Dee Dee Risher is a writer and editor, worship and retreat leader, and activist. Born in South Carolina, from a line of farmers and teachers, she has lived in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia for thirty years.
For seventeen of those years, she edited the award-winning magazine The Other Side, a well-known Christian social-justice magazine which was 40 years old when it closed in 2004. Dee Dee then helped launch and edited Conspire magazine, an ecumenical quarterly publication rooted in both the New Monastic and Emergent church movements and supported by The Simple Way in Philadelphia and almost fifty communities nationwide.
She has published over two hundred articles and won national journalist competitions in first-person writing as well as interviews. In addition to writing regularly for The Other Side and Conspire, she has been published in The Utne Reader, Sojourners, Horizons, Mercy, Geez, The Progressive Christian, Grid Magazine, The Witness, Brain Child, and other magazines, and blogs for the Huffington Post, Theological Curves, and other venues.
She is a cofounder of Philadelphia’s Alternative Seminary and serves on the board of Karitas. She has been part of local movements to support Central American refugees, Philadelphia’s Catholic Worker free clinic, The Simple Way’s extended community, and Word and World School of biblical study and action.
Dee Dee is a longtime resident of Philadelphia’s southwest Germantown neighborhood, a poor and working-class community, where she has actively participated in the community efforts that keep neighborhoods intact. She helped launch Vine and Fig Tree, a cooperative housing intentional community. She helped organize the neighborhood watch, coordinates a community garden, grows organic vegetables for the local food pantry, and advocates for local schools. She has been part of several house churches, and was a member of Cookman Methodist Church in North Philadelphia until it closed. She currently attends Germantown Mennonite Church.
She loves cross-cultural work and has a passion for living intentionally towards justice. She loves land and the ocean, building community, being outside, making art, singing, cooking and eating good food (especially dark chocolate), walking at night, and watching kids grow.
In your book you weave the biblical story of the prophet Elisha and a woman from Shunem with stories from your own life. What about the story of the Shunnamite woman resonates with you?
I have always loved people who are spiritually attuned, resourceful, outspoken, and grounded. This 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 cannon because he 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; the mysterious details.
The story of this 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 which 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 Wolf 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 soulmaking,” 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 that 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. This 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?
Let me say at the outset that my life has in no way been marked or distorted by tragedy. If any loss and grief is “ordinary” (and I don’t think that applies), mine have been. My life is full of amazing friendships and this stunning earth, which I adore. Yet even with that gentle handling, I found myself ill equipped to mine the inevitable experiences of losses, pain, and brokenness that came to me.
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 these need to be addressed. For me, this was 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 five experiences that most shaped me are, not coincidentally, are experiences which 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 borders of the United States, much of that 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 wonder.
-There is no grace like being loved unconditionally and being known intimately and well. 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 in two different faith magazines that I cared a lot about, I had the dream job of working with the ideas and spiritual learnings of amazing people. So many of them inspired me to do things I would not 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 their place in my heart. They were incredibly courageous, funny, prayerful, and took me straight in, all my days.
Gordon Cosby, of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. showed 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 which 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 get my ego out of the 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. Both these sustain 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, but they are simplistic ways to shorten a spiritual journey that could be much deeper and more complete. I am hoping people find in the book some inspiration to name their struggles and losses out loud. 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 rehab at the Vine and Fig Tree community, an intentional community and gardening venture in Philadelphia.
How have struggles brought you closer to God? What women have supported you in your times of struggle?
I grew up surrounded by bold women—four courageous sisters and a mother who would try almost anything—and grew up always attracted to strong women as mentors. It took me a long time to realize what a gift it is to be raised without fear at my back. And yet struggles—often deep, wrenching, and longterm—are a part of our lives. My struggles open me up to my limitations, my vulnerable places, and my deep need for God’s companionship—not as a judge, but as a presence of hope, redemption, and love in my broken places. Struggle releases us from judgment and brings us into community. We learn that we need each other, and that we need God—not above us, omniscient and all-powerful, but around us like a cloak of warmth and grace.