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JEMS, the first Black-owned athletic shoe company in the US

I pitched and wrote this article for the Craft Industry Alliance — JEMS is the first Black-owned athletic shoe company in the United States and it’s in Somersworth, NH. Read it here!

My husband Andrew mentioned seeing this in the local news and I thought it might be a good fit for the Craft Industry Alliance, a trade organization for craft professionals (makers, pattern designers, folks who sell on Etsy or at craft fairs, craft teachers, and so on). I’ve written for them before and it was a great experience. I dragged my kiddo out on a car ride to see the JEMS factory and snap a few pictures of downtown Somersworth to add to my pitch, and then I wrote it up and sent it out. The CIA got back to me quickly and I had two and a half weeks to write the article.

Downtown Somersworth

This was a fun challenge–I actually interviewed folks on the phone, including someone at City Hall in Somersworth, who pointed me to a local historian and put me in touch with contacts at JEMS. I spoke to the president of JEMS and to its founder, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards. It was fun to get back into reporting, and it felt really exciting to share this story with a new audience. JEMS is a great story: it’s named after a Black immigrant inventor, Jan Ernst Matzeliger; it’s a revival of shoe manufacturing in Somersworth, which used to have three shoe factories; it’s the first Black-owned athletic shoe company in the US; and it’s a new factory in America. Telling all these different stories and making them make sense in 1000 words was tricky, and I really liked it.

The JEMS factory


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Church Lingo: Restoration vs. V+M, Part 2

(For more background on Restoration and Valley and Mountain, check out Part 1 here.)

As a churchgoer who is friends with plenty of non-churchgoers, I have become self-conscious about some of the lingo that all churches use. For example, growing up Catholic, the word “saint” means something to me that it doesn’t mean to a lot of other Christians or non-Christians. To me, the saints were a part of the furniture of my religion, like churches themselves and taking communion. I didn’t pick up on how weird saints were to other people until I got a student Bible for my confirmation that had a handy FAQ about Catholicism (no joke). One of the questions saint-marywas “How can I explain the saints to my non-Catholic friends?”

The answer is that the saints can pray just like we can pray–and if we have more people praying for us, isn’t that great? So we don’t pray to the saints, we pray to the saints to pray for us.

The distinction is hazy at best, and to other non-Catholic Christians, it sounds like we are praying to someone besides God (which we are). And that sounds like we believe that things besides God are God (which we, in theory, don’t). So early on, I figured out that some things that I think of as completely normal are strange and even evil to other people. The disagreement is made evident in the words that we choose to use; my grandma often tells me to pray to the Virgin Mary, which someone outside the church might interpret as me praying to someone besides God as though they were God.

Every church, no matter how liberal, conservative, old-fashioned, or new, uses lingo that non-churchgoers do not get. Non-churchgoers don’t get it on two levels: sometimes, they don’t understand the word at all, and sometimes, they understand the word, but it means something different from what they think.

3350849917_fe67b6346a_zFor example, at Restoration, the evangelical church in Dover, NH, where I spent a year writing a book, Pastor Nate preaches a lot about accepting Jesus as your savior. This doesn’t mean anything to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. To those who do know who Jesus is, it means something quite specific: 1. That we are sinners and would go to hell without Jesus and 2. That Jesus is the only way we can be “reconciled” to God. “Accepting Jesus” also means taking on certain responsibilities: going to church weekly (or as close to that as you can), reading the Bible often, praying to God, and asking other Christians for guidance. When you do these things, you should discover some specific directions for your life, and some universal truths that other evangelical Christians accept. Depending on the church, you might be led to discover that homosexuality is a sin, that premarital sex is wrong, or that drinking to get drunk is wrong.

This is one of the things that annoys, scares, or angers folks outside the evangelical movement. Evangelical Christians use “general” modern language. They talk about “Jesus saving,” but what they really mean is “Jesus will only save you if you do X, Y, and Z.” And it turns out that X, Y, and Z are creepy and weird, or in some cases downright wrong.

(For the record, Pastor Nate would tell you that Jesus saves you no matter what your sins, so even if you don’t believe that drinking is wrong, if you have accepted Jesus, you are saved–even if you get drunk every weekend. In fact, that’s kind of the point: Jesus saves you even though you are a sinner, and even though you continue to sin. The problem still remains that Pastor Nate believes that certain things are sins, but that is for another essay.)

The image of using general, open-sounding language to “lure” people into their churches is a battle that evangelicals are constantly fighting against. On the one hand, they want to reach people who have never heard of Jesus before. The best way they have come up with to do this is to talk about “Jesus saving” and “Jesus accepting” everyone. On the other hand, they believe in certain parts of the Bible that other people think are outdated and crazy. They would not try to deny either allegation.

Valley and Mountain, at first glance, seems to have less lingo. It doesn’t have the trappings of an intentional, specific experience: there aren’t free Bibles lying around, there isn’t a moment at the end of the service when you can get saved. But sometimes John, who calls himself the “convener” of “Celebration,” which is V+M’s name for services, says things that would make no sense to those uninitiated into liberal, progressive American culture.

For example, John talks about “The Empire.” The Empire as a real, evil, driving force that keeps lower and middle-class people down in Dorothy DayAmerica and around the world. It’s not clear who The Empire is, but from the photos of protests and the topics of sermons (racism, radical hospitality, how best to spend our money) that fill the ether of V+M, it’s clear that The Empire is big business, corporations, and at times, the government. John told me once (quoting Dorothy Day), “It’s a dirty rotten system.” By that he meant (at least) the way that the American economy works: most of our money goes to big corporations who exploit poor people, keeping them poor.

