‘Prisoner of Hope’

He came to the door in his bedroom slippers, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Just Call Me Arch.” I glanced over at the seminary student who had driven us to the doorstep of the palatial residence in one of Cape Town’s fanciest neighborhoods. The astonished look on the young man’s face revealed that he had not expected his archbishop to answer his own door in his bedroom slippers.

I too was surprised. Wasn’t there a butler, or deacon, or altar boy to greet guests at imposing Bishopscourt? I suspect there had been—until Desmond Tutu moved in two years before. Humble, open, and accessible, South Africa’s first Black Anglican archbishop often broke protocol. He also broke the law by taking up residence there, violating the South African government’s Group Areas Act, which designated this neighborhood a “white area.” Tutu boldly turned its grand grounds into a place for “the people,” installing a children’s playground and opening its swimming pool to his parishioners.

I stood on his doorstep in March of 1988. Jim Wallis and I had responded to an invitation that came to us at Sojourners magazine from South African church leaders: to visit, to listen, and to carry out the story of courageous resistance continuing to unfold in that troubled country.

Three weeks before our arrival, the South African government had outlawed the activities of seventeen anti-apartheid political organizations. Five days later, Tutu and other church leaders led hundreds of people in a march on Parliament to protest the crackdown and demand an end to officially sanctioned racial segregation and violence. While marchers endured the force of water cannons that day, police detained the church leaders and then released them with a warning to cease their protest activity.

They didn’t listen. On our first day in South Africa, a sea of riot police surrounded Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral. More than 3,000 people packed into the sanctuary of the massive church. Just before the service began, scores of young people surged down the aisles, singing and dancing the freedom dance known as the toyi-toyi, electrifying the air with their energy.

Archbishop Tutu stepped to the pulpit and thundered his hope. Addressing the brutal enforcers of apartheid, he shouted, “You may be powerful, indeed very powerful. But you are not God. You are ordinary mortals!…You have already lost! Let us say to you nicely, ‘You have already lost.’…Come! Come and join the winning side…You are defending what is fundamentally indefensible, because it is evil…Therefore, you will bite the dust! And you will bite the dust comprehensively!”

I remembered his words as I traveled throughout South Africa in the weeks that followed. I thought of them as I watched a 4-year-old in the destitute camp known as Crossroads pull a discarded plastic bag out of a puddle of sewage and tie it into a bow around her head, while her younger brother played with a crude push toy fashioned out of a rusty tin can and a piece of wire. Masses of children were dying from starvation in the squatter camps and Black townships, where razor wire, rifles, and armored personnel carriers were part of their landscape. A third of the 30,000 people held in police detention under the country’s state of emergency were children.

I remembered Tutu’s words when soldiers surrounded us and an officer of the security police interrogated us in the township of Duncan Village. The officer threatened the young man who was our guide with detention. After we were released, the young activist told us that he had already spent ten months in police custody, where he had been kept in a cold cell, tortured, and fed only cornmeal infested with worms. Torture and assassination were routine state policy.

The winning side, indeed.

I asked almost everyone I met on that trip if they thought apartheid would end in their lifetime. Most people felt that the horrific policy, instituted in 1948, would stay entrenched for at least a few generations more. Only one person had a different response. I asked a 10-year-old in Mamelodi, a Black township outside Pretoria, if he thought that when he had children they would get to grow up without apartheid. A determined look overtook his face as he thrust his fist into the air and declared, “I will see to it.”

And see to it he did, along with hundreds of thousands of others. As a result of massive popular resistance, as well as international pressure, just three years later apartheid was officially repealed. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Tutu had been right.

Nelson Mandela, who spent his first night of freedom at Bishopscourt after 27 years in prison, was inaugurated as South Africa’s first Black president in May 1994. Committed to truth-telling about the brutal past, and holding hope for the healing of his tragically divided country, Mandela established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Declaring “I can think of no better person” to chair it, he named Tutu to that position.

I returned to South Africa in the spring of 1997 to spend six weeks observing the stunning work of that commission. Four water cannons, two vicious dogs, six armored personnel carriers, and a score of police were arrayed in front of the town hall in Ladybrand, a small village a ten-hour drive from Cape Town. This time, they weren’t there to control and intimidate the crowd, but in response to bomb threats from right-wing elements determined to shut down the hearings going on inside about apartheid-era human rights violations. Painfully, emotionally, the truth was spilling out. As people shared their anguished stories of tortures endured and massacres witnessed, of children detained and activists murdered, I understood why Tutu was often overcome with tears during the hearings. It was almost more than one could bear.

Yet, despite all that was revealed in two years of testimony about apartheid atrocities, Tutu continued to uphold the truth that all of us are children of God, worthy of forgiveness and restoration to the human community. He embraced the African belief of ubuntu, which he described as compassion, hospitality, and openness to others: knowing that “you are bound up with them in the bundle of life.” This belief is what distinguished South Africa’s truth commission from others, whose practices of retribution often fueled relentless cycles of violence, and many observers believe it kept South Africa from descending into a bloodbath.

