Sharon Ewell Foster Answers The Faithful Fifteen
Bestselling author Sharon Ewell Foster has penned such works as the Christy Award-winning PASSING BY SAMARIA, as well as AIN'T NO RIVER, AIN'T NO MOUNTAIN, and her latest, AIN'T NO VALLEY. In this interview she reflects on the important act of writing in her efforts to honestly portray human emotions, to understand herself and her spirituality, and --- at its most basic level --- to tell stories. She also describes her active participation in her church communities, shares the details of "family time" with her relatives, and enthuses over the diversity of her audience.
FaithfulReader.com: What kind of testimony to your faith are you demonstrating in this book? If you are writing fiction, do you write fiction that is based upon your faith or that has a message for the reader? Is your goal to demonstrate your faith in your writing?
Sharon Ewell Foster: What I believe and know is that God is good. He loves us to the point of heartbreak. He has a good plan for our lives --- even in times that seem to be valleys --- and His joy and love for us extends beyond and penetrates any barriers that might keep us imprisoned.
It's what I believe, so I suppose that belief, faith and hope infuse everything I write, even fiction. I don't set out to write "Christian" books, but I don't deny who I am or whose I am. To deny that would be like denying that I am a woman --- part of the beauty of who I am is that I am a woman, a mother, a Black woman, and a follower of Jesus Christ. When I pour out my heart in writing, if I'm honest, those things flow out, they flow out and welcome others to share those experiences.
My goal is to encourage people, to give them hope and joy while I entertain them. My goal is to write well enough that it honors God and blesses any who would stop to read. My goal is to be a witness to God's goodness, but also to be honest about our human joys, struggles and sorrows. But my goal is not to preach to them. I write out of my efforts to understand things myself --- as I write I understand more. I only share with others what I'm willing to eat first myself.
FR: When did you come to a saving knowledge of Jesus? Where are you today in your walk? Is your faith an important part of what you do?
SEF: I don't know of a time when I didn't believe in God, in His Son. I came to know Him much more deeply in my late teens, even more deeply in my twenties, and I'm still learning and drawing nearer. That's part of writing for me --- discovering more of the Lord as I write. My relationship with the Lord permeates everything I do. When you drink water or eat bread, their essence becomes part of who you are. It's like that with Jesus. How do I make that a part? I don't know how to do that anymore.
FR: Tell us about your church experiences, how you grew up (or maybe didn't grow up) in the church, where you attend now, your involvement in your local assembly, etc.
SEF: I love church, all kinds of churches. I grew up in church, mostly in Black churches. I often share those experiences in my writing so that others who may not have experienced church, or Black churches, can enjoy it. I love it all: the music, the preached word, the worship, the hands, the faces, the hats, the joy, and even the (ahem) challenging human interactions. I belong to New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, though since I've been in Chicago, I've regularly attended Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, Living Word, and the Temple of Chicago. I completed a three-year discipleship program at New Psalmist and attended Bible Study. Previously, I've taught Sunday school and sung in the choir. My desire is to get more connected here, maybe to start a writer's group or reading group, especially for young people. But my assembly is also the city, and recently I've been able to connect with the Mayor Daley Book Club and an interfaith program with the Chicago Public Schools.
FR: Tell us about your current church family/fellowship. How does it influence your work?
SEF: Wherever I go, including church or on the subway, I'm always looking and listening for God. I'm looking and listening for repeated themes in sermons, in conversations, in situations, or crises that give me clues as to what's on the people's hearts, on God's heart. If there's something that's troubling me, or that has me curious, and it's also reflected in the messages and in the people, that's confirmation that I'm hearing clearly. That drives my writing. I think of myself as a servant writer. I am a storyteller, but like Isaiah and David, I want to speak to the conditions of the people in what I write, I want my stories to be relevant.
FR: Who are your spiritual mentors? Your professional mentors?
SEF: Spiritual mentors? I've had three close mentors --- Evangelist Brown in Vallejo, California, Minister Allan Gray in Baltimore and Bishop Howard Oby of Providence, Rhode Island. They taught me a great deal and were instrumental in my growth and development. Other mentors were people I've learned from more distantly: Evangelist Jacqueline McCullough preached a message, changed my life and inspired me to write; Joyce Meyers preached and taught all kinds of junk out of me; Bishop T.D. Jakes encouraged me to dream big; and Bishop Walter Thomas of Baltimore encouraged me that I am and can do all that God says.
