Telling the Stories that Matter: December 30 – Josephine Butler, Feminist, Activist, Grieving Mother


Josephine’s life was indubitably envied by many of her contemporaries and acquaintances. She had had the blessing of a happy childhood with good parents and now was married to an academic and cleric and his income provided more than sufficiently for their needs and many of their desires. They even had four children–three sons and a daughter. Josephine and her husband were active in social causes and vicious opponents of slavery anywhere in the world. In fact, they were known sympathizers with the Union cause of the Civil War in the States. Their activism was a tame sort that would be expected from a socially progressive cleric and his wife and they lived into these roles and expectations with ease. Yet, as life often does, things took a turn and their happy way of life was suddenly and painfully upset: their six-year-old daughter Evangeline died without warning and left the family reeling.

Josephine was overwhelmed with grief and was absolutely inconsolable. She resisted the efforts of her friends and acquaintances to comfort her and instead looked for distraction. In her pain, she was immediately desperate for somebody more desperate than herself. She found an object of focus and compassion in the prostitutes of London who she viewed as victims of the cultural machine–as the ones who were ground up in the gears of a machine designed to help and protect some by sacrificing others. She hated prostitution and saw it as a dehumanizing sin against God and themselves but her growing passion and love for the women enslaved by desperate need overcame her aversion to the acts. Soon, she found herself loving the women more and more and helping them less and less out of a desire to be distracted and more out of an honest and consuming love.

The Contagious Diseases Act that had been passed in the 1860s–which Josephine referred to in a gripping way as “surgical rape“–meant that a police officer could accuse any woman of prostitution and turn them over to a group of government backed medical workers who would perform an intrusive examination upon the woman and confine her for a period of three months to “quarantine” her. This became a way of intimidating and abusing women on the streets of London and a simple accusation by a police officer–no matter their honesty or integrity–annihilated the reputation of the woman and left her untouchable withing polite British society. So, Josephine fought for the repeal of these laws because of the abuse it assisted and the victimization it spread among women who were already victims. Josephine could not understand how a society could be so ostensibly Christian yet simply reject women who were in critical need of help. Josephine had learned to love these women and had become their benefactor–a voice to the voiceless. She was slandered and physically assaulted by Christians and non-Christians alike but her faith bade her remain the friend of the victim and the oppressed. She rejected any morality that appeared built upon a double standard of sexual justice and–finally–in 1886, the laws were repealed in large part due to Josephine’s work.

Later in her life, she fought again to have the age of consent raised from thirteen to sixteen to help fight yet more abuse and double standards inherent to the system. This was the life she had been cast into first by her desperate grief and second by a genuine calling from the God she loved and followed. Until the day she died, she remained a powerful activist and feminist who insisted upon the equal rights of women in a system that thrived by victimizing the already victimized.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 23 – Sarah Grimke, Abolitionist, Feminist, Activist


Sarah couldn’t believe that her father would agree to that. She may only have been five but she was convinced that her father’s actions were reprehensible. She gathered up a few of her things in secret and set out from the house to find a way out of her native South Carolina. Her father–a proud advocate of slavery–had ordered a slave to be beaten and Sarah had tagged along to see what he meant by that. She couldn’t imagine that her father would actually order some poor person to be abused yet she was surprised to see a slave tied to a post and whipped repeatedly. That’s what had convinced her she had to run away and find a place to live in a state where slavery was not the norm.Of course, five-year-olds–no matter how powerfully angry–cannot get far when they are surrounded by miles and miles of land and so she was caught on her flight and brought back to the plantation to pout silently in her room. This disgust with injustice would characterize the rest of her life.

Sarah was the sixth eldest child of fourteen and was clearly one of the more intelligent children her mother and father had. As she aged, her intellect was further demonstrated in her ability to teach herself and apply her growing wealth of academic resources to the problems at hand. She hoped to follow in the path of her father–a respected lawyer and judge–with one notable exception: she wanted to fight against slavery. As she grew, however, her father began to get nervous about his daughter’s intellect. When Sarah let it slip that she hoped to go to college (like her older brother) to become an attorney, she was forbidden from continuing to study so that she would be unable to attend college. It seems that in order to prevent her from achieving, they crippled her intellectually because she was a woman and her father felt it was inappropriate for a woman to take that kind of position. She resisted this obstacle but it proved to be fairly insurmountable for young Sarah. She did, however teach the slave assigned to her to read–in contradiction of the law–because she recognized the power of education even as she was denied its graces. This event only deepened her commitment to women’s rights and the suffrage of the disenfranchised.

