The “Just a Little Bit More” Interview with Peter Steinke

I recently sat down with the Rev. Peter Steinke, the respected interpreter of Bowen/Friedman systems theory for churches and congregations. Also referred to as family systems theory, the concept sees families and organizations as emotionally interdependent units. The relationship between A and B within these units is mutually influenced and interactive rather than one-directional, cause and effect. Systems theory teaches adherents to think in overlapping arches, not in straight lines.

I’ve known Pete for twenty-five years as we’ve lived in proximity of one another in the Houston and Austin areas. Whether from personal consultations in ministry settings or public presentations, I’ve benefitted immensely from his wisdom and insight. Pete was instrumental in helping me write Just a Little Bit More, with suggestions and comments at all phases of the process. The excellent foreword he wrote for JaLBM reflects his solidarity with the book’s perspective. The author of Healthy Congregations and Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times has a new book coming out this spring: Teaching Fish to Walk. This new work emphasizes adaptive challenges as the vehicle to bring about positive and healthy changes in congregations.

Peter Steinke

Societal life in the post-9/11 world is never more than a moment away from elevated anxiety. Recent events from terroristic attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, California to calls from politicians and political candidates to be wary of Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and Syrian refugees have raised societal anxiety in America. I asked Pete – pastor, psychologist, educator, and author with extensive experience working with individuals and congregations in conflictual situations – to comment on these and related issues.

JaLBM: How do you see what systems theory calls “societal regression” playing out in our current context?

Steinke: When people become more anxious, they tend to blame others more easily. People take less responsibility for their own lives and their own pain. When people are anxious they’ll either focus their anxiety upon persons in charge – presidents, school principals, pastors, parents – or upon the most vulnerable. Currently this vulnerable group consists of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, refugees – those who are “outsiders.”

Anxiety is not a negative. Anxiety just is. It becomes a negative when it intensifies or becomes prolonged, because it interferes with clear thinking. Anxiety is an informer, rather than an enemy. It tells us something about ourselves and the world around us.

Neurologically we’re designed to assume something is bad because the lower brain is on the outlook for something that might create a problem. That’s the lower brain’s job. Yet, the lower brain has no sense of time. So, something that was a stimulus in the past that activated your anxiety, when it happens again – boom – it goes off and you’re in an elevated state of anxiety.

JaLBM: Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, has achieved sustained popularity. From a systems point of view, what do you see behind this phenomenon?

Steinke: For some people, Donald Trump has named the demon. And when you name the demon, people feel you have power over the demon.

As a society, we’re vulnerable to a demigod, to somebody who has all the answers, who is impressive, who has a sense of power and charisma. Everyone else in comparison to this person looks weak and ineffective. This type of behavior – acceding demigod status to someone – is grounded in anxiety.  We know in actuality no such person exists. When you’re at the low end of things and it’s not working out for you, it’s very easy to look up to that person who could lift you up and lift society up.

JaLBM: As a society, we have a tendency to esteem those who are “financially successful.” This is also part of his charm . . .

Steinke: When the economy is declining or people perceive it to be, societal anxiety is aroused. Money is a great arouser of anxiety.

JaLBM: What is the adaptive challenge – to use your phrase – for American society at this moment?

Steinke: We’ve got to work together more often, rather than each staying in their own little silo and doing things solo. But when you’re anxious, what do you do? You pull apart, you separate, you get into your own little fortress, which is the opposite of what we need to do.

How can we use our commonalities instead of our differences to do what motivates us to do what we need? We’re here to cooperate with one another – that’s civil society.

Anxiety pulls us apart because anxiety magnifies differences. That’s a key understanding of anxiety. It magnifies the differences that we have. And until we can reduce the anxiety, the chances we have of doing things together is diminished.

JaLBM: Tell us a little more about your new book, Teaching Fish to Walk.

Steinke: A study of a type of bichir fish that lives in shallow water habitats in Africa provides the name for the book. Researchers put them on land and compared the test group’s progress to that of a control group that stayed in the water. The test group learned to walk within eight months. These fish did not learn to walk until they were confronted with an adaptive challenge. They had to change their physiology.

My point is that in the church we’re not going to find people changing in adaptive ways until we break with how we’ve done things in the past.

