“This is a book about becoming authentic, which I think is not possible to do before we experience failures. Most of us carry life-dreams—which may or (more frequently) may not be fulfilled, and certainly not in the ways we imagine. It’s a book better read when you’ve hit hard stuff. Maybe you got fired, or messed up, lost a spouse, lost a child, feel you will muddle forever. You’ve seen your broken places, and you know that they need to be addressed. If you feel totally on top of the world and on your A-game since you were three, this book may not make sense to you—yet. It will, though.” — Dee Dee Risher, author, The Soul-Making Room
This month in the Patheos Book Club, we’re talking about the new book The Soul-Making Room by Dee Dee Risher. Risher is a writer and editor who wrote for and edited the award-winning Christian social justice magazine The Other Side for two of its four decades. She is a longtime resident of Philadelphia’s southwest Germantown neighborhood, where she helped start Vine and Fig Tree, a faith-based, intentional cooperative housing community.
Here, Risher shares about the inspiration for her book and its title, the hard work of social justice and what sustains her during tough times, her spiritual mentors, and what she most hopes people will take away from her book.
I have always loved people who are spiritually attuned, resourceful, outspoken, and grounded. The Shunammite woman is all of these. She is generous and hospitable and rejects rewards for that behavior. She tells the prophet holy man not to lie to her, and she holds him accountable when disaster strikes. She believes in him, cares for him, and yet stands her ground and talks back. She is completely authentic.
The other side of the story is the portrait of a prophet struggling to revive a child—trying one thing and then another. The story makes it into the canon of scripture because Elisha ultimately succeeds—otherwise we would never have heard this narrative. But I am intrigued by all the cracks in the story—his struggle and near failure, and the mysterious details.
The story of the Shunammite woman leaves us with deep questions: What does it mean to build a holy room in our frenetic twenty-first century lives? How honestly do we confront our failures, losses, and deep griefs? Do we have a faith that can ask bold and unanswered questions in spaces of death? Finally, what openings does radical hospitality (as this woman showed by building a room and inviting the prophet in) create in our lives?
Why did you choose the title The Soulmaking Room? Please explain its meaning.
Over decades, my journey has had me living in spaces I would not have imagined—urban, low-income neighborhoods; other countries; very low-paying jobs; spaces that were not primarily white; faith experiences with believers from all over the map. My ongoing struggle has been this: how to find a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf so wonderfully named it.
I believe that room needs to hold both solitude and struggle. It needs to hold the agony and the incredible beauty in this world, and it needs to hold my most honest struggles with God. When I stumbled onto John Keats’s description of life as this “vale of Soul-making,” I resonated.
We are here to be in community with one another and to shape our souls into the largest space they can be. This is what the Shunammite woman’s upper room made possible. We each need to create a space/place for that work, or that shaping and deepening will not really happen. The idea captured me. Every human being goes through so much. Yet there is some heartbreakingly beautiful fruit we are to shape from that. That is our own unique, authentic gift to the world.
In the Introduction you say you wrote this book as a way of coming home to yourself. You also mention that you couldn’t have written it until you were in your mid-40s. Why?
This is a book about becoming authentic, which I think is not possible to do before we experience failures. Most of us carry life-dreams—which may or (more frequently) may not be fulfilled, and certainly not in the ways we imagine. It’s a book better read when you’ve hit hard stuff. Maybe you got fired, or messed up, lost a spouse, lost a child, feel you will muddle forever. You’ve seen your broken places, and you know that they need to be addressed. For me, these struggles happened in my forties. If you feel totally on top of the world and on your A-game since you were three, this book may not make sense to you—yet. It will, though.
What 5 experiences in your life have most strongly shaped your spiritual journey?
The 5 experiences that most shaped me are, not coincidentally, experiences that taught me more about love, which is also justice. (Cornel West is fond of saying: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”) In the book, I tell stories that unpack some of these experiences more intimately and directly.
• Living and working for several years outside the United States, much of that time in the majority (or developing) world.
• Being a part of communities—faith and otherwise—where I was a racial minority
• Living in polar economic worlds—a more affluent, small-town, and rural life, and now in a low-income neighborhood of Philadelphia for more than 25 years.
• My deep, primal connection to land. I grew up rural; I cannot pass a tree without feeling wonder.
• There is no grace like being loved unconditionally and being known intimately. I have had that grace in my long life partnership. It has given me a safe place to do my spiritual work.
Who are some of your spiritual mentors?
As an editor for two different faith magazines I cared a lot about, I had the dream job of working with the ideas and spiritual learnings of amazing people. Many of them inspired me to do things I would not otherwise have had courage to do. So I would have to say, simply, the many authors of The Other Side and Conspire magazines and those who have been part of those work communities. They stretched my vision and exposed me to all human possibility.
My spiritual director, Mary Trainer of the Cranaleith Retreat Center, has listened to my life for two decades, and deftly brings me back to center on the real spiritual questions of my current passages.
Although all but one have now crossed over, there was a host of beautiful and largely unknown older women who mentored me in life: Guan Ayi, Annette, Magalene, and Agnes, each of whom knows her place in my heart. They were incredibly courageous, funny, prayerful, and took me into their lives with deep generosity.
Gordon Cosby, of Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, taught me that delicate balance between inward and outward faith journeys, as well as the power of a faith that is deeply, passionately personal and unrelentingly social in its outlook.
Vincent Harding, a leader in the civil rights movement, taught me generosity of spirit, modeled humility, and lived the curiosity of a true veteran of hope.
I could add so many names here.
Much of your life has been dedicated to working for social justice. What sustains you during times of discouragement?
Some of the dreams I have carried are for a world healed of racism, a world that has unlearned habits of extreme consumption and pollution, a world of less economic inequality. These dreams get hit many defeats for every tiny victory.
If I separate my ego from results, the winning and losing, and instead look deeply into the faces of people, I feel suddenly joyful. People can do horrible things, but people are also amazing. They can light up like sunlight. They can see things you do not. They offer generous forgiveness and support.
And then sometimes it is just time to go among the old trees, or stare at the endless ocean, or listen to wind. Spending time in nature sustains me. If I am tired and turn around, I find the young, passionate lives behind me doing creative, bold things for justice. I am never alone. I will not win, but I will not give up.
What are the main takeaways you hope people will gain from reading your book?
I want us to tell our stories to one another until we are as honest and bold as this Shunammite woman—to talk back, argue, and find spiritual understandings that include failures, with all their hidden powers and gifts.
If we cannot deal with failure, if we do not know how to put our deepest losses in our holy room, and if we do not know who our people are, we can never fully join the joy and power of God’s story. Many of my Christian mentors did not teach me to navigate these waters with more than simple truisms about God working in mysterious ways and having a plan that I didn’t grasp. I don’t disagree with either of those statements, but they are simplistic ways to shorten a spiritual journey that could be much deeper and more complete.
I hope people will find in my book a way to name their struggles and losses out loud. To themselves and especially in their spiritual relationships with God. Then I hope we will talk more truthfully to one another.
Describe yourself in one sentence.
I am a bold, Southern, white woman who loves the earth and its fruits and likes to share stories and laugh, sing, and dance with my sisters and brothers—and then sit quietly and watch night come.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you?
I love to write poetry and lead retreats and worship, and I am currently, crazily, the czar of house renovation at the Vine and Fig Tree community, an intentional community and gardening venture in Philadelphia.