Cultivating Heresy

Our communities of faith and justice require heretics– without them, we stop learning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson may be heralded among liberal circles now—but in his own lifetime, popularity was harder to come by.

Whereas his writings on nature received a handful of reviews in the first few years, his infamously scathing Harvard Divinity School Address resulted in nearly thirty different reviews in the first few months. His call to Harvard graduates was a warning of the role of the institution of Christianity, the deification of Jesus and the institutionally-enforced separation of the divine incarnated in all from the divine incarnated in only a few was deemed heretical. His commentary on the boring and disconnected preaching of his contemporaries was probably hurtful. His critics bitterly scorned him, his fellow transcendentalists adored him—or supported him quietly.

Ultimately, Emerson would be described by some preachers and scholars as the new liberal infidel—a heretic. It would be thirty years until Emerson would be invited to speak again at Harvard while, in the meantime, a violent polemic against him kept him out of religious pulpits and into academic podiums for the rest of his adult career. His ministerial principles remained at the core of his prophetic witness even outside of formal ministry.

They say one cannot be a prophet in one’s own city—this certainly seemed to be the case for Emerson.

But why not? If not your own city, where else?

Why aren’t we anchoring, honoring and cultivating our own, homegrown heretics?

By heretic I’m not referring to “people who complain” or even people who stand on the sidelines or blog-lines in vehement disagreement —but rather, an Emersonian heretic: the people who prophetically challenge and inspirationally name the theological and social idiosyncrasies and operating assumptions that they see as preventing individuals and communities from cultivating and embodying a vision of the beloved community.

Unitarian Universalism boasts a history of heresy, progressive leanings and harbors remarkable diversity. However, this heretical capital is squandered when the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” becomes a theological “free for all”—when beliefs are adopted willy-nilly and remained unquestioned and unchallenged by the community of fellow believers. More emphasis is placed on the people outside our walls—what “they” believe—rather than a thoughtful, principled but deep questioning of what the people in the pews around us believe.

Perhaps, we like to play nice—yes, we’re diverse but we don’t talk about it explicitly—rather than risk the anxiety that is provoked when we really get asked why it is we believe and do what we believe and do.

Heretics, by questioning these assumptions, can push us out of the shallow waters of half-hearted adoption and co-option of faith and ritual and into the depths of our own theology, causing us to ask important questions about the rituals of belonging and belief that we take for granted—why Jesus, why sermon, why Sunday, why interdependence, why Earth, why justice, why not?

We need to cultivate heresy.

In the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore what exactly makes certain stories, urban myths and tales “stick” whereas others fall apart. One of these factors is the role of the unexpected—that something perceived to be “the usual” starts down its usual plot line and ultimately, the expected plot gets turned upside down. After the idea is upside down, a sticky concept shows the viewer a new way to imagine “right side up.” This combination: expected, unexpected, new-undersanding-of-expected is a recipe for “stickiness.”  Without our expectations turned over and new ideas (even if only slightly tweaked old ideas) formed, things don’t seem to stick.

Perhaps heretics help with the stickiness of our own theologies—we need the disruption to help us re-evaluate the beliefs we hold—whether or not we end up changing them. Like those traditions that uphold the archetype of Coyote the trickster—we can see the dual role of Coyote as both, trickster and transformer. Coyote teaches through games and tricks, he surprises those who get too comfortable on the path, she pounces and plays games when the unsuspected stop tuning into the world within them and around them. Coyote teaches us that the moment we stop learning—and living—is the moment we stop paying attention.

Perhaps (and whether or not he would ever admit it) the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School invited Emerson to give the closing address in 1838 because they knew that something needed to be interrupted—they needed a visit from coyote. And I believe, more than ever, we need more coyotes: more coyotes in our congregations and non-profits, in our neighborhoods and social justice movements. Coyotes and heretics among us keep us alive from the real threats to our existence—our own stagnation.