“The Empire” is a pretty harsh assessment of the American economic system. I think many folks, my friends outside of V+M included, would roll their eyes at “The Empire.” Do we really think that someone else is keeping us down–that we can’t achieve all that we want? Do we really blame the system for personal shortcomings? What about all of the people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps in America? What about the fact that poor people aren’t saints? What about all the things that I have achieved? The Empire certainly isn’t holding me down.

But this is what V+M sees as (part of) its role as a prophetic community: awaken the world to what is “really going on,” to the injustices of the system.

Is that naive? Brave? Wrong?

I think you could ask the same questions of Restoration’s mission to save as many people as possible. Is it admirable? Or a waste of time? And while it turns out I think one set of answers about V+M and another about Restoration, they are two sides of the same coin: a focus on achieving what each community believes is its mission on planet Earth.

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Valley + Mountain vs. Restoration: Part 1

I have been thinking about this for a long time: how does Valley and Mountain compare to Restoration?

Restoration Church is an evangelical Assemblies of God-affiliated church in Dover, NH, where I spent a year trying to wrap my head around their sincere belief that everyone who isn’t saved is going to hell. They are a fairly young church, congregation-wise, and that intrigued me. They met in a movie theater. I made friends with women who dressed and acted like me (i.e. they wore leggings and ate too many Oreos), but really truly (“honestly, seriously, yes, Alicia, why do you keep asking us, will you please talk about something else, literally anything else”) believed that homosexuality was a sin, that men should “lead” their wives, and that Jesus was their savior.

This last part gave me the most trouble–saved? I wondered for a year if I was saved. (If you are interested, I’d be happy to send you the book I wrote about it.)

And then, I stopped. I quit church for real, pretty much without noticing. Andrew, the tactful instigator, even encouraged me to go to church at some point last year, just to “keep my hand in the game” (the game of writing about American Christianity in the 2010’s). I didn’t even think about it. I always found a way to go to church before, but for most of last year, I stayed home guilt-free.

Then I stumbled upon Valley and Mountain, and I was in heaven, pretty darn literally. A super-liberal “church” that was more like a conglomeration of people who do things like make sandwiches for shelters during “church.”

But several times, I have had a twinge. I’ve thought, Whoa, this is the liberal equivalent of Restoration. 

The most obvious similarity between the two churches is their names. Restoration always struck me as a little too purposefully ambiguous name. To me, it epitomizes the evangelical phenomenon of using universal language to discuss something very specific: for example, being “saved” could mean almost anything (saved from what?), but to evangelical Christians it refers to acceptance of a very specific version of God.

If you are an evangelical Christian, then “Restoration” might signify to you that Jesus restores us to God, heaven, and goodness. We are sinful and we need restoration. That’s a very specific type of restoration and it comes with many strings attached: once you are restored by God through his son Jesus, you are obligated to believe in certain things that are in the Bible and to save others.

But “Restoration” also implies restoration to a good life—salvation from addictions to drugs and alcohol, abusive partners, and truly shitty families. People who battled these things made up a not-negligible proportion of Restoration, and they would tell you absolutely that they are better off for being in this church. (For the record, I believed them.)

Valley + Mountain, on the other hand…well, not on the other hand. I don’t love the name of this church. It also strikes me as ambiguous, though Andrew likes it, which is a point in its favor. To be fair, I don’t love the name of most churches—I love only churches named after saints. (Basically, when I rejected Catholicism I doomed myself to cheesily named churches for the rest of my life.)

In this case, the ambiguity is also purposeful. Life is full of valleys and mountains, and this church will be there with you through them. Every Sunday, John (the “convener”/pastor of the church) welcomes everyone by saying something along the lines of “You are welcome here, no matter what kind of energy you’re bringing today. If you’re happy and excited, or if you’re depressed and anxious, you are welcome here.” The message of openness to all types of people is echoed when John says things like “No matter what your theology or your philosophy of God is, you are welcome here.” (That part I love.)

To bring things full circle, what John says reminds me of what Pastor Nate of Restoration used to say, early in the service and at nearly every one: “In case no one has told you, you are welcome here.” After I wrote my thesis about his church, Pastor Nate told me in an email “I’ve said this for years but you don’t have to believe what we believe to come to our church.” It’s true; I didn’t believe any of the things they believed, and they not only let me in, they put up with me at a small-group-style Bible study, hung out with me at church potlucks, and invited me to their parties.

The similarity between the two goes deeper than the name. Having a vague, non-saint-related name reflects a deep desire for both communities to practice “radical hospitality,” which just happens to be the topic of our sermons at V+M over the next few weeks. Both churches want to welcome everyone who will walk through the doors; they want to be a part of the community, not isolated from it. They want to help people outside their walls. Pastor Nate talked a lot about outward-focused churches, as opposed to inward-focused ones; similarly, Valley and Mountain’s motto is “Inward, Outward, Onward, Together.”

Pastor Nate and the other leaders on the church tried to come up with creative ways to reach out to Dover–they helped at the Dover Apple Harvest Fest, they invited people to nondenominational holiday services, and they helped with local food kitchens. V+M does similar things to be a part of the community: they rent the Hillman City Collaboratory, which operates like a community center for the Hillman City neighborhood; they (we) go to the community barbecues on Sunday after service, which are open to everyone; they run an art gallery within the Collaboratory, which is where we have services.

I don’t know what it means that both churches act so similarly when what they believe is so different. I think it shows something I figured out while spending all my free time with evangelical Christians: we are more alike than we would like to think. Even though these are only surface similarities, I think Pastor Nate and John have enough in common for them to compare notes at a conference on reaching out to your local community. Is that really cool? Or really strange?