Fewer people are coming to us – in our congregations. It only makes sense that we’ve got to go to them. We have to find ways to live out the life of who we are or who we want to be in the world . . .

JaLBM: The day and age of people coming to us is over.

Steinke: It’s over. It’s true of lots of organizations, not just the church. We don’t have the belongers like we used to. And it’s true of all kinds of groups. Volunteering for the Red Cross and scouting is down. We do have groups, like AARP, the NRA, and the Sierra Club that are stable, but you’re a member by writing a check. That’s the extent of your participation.

JaLBM: In what direction do churches and religious organizations need to go?

Steinke: We know that change is resisted less if it’s connected to an organization’s purpose, or sense of mission.

A lot of groups today have forgotten why they’re here. They’ve lost touch with their mission. I’m talking about churches and other groups. As I asked previously: Why are we here? We’re here to cooperate with one another.

(Interview conducted on December 31, 2015 in Austin, Texas.)


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.



Light Scattering Darkness

Darkness and light. Their daily and seasonal dance mirrors our own movements in and about the two realms.

This past December in our South Austin neighborhood, some of our neighbors wrapped holiday lights around tree trunks and others draped overhangs with icicle lights. My wife placed electric candlelights in our five front windows that face the street. Even though fewer neighbors placed lights than in previous years, light shone forth and vanquished the night darkness nonetheless.

I needed those December lights to shine. A number of folks in our society – some leaning left and others right of the political divide – agree that we are living in dark and difficult days. Hyper-partisan divides, stagnant social and economic inequalities, an erosion of humane values, and climatic changes combine to produce a general sense of gloom felt by many, myself included, for the future.

My focus on the future took on a personal enhancement because my wife, Denise, and I became new grandparents in the hot summer of 2019. As I rocked my months-old granddaughter in my arms toward the end of last year, I was struck by how often and easily she smiled back at me. I wondered as I smiled back at her: Doesn’t she know about all the problems going on in the world today? Doesn’t she know about the potentially perilous state of the future? How is it that she can smile while the world despairs?

Of course, she doesn’t know about the world’s problems, nor does she have to know. One of her important tasks at this point in her little life is to smile at her grandfather, thereby reminding him that God is still at work sending divine light into the world – the type of light that vanquishes the darkness every single time.

Christians observe Advent during the short days (in the northern hemisphere) of light in December, waiting in celebration for the promised light of Christ to arrive and vanquish the darkness in the world. Appropriately, my granddaughter’s smile of light graced the sermons that I gave at different churches in December. Congregants smiled back at me as I explained my theological interpretation of her smile, based in the words of the Christian Testament: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overcome it” (John 1:5).

Maybe times have always been this difficult. Five or ten years from now, hindsight will reveal whether these current days are truly as difficult as they seem to some of us. Adding the recent coronavirus pandemic to the above list of difficulties seems to embolden the argument for the case.

Yet we know that fellow humans in past times suffered and endured much worse than what we are living through today. How did they hold onto hope in the midst of difficulty? As do we, they saw the sun rise in the morning and scatter the darkness. The daily cycle of darkness and light infuses the human soul with life and hope because it affirms the possibility of change within the larger frame of stability. Such is our hope: life goes on, large-scale chaos doesn’t rule, each day holds the potential of a new start.

blog.sp.2020And now the spring sun coaxes the blooming of wildflowers as the days lengthen. The seasonal darkness of winter has faded away and the flowers gracing my yard – bluebonnets and poppies – reflect in a transformed state the invigorating light that called them forth.

Soon I will hold my granddaughter again and we will both smile for a camera in front of the bluebonnets and poppies. Captured will be a perfect picture of light, flourishing beauty, and vulnerable grace. Our hope for the future is yet alive as the light continues to shine.

balm.cover.2T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m also the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019).


Check out my author website:

The Trump Era’s Normalization of Inequality

Inequality is the new normal.

Most Monday evenings, I direct efforts at a church-supported food pantry in Austin, Texas. We distribute groceries to the underemployed and low-paid, seniors on fixed incomes, handicapped and homeless individuals, and parents of young children living in poverty. In January 2020, our eight-year-old food pantry had its busiest month – most people served – on record.

acl.inst.6 (2)While many describe the economy as “good” and unemployment rates are at generational lows, the food pantry network of more than 60,000 service points in the US is sorely needed. New recommendations from the Trump administration to curtail SNAP benefits will only exacerbate the need for food pantries in the richest country in the history of the world, where one of every six children is food insecure.