When radical exiles leave other spiritual and social homes that oppress them on the search for a new place to belong, they aren’t just looking for some other safe space that is more “liberal”—they are looking for a place that knows how to stay liberal and how to stay alive. They are looking for places that don’t stop paying attention, that don’t stagnate. They were heretics in their own communities– is it possible they are looking for places where its okay to be heretical now?

Emerson’s life experience as heretic of Unitarianism teaches us that we need coyote in our congregations. Without coyote, without heretics, we stop paying attention—and when we stop paying attention, we stop learning—and when we stop learning, we stop living into the depths that call us together as theological beings.

The complexities of neighborly love

 

Join me in a walk down Unitarian Universalist (and congregational) history.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was an England-based congregational blue print for the future of independent churches free to associate, is definitely a piece in time. What does that mean? It means that religious folk were asking important questions about the ways their understandings of authority were all tangled up with state authority (a king ordained by God) as well as out-of-touch, hierarchical religious authority (outside people determining who has authority, who can take it away, how do you know if you have it). This was the struggle of their time– if we are not led by a hierarchy outside of our selves and we are independent, how do we associate with one another within our churches and between our churches?

For this deliberative group of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, religious authority was to “preach and teach”—and congregational polity (i.e. the way the congregation organized its arrangements of power and authority) would be determined by a people gathered who had been “called” authentically in their own hearts.

(Needless to say, the power to determine who is “called” is easily abused.)

However, I’m interested in what this platform, as part of liberal religious history, suggests for organizations and congregations/societies today.

Others have written what their deliberations might mean for issues of internal power and authority (see “Who’s in Charge Here: The Complex Relationship Between Ministry and Authority” — from UUA Commission on Appraisal for a more in-depth analysis of history, polity and its influence on the way we think about authority in churches today). Others, have asked questions about the role of Christian language in the platform (visit UU blogger Tom Schade who has something to say about it. His piece takes an all-too-familiar offensive posture at the use of Christian language in UUism, which necessitates this response: UUs were Christian, Christian language is part of our history and I think there is really nothing one-sided about including that side of our story in our reporting of where we came from and where we are headed.)

The Cambridge Platform suggests important relational agreements between congregations (and non-profits). Even though we are independent organizations who are “free to associate”—we freely associate embedded in value systems that uplift the complex values of interdependence.

What interdependence is lost in our struggle to wrestle power from distant hierarchies?

Early on in the platform, there is debate around what it means to leave one congregation for another congregation—because of (1) “future abolition” of the church (i.e. the church will be shut down and you want to leave before it does), (2) “pollution” (i.e. church drama), (3) “greater edification,” (i.e. I’m heading over to this other church because they have less drama and better food).

The platform isn’t too happy about this, noting that if this logic continued to other relationships chaos would ensue. In their words,  “future events do not dissolve present relations…. else wives, children, servants might desert their husbands, parents, master when they be mortally sick.” Let’s respond to this text tenderly for the nuggets of wisdom within it, even when though it does reflect a point in time when wives, children and servants lacked agency and power—i.e. the free association of most intimate!

When these “sound” members leave a “defective” church, the platform reasons, “reformation is not promoted.” For the platform writers, leaving communities (although rife with drama or division) did not model the “spirit of neighborly love” that they felt embodied in Biblical family and organizational life. Even if we are free to walk together only when called by the spirit, we were still bound by the complexity of community love—which called upon participants to stick around (even when it was tough) for the purposes of reformation. When drama strikes, the platform encourages that ‘sound’ individuals speak out about the breach of neighborly love within the church and then rely upon counsel of neighbors and elders to assist in reformation—which includes consulting with other churches for healing divisions within one’s own community.

This is the tension of “free association” and independence for a faith movement that also values its 6th and 7th principles: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” and “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart.” Our congregational ancestors emphasized the role of the individual in speaking about reformation from within, alongside the role of neighbors in assisting in reformation from the outside.

