was not a career prostitute. And in all likelihood, the pain in her past was not due to her immorality. She was rejected by her own husbands and her village (she was at the well midday, alone), and has been rejected via shaming in the 2,000 years since—yet the causes of her rejection are almost assuredly not her fault.

I wonder if she has been journeying at the back of my mind because I can relate to her and I, too, need the courage and redemption she finds. As a spiritual seeker, I can relate to her desire for truth. As a woman in this world, I understand the type of shame and othering reserved particularly for women. And as a female preacher in a Mennonite context, I am sometimes undermined and overlooked in ways my male colleagues are not.

Our churches can be painful places for women—where women are treated like enemies just for speaking their truth. But while commentators through the ages may have harsh words for this intelligent and passionate seeker and preacher, Jesus never does. Even though he knows and names her painful history, Jesus regards the Samaritan woman with nothing but respect and love. She is not defined by her painful past; she is not an other or an enemy but is welcomed as an insider, an equal, maybe even a friend.

Jesus’ act of welcome, then, is a healing act, and from this healing this woman is empowered to welcome others to come and see the Messiah.

And so I think this woman and her discovery of living water can be a guide for me, for all of us attempting to follow Jesus while female.

As she courageously makes her way through a patriarchal world that doesn’t make it easy for her, maybe we can follow her.

Maybe if she can bring her doubts and questions about faith, ours are welcome as well.

Maybe if she can be recast in a different role, we can be, too—a role free of the blame and shame our culture heaps on the bodies of women.

And maybe if Jesus frees her to speak her truth boldly, he can do the same for us.

Endnotes:

1 Anchor Bible Commentary, Raymond and Brown, eds. Doubleday & Co., 1966.

2 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, John-Merrill C. Tenney and Frank E. Gaebelein, eds. Zondervan, 1981.

3 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Jn 1-10, “Commentary by Maximus of Turin (380-465 CE),” Joel C. Elowsky, ed. InterVarsity, 2006.

4 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, John-Merrill C. Tenney and Frank E. Gaebelein, eds. Zondervan, 1981.

5 The Upside-Down Kingdom (Updated Edition), Donald Kraybill. Herald Press, updated edition 2011.

6 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Online Harassment. Citing a University of Maryland Study in 2006.

This article was reprinted with permission from The Mennonite.



“Getting Back to Being Pinkey”: Pinkey Dunston’s Story

Story by Amy S. Zimbelman / Photos by Helen Kinser. April 2016. Originally published by StepUp Durham, a nonprofit that offers supportive services to job seekers.

When I met Pinkey Dunston for breakfast at a local restaurant, she had shown up early. She lounged at a table with her walker close at hand, chumming it up with other folks over iced coffees.

“Oh, are these your friends?” I asked.

“Not officially; I just met them,” she said.

It was then that I learned a key fact about Pinkey Dunston: she knows how to strike up a conversation to make people feel comfortable—in other words, she knows how to love on folks. And her life has given her plenty of opportunities to do just that. 

Pinkey Dunston (who will proudly tell you that yes, Pinkey is the real name on her birth certificate) grew up in Brooklyn, NY. She has lived up and down the East Coast, in Baltimore, Massachusetts, and for the past four years in North Carolina.

She now works at the Durham Bulls Stadium checking tickets, a job she was connected with by StepUp staff. Less than two weeks after completing StepUp’s Jobs Week, she interviewed with the stadium and was hired on the spot. She had been hoping for seasonal work and work that could adjust to her Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and this was a great fit.

“It’s good for me because of my walker—I’m not required to stand or sit; I can choose. It’s fun because I get to meet a lot of nice people,” she says.

Though she loves to shoot the breeze with whoever’s around, Pinkey is nothing if not a hard worker.

“I love working,” she says. “I’ve always worked. When I’m stuck at home, I’m like, ‘I’m going crazy!’”

Pinkey has had many jobs over the years—from security to data entry to fish packing—oftentimes holding two full-time jobs at the same time to support her three children when they were growing up. But her most steady employment has been caring for people in nursing homes and mentally disabled folks as a Certified Nursing Assistant. She has done this kind of work for 40 years.

She told one story that stood out to her from her time at a nursing home in Baltimore:

“I would talk to them [the nursing home residents] about my life and I loved it,” she says. “But there was this 105-year-old man who said at first, ‘Get away from me.’ He didn’t like getting help. He was very bright and had all his senses. I would get to work early just so I could get history from him. While he’d talk, I’d help him shave, or help him put on his shoes. He would never realize the help I’d been giving him because he would talk about his life story—all about being in the war, about his wife. It was really beautiful to hear his story.”

While her professional life was often filled with caring for others, Pinkey’s personal life also dealt her a tragedy that she in turn used to encourage others.

In 2004, she got a call from her daughter-in-law. It was about her son Clinton, who was a teacher at New Bedford High School in Massachusetts. He had been shot three times.

