Making good trouble and the trouble with goodness

It’s Sunday and four-year-old P’s turn to pick the movie. The eight-week ban on “Frozen 2” has expired and so, to her older brother’s chagrin, that is what we are watching, again.

I admit that, aside from the film’s flaws and how tiresome it is to watch it for the hundredth time, it is a beautifully animated story of two courageous women and an epic journey to find a truth that will heal a divided land. Not the worst narrative to be streaming into my daughter’s mesmerized gaze. 

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Image contributed by AmyNee Walker

In “Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints,” author Daneen Akers writes, “Humans are storytelling creatures: Stories are how we share values, cope with life’s challenges, cherish beauty, and celebrate the resilience of the human spirit … we are made of stories and stardust.” Akers is a self-proclaimed lover of stories and disaffected Christian who longs for “better faith-based stories” to share with our children and within homes, schools and communities.  

Working from the premise that the stories we consume feed and grow the values we live, Akers presents a cornucopia of imperfect “holy troublemakers” who, from the grounding of their particular faith, may sometimes challenge conventions and even break rules in order to “make our society work for everyone.” 

While the sentiment of working for the good of all is a noble one and feels right and reasonable it is, in my perception, quite a sticky one. In fact, for me, it is not only the stickiest point in this book but also in my lived experience in which it seems that however much I believe myself to be wholeheartedly working for good, there are others who perceive my actions as harmful; at best, misguided. Even within a single faith tradition, family or community, reaching consensus about how to define and apply moral values is a messy business indeed. 

Be that as it may, I was delighted to find among her troupe of loving disruptors some of my own heroes — Mr. Rogers, Rumi, Mary Oliver and Wangaari Mathai among others — and happy to examine the beautifully articulated (and illustrated) highlights of their lives through the eyes of a child who might be “meeting them” for the first time.  

Within each narrative, Akers not only introduces people but also concepts, terms and historical events. For example, in the section about Bayard Rustin, she includes comments (and glossary notes) on segregation, Quakers, discrimination against people in the LGBTQ community, pacifism, social justice organizing, chain gangs, the civil rights movement and the March on Washington.   

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Bayard Rustin, illustrated by Sister X

Akers’ intended audience for the book is children ages third through seventh grade. While she writes with cognizance of young readers, she honors their intelligence and does not diminish her subjects through over-simplification. She manages to layer in complexity and careful attention to terminology without bogging down or overloading the reader. She also includes resources like “Some Notes on Language,” which outlines the sources and reasoning that influenced her in navigating the complex realm of words, as well as a glossary designed to invite further exploration of some of the loaded or unfamiliar terms sprinkled throughout the texts.

At times the common thread between the stories may seem loose or frayed or occasionally redundant. Yet where else can I read about sage and beloved Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and also meet Maryam Khatoon Molkara, the transgender Iranian woman and devout Muslim whose remarkable story of courage, commitment and certainty in her own identity led her to endure beatings and gain an audience with the Ayatollah himself to plead her case! Akers closes each narrative with a question, much like similarly-styled books might include a short prayer that draws from the theme. After telling Molkara’s story, she asks, “Have you ever had to do something scary in order to be true to yourself?”

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Budhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, embroidered by Carla Madrigal
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Maryam Khatoon Molkara, illustrated by Justine Lecouffe

In my own home, with my children young in age and my personal reservations regarding some of Akers offerings, I will be selective with whom I introduce from this book and how we frame the conversations around it. But naturally, over time, they will make their own selections and find the guides that best inspire and serve them on their own hero’s journey. I can only hope to offer them a scaffolding of my values over which they will build their own. 

We are finally nearing the climax of “Frozen 2.” My little one clings to me and watches with rapt attention as Queen Elsa enters the ancient cave, A’tahalan. No matter how many times I have seen it and how silly I feel, my eyes inevitably fill as Elsa hears her mother’s voice sing out, “Show yourself … you are the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life …” 

I hope the stories that we tell our children will give them the confidence to show their true selves while also providing the framework to question the impulses and influences that may not serve themselves or the “common good.” Hopefully the stories we tell and “saints” we introduce will guide them toward the path preached by the prophet Micah: “do justly, love mercy and act humbly” (6:8). And if “doing justly” sometimes means making — in the words of the late John Lewis — “good trouble,” may they have stories to stand on that give them the courage to do so.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy Nee-Walker

Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

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