Churches talking to churches about their drama? Scary. And complicated. Our rules (designed by all good intentions to protect individuals’ worth and dignity) specifically limit the ways we talk church concerns between congregations—and that is more complicated between ministerial leadership, elected leadership and lay community members.  Yes, we talk church “joys” (i.e. regional church camp) but pain, powerlessness and confusion are often confined to the private rooms of omsbuds-people and district executives.  Too often, I think we’d find, we call in neighborly counsel when it is too late and too much damage has been done to our leadership and our community.

Perhaps the Cambridge Platform can re-orient us to attend to the tension we feel: the hunger to protect each of us in the midst of the desire to connect all of us in the complex work of “neighborly love.”

Imagine:

  • Churches that held council amongst themselves (and included lay and professional leadership) in sacred and intentional ways, within regions or smaller partnerships that met regularly to discuss and provide clarity on the issues that arose in their churches.
  • Non-profits that had safe spaces to admit internal struggle, financial fears and the burnout of competition for resources or materials– and designed new ways of relationship from it.
  • Organizations of faith communities that held one another accountable to the ways of peace-making– that when we speak negatively of someone or something’s actions, it is our responsibility as the listener to return our speaker to the person they are struggling with.
  • Spaces within communities of faith or social justice where concerns and grievances were safely aired– allowing those who are considering leaving to generate conversation about what is bothering them. (This is especially important given the fact that those who will leave a situation are often those who are uncomfortable with the confrontation of claiming their concerns or needs in a public space.)

What would it take to build free associations that still associated– for what is the worth of “free association” if we don’t have the depth of genuine interdependence that associates us?

Gratitude is good medicine.

(Image: Gratitude Practice at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm’s Sustainable Vocations 2012)

Jaipur, India – January 9, 2014

Daniel and I were scheduled to lead a workshop this week at a Jain conference on nonviolence and sustainability.  Our workshop would be held on the second full day of the conference, after long and exhausting hours of podium and panel-based lectures and presentations.

The night of our workshop, we located our small room in the basement of the center, loaded our short Powerpoint of photos, and began moving the conference-style seating into a circle– much to the alarm of the audio visual assistants. As people entered, we smiled, introduced ourselves and welcomed them. Even a Tibetan monk came to attend, a man who had once served alongside His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We knew we had done something right.

The powerpoint no one would ever see.
The powerpoint no one would ever see.

As a result of last-minute planning and a desire for all workshops to be represented, another organization walked in—we were now supposed to share the one-and-a-half hour time slot with new partners. Their presentation would be on Oki do Yoga and Meiso Shiatsu. Ours on authentic youth leadership for culture repair. To make matters more complicated, our shiatsu friends spoke predominantly Italian—a whole group had come (25+ people) from Italy in support of their Master teacher, Yahiro, who had a long-established relationship with this Jain community.

It quickly appeared our room would not be large enough to accommodate.

“We need to lay down…” said the leader of the workshop, in broken Italian, “… this is a practice-oriented workshop.” Of course, Daniel and I felt the same way about ours. Maybe this could be resolved after all.

However, we noted the 25+ concerned and disappointed looks on the faces of the Italians that had followed him to the workshop space and quickly discerned that it was unfit for their workshop plans.

The organizers of the conference soon appeared. We were to shift to a new space. Daniel and I grabbed our belongings and our power point and made the announcement.

As we arrived in the new space, we were informed we needed to shift to another new space. We gathered our belongings again, making our way through an uncovered dirt lot to a large, drafty room in the basement where sounds of construction made their way in from overhead.

This room satisfied the Italian group, many of whom quickly laid out mats and invited the workshop attendees, approximately 45+ people at this point, to lay down on their backs. Their workshop would be an experiential one, with Italian therapists and students of Shiatsu Yoga offering short treatments to conference-goers. People giddily laid down—including Daniel—to receive a treatment from a number of the kind, Italian faces that sat waiting on the ground.

