Pick Up



By: Tony Tendero, Fellow In Residence

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” 

[Confessions, 260] 

I find my way by reading. Sometimes it’s reading a map or a room or a conversation or a face. Most often, I’m picking up some sort of text. In my new season and in the middle of National Reading Month, I find myself with my nose in a book. 

Safe Haven recently invited me to join their domestic violence prevention and education team as a Fellow in Residence. The purpose of the Fellow is to research, inform, develop and prepare Safe Haven to launch a Learning Institute by 2025. The Fellow in Residence will help position Safe Haven’s Learning Institute as a local and national expert at the intersection of violence prevention and practice. The Learning Institute will work to increase individual and organizational capacity to address and prevent gender-based violence in five key arenas: youth violence prevention, healthcare, human services, workplace, and faith. 

For such a big task, I look to Augustine and he reminds me that reading converted him toward, launched him on and sustained him for a life-long quest. My hope is to regularly testify here about what I am learning in our quest to launch the Learning Institute. During my past stints as a middle school teacher, university professor and church planter, I’ve written about leading, praying, telling stories, connecting, listening, dreaming, serving, teaching and starting things. Maybe you can use those markers to find your way into my new season of stories.  

Told in a series of vignettes, The House on Mango Street is a novel about a young girl growing up in the Latinx section of Chicago. Since its publication in 1984, Sandra Cisneros’ poetic language has captured my storytelling imagination through her snapshots that provide a granular sense of her world. Safe Haven’s Gender Equity Reading Initiative (GERI), led by my colleague Jarred Daniels, has Mango Street as one of the shared texts. I love the protagonist’s (Esperanza) strong voice and efforts to use her super power of writing to understand and positively impact her world. 

What I didn’t pick up over the years of re-reading was the consistent thread of domestic violence in Esperanza’s family as well as in her best friend Sally’s life. “My Name” is a vignette beloved by teachers, elementary through college, because it invites students to tell stories about their names. What I didn’t pick up in “My Name” was Esperanza’s stories about her great grandmother with the same name.

“My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That’s the way he did it. And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.”

-“My Name.” The House on Mango Street. p. 12

Fiction like Cisneros’ asks me to step into a new world; a world where abduction is woven into family history; a world where the exertion of power and control is revealed in the bend of a woman’s elbow. At the same time, fiction offers me a way to imagine a future fashioned by the next-gen Esperanza and others; a future where she can flourish, being all the things she wants to be. Picking up this blend of grim reality and bright possibility has been important in my opening weeks at Safe Haven. 

In addition to fiction like The House on Mango Street and The War That Saved My Life (a young adult novel touching on domestic violence in World War II England), picking up non-fiction texts such as investigative journalism, clinical studies, pastoral reflections and trauma-informed essays has also helped me find my way in this first month. One text that my colleague Holly Wilson suggested was Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. Bancroft was a counselor for abusive men for fifteen years, and then devoted himself to taking what he had learned from that experience and sharing it with abused women, and with the friends, family, and professionals who assist them.  

Like Cisneros, Bancroft looks closely. His stories focus on what his clients, men who abuse, are thinking. His primary aim is to help women in an abusive relationship understand and find a way toward wholeness and healing. Secondarily, he seeks to equip people who can come alongside survivors whether they be in law enforcement, health care, human services, churches, education or friends and family. Bancroft systematically documents the thinking of abusive men, the way they operate in relationships, the way they operate as parents and in the world as well as what he has learned about how abusers engage in the change process. With such a deep dive, readers should expect darkness and potential triggers just like one would find in the fiction of The House on Mango Street. Yet through it all, Bancroft believes, after sitting across from abusers for fifteen years, that abuse is a solvable problem.

“If you choose to believe that your life could be free of abuse, or that the whole world could be . . . some people [will] feel threatened by the concept that abuse is a solvable problem, because if it is, there’s no excuse for not solving it. . . There are millions of people who have taken stands against partner abuse across the globe and are now unwilling to retreat, just like the woman who gets a taste of life without the abuser and then can’t live under his control anymore, because the taste of freedom and equality is too sweet.”

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. p. 388

His nuanced and textured work ultimately offers hope. The heft of the book will ask a lot of readers looking for a way to make a difference. Yet in the end, he delivers and calls us onward. 

So the journey continues. I hope you’ll join us. I’ll keep sharing what I’m learning right here. Subscribe to our email list at the bottom of our website to receive the stories. And may we all pick up and read; so each of us can be all the things we want to be.

Peace and Grace.