Sarah was the godmother of her own sister–Angelina, the youngest–and helped tutor and care for her as she grew older. Sarah even came back for her many years later after she had already moved to Philadelphia and become active in the abolitionist community and church there. When Angelina was twenty-two (and Sarah was thirty-five), Sarah came back to Charleston to convert her sister to Christianity and bring her north. Angelina would convert but it would be two more years before she moved north to live with her sister. In Philadelphia, the sisters worked for the abolitionist and the feminist cause and Angelina eventually married. In Angelina’s home with her husband Theodore, there was a room for Sarahand the sisters worked together out of the home to edit newspapers and release articles and papers that denounced slavery and repression of women. Though they were rebuked by ministers and eventually given an ultimatum by the Quakers, they refused to accept that slavery was acceptable or women were to be subservient and second-class creatures. They stood upon the same foundation that their opponents stood upon: the Christian faith. By refusing to appeal to another foundation, they refused to concede the holy to those who would abuse it.

When Sarah was seventy-eight years old, the United States ratified the fifteenth amendment to the United State Constitution which stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In many ways, this was a victory for Sarah and in her advanced age, she could have sat back and congratulated herself for the rest of her life yet she was not finished. A little while later, she attempted to vote on the basis that the fifteenth amendment should expand voting to all people regardless of sex. She was rejected, however, as it would take the nineteenth amendment in 1920 before women could vote. Sarah spent the rest of her life rehashing old arguments with new circumstances and campaigning for a world she would never witness. She died on December 23 in the year 1873.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 18 – Sebastian, Martyr, Soldier, Wonder Worker


Sebastian had been raised within the bounds of the Roman empire and knew well the laws and principles that were the foundation of Roman reason and expectation. Further, he had been appointed a captain of the Praetorian Guard under emperors Diocletian and Maximian. However, they had appointed him to this influential and powerful position without the rulers knowing what it was he did on Sundays. Sebastian was a Christian and professed his ultimate allegiance tothe same Lord that Rome had slaughtered to keep the pax romana in Judea. Had they known, they likely would have had him executed if he would not deny his faith. Yet, his faith remained secret even as the power of the Praetorians was weakened by Diocletian and Maximian. Because of this secrecy, Diocletian was unprepared for what came next.

It seems that two Christians had been arrested and tortured when they refused to deny their faith. Mark and Marcellian were close to abandoning their faith in exchange for an end to their pain and an opportunity to be with their family again when they heard whispering outside of their cell. Sebastian comforted them and shared his own faith with them. There in the Roman prison they prayed together and invoked the protection of their crucified Lord. Sebastian encouraged them to be courageous as death approached and they received the holy crown of martyrdom. The next day they surprised Diocletian who expected them to be sufficiently worn down. Diocletian had them tortured again yet their faith would not cave. He called for the family members of the men to visit them and plead with them to make a token sacrifice and renounce their faith. As they visited and pleaded with Mark and Marcellian, Sebastian arrived. At first, the families were worried to see a Praetorian captain near their loved ones yet were comforted by Mark and Marcellian’s joy to see him. Again he comforted Mark and Marcellian and offered prayer with them but he also shared his faith with their non-Christian family. In a few short hours, the families were confessing faith in Jesus and joining with the men in their prayer and worship.

Diocletian was surprised again but this time he thought he had an idea what had happened. Some important families had been having family members become Christians at surprising times andall of the conversions seemed to be connecting around one central figure’s visit: Sebastian. Diocletian called Sebastian to him and gave him no opportunity to regain his status. Instead, he had him taken to a nearby field and tied to a stake. The Roman archers raisedtheir brutal bows and rained death upon him. His flesh was pierced on account of his faith. He was left for dead as his blood was slowly consumed by the soil beneath his naked body. Yet, as the sun fell and the soldiers departed, Sebastian’s heart still beat and he was taken from the place by a Christian widow–Irene of Rome who had been married to Castulus. She took him to her home and nursed him back to health after cleaning his wounds and giving him her bed to sleep in. Amazingly, he recovered and worked a wonder in the house of Irene. A blind woman from the community was skeptical of his faith–perhaps because of his status as a Praetorian–and refused to accept that he was a Christian. He called her to himself and asked, “Do you desire to be with God?” She responded in the affirmative and he made the sign of the cross upon her forehead. Miraculously, she gained her sight the moment after his thumb left her brow.