Twenty minutes in to the workshop time and the organizers pulled me aside whispering, “Would you like to go back to the other room for your workshop and just split the two up?”

Of course not.

I was steaming. The monk took a chair in the corner to watch. So did I. I was frustrated by the moving and going, the re-arranging, the Powerpoint that would go unseen by poor planning. I felt my frustration gurgle within me, wishing I didn’t feel angry, wanting to push it away. I didn’t want to be touched.

I sat and watched near the monk and other individuals unable to lay on the ground. With gentle kindness, people began holding the hand and head and backs of those on the ground before them, listening to the Italian instructions from their leader. Instructed to feel for the beat of the heart and imagine with loving kindness the life that they now held, the room became relaxed, despite the ever-constant sound of construction just beyond the concrete wall.

In the kind, healing stillness, one person fell asleep, gently snoring. I was gestured at by the therapist-student, Pradeep, to take her place for the final five minutes.

I reluctantly lay down, hesitant to give up my stiffness.  With deep intentionality, Pradeep holds my head, placing pressure on my forehead with warm hands. The Italian instructor asks the students to imagine each of us with a radiating light. I feel that intention from Pradeep. The pressure from my forehead, releases. I felt grateful to be released from it, despite my reluctance.

Upon completion of their session, the instructor and the translator (his fellow practitioner and wife), looked to Daniel and I to use the remaining twenty minutes of the allotted time to proceed with our workshop.

Daniel and I knew: this was no time for a workshop on culture repair. This was a time for culture repair.

At our request, the 45+ people circled up, seated on the ground. With assistance in translation to Italian, we spoke briefly on the way of Gratitude Practice in our work in the USA—that it was not about credentials, leadership role or obligation—but about feeling deeply what one was grateful for in that moment. That was all. Nothing to prove, nothing to impress, no one you are obligated to “thank”—just what authentically brings us gratitude in that moment.  And—most importantly—there is always time for it: this is the one thing that does not not get sacrificed on the altar of our rush, limitations or time restrictions.

Around the circle we went. One by one, people offering gratitude. It was the first time in the entire conference that each voice was asked to speak. Beyond podiums or workshop leaders, professional credentials or critical questions—it was simply people saying their name and offering up what was making them grateful in the moment.

Some cried. Some laughed. Some spoke Italian, Hindi or English. No one needed to translate.

The Tibetan monk, previously perched on a chair in the back of the room observing, now inched his chair to the circle, just before it was time for him to speak. He offered his gratitude for the seen and unseen people involved in this moment, for the unknowable “phenomenon” of this life.

Other people were grateful their daughters were with them on this trip to India. To be around like-minded or like-visioned folk. Some were grateful to say what they were grateful for.  At the end, people hugged one another, having shared a session of both—intentional, embodied touch and heartfelt gratitude, there was an authentic sense of having connected through experience. We didn’t need to “talk” about what Gratitude means or what it can do for building connection, we simply needed to practice it.

Hear this: Gratitude is a good practice, and a deceptively simple one: every voice is heard and every voice is from the heart. And it is always worth the time.

What actually happened at the McCallum Theatre with Graham Nash

I was actually at the McCallum theatre when “Graham Nash exchanged words with audience members” (quote from My Desert news).

My mother had excitedly bought a ticket for herself (in the front row!) and invited my husband and I along—we sat up in the nose bleed seats with the commitment to drag my mom off Nash if flirting began (a long-standing joke between my Da, Mom, husband and I). All in all, my mom is still married to my Da.

But, more importantly, what actually happened at the McCallum Theatre with Graham Nash?

Two words: cognitive dissonance.

