Mitchell Atencio is the associate news editor at Sojourners. Born in Atlanta, he now works out of the Sojourners D.C. offices on Capitol Hill. I interviewed Mitchell three days before the Supreme Court released its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
We spoke about his work in media, his ongoing process of challenging his own assumptions, and his decision to be discalced out of religious conviction.
“People say, you ask good questions, because you’re a journalist. I say, no, I’m a journalist because I like to ask questions. I like to hear from others about what they find interesting. That has been something that has suffused my whole life. Questions, a pursuit of answers, but not simply black and white answers. Perspectives and ideas, challenging myself.
I think a lot of it probably came from my parents. Both of them have really modeled a spirit of asking questions, not just of others, but of themselves. Of the way things were done. I would say that my dad, more than anybody I know, is willing to be self critical, willing to ask tough questions about himself.
I was a voracious reader as a kid. I was encouraged to lean into that desire, to know more and to ask questions and to figure things out. Some of it is maybe innate. I just have a hard time accepting things that I don’t understand. It can be a strength and a weakness. As a kid, I very typically got into clashes with adults at Sunday school or other places. More often than not, those questions might have been coming at times where they should have been held for later.
I’ve fostered it myself. I’ve worked hard to be a person who works against what I think is a pretty natural and normal predisposition toward our own assumptions. I make a lot of assumptions in the world. And as soon as I find myself doing that, I try to question it, I try to sit back and say, “Okay, this is my immediate reaction to this information, but let me spend a little more time with it. Let me sit with it.”
“It’s always a busy season as a journalist. I wish there were times where the news was slow, but it’s not. We’re recording this on June 21st, on a Tuesday. At 10:00 AM, the Supreme court will start releasing opinions from the last cycle of hearings that it did. And we don’t know what opinions they will release or how many they will release in a given day. One of those opinions that could be released is Dobbs V. the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That is a case that essentially challenged the Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade, which provided abortion access and Casey V. Planned Parenthood from the nineties that also reaffirmed abortion access rights.
Earlier this year, a draft decision leaked. The court can always write more than one draft opinion, and so it’s not a guarantee that that draft opinion will be the final official decision. But if it were, it would overturn federal abortion rights in the country. At that point, I think there are 11 or 13 states where immediately abortion would be illegal. The trigger laws. There are several states that would be expected to either start enforcing old laws that were on the books or introduce new laws to make it illegal. I think estimations are around 24 or 26 states. So in about half the country abortion would become illegal. And that is a huge faith story.
Abortion has always been a big part of how faith communities engage in the world. It’s a very interesting time to be dealing with these things because of how politics has continually ramped up.
A lot of partisan divides. There are a lot of mechanisms in our politics that make it harder to accomplish things, to get things done for democracy. And so I think anytime you have something that has such passionate and really serious matters behind it—if you take seriously the debates about abortion, you’re talking about some very sincerely held beliefs that people feel very passionately about and the fear that if it goes one way or the other, there’s no mechanism to change that.”
“[Sojourners is] a progressive faith outlet. It was started in the 1970s by a group of radical students who wanted to do intentional living and resist some things like war and violence and poverty, and wanted to work for racial justice. And it’s evolved, like anything has evolved, since then.
We’ve got two wings. We’ve got Sojo Action, which works in a lot of advocacy and mobilization and organizing. They do a lot of great work. And then we’ve got our editorial side, which is the side that I’m on, where we do journalism and news coverage. We’ve got a monthly magazine, we’ve also got online news coverage, which is where I spend most of my time. I do some writing for the magazine, but most of what I’m doing is news stories that we’re going to get up within a day to two weeks of having heard them.”
“With abortion, with reproductive rights, I think it makes sense that people coming from different, but similar backgrounds can have different perspectives. I think we are sometimes shaped by the stories and experiences we have in our own lives. And then we’re also shaped by narratives that we are unaware of.
I was raised in very conservative circles and conservative Christian circles specifically. There’s a lot about the history of abortion and how it became a political litmus test for the Religious Right that I think a lot of people are unaware of. I wasn’t aware of it growing up. It took time and research to find those things out.