Yet, one day Diocletian and his entourage were passing through the city and Sebastian saw him coming. He stood upon the step of the home and called out to Diocletian in a loud voice: “See now, Diocletian, the one you condemned to death stands before you. You hope to kill the disciples of Jesus Christ but you only honor those whom you murder and encourage those who escape your desperate grasp.”In a fit of rage, Diocletian ordered his soldiers to beat Sebastian to death and throw his body into a garbage heap after they were sure he was dead. Sebastian died a martyr and evangelist who espoused a faith that was contagious and compelling.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 13 – Lucia, Martyr, Unpolluted, Generous

The coins clattered to the stone and Lucia looked around as if she expected somebody to notice. In fact, many people noticed the sound of coins hitting the ground in this poor neighborhood but none of the people were her wealthy soon-to-be husband. She had no trouble giving away the money but knew it must be done in relative secrecy lest her betrothed find out that she was giving away her dowry. Her mother had not approved and had begged her to think of her father–her recently passed father–but could not convince her. At least, not since that night at Agatha’s tomb when she had been healed from her bloody problem. They had waited and prayed all night and Lucia’s mother had finally been healed but Lucia had been the recipient of a vision at the same moment that foretold her soon coming martyrdom. Mom had been happy to be healed and Lucia had not let her know what she had learned. Instead, she proposed that she be allowed to give away her dowry to the poor as an act of alms giving. Of course, mom had resisted but Lucia won out. As she handed over the last of the coins, she breathed a sigh of relief–partly because she had maintained the secrecy and partly because she was glad to finally be rid of the bride money–after all, she had committed herself to a celibate life and had no desire to be a bride in this world.

Yet, as thing so often happen, her betrothed was quick to find out. He was a wealthy man and so he had much influence. Great influence in a city buys many eyes in various places and some of them had told him that they thought they had seen her in the streets giving away a large sum of money. He confronted her and asked to see the dowry set aside for him to gain when he finally married her. She knew she had been caught and so she admitted that she had given it away–knowing well that her martyrdom was likely to spring from this moment of opportunity. “If you don’t replace it, I will betray your secret–that you are a Christian–to the magistrate. Maybe then you’ll see some sense once you’ve given up these silly Christian fables.” he yelled. She nodded because she knew he would and because she had come to accept it.

Lucia was arrested at her his insistence and dragged before magistrate Paschasius. This was during the time of the Diocletian persecutions and being Christian was akin to high treason. She was ordered to make a sacrifice upon the Roman altars and she refused. Paschasius was not surprised by any means–it seemed that the Christians were only all too willing to refuse and die if the other option was denying their Faith. “If you do not,” said Paschasius, “then you’ll be killed. Offer sacrifice and live.” Paschasius wasn’t surprised but he was confused–what could be so valuable as to forfeit your life–it didn’t make any sense to him (it never does to the Empire).

“Here is my offering,” Lucia began, “I offer myself to God, let God do with His offering as it pleases Him.” Paschasius sat in shocked silence for a moment. Lucia’s betrothed was dumbstruck by what he might call her lunacy but others might call her courage. Paschasius finally asked her why she would not like to keep her life and be married. He pointed out many of the desirable traits of her betrothed. Lucia let them know that she had committed herself to celibacy and was not interested in marriage.

At this, Paschasius saw an opportunity to wring a denial out of her. “Deny your faith,” he said slickly, “or I’ll turn you over to the brothel to be raped and become a prostitute.” He gloated to himself and smiled what can only be called a smile of self-satisfaction. In this, he had revealed the Empire’s great lust to control and dominate even if by evil means. He fully expected her to give in but this time he truly was surprised.

Lucia said: “No one’s body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.” Furious, Paschasius ordered her eyes gouged out and then to be martyred. The soldiers followed through and ended her life as a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 10 – Thomas Merton, Monk, Author, Activist


Thomas had only stepped out of the shower–such an innocuous thing–but it proved to be the last action in a chain of actions that resulted in his death. He was in Bangkok and had recently given a talk to an eager and interested audience. Indubitably, most (if not all) of them had read his work and were happy to hear him talk about it. It was the 27th anniversary of his entrance into the monastery–the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky–and he must have been aware of it. He reached out to the fan–perhaps to turn it on or off–and when his hand made contact, the poorly grounded fan electrocuted him. He died nearly instantaneously. In the forty years since his death, people–many who never met him and who might not have even been born when he died–have mourned his death and insisted that he died too young and too soon.

Thomas’ story is a long and interesting journey that he recorded in his own spiritual autobiography: The Seven Storey Mountain. He had been born into a family of nominal religious affiliation in France but had been baptized in the Anglican church. His mother was a Quaker by birth but died young and had a limited impact upon him. Her death, however, haunted him for the rest of his life. As a child, he moved very often because of the rootless life of his artist father. For many years, he lived in America with his baby brother and grandparents but during his adolescence he was a student in European boarding schools while his father traveled and attended art shows. He had little to no spiritual involvement at the time and by his own recollection only rarely attended a religious service. At the age of fifteen, Thomas’ father died from a brain tumor and Thomas began to live upon his inheritance as it was watched over by his father’s friend and physician.