Nash opened up the concert with a 1,000+ audience of folks predominantly in the age bracket of 40- to 60-years-old. These are the folks who jammed to his music during the Vietnam War, knew exactly what he was talking about when he begged folks to come to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention and understood why we should be concerned about college students being shot in Ohio. They remember and they knew what was going on—possibly active, at least concerned, in the politics of their generation.

Now, here is Nash of 2013: he isn’t going to sing about the Vietnam War. He isn’t only going to sing about Ohio or Chicago—he is going to sing about the politics of the day: from fieldworker human rights to protections for whistle blowers to the self-immolation of Tibetan Buddhists in China. What raised the greatest stir (and resulted in people openly walking out) was his frank response to the trial of Bradley Manning as a result of his providing Wikileaks information about the realities of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Upon singing a song that called for protection for whistleblowers, the audience member who “exchanged words” yelled: “HE SHOULD BE HANGED!”

At which point, Nash calmly replied, guitar in hand: “What if he was your son?”

And then, as some audience members walked out and others cheered amidst the “boos” Nash calmly smiled, “Come on now, it’s only a song.”

This is cognitive dissonance: when an audience member buys a ticket to a Graham Nash concert because they “like the music—but not the politics”, and they forget it was always a critique against war and unjust politics (which included a remark about Obama’s presidency), and they sit there, in their seats, not understanding why Nash can’t just sing the “good old music” they used to agree with… or did they?

Cognitive dissonance is when you thought you were a hip guy who lived out in the desert, understood “struggle,” listened to the great classic and folk rock artists of your generation’s turmoil… but can’t hang with the turmoil of the present day. Its when you thought music was neutral and purely for your entertainment, and realized it was charged, pointed and possibly prophetic– demanding that you do something as a result of hearing it. I mean, really, the audacity of the artist!

More responses from the online audience– two from religious higher education: 

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Yes, please, “grow up” and stop with this political change and activism crap. I mean, the message of 70’s (and Jesus) was great and all, but haven’t you been socialized to obey the media and the government by now? Jeeze. Get a real job, Nash, and plan for your retirement. Who needs your human rights message anyways.

So, in honor of Nash:  I was worried for you in the beginning of the show, wondering aloud to my husband, “Does he know what city, hell, what county, he is in?” and left grateful for an example of authentic music-making that stayed relevant and didn’t fear the few that will always walk out when something doesn’t line up with their reality.  That is what music does at it’s best.

Many of us who live in this community– and who are spiritual, religious and everything else– attended your show and were grateful for it.

Story of (de)Centered.

When one initiates a blog, it is important to put some context around where the words are coming from– who is this person, why is this topic important to them and where do they locate themselves in the conversation? While no blog aiming to be less than 1000 words (already too much) could cover a human story, this is a start. Future blogs will fill in the rest.

My name is Samantha. I’m from Moreno Valley, CA.

I first became interested in ministry during high school. As a youth I attended leadership development camps and summer/winter camps at our local Unitarian Universalist camp, deBenneville Pines. My activism was formed by an alchemy of mentors, make-shift leadership positions, our high school “Anti-Hate” Club and 9-11. I was a freshman in high school when the twin towers fell, and I was awakened to how little I knew of the world outside of Moreno Valley—particularly about my Muslim brothers and sisters.

When I announced my desire to become a minister, my mentor at the time was less than thrilled; “The church is too small for you,” he said, “you need to be in the world.”

I attended my undergrad at UC Riverside and committed myself to Religious Studies and Global Studies. My college sweetheart and I ultimately went off to India together to study abroad and India had much to teach us—I was medically evacuated with an unknown illness that mimicked malaria, lived in a beautiful city (Hyderabad) that had experienced a terrorist attack and ultimately broke up with my partner. India kicked me out.

Rightfully so. Ivan Illich has something say about privileged folks using volun-tourism, no matter the “good intention,” only to realize their own powerlessness. Although I was a student, my ultimate realization was how little I knew, how fragile I was and how ultimately unprepared young people my age were to be in transnational dialogue that did not perpetuate the same oppressive frameworks as our colonial  ancestors. These are lessons anti-racism communities have already formed, but have yet been taken to the transnational context– where nationality, mobility and history matters in different and similar ways.

