Finding Hope In Holy Troublemakers

Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints.  (Watchfire Media)

Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints. (Watchfire Media)


Recently, I’ve been questioning whether or not I should bother trying church anymore.

I’ve just moved to a new city, and just like any other time I’ve moved in the past few years, my mother wants to know if I’ve found a church yet in my new town. I usually shrug it off or fudge an answer because finding a church committed to justice, not oppression, can seem like a daunting task in our current national climate. It’s hard to have hope for the future of religion when Christians stand by corrupt politicians and human rights abuses.

Of course, my disillusionment didn’t start with Trump’s election, though that certainly brought it into focus. Like many former evangelicals (who go by the moniker “exvangelicals”), I was raised on flannelgraphed Bible stories and church nurseries that featured paintings of Noah’s Ark on the wall. It wasn’t until years later in college that I began to notice that the characters in those flannelgraphs always looked like white people, despite the Bible stories being set in the Middle East. It wasn’t until college that I began to realize that the story of Noah’s Ark rests within the story of an angry God committing genocide against the planet–not the most comforting of bedtime stories. It’s hard to have hope for the future of religion when the religion you were raised on seems to be filled with so many lies.

And I worry for the next generation of children, because when it comes to replacing these damaging stories with more progressive materials to educate them, there’s not that many options out there.

Overall, it’s a bit hopeless.

Daneen Akers, a filmmaker and writer in Oceanside, California, knows this feeling.

She’s spent the better part of the last decade documenting the church’s mistreatment of the marginalized through film, and she’s heard plenty of stories of abuse at the hands of Christians.

Daneen Akers (Watchfire Media).

Daneen Akers (Watchfire Media).

After moving out of a conservative religious upbringing, she and her husband became determined to raise their children “with a sense of faith outside of LifeWay bookstores and Focus on the Family,” as she puts it.

That’s part of how she came up with the idea for Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints, her forthcoming illustrated children’s book. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the illustrated book will feature the stories of 50 people of faith who rocked the religious boat on behalf of love and justice, focusing especially on those who have often been marginalized by mainstream evangelicalism: people of color, LGBTQ people, women, the poor, and the disabled.

And after talking to Akers about this project, I’ve started feeling something a little like hope. The project, she said, came to her because she just can’t find many good books about faith that her nine-and-a-half year old daughter, Lily, wants to read.

“From a young age, she would say things like, ‘Well, what if that princess was the type of princess that wanted to marry another princess?’” Akers said. “She hates when books only refer to God as ‘He.’ She totally chafes against that.”

On June 27, Akers launched a Kickstarter to gain support for the project, which became rapidly successful, raising $10,000 in its first few days and hitting its goal of $50,000 with over a week left in its campaign. At the Kickstarter’s close, the book had raised over $65,000 from more than 1000 supporters. Clearly, Akers has found an audience eager to see these kinds of stories shared.

(Watchfire Media)

(Watchfire Media)

The current list of holy troublemakers and unconventional saints includes people of all faith backgrounds throughout history, like Maryam Molkara, a transgender Muslim woman from Iran who helped start the trans rights movement, and Alice Paul, a Quaker and radical organizer in the women’s suffrage movement. The book’s title, said Akers, comes from Bayard Rustin, another historic activist featured in the book, who called for “angelic troublemakers” in community organizing. The book also features modern-day leaders like Kaitlin B. Curtice, an indigenous rights activist and organizer, and Valarie Kaur, a Sikh leader and speaker.

Potential other additions include Gandhi, James Cone, Madeline L’Engle, Rumi, and more; those who donated to the Kickstarter campaign will help set the final list of names. Akers’s potential options are so extensive that she is already thinking about writing a second book.

Alongside each profile, the book will feature an original illustration, and Akers has found that the artists with whom she collaborates are thrilled to get involved. “Every time I pitched the book to artists or anybody, even some of the artists were like, ‘I am one hundred percent an atheist and I think this is a fantastic idea.’”

To find illustrators, she began digging through Twitter, seeking out a diverse array of artists–a part of the project that she has found inspiring and exciting. “There’s a type of artist who takes a world and gives it back to us infused with hope and optimism and a little magic, and I think that’s just really amazing.”

Akers’ goal was to reach progressive families of faith, especially parents who grew up in a conservative context and have since found a more progressive spirituality–an underserved audience that Akers knows personally. “They’ve faith-shifted and they’re deconstructing and reconstructing and want something for their kids, but they know they can’t pass on fear-based, shame-based theology and stories of straight white men colonizing parts of the world.”

But beyond the simple reasons of filling a gap in the market, Akers believes the book will benefit all of its readers, from parents to grandparents to Sunday school teachers. In a time when religion has become a tool to oppress marginalized people, Akers finds herself drawn to the holy troublemakers and unconventional saints featured in her book.

“I think it’s good to remember, actually, that there have been really difficult, dark times in our past,” she said. “You talk about somebody like Regina Jonas–the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi in 1935 in Berlin, Germany–who eventually was killed in Auschwitz, and you realize there have been really, really dark times in human history and people have still maintained their resilience and their spirit of community and their ways to connect to a greater story. I think that I need these stories as reminders as much as I want my kids to know about them.”

I think I need these stories, too. I think a lot of us do. Maybe I’ll find a new church; maybe I won’t. It’s hard to have hope for the future of religion, I keep thinking. But Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints has reminded me of this truth: if you want to find hope for the future of faith, take a look at the past.