The plights of inequality in larger cities have always been among us: beggars on street corners and people living under bridges. Back in the day, however, these signs of inequity were isolated and more hidden. As a kid, it was only when my father and I drove deep into Chicago – from our suburban home – that I witnessed such things.

For today’s children, the plights of inequality can be seen right around the next corner.

I wrote Just a Little Bit More in 2014 and argued that the current era of inequality – circa 1980 – would eventually bust. The previous eras of inequality, the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, met their respective but different demises in the Progressive Era and the Great Depression.

More than a century ago, in the midst of the Gilded Age, economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.

By socio-economic markers, America is a deeply stratified country boasting the largest percentage of citizens having a net worth of more than $5 million. This category increased by more than 16 percent in 2018 giving America more than four times the number of residents in this bracket than any other country.

Americans are proud that ours is a country where you can make it – and make it rich. But increasingly, only a few Americans get to play that game. Forty years into this current era, social and economic inequalities in American society are becoming entrenched.

As inequality normalizes, America loses its status as a meritocracy – where people deservedly earn what they are worth. In eras of inequality, achievement is less determined by ability and talent, but by inherited wealth, favoritism, and a fixed system. As President Trump said to friends and supporters – fellow wealthy Americans – at his Mar-a-Lago club after signing the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act into law: “You all just got a lot richer.”

When our food pantry opened in the fall of 2013, we talked about “working ourselves out of a job.” We spoke of working alongside our client-neighbors to implement plans to mitigate food insecurity: job and education training, community gardens, meal sharing.

Naivete? In part, yes. (Our organization is following through with the first option plan as we now work with families in a “2-Gen” childcare program). It’s highly likely that we’ll see more busy months in 2020 at our food pantry distributions.

We live in the midst of a system that has entrenched social and economic inequalities. They will only be broken by an economic crash, like the Great Depression, or purposeful political actions, as occurred during the Progressive Era. Inequality doesn’t have to be normal. We can choose to change to current system.

balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).


Check out my author website:

Dopesick – Book Review

Beth Macy’s Dopesick is one of many revealing books on the opioid epidemic, with Sam Quinones’s Dreamland being the most prominent. You’ve made your way to my blog . . . which means there’s a good chance that you are a reader. Macy’s book goes deep on personal stories of pain and tragedy from Appalachia, the crucible of the crisis. It’s not an uplifting or hopeful read, but to ignore its details is akin to burying your head in the sand while this crisis guts out a portion of American society, leaving numerous families – like yours and mine – devastated in its wake.

Addiction surfaced onto my radar when I was a twelve-year-old kid. My dad, who worked as a chaplain at a drug treatment facility, brought my eleven-year-old brother and me to an Alcoholics Anonymous public speaker meeting. While the name of the speaker escapes me more than forty-five years later, I remember that he was a retired major-league baseball player who said that alcohol cut his career short. In that mostly full high school auditorium, my nascent self-identity – partly based in the importance of playing sports – was tinged by the introduction given by the fallen but redeemed athlete to the human predicament of addiction.

jalbm.dopesickMy dad – now in partial retirement – still works in the field of addiction. Last Christmas, he sent Dopesick my way as a gift. I’m grateful that he introduced me so many years ago to this intriguing and beguiling subject about which I’m still learning. Dopesick taught me plenty in its 350-plus pages.

Macy breaks down the opioid epidemic in the following fashion:

Big pharmaceuticals (led by Purdue Pharma) produce opioids (like OxyContin) in the late 1990s and push their pills like crazy as the new panacea for pain, claiming for them a low incidence-rate of addiction; a number of doctors over-prescribe these pills helping create addicts ranging from teenagers to seniors; federal government finally cracks down with significant regulation in 2016; and today, heroin, much cheaper and more readily available than opioids, fills the void created by the crackdown.

