Rachel Pieh Jones

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So far Rachel Pieh Jones has created 384 blog entries.

Mary, Emptied

My friend Jess talked recently about the holiness of feeling empty. I had read an article for grad school about breastfeeding as an entrance into theology, breastfeeding as spiritual practice. We do not talk about this enough in our faith teachings or sermons. Have you ever heard a Christmas sermon about the pain, blood, and visceral reality of Jesus being born? Have you heard a public meditation on what it might have been like, or meant, for Mary to lift this tender newborn to her breast to feed him? How much do we miss when we neglect these very female aspects of our spirituality and faith stories?

I thought about my friend’s words of emptiness and thought about Mary.

How did Mary feel after Jesus was born?

I don’t mean in her emotions, we know she paid attention to all the events around Jesus’ birth and early years and pondered them in her heart.
I mean how did she feel in her physical body? How would this pregnancy compare to future pregnancies? After Jesus was born did she feel strangely emptied, her womb no longer the dwelling place of the divine? Her body no longer a shelter for the sacred?
(If you’d like to hear me read this out loud, check out my IGTV on Instagram)
Mary, Emptied
Mary
breathed into
and full
Mary,
belly growing
breasts filling
ankles swelling
bladder squishing
Mary
kicked from inside by tiny feet
plagued by strange cravings
Mary
hungry, always so hungry
back aching and no comfortable way to sleep
Mary
the fire, the pressure, the need, the terror, the thrill, the release
The Word became flesh and
Mary
emptied.
What did this feel like?
Was there a hole where the holy had been?
Was there an ache to be filled with God again?
Was there a relief to release this baby into the world,
your body no longer the sole container of eternal justice and hope?
Was there grief because you could no longer protect this gift with the power of your own body, flesh, blood, bone, uterus?
Mary
arms filled with love
belly poured out,
When did you next feel so filled?
Or did you walk the dusty roads of Palestine
ever aware you were now emptied of the Divine?
By |December 20th, 2020|Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , |1 Comment

Leaving Demons Behind

Leaving the Little Demons Behind. An essay about exploring history and legend in Somaliland. Click to read the full essay.

…5,000-year old paintings proliferate inside caves thirty-four miles outside Hargeisa, Somaliland, in an area called Las Geel. Some paintings are possibly as old as 7,000 years. Who painted them and why is unknown. Exactly what they represent is unknown. Who will protect them is also unknown.

Fear of jinn, or mischievous little demons, protected these paintings for centuries as people feared becoming cursed or possessed. Some people said the paintings were drawn with human blood. Goat herders avoided the caves unless sudden thunderstorms drove them inside for protection.

I grew up believing fear was a sin. I was also afraid of everything, which left me in a constant state of guilt. God told Joshua, “Do not be afraid.” Almost every time an angel spoke with a human, the angel first said, “Do not be afraid.” What was I supposed to do with my fear of heights, fear of adults, fear of talking to a stranger on the telephone, fear of a bad grade? My fears were trivial, not like the fears Somali herders felt about jinn, but they were still damning.

As an adult, a longing to be free from fear pushed me toward scary things and I moved to Somaliland in 2003. This felt like one way my faith could work itself out in action and with trembling. What I didn’t yet understand is that facing fear gives faith the opportunity to actually be faith…

Leaving the Little Demons Behind. An essay about exploring history and legend in Somaliland. Click to read the full essay.

By |December 7th, 2020|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

One year of Stronger than Death: What people wish I had done differently

The most critical pushback I have experienced for the story of Stronger than Death has been from American Christians. We are a hard group to please!

I told a story and tried to be as faithful as possible to the research, interviews, letters, and photographs used to uncover that story. But I’m telling the story of a woman I never met, who is now dead. There is, by necessity, interpretation.

I also told a story which intersects with my own life, which was why I made the ultimate decision to place myself in the book, something I tried hard to avoid at first. This means at times I interact with the story I’m telling. Some readers told me they wished I had presented my own opinions about Annalena’s choices more firmly, or that I had pointed out where I (or they, or they assumed that I) disagreed with her thoughts or behavior. Maybe they’re right, I’m not sure. This isn’t my story and it isn’t a story of a worldview or a religious view in the way some readers hold it. It is Annalena’s, filtered through mine. I stand by what I wrote, which does make some people with some worldview uncomfortable.

