Meaning-making among the disenfranchised

By Paul Chaffee

Jonathan Ryan and Jessica Mesman Griffith talk about the growth of their Sick Pilgrim blog and community at RCC 2017.

Photo by Bud Heckman.

CHICAGO (April 1, 2017) — Jessica Mesman Griffith and Jonathan Ryan admitted at the top that they knew very little about blogging when they began. They were quite clear, though, about what they wanted to offer their readers and contributors: an open, non-judgmental spiritual context where the religiously alienated, the marginalized for whatever reason, might feel at home.

Here the disappointed and depressed, the doubtful and divorced, gay and transgendered, spiritual but not religious, indeed where all manner of lonely people could share their troubles in a safe, affirming spiritual environment. Yes, this workshop was about creating a blog. What made it valuable, though, was hearing about assembling an extended community of the disenfranchised, people from all walks of life who have found a home, a familial meaning-making space for Catholics and non-Catholics hungry for such an opportunity.

Mesman Griffith is an award-winning writer of Catholic devotional literature and well-versed in Catholic “apologetics,” that is, theology. Ryan came to Catholicism via a Presbyterian ministry, and he’s honed his thinking through long conversations with atheists. Both were emotionally and spiritually disheartened by what the church does not publish, by its failure to deal openly, non-judgmentally with people’s doubts, their pain, their alienation. The blog they co-founded is called Sick Pilgrim, “a field hospital for wayfaring souls... a space for the spiritually sick, and their fellow travelers to rest a while.”

They didn’t imagine a big readership when Patheos approached and offered them a place in its family of more than 400 regular digital contributors. But shortly after the January 2016 launch of Sick Pilgrim, they found themselves with more than 100,000 readers, the fastest-growing blog in Patheos’ library of resources. With 15 months of experience, it won a 2017 Wilbur Award (for Digital Communications: Faith-based blogs). Along the way it has evolved in various ways. Matthew LeFleur, associate editor, is the third member of their leadership team. A community of 200 are core participants in the project. A weekly “Dark Devotional” piece is based on each Sunday’s lectionary readings (scripture readings commonly used on the same Sunday by hundreds of thousands of congregations).

The Sick Pilgrim workshop at this year’s RCC convention was webcast live on the Religious Communicators Council’s Facebook page (along with other remarkable presentations at the 2017 convention). Very low-tech video providing rich, high-end dividends. Religion communicators everywhere can profit from this workshop, learning about Sick Pilgrim’s huge appeal, how it fosters spiritual comfort and growth, about an interfaith filter coming from an unofficial Roman Catholic effort, and much more.

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