It was not a matter of “stop doing global work” (as some local activists told me), because the choice of having global impacts on other lives is the ultimate illusion—our choices do have an impact. And if we were not talking to each other to care for our world then evangelist missionaries, corporations and governments would do the talking for us—we had to dialogue, but we had to do it in a better way.

I applied for funding upon my return to start what was supposed to be a small, one-year project—a transnational youth leadership experiment that named leadership as acting in ways relevant to local communities and in dialogue with global peers, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Child Leader Project (CLP) organically grew into its own non-profit, becoming one of my primary learning spaces of spirituality, community and connection over the next five years. In 2013 I stepped down from leadership into a support role to the USA- and Indian-based leaders who continue to this day in youth organizing that creates the container to hold young people in reflecting, connecting, dialoguing and acting in the world.

For me, this was how we “know” something—we live into it. In collaboration with the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, I drafted a proposal for a community-based participatory action research office at the University of California-Riverside to institutionalize this way of “knowing”. The goal was to mentor undergraduate students to connect with community organizations on projects that matter to the non-profits and their community members. The best education was praxis (reflection-action) oriented: requiring a reflective mind and curious intellect, but ultimately a body that was willing to show up, listen deeply, speak from the heart and be changed.

Two years at a research university quickly reminded me of the message from my high school mentor. Was this enough? I was negotiating the tensions of the “hard sciences” with a community- and student-centered model of research as uncovering new knowledge(s) through honoring the experience of the individual or the community. I knew I needed to be learning, teaching and practicing in communities where the words “love” and “justice” were taken as seriously as “qualitative” and “quantitative”—and where does one do that? Was that at the public university as a professor, in the parish as a minister, on the street as an activist, in the home as a member of a family or community or environment?

By then, at age 24, I applied to and was accepted at Claremont School of Theology for my Master of Divinity. I wasn’t sure if ordained UU ministry was the specific calling, but I knew it pointed to something— it named my hunger to be in the world as a thoughtful, action-oriented and healing presence.

At 26, I find myself writing this blog. Having worked within multiple non-profits—from faith-based to social service-oriented—as well as directing my own, I know the struggle and the joy of organizing around a mission, meeting some goals and missing the mark on others. Having served in parishes, youth ministry, preaching as a guest or developing curriculum on spiritual activism, I know the desire for faith movements to be relevant and yet deeply rooted to their past, to provide a framework of meaning-making in an awesome and awful world. Having worked in the university as a student, researcher and director—I know the joys of learning and the necessity for access to knowledge but the dangers of knowledge narrowly defined, definitions codified and truth canonized to exclude. As a new with my incredible husband, I am learning what it means to be in relationship, to craft a kin of intention, negotiate in-laws or family members who disapprove of me as well as reclaim those relationships that are life-giving and need tending.

This is where I am learning what it means to minister, to attend to the world—beginning with my own, and spiraling outward. I learn in my skin, centered. I learn from others, decentered beyond my own experience, my own ancestors, my own context.

This blog is a reflection of what I have learned, what I am learning and all the things I do not know about what it means to be a de-centered activist hungry for wholeness. I look forward to sharing, dialoguing and being changed with you!

Where are the fathers? (Or, “Two films and a plea for the sacred masculine.”)

Before getting married in May 2013, I was seeing a therapist. My husband and I were struggling with the abusive behaviors from his family (who certainly disapproved of our relationship and his choices) and knew we both needed more tools to figure out what being a “husband” and “wife” meant. What models had we seen in our own parents? Did they work out? And how would we be whole people in the midst of lacking approval from family members who mattered?