Archbishop Tutu was right about the winning side, even when the evidence wasn’t obvious. He described himself as a “prisoner of hope,” and that gave him rare vision and determination. He was also right in his support of women priests and LGBTQ rights, in his condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestine as apartheid and his blistering critique of the ravages of capitalism, in his opposition to war and his unwavering embrace of nonviolence.

I still remember the bold and prophetic words he thundered from the pulpit more than thirty years ago. But I recall just as clearly what he quietly admitted in his living room while serving me a cup of tea in his bedroom slippers. Referring to the march on Parliament, he said, “I was scared. I was sitting in the cathedral before the march, and we were praying. You could have heard the butterflies in my tummy.”

Has there ever been in one human being such a beautiful blend of humility, vulnerability, courage, and faith?

Pillar of Fire

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my historical novel, Pillar of Fire.

In an age of intolerance, compassion can be dangerous. Pillar of Fire captures the stunning witness of the medieval mystics known as Beguines. Amid the intrigues of kings and knights, against a panorama of church corruption, Crusader campaigns, and Inquisition trials, these bold women broke all the rules. They offer a model of courageous hope in an era much like our own.

Pillar of Fire is a page-turner filled with history, humor, and beauty.” —Lydia Wylie-Kellermann, editor, Geez magazine  

“Joyce Hollyday weaves a fabric of adventure that gallops across Europe to Sinai and back. Retelling the gospel story in a feminist key, Pillar of Fire is a compelling mirror for our own times and consciences.” —Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, authors, Healing Haunted Histories  

“This profound epic tale will move you to tears, incite your righteous anger, and inspire you to create authentic community. Readingitis like taking a deep spiritual journey.” —Nancy Rue, author, The Reluctant Prophet Trilogy 

“This beautifully written story will make you weep, but will also certainly make you cheer. This book should be on every woman’s shelf right next to Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children books and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series.”—Lynne Hinton, author, The Divine Private Detective Agency Series

More details, endorsements, and ordering information can be found at https://wipfandstock.com/pillar-of-fire.html

They Cannot Take the Sky

Many years ago, when South Africa was in the stranglehold grip of the system of racial hatred and separation known as apartheid, I visited that country to learn about and report on the freedom struggle there. On one of my last evenings, a young man named Jabulani was showing me around the black township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, just as the sun was beginning to set. Domestics and laborers, weary from a long day’s work in the city, were making their way home in the last glimmers of daylight. A stream of women, water jugs balanced on their heads, some with swaddled babies on their backs, moved slowly out from the central spigot of the township’s rutted roads in the encroaching cool of the evening. Paraffin lamps came to life, one by one, up and down the rows of small and fragile homes constructed of plywood, cardboard, and corrugated metal.

sunset 3

At the entrance to the township, spread out on a table, were rows of sheep’s heads, blood still running from their necks and the look of terror from the slaughter on their faces. Women tending fires cut pieces of meat from the carcasses and skewered them for sale. A family with several children that could not afford the mutton bought scores of the sheep’s legs, scraping off the hair and cooking the pile of bones with scant meat for their dinner.

Continue reading

Stranger Courage

In honor of his 75th birthday, I was inscribing to my friend Randy a copy of a book that I co-authored. I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to “greater commitment, deeper compassion, and…”—well, something about courage. Having already used “greater” and “deeper,” my mind was momentarily absent of adjectives. After a little thought, I settled on “stronger.”

I don’t write in longhand much these days, and as I’m only a decade younger than Randy, my handwriting has become less legible with age. “Stronger” came out looking on the page like “stranger.” I laughed. Randy has indeed inspired me to stranger courage—and I think the world could use a lot more of it. Betsy & Randy - July 2019

I met Randy Kehler, his partner Betsy Corner, and their daughter Lillian in January 1990 in their almost-century-old clapboard home, tucked in the mountains of western Massachusetts—a home they were in danger of being evicted from at any moment. When word finally came almost two years later that federal marshals were on their way, Betsy left with 12-year-old Lillian. Randy stayed and, trying to calm his racing heart, sat down at the piano. He was hauled away in handcuffs—but only after finishing Bach/Gounod’s “Ave Maria” while the marshals waited. Continue reading

The Gift of Vulnerability

The jangle of an incoming text woke me from a deep sleep. “We’re in trouble,” it began. It was 5:16 a.m. California time. I was 2,000 miles from home, jet-lagged and groggy. I managed to send a reply to Michael along the lines of “Be there as soon as I can.”Michael and me with Sparky at the beach

Michael Galovic and Tamara Puffer met almost 25 years ago at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, when he was living there as a resident volunteer and she showed up one day to help out in the soup kitchen with the youth group from the suburban Presbyterian church where she served as associate pastor. Tamara kept coming back. Her time at the Open Door reshaped her theology and calling, and she began seeking a position where she could serve marginalized people like the homeless ones and former prisoners who were revealing Jesus to her there in transformative ways. Continue reading


We stood in the church sanctuary, surrounded by piles of bright tissue-paper flowers, festive streamers, and banners of the paper cut-outs known in Mexico as papeles picados—all joyfully fashioned the week before by those of us who meet every Thursday as Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith). We went to work decorating, bringing to life a colorful ofrenda (altar) for our November 2 Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.Berta ofrenda 2

When we were finished, Berta added a plate of fruit, explaining that she loved the shiny color of the tangerines and the sweet aroma of the guavas. She seemed especially tired that day. But we had no idea that she would hold the place of honor at the heart of our ofrenda. Nothing could have prepared us for that shock. Only 38 years old, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Berta passed away three days later.