Professional mentors? It's funny, I haven't really had any. I think it would be great to have someone encouraging and directing me. There are writers who encourage me or who are friendly, like Neta Jackson, Francine Rivers and Liz Curtis Higgs. But I guess the Lord's been my mentor, leading me a way I do not know. Sometimes it's scary and lonely, but I trust Him. Who knows? Maybe my mentor will come. (smile)
FR: Discuss your calling/mission --- as a writer and as a Christian.
SEF: My calling/mission is to encourage, comfort, spread joy and good news through storytelling --- different kinds of storytelling. I feel a need to draw all kinds of people together --- across gender, age, race, class and nations --- with stories of hope, love and faith.
FR: What are your Scripture reading habits?
SEF: I read Scripture everyday. I study pretty intensely; it is part of my research and foundation for writing. I'm always looking for truth, looking for daylight, something that will shine light on our human condition, relationships and struggles.
FR: What books have most influenced your work?
SEF: Of course, the Bible is my first influence. It is beautiful, honest and prophetic. I'm particularly drawn to the writings of Isaiah, David and John. I have a book of common prayers that I read. There is a book by Kahlil Gibran called THE PROPHET that changed my life, or may have saved my life when I was a child.
FR: Do you read secular fiction at all? If so, who are your favorite authors and why?
SEF: I've always been an avid reader, and I didn't know there was such a thing as Christian fiction until I began writing when I turned 40. So, I've been reading secular adult fiction since I was a child, though I tend to like authors who wrestle with spiritual, relationship and social issues --- the issues that intrigue me. Their writing burns with honesty. My favorite authors are John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Tobias Wolf and Wally Lamb. Toni Morrison's THE BLUEST EYE rescued me when I was fourteen. I read those writers (especially Steinbeck and Morrison), Carson McCullers, Larry McMurtry and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD over and over again. I also like Stephen King. He is a master of dialogue, sense of place, and characterization. All the writers I've been exposed to, like Poe and Hemingway, have taught me how to write. My favorite kids' series were POLLYANNA and BEVERLY GREY.
FR: What are your other media habits --- television, movies, music, etc.?
SEF: I'm a movie junkie. I like all kinds of movies. I guess it's the storytelling thing. If I'm watching TV, it's movies or movie-like things mostly. I also listen to lots of music of all kinds --- again, I think it's the storytelling thing.
FR: Do you and your family have any special faith-based traditions?
SEF: My daughter, my favorite cousin, and I pray together everyday. We share what we're grateful for, read a Scripture passage, sometimes we sing, but we always pray. My son, daughter and I pray together every Sunday night. We're spread throughout the country, so it's our "family time." We always attended church together when we were home. We talk about God all the time. (smile) We're committed to giving our gifts back to God, to making Him glad He gave them to us. (smile) He's part of our family.
FR: Tell us about your prayer life and habits.
SEF: I'm always praying. I write prayers to the Lord. I always stay open, expectant, listening by His door. I don't spend a certain amount of time. Our lives are prayers, aren't they?
FR: Describe what you believe the role of writing in religion is.
SEF: The role of writing in religion? Hmmm. Sounds like a question for a robed theologian. I'm just an ordinary person.
In my life, it is a way that I worship, speak to, and hear from God. It is a tool for sharing what I hear and what helps me, for helping people find daylight. Writing can create a community of people who are separated by different kinds of boundaries. Through writing, I can share experiences with people, take to places and worlds they've never been, introduce them to people they might not otherwise meet. For me, it is a comfort and unifier.
Again, it is also part of the worship experience for me, a way of speaking to and hearing from God.
FR: Tell us about one or more of your favorite encounters with readers.
SEF: I was at a large book conference doing a book signing. I looked out at my line and it was multiethnic, multi-aged and both genders. I was thrilled! There was lots of love!
I get lots of email from people who tell me how the books have touched them. That's cool.
Because I'm African American, many bookstores when they advertise signings only advertise to African American readers. I love my brothers and sisters, but I'm always tickled when one of my white, Hispanic or Asian readers finds their way. Sometimes the bookstore owners are surprised when they see the diversity...and the hugs. I'm a big hugger.
FR: Would you share a story about someone you've brought to Christ or share how your writing has helped someone?
SEF: I've gotten email from teens and elderly people, sometimes from white people who are surprised to find themselves embraced in my writing --- I think that's what I'm supposed to do, to build bridges. I've gotten mail from readers in other countries, places I dream of visiting. I am so pleased by email from men, some of whom are pastors, or from a noncommissioned officer who'd been in Bosnia and who's now in Iraq. But one of the emails I remember most came from a woman whose husband was in prison. When they talked at night, on the phone, she read to him from one of my books, she said. It gave me chills.
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