This is not a missionary biography, which some readers read it as, because she was a Christian Italian living internationally and because I am a Christian American living internationally. But Annalena said herself that she was not a missionary. It isn’t a “how-to” book of how to live among people of a different religion and culture or of how to treat sick people or of how to develop systems of care or of how to change people’s minds about religion. Readers don’t have to agree with her choices, I don’t agree with all her choices. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read her story. If I could only read things I agreed with, well, that doesn’t leave me with much of anything and would be pretty boring. When I read things I disagree with, I am forced to respond to it, forced to figure out why I don’t agree, what I might do differently. This is what living abroad does for me, I live among people who see the world very differently to how I see it. This is fantastic for personal growth.

This is not a book that presents “The Gospel,” meaning it does not present a step by step guide of becoming a Christian as Evangelicals understand it. There is no Bridge Illustration, no Romans Road, no Sinner’s Prayer. Which I am comfortable with for all kinds of reasons I won’t go into here (teaser for Book Two!).

There is just a story of a woman who chose radical love both for people and for Jesus. She took the words of Jesus seriously, more seriously than almost anyone else I’ve read about or known. Give to those who ask. You can’t serve both God and money. Blessed are the poor. And I do find that inspiring.

Imagine if we all did that: chose radical love. What a world! We might not be so angry, broken, and divided.

I do know that some people wish I had written a more religious book while others wish I had written a more scientific book and others wish I had written a “how-to” book and others wish I wasn’t a white woman writing about a white woman in Africa (there is a whole chapter to address that).

I wrote the book I wrote. I will end by letting one reader’s words stand. This was written down after I gave a talk at a school in Djibouti. The person who wrote it read it out loud during a small group discussion afterwards. I asked for permission to photograph it because I found the words so moving.


Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: What has been the impact of this book?

Writing the book impacted me by the sheer joy of immersing myself in Annalena’s story. I have been challenged in how much I am willing to give up, in my idea of what it looks like to love people and to be a good neighbor, in how I think about Jesus and how I choose to embody my faith convictions.

I believe a little bit deeper that I am loved. How did this come from writing a book? I called one of my sisters while on book tour, almost in tears. I told her I felt like such a fraud, fake, idiot, what was I even thinking in putting my creative work out there and asking people to buy it and respond to it…She said some loving, gentle things, and then basically told me to knock it off. “Are you having fun? Do you think maybe you’re good at this?” she asked. “You aren’t forcing people to read the book or come to your events. They come because you wrote a good book and because they either want to meet the author, or they love you and want to support you.”

It was positively mind-boggling to accept this. To believe it. And yet, how could I not? I felt so loved. So. Loved. It was such a powerful experience to meet people across the country and to reconnect with old friends. I can’t even put words to it, and I’m a writer. Y’all moved me to tears multiple times.

The book has not changed my life in remarkable ways. People often ask how it is selling and I say, it could always sell better (go get it here)! I don’t really know exactly. I do know that I broke even with how much I spent on the writing and research process. Which means I earned approximately $0.00 on my time spent writing, okay a little bit more but it gets complicated really quickly. That seems about average for authors. Maybe? Where on earth does the idea come from that writers are rolling in money? Sure, a few are. But the rest of us hope to break even and when we do, we’re thrilled. We aren’t in it for the money and certainly not the fame – which I do not have and do not want. We are in it for the work and the story and the delight and the compulsion.

The book has led to beautiful conversations with Somali Muslims, with American Christians, with French Muslims, with atheists…with people from any place and any religious background. It has opened up new friendships and connections and increased my belief that people are supportive, caring, and kind. Sometimes. But enough times that I will settle there in how I view “us.”

I had a couple of book events in Djibouti and hosted a giveaway for free copies. Many Djiboutians can’t afford the luxury of purchasing a hard cover book, or any book. It was with great joy that I totally rigged the drawings to make sure local readers won the free books and I’ve since heard from a few of them that they are powerfully moved by Annalena’s story.

One told me, “I want to love and serve the poor like Annalena did. She was motivated by her love for Jesus, and I want to live in a similar way.”

My own increased belief that I am loved, new friendships, inspiring a few people to care for the poor among them, and giving people a book they are glad to have read…these are some of the gifts and impacts of the book in this first year.


Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: Reviews Matter

Reviews are really important. I didn’t quite understand that before. But reviews and star rankings on Amazon, Goodreads, Indie bookseller pages…they matter in how the sites rank and place books. They help get eyes on books and help readers decide whether or not to invest time and money into a story.