When we gathered again, Carmen and Rosalinda knelt in front of the ofrenda, clutching their rosaries, leading the rest of us in prayer. Berta grinned out at us, surrounded by flowers, candles, and her favorite foods, offered in the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead. Heaped on plates and in bowls were tamales, snap peas, pink wafer cookies, and chicharrones—wheels of fried pork rinds—doused with the blazing hot sauce valentina. Continue reading

Prey Without Ceasing

On the eve of Election Day, as the migrant caravan continues its dangerous journey north, I think of the words of the prophet Ezekiel to the ancient rulers: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick…but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered…and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…[They] have become prey. (Ezekiel 34:4-5, 8)

Focused on migrants as prey and compassionate responses to the immigration crisis, my second reflection from the Arizona-Mexico border was just published by The Christian Century:


Crosses mark the sites of migrant deaths. Photo by No More Deaths

Sometimes they find people wandering in the south Arizona desert—usually hungry, often lost, almost always dehydrated and desperate. Sometimes they find bodies—if they get there before the vultures and the coyotes. And sometimes they find bones, scattered and bleached by the sun. For the 300 volunteers who call themselves the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is one that tragically resonates—as does the familiar Psalm 23, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Every week these Samaritans conduct compassionate searches around the Arizona-Mexico border, giving aid to migrants who need it. They gather up cherished possessions left behind in the sand: family pictures, icons of saints, a rosary, a child’s backpack, a well-loved doll. They collect signs of dashed dreams—a woman’s high heels and makeup kit, a man’s wide brush for painting houses, cloths used for wrapping tortillas, delicately embroidered with flowers and edged in bright crochet work—found strewn across this unforgiving land.

The Samaritans regularly place 55-gallon drums of drinking water throughout this arid wilderness. With an administration in Washington that is fanning flames of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, increasingly U.S. Border Patrol agents and members of militia and hate groups slash the drums or shoot them full of holes. One Border Patrol agent admitted that destroying water stations was part of his training.

Continue reading at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/us-mexico-border-where-migrants-are-hunted

Samhain and Sukkot

We arrived at my friend Sandra’s home, a small parade of women, each carrying a hollowed-out squash or pumpkin – in one case, a scooped-out sweet potato. When the first chill of autumn hits, I always think of the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain, which was celebrated in late October to mark the transition from harvest to winter. A large bonfire burned in every village square. Each family arrived with a hollow winter vegetable, into which they placed an ember from the communal fire, likely the root of our tradition of making jack-o-lanterns. They carried these embers home to light their own hearth fires as winter began to close in. We were carrying on the beautiful ritual in our own style.


We gathered around a fire, poised between looming Samhain and just-finished Sukkot. The late-September Jewish festival recalls the forty years that the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt, when they lived in transitory shelters and ate manna that rained down from heaven. I first learned of Sukkot while I was in seminary in Atlanta in the 1990s, when for a week my Jewish neighbors hosted backyard parties in shelters they had temporarily created out of sheets of plywood and tree branches. Continue reading

Into the Jaws of a Crocodile

To our right the desert sunset was a dazzling blaze of gold with streaks of red behind towering saguaro cacti, as my partner Bill, our friend Becca, and I drove south from Phoenix to the Arizona-Mexico border. To our left a glowing, salmon-colored full moon rose and perched on a blue-gray mountain peak. We were on our way to participate with a hundred other people of faith from around the country in a week of prayer and protest, communion and confrontation, organized by the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.Cross in desert

The breathtaking beauty of the moment was interrupted by a bank of glaring floodlights, affixed to an enormous metal arch spanning the other side of the highway, behind which waited a backup of northbound traffic. The Border Patrol checkpoint was chilling, like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie: the blinding lights, a phalanx of agents dressed in army green with weapons at the ready, a drug-sniffing dog running between cars. Continue reading

Visit from a Prophet

I slept late yesterday morning. By the time I had emerged from the trees on my walk, the pasture was already blanketed in a sultry haze. My mind was preoccupied with an upcoming trip and the pile of tasks I need to accomplish before I can leave for a week. I plodded along, barely noticing what was around me.Praying mantis 2

I felt a tiny prick above my right ankle and reached down reflexively to brush away a mosquito. This was some mosquito—huge and bright green, with a triangular face. When I tried to pry the odd creature away from my sock, it dug in the sharp spines on its forelegs and clung more fiercely. I was afraid it would leave behind a leg or two if I persisted, so I sat down in the grass and stared for a while at its curious face. Continue reading