There’s your quick-and-dirty summary of the crisis. It’s not even close to being over. In 2016, more than 100 Americans died each day from opioid overdose. This rate increased in 2017 and epidemiologists say it will continue to increase into the new decade, possibly more than doubling the 2016 rate.

For many years, I thought of drug and alcohol addiction – now also called “substance use disorder” – as binary: you either were afflicted with the monkey on your back or you weren’t. I now understand that there are levels and layers in between the two ends of the one continuum. The potency of opioids, however, can anchor most users – even first-time recreational users – at the continuum’s far bleak end.

Dopesickness, Macy explains, is the underside of addiction: vomiting, shakes, sweats, diarrhea, nausea, paranoia, and the feeling of skin-crawling – when there’s no more drug. More so than the craving for another high, the fear and avoidance of dopesickness is why the afflicted rob from family members and banks, break into pharmacies, and frequent urban centers like Baltimore to buy cheap heroin off the streets.

Macy, on page 106 of the hardback version, summarizes the findings of addiction researcher Warren Bickel. He calculated the nonaddicted person’s perception of the future to be 4.7 years, which greatly contrasts with the addicted person’s perception of the same: just nine days. When one’s comprehension only sees nine days into the future – the threat of a long prison sentence, the strategy of “Just Say No,” and the prospect of sobriety lose their affect.

Macy promotes an adjusted understanding of sobriety – traditionally, the complete abstinence from mood-altering substances – due to the severity of this crisis and opioids’ insidious ability to enslave its victims. Successful medication-assisted treatment (MAT) – the use of maintenance drugs like methadone combined with counseling and behavioral therapies, including 12-Step programming – can typically last up to five years. In some A.A. circles that favor the traditional understanding of sobriety, MAT patients can be stigmatized.

Humans will go to great lengths to avoid pain, whether it be physical, emotional, or psychic. Opium, like alcohol, is a natural remedy that helps mitigate pain, but the beast of addiction lurks on the other side of its attractive coin. In the early 1800s, scientists first refined morphine, ten times stronger than opium. Toward the end of that century, heroin was introduced, at double the strength of morphine. Both drugs were touted as non-addictive by early proponents and widely available. One hundred years later, OxyContin – a reformulation of oxycodone (originally compounded in 1917) – received the same type of “wonder-drug” roll-out: a non-addictive panacea, appropriate for any type of patient – not just cancer patients in hospice care – seeking alleviation from pain.

Again, multiple books published in the last five years break down the opioid crisis. If you’ve not read any, Dopesick is a good place to start. Macy’s skill is her reporting that reveals the personal and societal tolls that this crisis is reaping in this country where it’s much easier to get addicted than to secure treatment.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

Check out my new author website:



Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

I was almost four years old when the CBS network debuted A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9, 1965. From the living room of a house that my parents rented on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, I most likely watched its premiere. My dad was a second-year seminarian at the time, and, like many of his classmates, a big fan of Charles Schulz and his Peanuts comic strip. As my dad completed his education and began his career as a pastor and chaplain – prompting a family move to Portland, Oregon, a return to Minneapolis-St. Paul, and then a permanent relocation to the Chicago area – Christmas seasons for our family consistently centered upon snow, lights, a tree, presents, church, and plenty of anticipation. Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, a show that incorporated all of these themes, was a high point of each Christmas celebration in my childhood home as our family grew to include my younger brothers and sister.

A generation later, my wife, Denise, and I lived in Houston with our three young children where I worked as a pastor. A cherished copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas was prominent in our VCR tape collection alongside copies of Disney classics that the kids watched over and again. As Christmas 1992 approached, it occurred to me that I needed more than the VCR copy of the Peanuts’ gang Christmas. I had to get a copy of the soundtrack. Those wondrous bits of jazz piano, bass and drums that undergirded the animated TV special beckoned me. I had heard its notes sway and its chords swing from my earliest days. There had to be a recording of these songs where the musicians stretched out.

These were pre-Amazon days. The CD era was cresting, but even so, it wasn’t until I went to a fourth or fifth “record store” (that’s what we called them back then) that I found a cooperative store manager who promised to order me (from an inventory catalog) a CD of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Bingo.