“I was numb,” she says. “Clinton died five days before his 25th birthday. His son—my grand baby—hadn’t turned a year old yet.”

Reeling from this tragedy, Pinkey left her job at the nursing home. She began working as a security officer at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s shock trauma building.

“In Baltimore, so many young men got shot and killed. Over time when someone was shot and killed, the rabbi or pastor would come to get me. I would sit with the family and say, ‘I just lost my son too. Don’t think about anything but your child.’ I was able to deter a lot of craziness when emotions were running high.”

Pinkey got voted Shock Trauma Superstar by her colleagues for counseling so many families.

“The other officers said to me, ‘No one in security has ever gotten that award.’ It was really nice to be honored,” she says.

Though she enjoyed helping so many families, in 2012 Pinkey moved to North Carolina to care for a member of her own family: her cousin, whose wife had died and whose leg had been amputated. 

While here in Durham, she fell on hard times, and had to live in a shelter for a while. It was while she was living in the shelter that she met a StepUp Durham staff person, and she decided to give Jobs Week a try.

Since she’s clearly been able to find employment for herself over the years, I asked her how attending StepUp’s Jobs Week helped her.

“Believe it or not, I think I was just so depressed about being in a shelter. Everything was knocking me back, knocking me back, knocking me back,” she says. “When I did a couple of mock interviews with StepUp it was great—they gave us a lot of feedback. I realized that I had to get back to being Pinkey…I kinda forgot about Pinkey the person.”

And since being hired at Bulls Stadium, the extra spending cash enabled Pinkey to not only move out of the shelter, but she’ll be able to visit her four grandchildren in Massachusetts more often—including her grandson Clinton who she says looks and acts exactly like his father. He was picked as a representative from Massachusetts to play in a national little league baseball team this next season.

“Things are going really really good for me. Right now, life is just falling in place,” she says.

Amy Spaulding Zimbelman is a Masters of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School and an intern at StepUp.

Helen Kinser is a photographer who serves at StepUp through Johnson (Episcopal) Service Corps.


Open Your Eyes

This piece was originally published on August 15, 2013 when I wrote it for the Forum for Theological Education, the organization that sponsored this Atlanta pilgrimage on immigration.

Shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them the reality”—Olive Schreiner

We walked the streets of Atlanta united on a three-mile pilgrimage. We were a collage of people: black, white, brown, Mennonites, Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, conservatives, liberals—all question seekers. We were not just sweating it out on the streets. We were seeking justice.

We walked to the ICE building, where immigrants are being processed. It is here, a few feet away, our leader Anton told us, that up to 85% of people in the system do not receive representation. Herded like animals, often coerced into signing their rights away.

We sang: Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?

We walked to a detention center, the largest in the nation. It struck me as strange that the building looked similar to others on the street—it could almost pass for a large office complex. But it is here that human beings are incarcerated, usually without a trial, usually for the crime of attempting to feed their families.

We sang: Were you there when they jailed him for money?

We walked to the Board of Regents, where it was decided that children brought to the U.S. without documents could not attend the top five schools in the state and receive in-state tuition. “I want to be a social worker helping children,” a 21-year-old undocumented woman told us, “I’m not asking for a free ride…I’m just asking for a chance.”

We sang: Were you there when they crucified her dreams?

On our pilgrimage, we saw a police car driven up onto the sidewalk, cornering a man who has no home. The officer was blaring his siren at the man. We offered him what we had: water. Then we offered our voices.

We sang: Were you there when they drove him off the streets?

We walked to Grady Hospital. Our leader, Anton, knows a woman who struggles to get the dialysis she needs. Since the hospital became privatized, it no longer provides services for people without documents. This saves money.

We sang: Were you there when they stole her dignity?

“Shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them the reality,” the South African poet Olive Schreiner wrote. The reality is that the immigration system is unjust. Profit is valued over people. Fear trumps freedom. But the reality is also that there are change-makers among us. The reality is that we are all one: the immigrant, the politician, the person with no home, the seminary student. The reality is there is hope.

And so finally, we walked to the crypt of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family.

We sang: Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

Oh…sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?

When you encounter the pain of this world, shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them the reality. And I would add: Never stop singing.


Humans, Not Issues

This article was originally published in the July-August 2012 issue of PRISM magazine (pages 18 and 19). Click here to read it on their site.

“You’re famous!” screamed the subject line of the email from my friend. I clicked the link she’d sent and found myself quoted in a popular blog centered on anti-refugee sentiment. The blog was chock-full of fear. Fear that refugees (especially Muslim ones) will take over our culture, our jobs, our country. Fear that our nation is making a huge mistake by admitting thousands of ‘them’ each year. Fear that they are all terrorists.

Asaga, a refugee from Eritrea, learns some English from volunteer tutor Casey. Photo by Amy.

My first reaction was to resent the fear-mongers, to lump them into the convenient category of “bad guys.” But then I reminded myself that an issues-based dichotomy of good guys vs. bad guys is not what our nation needs right now, neither among politicians nor among engaged citizens.

