The Gospel calls us to conversion.
Jesus invites us into ongoing repentance that involves receiving a new vision of belonging. In the life of discipleship, we are constantly receiving new eyes to see the world around our neighbors and ourselves in deeper reality and truth.
The book “A Riff of Love” activates imagination for creative discipleship that gives witness to this perpetual conversion and participates in this deeper reality. Author Greg Jarrell invites readers into his neighborhood to explore the depths of what it means to be truly human and what it means to be in communion with God and other persons. Through its very form, this book invites the reader on an integrative journey. Jarrell constructs each chapter as a tapestry of interwoven threads of personal stories from his neighborhood, historical narratives of place and racial relationships, theological reflections, musical connections, and self-reflective insights.
These threads come together as one encounter for the reader — an encounter beckoning transformation. And this is the thrust of the book that comes through over and over: Jarrell has been changed and is being changed through the friendships and experiences of his life, and he is eager to invite others into that journey of transformation.
As I read this book, I listened to the music of the musicians mentioned in each chapter: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. These artists and the poignancy of their music have offered me new ways of seeing and have unearthed in me a connection with stories and people that otherwise felt more distant. As a saxophonist, Jarrell’s musical mind provides the reader with touchpoints for exploring new landscapes of truth.
The integration of music throughout “A Riff of Love” resonates with me as the husband of a gifted artist who is constantly ushering our community into new depths of worship through paintings, sketches, and prints. It is not as if the musical connections in this book are meant to be representations of an already-known, static truth. Rather, new dimensions of truth, lament, and beauty emerge through the encounter with art and melody.
I often wonder what faithful political engagement looks like for Christians in America today. Politics at their core, after all, are about cultivating a common life in such ways that make room for the flourishing of all. The side of political engagement that seems to make the most headlines involves the fight for policies and systems and elections that fashion a more just set of societal structures — one in which it is harder for systems of oppression to continue, where it is easier for those who are poor and on the margins to integrate into a common life marked by freedom and equity. Another vital side of political engagement (and one that I think is too often ignored, mislabeled, or even feared) involves our daily lives and habits of relationship, consumption, and neighborliness. The tiny, mundane aspects of our ordinary day-to-day life have implications for the common good.
God’s invitation to me and to my family includes imaginative discipleship of littleness, prayer, mutual care, and welcome through an intimate and intense shared life amongst persons living with and without disabilities. As this second form of political engagement, our little way is interconnected with the first (a politics towards establishing a more peaceable scaffolding of policies and laws that treat persons living with disabilities more justly and with humanity), and each is made more full in companionship with the other. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day preached about this connection and the Catholic Worker Movement is a witness to the beauty of refusing to separate personalism from the fight against what Dorothy calls “the filthy, rotten system.”
In this book, Jarrell demonstrates an understanding of politics that refuses to separate the justice of a way of life oriented around peculiar and personal friendships from the battle for new laws and policies that better reflect the reality of each person’s belonging in our common life.
None of the larger, systemic, historical issues that Jarrell explores throughout the book remain in an abstract or distant space. Rather, through pressing into the relationships in his own neighborhood and deep, attentive listening, he sees each in its proper context; sees a bit more clearly what’s going on both interpersonally and structurally.
This robust view of politics even includes attention to the interior life. I am compelled to believe that a life of justice and neighborly love offers vitality for the inner life and that deepening discoveries of one’s inward journey are connected with a life of mercy and justice. Jarrell understands this and is constantly welcoming the reader into his journey of self-reflection and attention to the movements of his own soul.
I appreciate the space to clarify some of these thoughts on Christian life and the common good through Jarrell’s writing and find myself wondering how he might engage some of the relevant variety of voices in Christian tradition: Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld.
As another white male called to an intentional way of conversion, care and friendship in a North Carolina neighborhood fraught with complexities related to a history of racism and displacement, much of “A Riff of Love” resonates with me. While Enderly Park in Charlotte has significant distinctions with our North Street Neighborhood in Durham, there is much overlap and many insights to glean from Jarrell’s discoveries. Mostly, this book challenged me to learn and to unlearn.
Through Jarrell’s witness, God is inviting me to learn more about the history of our place, the connection of this land on which I write with human movement, lending practices, segregation, urban planning, and displacement. I am also receiving an invitation to deepen the process of unlearning habits in my own life that mask or even prop up, the illusory stories that distort reality. I am reminded of the vital significance of historical remembrance and truth-telling.
I encourage everyone to read this book. Please. Read it with an openness to repent. Read it docile to the Spirit’s movement, perhaps shifting the ordering of your daily life in ways that more clearly reflect the good news of the Gospel for all creation.
May God give us the grace to slow down enough to heed Jarrell’s introductory exhortation: “… excavate your place and your soul.” Let it be, Lord.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.