Book Review: Becoming All Things

Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures

By Michelle Ami Reyes

Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures by [Michelle Reyes, Thabiti Anyabwile]

I am a white American Christian. I have lived in Muslim-dominant countries in the Horn of Africa since 2003. I tell you this before beginning my review of Becoming All Things because my position in the world impacted my reading of this book. I have struggled and grown, struggled and grown, in how to talk about and understand the racial dynamics of my life and I’ve been hungry for three things specifically. First, how do race and faith intersect and interact? Second, what are some practical things for me to engage in that will help me continue to learn and grow? And third, how do I help the people I shepherd grow in this area?

Becoming All Things addresses each of these three questions. Reyes writes with courageous compassion, refusing to shy away from difficult topics, refusing to let people remain stagnate. She writes with vulnerable hope. It is evident in these pages that Reyes has examined her own heart and perspectives and believes that the combination of vulnerability on her part and her push for Christians to do better will make a difference.

Reyes urges readers to explore our own cultural history. “Learning to value your cultural identity means delving into your family’s specific history” (18) and this is an excellent place to start. I confess that I grew up as a White suburban Minnesotan Baptist with the idea that my life was somehow “normal”, that I didn’t have culture. Life in the Horn of Africa quickly disabused me of this naivete. For readers not immersed in a place so different from their own, Reyes provides questions as a launching pad from which to begin learning your culture and history. She also asks us to explore how that culture impacts our faith.

Moving beyond looking inward, Reyes urges people to consider the other person’s position in the world, and their perspective. She writes, “The most honoring thing we can do for a person of another culture is to give them the dignity of defining themselves. This practice takes the power and ability to place value judgments on others out of our hands and challenges us to see someone the way they want to be seen, not according to how we want to label them.” (41) Again, to look at my own experience, bringing this attitude toward Somali and Muslim friends has made a profound difference in how we relate. We must be humble and curious as we allow others to define themselves. This will help us to ask better questions, to not operate out of harmful assumptions, and to get to know people as individuals, created in the image of God, each one unique.

Grounded in scripture and rich with practical steps, I highly recommend this book. In particular, I recommend it for groups: book clubs, Sunday Schools, neighborhood gatherings, families. I plan to use some of the material with our staff in Africa as we reckon with race in our context. Books like Becoming All Things are useful individually, but the concepts and lessons will become even more memorable and life-changing when read in concert with others on the same journey.

I encourage you to go find a copy of this excellent book and will conclude with Reyes’ words: “Justice is not a distraction from the gospel. It is a core message of the gospel. The life of Jesus declares this to be true, and if you want to prioritize the gospel in your life, then the pursuit of justice on behalf of others must be an essential component of your faith.”

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I am consistently stunned by the kindness and generosity of writers who are strangers.

I have goosebumps thinking of Barbara Brown Taylor reading my words.

I cried when I read Abdi’s foreword.

In a world of so much grief, anger, and division this is an event to celebrate hope and connection.

There is goodness. Sometimes we must fight to see it, but is there.

There is beauty. Some of my favorite images of Djibouti are the desert with a single flower. Or a bougainvillea bush tangled in barbed wire. Or the sunrise over a garbage dump. Beauty will insist on itself.

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11 Books to Read During COVID-19

Start with:

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

This book will show you how to live in a time of contagious disease and fear. I am so inspired by Annalena, as I think comes across in the book. She was relentless in her love and care for the most vulnerable among us. Her legacy continues and I want to quote her nephew, with whom I messaged in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy where he lives. He said, “All is quiet. It is a time of silence and also of God.” That is just so beautiful. He is caring for his family and they are turning to faith. He also quoted Annalena, “Everything is grace.” What a privilege to get to know people like this, who live this way and with these hearts in the world. They are what bring me hope.

You can read the prologue of Stronger than Death free, just enter your email address here:


Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I loved this book especially because (spoiler alert) it ends with hope. It is so beautiful and thoughtful and richly imagined and slightly terrifying. All the right elements.


Black Death at the Golden Gate, by David K. Randall

I saw a dead rat in the streets of Nairobi about a week after reading this and felt a cold pit in my stomach. This book is a deep dive into the bubonic plague (which is still around, who knew?!) but also the way fear stoke racism and how that leads to further death and mayhem. A super relevant read right now.


On Immunity, by Eula Biss

I quote this book all the time. Biss is such an incredible essayist. If you want a thoughtful look at herd immunity, on caring for the vulnerable among us, on being a parent in an age of disease and fear, if you just want to read someone with a sharp and smart mind, this is amazing.


No More Faking Fine, by Esther Fleece

I gifted this book to many people. An excellent look at how to cling to faith in the middle of a crisis or of pain without pretending that everything is fine. I love this book.


Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Science, history, geography, disease. It’s all here.


Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag

Such a powerful essayist. This is a look at how we talk about illnesses like cancer and how the words we use can sometimes also cause harm and affect the patient.


The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

How to cultivate empathy when we feel overcome by our own fear? We need to wrestle with this question because I do not want to see the end of empathy. I’ve read this book several times.


Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chodron

Could there be a more apt title?


It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way, by Lysa Terkeurst

Nope, it’s not. There is so much pain and brokenness in the world. How does our faith respond?


Devotion, poems by Mary Oliver

Because we can always, always read poetry.


What would you recommend for readers right now?

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Stronger than Death Book Trailer

Annalena Tonelli spent 34 years living and working in the Horn of Africa. Somalis loved her, and still talk about her with great affection, still carry on her legacy, still continue her work.

But someone killed her. Why?

Why did she stay so long as a foreigner, in the face of massacres, famine, tuberculosis, terror, and war? How did she build a strong local community across religious and racial boundaries, boundaries that today often divide communities?

This is not the story of a white savior, or is it? It isn’t the story of a saint either, or is it? Annalena was far from perfect but her example challenges us all to be a little braver. A little more loving. A little more willing to reach out to someone with empathy, faith, and action.


Available from Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and Amazon.

Thanks to Matt Erickson for providing video clips and photographs and to the Plough Publishing video team!

The Bookshelf, September 2019


The Time is Now, by Joan Chitister.I only kinda liked this book. I wish I had loved it. I love some of her other work. But it felt repetitive and political and I just don’t want to read that right now. At the same time, that might make it the perfect book for someone else, for another time. Because she is wise and prophetic and writes about the necessity, especially now, for prophets.

The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann.Sense a theme? Prophets.

A Life’s Work, by Rachel Cuska memoir of early motherhood.

Black Death at the Golden Gate, by David K. Randall.Oh.My.Word. We have rats in my house. We kill them as soon as we can and I hate them! This book made me hate them even more. Holy cow, what a great read. It is horrifying to read about the revolting filth of large cities at and before the turn of the century. Though, I hate to say it, but there are many similarities still in parts of the world. Sewage in streets, ramshackle and unsafe housing, rats, disease…And, I thought bubonic plague had disappeared. It has NOT. As early as 2015, two people contracted it in Yosemite National Park! Lord have mercy. Anyway, about the book, I really enjoyed it. Historical, true, great characters, little known facts. If you like Erik Larson or Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love this book.


Kindle Deals:

Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass

The Next Right Thing, by Emily P. Freeman


What are you reading?

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By |September 2nd, 2019|Categories: the bookshelf|Tags: |0 Comments
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