Years later, Thomas would begin to feel and resist a calling toward the Church. It seems that synchronicity and serendipity were constantly at play and Thomas became more and more connected with the Church. At first, it was the Byzantine mosaics that brought him into sanctuaries. He wrote:

“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found…thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim…though not quite for the right reason. And yet it was not for a wrong reason either. For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher.”

So, Thomas became a pilgrim on a path that unknowingly was drawing him to Jesus and to service. Yet, he struggled deeply with the death of his father and mother and the declining health of his grandparents. He descended into a world sustained by alcohol and sexual conquest. It seems incredibly likely that he fathered a son during one of these trysts. Yet, no matter how much he resisted the call upon his life, he was drifting inexorably toward redemption. Eventually, after many years of fighting and resisting, he took his vows as a Trappist monk and was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemani. There, he was able to live in silence, write, and live a life of contemplation and prayer. His writings have comforted and challenged people ever since. So also have his interests in comparative religion and radical hospitality for others.

It is impossible to share the impact of Thomas Merton upon others without reading some of his writing. Thomas was called to write and lived into the calling with a passion that occasionally got him rebuked by those in power. Any telling of Thomas’ story that did not include some of his writing would be remiss and so I include my own favorite passage:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking form a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 6 – Nicholas, Generous, Wonder Worker, Anonymous Gift Giver


Nicholas knew the likely consequences of the man’s poverty–his three daughters would have no dowry and would not be able to marry because of it. If they couldn’t marry, then they would likely follow the same path that so many other poor, unmarried women did at the time: prostitution. This thought chilled Nicholas’ heart and so he devised a plan. Taking a significant portion of the wealth he inherited from his parents, he converted it to gold and divided the gold equally among three sacks. As day gave way to dusk and the frenetic activity of the street faded into yet more noisy memories, Nicholas left his home and began walking toward the home of the man and his three daughters.

That first night, he must have felt nervous since he wasn’t planning to be noticed. He waited until a group of people were walking down the street by the home and joined in with their gentle throng. He had spied the window of the home and noticed that it was open that night and would allow him the safest and easiest way to leave the gold. If he left it on the doorstep, it would likely be stolen but he couldn’t knock and hand it to them without being noticed. Instead, he waited as his group passed the doorway and tossed the sack through the window. The sack landed with a pleasant thud and the jingling of coins. The father picked up the bag to see what type of garbage had been tossed through the window and discovered that it was filled with gold. Immediately, his thoughts went to his daughters and he rejoiced that he was a little closer to providing a dowry for his daughters. His thoughts turned to fear, though, as he considered that surely this was dropped by some wealthy man walking the street and so he opened the door to find the man who would be frantically searching for his money. There was nobody left on the street. So, the father waited up several eager hours silently hoping against hope that this had been a gift and not an accident. Every step in the street drew the father from the home to see if it was somebody looking for the money but nobody ever came to claim the gold.

The next night, Nicholas took another sack of gold and waited for another group of people to walk down the street. He joined with them again and was glad to see that the man had left the window open again. Feeling that his work for the Kingdom of God was not yet done, Nicholas approached the window with the group of people again. He thrilled to know that he was making a difference in the lives of the daughters and their father but he still did not want to be found out. He tossed the sack through the window where it landed again in the middle of the room. This time, however, when the sack landed the father didn’t hesitate and bolted for the door. He already knew what was in the sack but he wanted to know who had again delivered such a wonderful gift. He gave chase to the cloaked figure and caught up with him. He spun him around and asked who he was that he should leave such a wonderful gift but the man only shook his head and said, “It wasn’t me. Some man gave me this coin and his cloak to run when you came out of your door.” With a subtle deception, Nicholas crept away into the night and again eluded the father.

The third and final night, the father had prepared and hid by the window. When the sack entered the open window, he would leap up and catch the man. Then, he would be able to thank and praise the man who had done such good for him. He waited as Nicholas approached but Nicholas had already detected the father’s plan. He climbed to the top of the house and took the third sack with him. There was no smoke coming from the chimney and so Nicholas knew his plan would work. He dropped the third sack down the chimney where it landed with a triumphant thud. Before departing, the father yelled, “Who are you that I might thank you for these great gifts?”

Before he disappeared, Nicholas responded, “You have nobody to thank but God alone.”The father did not try to follow after Nicholas for it was abundantly clear that he didn’t want to be found out. He took the money and used it to provide a sizable dowry for each of his daughters and to ease the poverty that had gripped his small family. For this wonder–and others–Nicholas is well remembered and memorialized. May we, too, be generous gift givers.

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