A Q&A with Deborah Jian Lee
This month, journalist Deborah Jian Lee launched Kaleidoscope, a podcast she co-founded with Erin James-Brown. As the host, she has intimate conversations with activists, entertainers, authors, and spiritual leaders about identity, faith, and social engagement in our dangerous times. Our readers will remember her as the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, which offers an inside look at the young, diverse, progressive Christians transforming the evangelical movement. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to ask about her podcast and what she hopes listeners will take from it.
Christian Coleman: Tell us about what inspired you to launch Kaleidoscope.
Deborah Jian Lee: My readers inspired me. So many people engaged with Rescuing Jesus not just on the page, but in real life. They told me about ways the book compelled action and change, and it blew me away. A divinity school student told me that his mom read the book and it played a part in her coming to accept his sexuality and his partner; she ended up helping plan their wedding. Pastors incorporated the book’s findings into their sermons and some said my writing inspired them to launch national initiatives to address the issues of inequality and injustice raised in the book. And I’ve lost track of how many conservative straight, cis-white men have told me that the book changed their perspective on race, gender, and LGBTQ equality.
Then, a national book club launched around Rescuing Jesus, and thousands of people, including entire congregations, read and discussed the book together over one summer. I hosted live conversations online with folks from my book and other faith leaders and received great feedback. My partner in the national book club, Erin James-Brown, and I decided to launch a podcast to keep the conversation going.
DJL: Kaleidoscope was in the baby stages before the current administration came into power. The podcast builds on the themes my work has explored for the past decade.
But the current administration certainly highlights why these conversations need more attention. For too long, communities of color, women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups have been excluded from conversations about faith and politics. News organizations too often narrowly focus on the religious right. As a result, the public hasn’t seen the extent to which Christians from marginalized groups have been confronting white supremacy and cis-hetero patriarchy in American evangelicalism for a long time.
CC: You have such an inclusive list of guests lined up. What kind of stories are you trying to tell?
DJL: I want to explore faith in America through the lives of people often left out of these conversations. And I want to get deep into the funny, tough, and taboo things that people of faith tend to shy away from. So we’ll hear faith leaders, authors, and activists talk personally about dating after coming out as queer, raising Muslim children in the Trump era, dismantling racism in the evangelical world, going public about a late-term abortion, joining justice movements as a disabled person, founding an LGBTQ-inclusive mosque, finding joy and community in the faith wilderness, and so much more. Ultimately, this is a show about grappling with faith, identity, and social engagement, and how that shapes the wider world.
DJL: I remember meeting the Rev. M Barclay at the studio and thinking, Obviously this person was born a fully-formed badass. So I was surprised and comforted to hear about the awkwardness of their twenties after they came out as queer. I loved unpacking all the uneasy—but ultimately brave and relatable—steps they took to live into who they are meant to be.
Eboo and I bonded over growing up in the same suburb of Chicago. We went to the same schools, though at different times, and had very similar experiences as kids of immigrants trying to fit into a white world. It was kind of wild hearing about the kind of bullying he faced and thinking, Yup, pretty much the same thing happened to me in the exact same place, just years later with a different set of bullies. It makes me wonder how many other kids were going through the same thing and feeling just as alone. I’m still thinking about our conversation and about how these kinds of experiences shape a young person and impact both their capacity to be self-protectively cruel and their capacity for compassion and empathy.
CC: What would you like listeners to get out of Kaleidoscope?
DJL: The goal of Kaleidoscope is to offers a glimpse into the lives of people we need to hear from and learn from—and to spark more conversations across our differences. It’ll be refreshing for listeners from minority communities to listen to folks who authentically reflect parts of their reality. And for folks who aren’t exposed to minority communities, or who just want to learn more, this podcast will open up those worlds for them. My hope is that these interviews spur conversation, action, and empathy.
Part of how we’re doing that is by encouraging listener engagement. We want to hear from listeners! So, we have some fun, special segments coming up to encourage just that. One special, recurring segment we just launched is called #Halp. It’s Kaleidoscope’s very own advice column. Our listeners ask their burning questions about life, faith, and love, and our guests answer them. We’re encouraging listeners to write to us (or send us a voice recording) about their life quandaries and questions at email@example.com and we’ll find the right guest to offer sage advice.
We’re also encouraging our listeners to host listening parties and to let us know what kind of conversations spring from those gatherings. Seriously, write to us, leave us voice memos, hit us up on all the socials. We’d love to incorporate our listeners’ voices and stories into the show as much as possible.
About Deborah Jian Lee
Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist, radio producer, and the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. She has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, Slate, GOOD, Reuters, WBEZ, WNYC, and others. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.