The next few Christmas seasons, I purchased additional copies of the CD and gifted them to family and friends. Then, in 1995, it was my turn to preach the Christmas Eve sermon at the church, Holy Cross Lutheran, I served in Houston. There was no question as to what I’d do for the message that year: a recapitulation of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a bit of a risk – telling a child’s tale for one of the largest worshipping crowds of the year. But I had the blessing of my pastoral colleague Gene Fogt and – even though the animation has no adult characters – I knew Charlie Brown’s story wasn’t just for kids.

The opening scene of the special features Charlie Brown confiding to his buddy Linus van Pelt: “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents . . . but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

Writer Charles Schulz wonderfully develops a twenty-two minute animated sermon from this starting confession to convey his own sense of Christmas’s true meaning: not glitz, glitter and over-commercialization – which ultimately doesn’t deliver on its promise – but human and divine solidarity through the birth of a child.

A recently retired USAF colonel, Rolf Smith, was visiting the congregation that Christmas Eve with his family. He loved the sermon (as he told me later) and returned to Sunday worship services in the new year. As we got to know each other, I learned that Rolf had spearheaded the launch of “innovation” as a corporate strategy for the Air Force. To him, recasting A Charlie Brown Christmas for a sermon was “highly innovative.” That spring, he and his spouse, Julie, joined the church. Another congregant, however, expressed her disdain about the sermon to me. She deemed a rendering of “a cartoon” as inappropriate for Christmas Eve worship. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered that a family member of hers struggled mightily with depression. The message was too close to home. For Christmas Eve worship, I surmised, she had wanted escape from – not focus upon – depression and its effects.


Charles Schulz, from his Sebastopol, California studio, collaborated with producer Lee Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez after the Coca-Cola company agreed to underwrite the special in the summer of 1965. Adhering to a fast-tracked schedule, Schulz and Melendez drew out 13,000 stills for the animation. Mendelson, having met and worked with the Grammy award-winning Guaraldi the previous year, commissioned the jazz pianist to record the soundtrack. A children’s choir from an Episcopal church sang for two of the tracks. Mendelson himself wrote the lyrics to Guaraldi’s tune Christmas Time is Here, now covered by hundreds of musicians the world over.

When my son, Mitch, who was born in 1991, comes home to see us at Christmas, one of his first requests after hugging his mother is to hear some Christmas music – “the Snoopy and Charlie Brown disc.” I always oblige – he’s heard it every Christmas since he can remember. Lucky guy.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

Check out my new author website:



Sharing More Than a Meal at the Thanksgiving Table

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running this piece as an op-ed on Thanksgiving, November 28, 2019.

Some years back my mother insisted that I watch the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Released in 1987, the movie revolves upon the difficulties of Thanksgiving holiday travel. On a deeper level, it’s also about the common grace that two very different individuals — Steve Martin’s uptight business executive and John Candy’s garrulous shower curtain ring salesman — find in each other. Appropriately, the paths of these two strangers, by suggestion of the movie’s final scene, will ultimately merge at a Thanksgiving table, where despite their differences, they will sit side by side.

Here’s the reason my mom recommended the movie: We had recently travelled on a family trip through Peru with all kinds of setbacks — flat tires, roadblocks and requests to prove our U.S. citizenship. The movie’s premise, however, seemed to me exceedingly cliché. But after a first viewing, I was hooked. Our family has watched the movie every Thanksgiving holiday since.


The first American Thanksgiving, legend tells us, brought Pilgrims and indigenous people together in peace in 1621 to share a bountiful harvest in present-day Massachusetts. Closer examination of the historical record reveals that the Pilgrims — half their numbers didn’t survive the previous winter — and the indigenous had plenty of reason to be wary of one another. The Pilgrims anticipated another brutal winter, and the Chief Massasoit-led Wampanoag were squeezed by their immigrant table guests to the east and their long-time rivals, the Narraganset, to the west. The first Thanksgiving, like the gathering featured in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” was all about strangers encountering one another face to face, forced to consider the possibility that their differences did not outsize their commonalities.

American society is at a precarious state with the arrival of Thanksgiving 2019. Nationally, our politics have become divisive and hyper-partisan; in Texas, there are immigrant children separated from their parents and needlessly traumatized at the border; locally in Austin, there is a homelessness problem and statewide wrangling about how to respond to it. Longtime friends and family members sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye on these and other issues. Due to a crisis of national leadership, there is permission to disparage one another simply because of a difference of opinion.