THE FILMS

Overwhelmed by what comes up in the deep work of the soul, we watched a documentary on Netflix called Absent  —a film by Justin Hunt on the phenomena of disengaged fathers, and the powerful, individual and collective wounds that result from their absence.

Beyond winning a slew of awards, the film takes on the general experience of fatherlessness—where are the fathers, what happened to them, and what happens to the family (and society) in their absence. This “father wound” is deep and has important implications.  The website  reflects on the need of a conversation about this reality: “Nothing is more damaging than when the question ‘Am I good enough?’ is asked of the father by the child, and the answer is silence.”

I don’t see this as a heteronormative ploy that romanticizes the roles of “father” and “mother,” nor harkens back to some remembered time when life was easy or even “traditional.” The archetype of the father or the mother—the people who protect us, guide us, and unconditionally accept us—exists in same-sex families, and, by some understandings, probably plays out even more concretely as same-sex couples explore the dynamics of the masculine and the feminine far beyond one’s biology—or one’s assumed role as man or woman. (Check out Deida’s exploration of the dynamic energy of masculine and feminine in his handbook for those who identify with the masculine).

No, this is about something deeper. And the candid interviews in Absent speak to that—the hunger in each of us for the approval of the first person outside our mothers who accepts us, affirms us, tells us that “we are enough” and that we are worthy of their protection, care and unconditional love and support.

I know I’ve experienced this wound. My lineage is a story of absent fathers and grandfathers, reconciled by a step-father who so actively “chose” me – unconditionally—as to mediate some of the damage of men in my life who actively chose otherwise, from outright rejection to “unfriending” on Facebook (my, how social media ushers in new forms of disownment).

Where this could go deeper, is where other people have picked up: there is no “universal” experience of fatherlessness.

The Black Fatherhood Project, a film by Jordan Thierry, explores the role of systematic slavery, racism, discrimination and incarceration on the black family and the role of black men as fathers. Thierry’s grasp of the context of African families pre-slavery (beyond the quip-y version of “it takes a village to raise a child” into the lived version of that statement: a village knew their obligatory role in the raising, cultivation and honoring of each child in the community and the development of their gift in the world of that village) and into conversations with fathers shows a story of the systemic ways black men have been disempowered as fathers and protectors. As featured psychologist  Dr. Wade argues in the film, black men have internalized a brutal experience in relationship to their embodiment of the sacred masculine in their families and communities: “Yes, you are my woman and you are my child—but I could not protect you from the horror of slavery.”

The film points to what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has so eloquently exposed: the mass incarceration of black and brown men (in Washington D.C. alone, 3 out of every 4 black men can expect to spend time behind bars) is the newest form of legalized slavery—and the newest way to insure the dismantling of black culture, black community and the integrity of the black family. This is not corrective—this is cultural genocide.

So what does that mean for the wholeness of black men and their families?

And what does the phenomenon of the absent father mean to other communities—or to someone who identifies as an “activist”?

THE PLEA: FAMILY SYSTEMS AND THE ORGANIZATION

As a spiritual activist, these films remind me of the concept of a family. How often have we described an organization as “our family”—without perhaps thinking about what that really meant? What does family really mean, given the experience of absence so many of us are facing—as mothers, fathers, children? As activists, what family wounds do we bring to our justice and healing work—and to our organizations?

In my own work in youth organizing, we were often unprepared for experiences within the organization that called for “discipline” of youth and young adults when wrong-doing took place. We often lacked the elder presence—the presence with the long-view of the community, who passes on the culture, maintains expectations and yet somehow, simultaneously, offers an unconditional love and joy at life as it figures itself out. In the way of the dynamic masculine and feminine balance, we lacked the masculine—our “safe spaces” where unconditionally loving, but ill-prepared to balance that safety with what is required for safety in the first place: a sense of protection, a cosmic, compassionate order.

