In the Midst

Jim and Barry Alter, 1941

Jim and Barry Alter, 1941

“In the Midst” is a multimedia documentary project focusing on the life and work of James and Barbara Alter, two liberal American Presbyterian missionaries, and their far-reaching circle of friends and family. Now in their late 80s and early 90s, many of these individuals were involved in the Student Christian Movement beginning in the 1930s and ’40s and studied the works of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mahatma Gandhi. They vowed to live simply, in the midst of the poor, whether they were in rural Tennessee,New Haven, Connecticut, or Rajpur, India. They let what they identified as The Holy Spirit move them to bring pacifism, ecumenicism, and social justice with them wherever they lived. They were always committed to interdenominational bonds and opposed nationalism, especially when national identity prevented them from embracing cultural, social, and political differences.

Their influence reaches from the rural Indian villagers with whom they worked through the boarding schools they administered to their own children and grandchildren, many of whom have chosen to continue working in the midst of poverty and injustice to enact positive social change. These elders link Christian gospel to social justice. They trace their history back to American abolitionism. They want their stories heard at a moment when they believe religious fundamentalists dominate the history of Christianity around the world.

Please listen HERE to the introduction to “In the Midst,” where Barry explains her decision to serve as non-evangelizing, Presbyterian missionary in India for 45 years:

Project Director: Catherine Corman

Cathy Corman on Hollinger’s “After Cloven Tongues of Fire”

By Ada Focer
October 21st, 2013 in Announcements, In the Midst, Reviews.

UC Berkeley history professor emeritus David Hollinger describes in After Cloven Tongues of Fire his encounter with an essay of sinologist Joseph R. Levenson. “This essay,” Hollinger writes, “helped me formulate […] the chief questions on which I have worked for forty years. Levenson came at the right time for me” (164). Here’s what I wrote in the margins: “Hollinger came at the right time for me.” In a preface, ten chapters, and an epilogue, Hollinger explores the long-shadow liberal Protestants have cast on American politics and scholarship. He digs into the work of William James and Reinhold Niebuhr and is particularly interested in the relationship between pragmatism, the Enlightenment, science, and Christianity. Hollinger writes about the significance of a variety of gatherings, from the Realist-Pacifist Summit at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1942 to the Lilly Seminar, a twenty-first-century conference convening scholars for three years to debate the role of... More

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Culture Warrior?

By Ada Focer
March 22nd, 2013 in In the Midst, SCM-USA.

I was horrified upon finishing the audio recording of Eric Metaxas’s biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy -- to learn that Metaxas had an agenda in writing the biography that a) never occurred to me, and b) seems entirely at odds with Bonhoeffer’s own words and deeds. Metaxas used Bonhoeffer’s life story to draw a parallel between the Third Reich’s takeover of the Lutheran church and the U.S. government’s attempts, among others, to mandate access to birth control and uphold Roe v. Wade. Metaxas believed these to be evidence of a dangerous federalism encroaching on church freedom of belief. In addition, he wanted readers to understand Bonhoeffer’s absolute rejection of Hitler as a model for American reactions to Islamic fundamentalists and the Taliban. While I appreciate the urge to enlarge the circle of those who appreciate Bonhoeffer, I find Metaxas’s... More

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Journey to Here

By Ada Focer
December 22nd, 2012 in In the Midst, SCM-USA.

Several years ago, Roz – a beloved college friend – and I toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It was a first trip for both of us. We were impressed by the ways curators had organized materials to tell so many riveting stories, and we agreed that the architectural design added to our experience of the collections. But what truly mesmerized us was a section focused on resisters, the people who refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime. They often gave up their lives, even when they, themselves, would not otherwise have been targets of Hitler’s Reich. As we exited the museum into the freezing winter afternoon, we were deep in conversation. Why, we asked each other, were some people more inclined to stand up to power than others? Did they get their convictions from their families? Their innate character? ... More

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