This polarization threatens not only family gatherings, but civic life as well. Thanksgiving Day is the only national holiday with a specified menu, and consequently, the requirement to be seated at a table. At a table with turkey and varied trimmings, we encounter one another — family, friends and sometimes strangers — with a face-to-face intimacy that is not required on July 4 or Labor Day.

My wife and I lived with our infant daughter in Perú in the late 1980s as I completed a two-year internship during my seminary education. When my parents, who spoke zero Spanish, visited us, food and tables were exclusively the method by which they met Peruvians (few who spoke English). My wife and I were the translators — bridgers — to explain the food and personally connect those who shared the table.

In this hyper-partisan age, those of us who are bridgers have an abundance of worthy and necessary work to do. Gratitude, generosity, and grace are the classic Thanksgiving virtues shared at the table. After we turn the calendar on Thanksgiving, may we have the civic pride to continue to practice these virtues with family, neighbors, political adversaries and even strangers. Our very survival as a civil society depends upon it.

balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

Check out my new author website:

American Nations – Book Review

Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011) was late to get on my radar. The 300-plus page historical synthesis has suffered no loss of vitality almost a decade after publication – like any good work of history, it helps readers better understand the current day. If you still scratch your head trying to figure out how the same electorate elevated both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in consecutive terms, no less – I recommend that you add American Nations to your reading list.

Having grown up in the Chicago area, with family ties in rural Minnesota, I was intrigued to discover to which “nation” my family heritage best aligned. With a quick glance at the book’s cover map, I eliminated “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachia.”  Standing out to me was “The Midlands,” a swath of land in the Upper-Midwest stretching from Pennsylvania to Nebraska. I was surprised to discover, as I began to read Woodard’s descriptions, that “Yankeedom” best fit my family heritage. “From the outset, [Yankeedom] was a culture that put great emphasis on education . . . and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community . . . Yankees have the greatest faith in the potential of the government to improve people’s lives, tending to see it as an extension of the citizenry, and a vital bulwark against the schemes of grasping aristocrats, corporations, or outside powers” (p. 5, paperback). A few other descriptors used by Woodard to describe “Yankees” touch on values I hold dear: “egalitarian,” vocation as “divine calling,” and opposition to “inherited privilege” and “conspicuous displays of wealth.” Yup, I’m Yankee to the core.

With support from The Midlands, Yankeedom was the main combatant against the Deep South and its cousin nation “Tidewater” (coastal Carolinas) in the Civil War. The fundamental disagreements that fueled that war have remnants that yet hold sway in American society, as Woodard makes clear on pages 55-56, by his careful contrast of liberty with freedom. Liberty, as understood by nineteenth-century Deep South culture, was a privilege – not a right – that few were granted. Virginian John Randolph (1773-1833) summed it up best: “I’m an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality.”

Freedom, on the other hand, was understood by Yankeedom as a birthright of all peoples – no exceptions. Differences may have existed in status and wealth, but all were “born free” and equal before the law.

These differing understandings led to a bloody war in 1861. Today, the current strains of these understandings brace the battles about voting rights and restrictions, labor laws and worker rights, support of public school systems, taxation of the wealthy, and the expansion of health care. Consider the near fifty-year-old issue of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment: not one state of the Deep South nation bloc (excluding Texas) has voted for its approval.

Texas is a thoroughly hybrid state, as Woodard writes, with its southeastern and cotton-growing region part of the Deep South nation, its northern half part of the Appalachian nation, and its southwestern expanse paralleling the Mexican border part of “El Norte.”

I’ve lived most of my adult life in El Norte, arriving (and staying) because of my facility in the Spanish language. Woodard describes El Norte, which includes parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Southern California, as historically independent, adaptable, and work-centered. Woodard predicts that the bloc that wins the allegiance of El Norte will move forward in political gains in the first part of the twenty-first century. Perhaps a Yankee-El Norte ticket in 2020 – Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro – has a chance to defeat the incumbent “New Amsterdam”-Greater Appalachia ticket, with Deep South allegiance – Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

I’ll close with a Woodard observation (page 318) that pits, like 150 years ago, Yankeedom versus Deep South. Unlike many other countries that have religion or ethnicity holding them together as a commonality, the United States is held together by its central government and its institutions: Congress, federal courts, military branches, national agencies. Woodard warns that this one nation won’t survive if the separation of church and state is weakened or abolished, if political ideologues overwhelm the Justice Department or the Supreme Court, or if open debate is squelched by hyperpartisan divides that erode congressional rules designed to uphold ideas to public scrutiny.