But what, then, should my response be? What should the church’s response be? People do have real or imagined fears of welcoming the stranger, and yet as Christians we are called to welcome strangers as though they were Christ himself.

Arguing about issues and statistics, I’ve found, does little to assuage fears. But introducing skeptical or fearful people to other human beings (who happen to have refugee status) can work miracles.

A few months ago, a student group came to my office to learn about refugee resettlement. I gave my usual hour presentation outlining the horrific experiences of most refugees, the process of resettlement, the services our resettlement agency provides, etc. When I was finished, one of the women, we’ll call her Ashley, asked a couple of questions that were clearly anti-refugee. Not “I’m just wondering . . .” questions, but ones that exposed some real fear and anger. I addressed her questions and arguments as kindly as I could, but I sensed that she was already convinced in her mind.

As part of the class assignment, Ashley and the other students were required to shadow the teachers of our English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. I hesitated to allow Ashley to interact with our refugee and immigrant students. Will she say something overtly hurtful? Will she storm out of the class? I whispered a quick prayer that she would have eyes to see.

I led Ashley’s class to the ESL classrooms. There were a few minutes to spare, and I noticed that Ashley became engrossed in conversation with one of the ESL teachers, who is an immigrant herself. The vibes from their conversation were surprisingly good.

Two hours later, I checked back with the students. All had had a positive experience, including Ashley.

“These are such kind, diligent students. Thank you for the good work you’re doing here,” Ashley said to me, with a hint of apology in her voice.

Not everyone’s heart might soften as quickly as Ashley’s did, but when I introduce someone to a refugee friend of mine, the arguments somehow do seem to lose footing.

The complaint “You’re taking my job” fades away when you learn that your new refugee acquaintance works the night shift at the local meat packing plant. If anyone born in the US who speaks English wants that job instead, it’s theirs.

“We’re just letting everyone in” becomes clearly untrue as your refugee friend describes the vast, overpopulated refugee camp she just moved from, where she lived the last 20 years. Most refugees suffer in camps for years (or their entire lives!) and are never offered resettlement, even after desperately seeking it.

“Why didn’t you just stay in your home country?” becomes harder to ask after learning that a wife was raped, a village burned down, or a child shot. By definition, refugees cannot stay in their home country. They ran for their lives.

The questions I have, whenever I hear anti-refugee or anti-Muslim sentiment, are these: Have you ever met one of the people you’re talking about? Have you ever been to her house and received her hospitality? Have you allowed this person to cook you dinner, laugh with you about language differences, tell her harrowing story of persecution or her hopes for a new life here? Have you ever seen the face of Christ, who himself was a refugee, in the face of this stranger?

It’s amazing how much I learn from refugee friends, how they cleanse me of fear and greed as I, in exchange, help them learn some English. I’m pretty sure I’m getting the better end of the deal.

So the next time I meet someone with an anti-refugee stance, I hope I can be gracious enough to simply introduce him or her to my refugee friends. Because it is real flesh-and-blood human beings, not arguments or side-taking on issues, that introduce us to the truth in the end.

At the time this article was published, Amy S. Zimbelman worked in a resettlement agency in South Dakota, where she connected refugees and immigrants from around the world with their new neighbors.


Welcome to Shelbyville: Promising Changes On- and Off-Screen

Film review of the documentary Welcome to Shelbyville, directed by Kim A. Snyder, 2011. Originally published in PRISM magazine July-August 2012 issue (page 21).

Welcome to Shelbyville is a film about change–a changing economy, a new president, and the shifting demographics of a small Southern town as white, African Americans, Hispanics, and Somali refugees wrestle with what it means to be American. Articulated by a resident of Shelbyville, the film’s central question is this: “Now are we gonna work together or are we gonna stay divided?”

The documentary is uncomfortable enough to purge the audience; people have walked out of screenings I’ve organized–some because they believed it to be pro-immigrant “propaganda” and others because the anti-immigrant hateful remarks were too painful to bear.

And that is Shelbyville‘s greatest strength–it reflects reality.

“These fears, of losing jobs and losing our identity to refugees, these are our fears,” a lady from small-town South Dakota confessed after a screening.

But as people get to know refugees and listen to their stories, I have seen positive change, both on screen and in audiences.

In the film, one resident of Shelbyville worries that “[The Muslims] are gonna start blowing up in Shelbyville.” But after getting to know her Somali neighbors, she admits, “I could have been her, but God chose for me to be over here . . . no, I could have been one of them.”

At another screening, an older woman remarked, “I never thought about the fact that my ancestors fled persecution in Europe, so I’m a descendant of refugees. And unless we’re Native American, all of us came from abroad.”

To see ourselves in the stranger, to realize their tragedy could have been ours, and to use that realization to propel us toward greater compassion and closer community, those are the changes Shelbyville promotes and the changes we seek for ourselves and our nation.

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