So please, if you haven’t already, consider leaving a review at one of these places. And while you are there, leave a review for other books you’ve read. They don’t have to be five-star reviews either. I won’t feel bad if you give it your real, honest opinion. Also doesn’t have to be long. I’m a fan of leaving 1-2 sentence reviews. Just don’t be a jerk.

There used to be a notice on Stronger than Death’s Amazon page that the book had “issues” reported. This is because when it was first published, the wrong book had been loaded into the Kindle content. Meaning, everyone who pre-ordered or purchased the Kindle book for the first few days found a different book inside (a great book, but not the one they wanted).

This issue was fixed. A LOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGG time ago. Like the first week. But still, that stupid flag remained and I hated it. I think it has been finally removed, but once in a while it does show up again.

Leaving a good review can help conquer reader doubts about the book after they see that flag.

Here are some, from short to long:

“Could not put this book down. Very interesting true story of what it means to be selfless in a selfish world.” Mac girl

“I think everyone should know what it looks like to really love your neighbor as yourself, which is what Annalena did and in the greatest humility.” Deb Brunsberg

This is a hard, but inspiring read. It both horrifies and uplifts. The author did a fabulous job researching and compiling a well-written book on the life of a woman I had never heard of, but will never forget. This is a woman every bit as heroic as Mother Theresa but who insisted in living a life of quiet service to those most in need, without the recognition and accolades she so deserved. This would be a fabulous book for book clubs or for anyone wanting to know more about the deprivations and hardships in countries such as Somaliland. Kudos to the author for both bringing this story to light and for having the courage to live in such a hostile land herself. I feel like my review really doesn’t do this book justice, but it should be required reading to help our children understand some of the difficulties that region faces, to help adults understand the politics and turmoil of that area, to raise awareness in politicians, and to inspire each of us to live a more selfless life.” WiWise

“Interwoven throughout this biography is historical and cultural facts about the people that call the Horn of Africa home, but it is also a memoir of sorts as Rachel shares how she and her family were affected by Annalena’s murder. On top of all this, there is some journalist reporting, as Rachel shares her own thoughts and questions regarding some of the decisions that Annalena made. I believe that if you are interested in the Horn of Africa, humanitarian aid work, female genital mutilation, or Muslim/Christian relationships than you should read this book.” MD Mauer

“If you want to be challenged, if you want to love more, if you want to read how love changes lives, read this book. Annalena wouldn’t want to be made into a celebrity. She fought that her whole life. And she definitely wouldn’t want to be made into a saint. But she shows us how to live as a human fully — loving with all we have and loving every second of our days and nights.” Jane Hinrichs

“This book is deeply involving, and at times totally stark and grim, but it gives a vivid and authentic picture of a woman who was completely dedicated to the concept of service in love. Annalena perceived her call to serve the poor totally, with utter involvement and boundless determination. Although she was not a doctor, she was a magnificent organizer and meticulous record keeper, and turned out to be uniquely qualified to institute a “DOTS” (Directly Observed Therapy Short-Course) tuberculosis program among Somali nomads. It was, however, her personal charisma that provided the necessary motivation which convinced the patients to commit to and continue with the course of treatment that led to the extraordinary cure rates the program accomplished. The medical success story, though, was continually interrupted by war and acts of atrocity, and was eventually reversed when the scourge of TB was compounded by the HIV/AIDS invasion from other nations following the disruption of the Somali social structure and the increased political tension after the American reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the rise of ever more militant Islam. Although Annalena never proselytized, and indeed at one point had FGM performed on her own adopted Somali daughters in order to not challenge the prevailing beliefs and customs, she remained Christian in outlook and to some extent in observance. This inevitably led to the eventual resentment of her presence and success which caused her death in October of 2003.

Author Rachel Pieh Jones does a magnificent job of maintaining balance and integrity in her narrative. She is honest about the failings both of those who attempt to bring aid to the war-torn areas of the world, as well as the gory and corrupt local conditions which often stymie those efforts. Annalena was, of course, totally unique in her refusal to be limited by the bureaucracy of many self-serving groups, both religious and otherwise. She had a small coterie of backers in Italy whom she knew personally, and was to some extent supported by the WHO, but refused to let her efforts be subsumed and diluted by fund raising endeavors. The way she circumvented much of the bribery and graft that was considered obligatory at the time is a truly fascinating sideline. Though this book is very painful at times, it is also a deeply moving, rewarding and inspirational story.” Trudie Barreras

Buy the book!

Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

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