Our “oneness” as a nation is tenuous. Compromise, a disparaged word in this hyperpartisan age, is shown by American Nations to be a unifying force. Our differences will remain. Our nation’s future will be determined by our willingness to either fight about them or live with them.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

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Todos Juntos – Everyone Together

This past year in my work as Austin City Lutherans’ director of community development, I got to know a woman in Austin who directs an innovative “2-Gen” education center for parents (mostly moms) and pre-school aged children. Christina Collazo is executive director of Todos Juntos Learning Center, an organization that for ten years, has served refugee and migrant families.

I’m grateful to Christina for giving me an inside look at her organization and her own life. I wrote the linked story below, published as a lead article in the “Life Section” of the Austin American-Statesman on September 14, 2019. Todos Juntos LC creates equity and promotes opportunity by empowering women and their children. It’s an incredible program with an indominable leader.

“Christina Collazo’s 10-year mission to teach parents and children at Todos Juntos”


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).


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The Line Becomes a River – Book Review

jalbmblog.riverFrancisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River (Riverhead Books, 2018) took me on a journey to specific locales I’ve never been to. Even so, for me, they were familiar places. Working as a bilingual pastor for the past thirty years in Latin America and Texas, I’ve crossed many borders in the Americas – South, Central, and North – and have worked in close proximity with many who have done the same.

Border crossing, as Cantú discloses, encompasses much more than physical dimensions, but spiritual ones as well.

Cantú was raised in SW Arizona by his Mexican-American mom, a national park ranger. After graduating from college, he returned to the Sonoran desert. He signed up to be a border patrol cop, against his mother’s wishes. The next four years, he worked the border area that Northern Mexico shares with Arizona and New Mexico – where the border consists of mostly straight lines – and with Texas – where the border flows as a river.

The book, a huge seller and winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, has created significant controversy on both sides of the political spectrum. On the far left, migrant rights’ activists have disrupted Cantú’s book signings and others, like his own mother, find police and military vocations objectionable. On the far right, those who have a penchant to refer to migrants as “illegals” have flooded book review sites with 1-star ratings for Cantú’s work. Predictably, many of these “reviewers” admit to not even having read the book as they slavishly follow through with their self-imposed ideological sense of duty.

I read all of the book’s 250 pages, and I’m thankful I did.

The Line Becomes a River is an excellent memoir-of-sorts and a stark depiction of US-Mexican border reality. It’s honest, unflinching, descriptive, raw in spots, and honest again. As evidenced by upset reactionaries on either side of the political spectrum, this book can be difficult to digest emotionally.

But isn’t this one of the main reasons we why read – to be exposed to another’s reality? Too bad that Cantú’s hard-won reality doesn’t fit with his upset reviewers preconceived notions of “the way things should be.” It’s a complex world. Cantú exposes a part of the world that many – most especially a current president – don’t understand. As we read, we enter into a profound conversation with this author on the highly significant topic of immigration.

Author Francisco Cantú – raised in this borderland, the blood of ancestors from both sides of the border coursing through his veins – makes the conversation intimate and personal in Part 3 of the book. He befriends a Mexican who has lived and worked in the US more than twenty years. This Mexican national, the married father of two adolescents, lacks legal status. His story is typical, unique, and ultimately heartbreaking. The line that becomes a river – the border – bisects his family, and Cantú details its cutting effect. “[T]he desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who die there every year are losing their lives by design.”

Cantú’s writing throughout embraces paradox – the ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory thoughts at once. He knows that the United States’ immigration policy – or lack thereof as concerns many workers without legal status – is a joke. This books serves to expose, in its own way, a society that has an addiction to cheap labor – 400 years strong – and won’t admit to it.