It has always given me a lot to think about. Ever since I was aware of and could conceive of this topic, it’s been something that I’ve spent a lot of time reading and researching and talking with friends and family. More than any other topic, I think it has required me to have a lot of humility. I do not have a uterus. I cannot get pregnant. That is a reality—you know, the possibility of getting pregnant—that I do not have to deal with in my own life. And I do think that shapes how we’re able to look at things.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t have opinions on things that we can’t experience ourselves, but it does mean that we need to have some level of humility and a willingness to engage with the people who do, and who are impacted directly, because they’re going to have a different experience and perspective than we do.”
“I believe we are formed in community. We are not independent creatures. We are codependent on each other. My life does not exist without people who came long before me, and I don’t just mean biologically. I mean, I drove on roads that I did not build to get here today. Nobody alive built some of the roads that I drove on today.
I believe we come out of community. I believe that we are placed into community by God. I believe that the scope of the Christian faith and the example of Jesus on earth gives us a hermeneutic by which we are to follow the example of those who are poor and oppressed and put out by empire as our example.
So when Jesus says in Matthew 25, that those who clothed me, those who fed me, those who visited me in prison, that was when you did those things to me, I don’t think Jesus is giving some sweet little simile for how we should think about them. That’s how I grew up thinking of it. I grew up thinking, Jesus wants us to think of others like him, and that we would be kind to them, like we would be like him. But now I see very plainly that Jesus is saying, that is me. “That is me.” Jesus is the imprisoned. Jesus is the sick and the widows and the orphans. And so within the process of community, that’s where I first start to try and seek out truth and to try and seek out answers.
Communities are not of one mind. There are often various perspectives as we’ve already touched on. And that’s why the hermeneutic of putting the poor first—some Catholics would call it the preferential option for the poor—but that’s where it starts, is Catholic social teaching and liberation theology that I try to keep at the forefront of any of my thoughts on this.
How else do I go about it? I try to read a lot. I try to read deeply. I try to think through counter examples and challenges to my own thoughts. That’s never a comfortable process, but I do try to listen to people who disagree with me, even if I’m pretty confident that they’re wrong, partially just to better understand the people who are opposing me politically.
I don’t know that I’m always bridge-building. When I listen to people who are on the opposite side of me, sometimes I’m just trying to understand the tactics of people organizing for a different world. Sometimes it has been bridge-building and it has been my chance to see that there might be different ideals, different priorities or different commitments.
Like I said, I was raised in very conservative circles where they said things like, “abortion is murder,” and they believed that very passionately. One of the things that I did as I grew up and became an adult, was to start asking, “okay, if that’s really what we believe—because that’s what I was raised in and what I believed at the time—where does that lead us?” What do we believe about “regular murder?” What do we believe should happen to people who are murderers?
What do we believe our laws should do? What do we believe our culture should do? Starting to put that together felt like, hmm…I don’t quite see people following all the way through with what they say. They say abortion is murder, but they don’t want to treat people who receive abortions exactly the same as they would treat any other murderer. At least not a lot of them. And that just spurred on new questions. Well, why is that? Do they not actually think abortion is murder maybe for some of them?
You could take any other example of things that I believed or was told about abortion. Just kind of press at it and pull the thread until the whole thing unravels and you figure out what do we actually have here? What’s going on here?”
“I have a lot of conversations with people from the communities I was raised in who still disagree with what I believe now and still believe what they taught me to believe. I tell them very frankly, “I think I’m right and I think you’re wrong. And I want you to do the things that I believe are important. Theologically, politically. I’m under no illusion that I’m going to change your mind in one conversation.” It’s almost never happened. I think it’s happened once in my life.
Sometimes we hear things like, “Everybody has a perspective and everybody has something valuable to bring and everybody gets something right about these things.” I don’t think that’s always true. I think some people are wrong. They’re still there. They should still be people who we envision as one day a part of a valuable community, but that doesn’t mean envisioning what they believe and what they want to be in the world as part of that community. It might just be, “I think you’ve got to change your behavior and change your mind.” I mean, that’s the call of the Christian faith, is to repentance.