Those who critique Cantú for not including more immigrant voices in his book don’t persuade me. Other books such as Enrique’s Journey and The Distance Between Us are but a few of many good examples that include these important voices that add to the conversation. But Cantú’s voice – again, like a bridge that connects two sides – is unique and necessary.

Our society today could be renamed “The Binary States of America,” the place where twenty-five years of increasing hyper-partisanship has hollowed out the middle. Ya basta – as Cantú would write – enough already. It’s time to purposely rebuild the center. By its accurate depiction of two sides of the immigration dilemma, The Line Becomes a River places itself squarely in the middle of this necessary work of reconstruction.

balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).


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Words Create Worlds

The Austin American-Statesman published the following as an op-ed on Sunday, August 18, 2019.

In the four years since declaring for the presidency, Donald Trump’s tongue and fingers (on Twitter) have spewed divisive and sometimes hateful words to a worldwide audience. It has helped him amass a fervent base of supporters, even though his approval ratings are the lowest for any president of recent memory.

The hyper-partisan political divide in this country pre-dates the Trump presidency, yet the 45th president intentionally stokes the fires of division while striving for a second term. He treads upon the same path as did previous American politicians who leveraged this nation’s original sin of racism to gain and maintain a grip on power: Andrew Jackson, Ben Tillman, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond.

Mass shootings in America also pre-date the current presidency. But Trump’s words to describe immigrants and immigration – invasion, criminals, infestation – helped create the environment where a disgruntled twenty-one-year-old from the Dallas area drove to El Paso and opened fire at a local Walmart, killing twenty-two persons – mostly Latinx. In an online rant posted just prior to the massacre, the white male shooter parroted the president’s language, writing: “This attack is in response to a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

El Paso – on today’s site of its sister city, Juarez – was founded in 1659, more than a century and a half before Stephen F. Austin came to establish an English-speaking and slave-holding settlement in what was then the northeastern part of Mexico. Spanish, alongside indigenous languages, was spoken in this territory – now called Texas – long before English ever was. I wonder if the El Paso shooter knows these historical facts. I imagine the president doesn’t and would label them, if he encountered them, “fake news” as they run contrary to his invasion narrative.

The renown Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke these three words – “words create worlds” – to his students and to his own daughter, raised in the post-Nazi world. The wise rabbi based his teaching on the first chapter of Genesis wherein God’s words create the world of light, seas, land, and sky.

Heschel was born in Poland in 1907. The Nazis would eventually kill his mother and three of his sisters. The Gestapo deported him from Frankfurt, Germany in 1938, where he instructed adults in the Jewish faith. His escape from the Nazis to America was facilitated by his giftedness in writing and teaching.

He eventually settled in New York City, where he instructed seminarians – future rabbis – to be public actors burdened with the responsibility to speak out against social injustice. The Holocaust, he knew, was originally created with words – words of hate, blame, and propaganda seeking political power and advantage. Only after these words inflamed public sentiment, did the Nazis construct their crematoria and concentration camps. Words create worlds, for better and for worse.

(Left to right) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy

In 1963, Heschel shared the keynote speaker stage at an ecumenical religious conference on religion and race in Chicago with Martin Luther King Jr. They mutually recognized a prophetic connection and became confidants. Two years later, Heschel walked arm-in-arm with King as they led thousands on a civil rights’ march from Selma to Montgomery. This historic march marshaled the political will President Johnson needed to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Heschel later said, “When I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.”

King was an African American and Protestant minister, and Heschel was a European immigrant and Jewish rabbi. Different, yes, but they shared a common calling to bring justice to the oppressed by opposing those who create, cause, and maintain injustice. Their words – conversations, prayers, sermons, speeches, and writings – have an edifying effect yet today, helping to uplift liberty and promote justice for all, building on the egalitarian structures created by the words of great Americans who came before: Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Brandeis, Susan B. Anthony.

It was hoped that the current president, when assuming office, would become more “presidential” by scaling back his volatile and divisive rhetoric. He’s not done it, and as both supporters and resisters can see, he’ll not change his ways – or his words – anytime soon.

Words create worlds. After four years of invective words from Trump, it’s time for those of us who oppose him to work as hard as we legally can – whether for impeachment or reelection defeat in 2020 – to change the narrative for the better, and with it, the world we now live in.


T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

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