There has been the little voice in the back of the head that says, “Well, what if you’re still wrong?” And sometimes that spurred me into better understanding. I believe X, Y, Z, but I didn’t really understand the issue well enough and that little voice that said, “What if you’re wrong?” led me to dig into it more. So there has been discomfort.
I do remember very vividly taking a shower one day right before Sunday church and just thinking, “What if I’m going to hell?” And I just kind of sat there with that. And I was like, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” I can’t change the conclusions that I’ve come to. There are plenty of things I’m sure I’m unaware of, but I was not unaware of conservative fundamentalist formations of the Christian faith. I grew up in them. I became an expert at them and then I rejected them. And so, for me, I guess I could, out of that fear, go back to what I believed before, but it wouldn’t be sincere. I just don’t believe that anymore. I now believe something else. And so, I guess that’s the best I can do with it.
I think God’s got a lot of grace for us and I’m sure there are things I’m getting wrong right now. But I’ll tell you what, I take God seriously. When scripture says that God wants to save everybody, I don’t think God has limits. And so I think God’s going to accomplish that. I think Jesus is going to accomplish that.
You know, I’m on Twitter probably too much. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then someone tries to warn me that I’m going to hell or something. I kind of just like to be like, “Yeah I kind of hope so. There are people down there that need to know that God loves them.” Like, sure, send me there. I’ll go tell them.
I take that from Clarence Jordan, who was this farmer and radical theologian in the 1940s. And he used to say that heaven did not really appeal to him because he did not want to walk gold paved streets and play a harp all day. He said, “I’d rather go tell people who don’t know that God loves ’em, that God does.”
“I think my heart is often in my work, which is very good and beneficial. I do believe that journalism has a value and a power in our society. I know and believe that it has and continues to be used in very oppressive empire building ways. But I think that it can be a thorn in the side of the powers that be. I think that it can be a solace and a comfort to the afflicted.
I’m often thinking about how do we get people to think a little bit deeper about the questions that they have? How do we get people to recognize that their perspective is not the only perspective and that there’s more that they can see?
Outside of my work as a journalist, my faith very fully compels me to work toward the abolition of prisons and policing and carceral systems. Overall, I would describe myself as an anti-capitalist. Those things are very, very close to my heart and to my work. They come directly from my faith. They didn’t come from anywhere else. ”
“I remember being in school in 2015. We were not being taught that the distrust in media was something new. There is some truth that the political right has started to weaponize distrust in media and tried to increase it in various ways. But I think it’s been true for a long time that when people amorphously think of media, they think it’s something they don’t trust. The problem with that is that there is no amorphous conglomerate called media. There’s newspapers, magazines, cable news and all those places. There’s different shows, different writers, different columns. And I think when you start breaking it down to the granular level, people have different levels of trust. We see that sometimes people say they distrust media, but they trust their local paper. Because they read their local paper—or at least they used to—and they see that they give me important information about what time the parade starts. And they give me good stuff on the Starbucks opening down the street and things like that.
So in my work, I am very aware of the fact that people have a distrust of media. I am less willing to center the mainstream distrust of media that I think is born out of misconception and conspiracy, and more willing to center the mistrust of media that is born out of the ways that journalism has advanced white supremacy and police propaganda and all those sorts of things. There are a lot of really strong criticisms that come from the black radical tradition and feminists and others, of the way that journalism operates in the world. And I’ve tried to keep those at the forefront of my mind.
When I think about trusted media, another way to answer your question would be to say that I try very hard to show my work. When we quote somebody, we try to say exactly where that quote came from. This doesn’t really come up in my work all that often, but just as a principal, I’m hesitant to give out anonymous sourcing, unless I think somebody’s job or life is at risk for them speaking out. You think it’ll make you look bad? Sorry. That’s not a reason to be an anonymous source. And of course we, we make these decisions as a team. They’re not ones that I make by myself.
The other thing that I do is I try to be very open about being a journalist in conversations about it. I have a lot of conservative family and friends, and I try to get them to think about me when they see people criticizing the journalists. In Arizona where my family lives, the Arizona GOP has started calling journalists, journalistic terrorists.
I’m not trying to influence anyone’s political behavior. I’ve told my parents very plainly before that I’m not going to try to change their affiliation. And while I’m speaking to you from the Sojourner’s office, I’m very, very careful to not try to make any statements of that sort. But I do want my parents to think about the fact that I was once a journalist in Arizona. I was once in the press speaking to the people who are now calling my peers and other people like that “The right hand of the devil.z” And I think that makes a small difference, in that, when people have a name that they can connect with an issue, a face that they can connect with that villainization, it becomes a lot harder for them to accept that flat narrative.
It can help clarify issues too. I am a strong advocate of nonviolence at all levels, and I know military chaplains and I have conversations with them. I get to ask them questions about the way they do their work and how it is influenced by their faith. Why it matters to them. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not opposed to most of the things the U.S. military does. I don’t have to pretend that I don’t have theological disagreements and questions about being a military chaplain. But having that person before me, I can really start to clarify and cut through what I think can be bad assumptions.
The desire for that sort of thing comes directly from my abolitionist impulses because prison and incarceration tells us that there are people who can be thrown away. It tells us that there are people who we can cast out of society for some allotted period of time—or maybe forever—if they’ve done things that we don’t like, or that are bad or harmful. And that is not the case. These are still members of our society. We’ve simply chosen to lock them in cages. The sooner that we can realize that there are no people that we can or should cast out, and instead we should be calling people to fix harms that they’ve caused—we should be engaged in the work of harm reduction—the better off we’ll be.”
“[I wrote a story about] the Public Religion Research Institute’s polling. We took a look at their studies and their data and aggregated the things that we thought our audience would find most interesting. The most interesting [was] that 80% of white evangelicals don’t have any LGBTQ friends. And what does that tell me about society and formation? Well, it tells me that structures and institutions and relationships, they’re often out of our control.
One great response that we got as we pushed out the story on social media was from people who said, “That they know of,” pointing out that a lot of people might not know they have LGBTQ friends. And it’s very true. I wonder how many people who are friends with me in those circles would consciously think to themselves, “I have a bisexual friend.” I don’t know, because they don’t think of me like that. That’s not something they care about or want to talk about all that often.
In another way, it’s just the way that communities form and build and spread. I was homeschooled and my family was one of the first, if not the first family in my church community that started homeschooling and other families started homeschooling after that. And that just spread somewhat naturally by people [asking], “You do what? Tell us about that. Why do you do that?” And then they would go, “Oh, I think that might be better for our kids.” And so they would start homeschooling.
Well, what, what happens after that? They joined the same institutions that my family was a part of. They joined the Arizona Families for Home Education. They joined the East Valley Christian Home Educators, because that’s where the people they knew were. And so they came to those institutions. And I’m sure from those institutions, those people sometimes joined other collections and groups and book clubs. Or if they ever had to leave the church that my family was at, they might start going to a church that another set of homeschool families go to. And so these things can spread very naturally.
It doesn’t make me think less of white evangelicals that four out of five of them don’t have any LGBTQ friends, or wouldn’t say that they have any LGBTQ friends. It just makes me think about what communities are they in and how are those communities operating? Because it’s true that a lot of people feel less safe to be out in white evangelical spaces. Those spaces are often more oppressive and harmful toward LGBTQ people. So sometimes people come out after they leave those spaces. Obviously the white evangelicals in those spaces have to take responsibility for that and start changing behaviors and policies. But it’s an act of community. It’s not always going to be a single individual who’s able to change those things.”
-In what ways do you try to challenge your assumptions?
-What or who were the factors that shaped who you have become?
-What are the mechanisms that make it difficult for our democracy to thrive?
-What are the narratives that have shaped your understanding of abortion.
-Do you find it easy or difficult to have conversations with others who you disagree with? Why?
-Talk about your understanding of community. What are you grateful for? What challenges you? What are your obligations?
-What are the core values of your faith? What does that call you to do?
-Are there times you have questioned your own position on an issue? Are there times you have changed your mind?