What was worse? When we were ill-prepared to deal with the pains within the organization, our lack of preparation resulted in the same behaviors that we witness in families who lack the dynamic balance—individuals were asked “to leave.”  In other organizations you may have fired someone, or maybe you moved a minister to a different congregation. In ways, they were dis-owned in the sense that they no longer “belonged” to us. We all knew this process was counter to our mission and work—yet we lacked another model to deal with those who behaved in harmful ways—and we see this in most places, movements, jobs.  The inevitable outcome would be the loss of those folks  into a community equally ill-prepared to mentor them, hold them in their loss of belonging and support them through their own self-reflection—or even worse, perhaps, is that individual’s continued harm within a new community or to themselves.

Do we model organizations after the same family dynamics that have wounded each of us? Are we reliving our family trauma in our social movements? This is not to say we accept harmful behavior– absolutely not. But this does point at the systems (the culture) in which we model care and address harm. Care may be borderless, but it maintains good boundaries, and roles can help us in achieving that.

(And for those of you in religious communities who personify God as “father,” a whole other load of questions should be raised by these realities.)

So there is a role for these conversations in our work—and our movements, organizations, coalitions and congregations have much to learn from the dynamic and ambiguous archetypes that are masculine, feminine, young one, householder and elder. The role of the village, literally—not in a cute way, but a deep way—is real. And the implication of a society of absent fathers—and fathers who are emotionally wounded by their own absence and disconnection to their families—have real consequences and insights for our work in repairing our own lives and the lives we touch within and beyond our organizations.

 

When are we more alive in our work?

My colleague, Daniel and I will be going to India in January 2014 to present at a Jain Concerence in Rajasthan. The conference is the 8th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action (ICPNA). This year’s theme is “Towards a Nonviolent Future: Seeking Realistic Models of Peaceful Co-existence and Sustainability.” It is hosted by the Anuvrat Global Organization.

This year’s theme looks at the intersection of sustainability and non-violence. Daniel and I are looking towards sharing what youth mentoring, leadership and organizing has meant in the context of nature connection and the Cultural Repair Movement in California.

I’m new to this concept– but I think I’ve been part of the movement for awhile, especially among those who see activism as wholeness, as living out lives that, in the words of Ivan Illich, are “alive enough to be shared.”  Even in creating this blog, inspired from my Public Scholar Activism course at Claremont School of Theology, my professor was assisting me in making more concrete what it exactly I wanted to speak to. Her suggestion has grown on me: it is about people learning to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before they try to “help” someone else. 

Cultural repair isn’t about self-centered people getting high on their own oxygen masks, but it is about remembering what it was like when we were living more grounded lives– the culture itself was the greatest source of oxygen, our communities, work, families weren’t places to escape from or left us depleted but places that nourished us.

Cultural repair speaks to that aching hunger to return to … something. Something that feels like it is in our memories, something that we catch glimpses of at pot lucks of compassionate friends, circles of allies or sweet moments when our work feels like a creative process that brings more life to ourselves and the world. It reminds us that there are natural cycles that pattern the natural world, and we, as part of that, have cycles, processes and ways of being that we have neglected– the importance of inspiration, the role of focused work, the rejuvenation of timeless siestas and playfulness, nourishing food and the role of story-telling around the fire under a night sky. These things are not luxuries, these are spiritual necessities– deep within us we are aching to return to this memory of well-being.

This movement, most often associated with the work of Jon Young and the Eight Shields Model, is not just about deep ecology and nature-connection– it is also about personal transformation and social justice. In the words of Young, it is about “optimizing the human operating system.”

Can you imagine an organization or faith community or campaign that leaves you feeling more alive than when you joined it? Where the process of gathering is as important as the potential “products”– the voting rights maintained, land conserved, unjust laws repealed are enhanced by the community of intention and care that worked towards them? Where we paid attention to the design of our gatherings, our meeting spaces, our meals, our personal lives and yearnings? Where we started and ended in gratitude?

That is cultural repair. It is about repairing our culture to be naturally healing, sustaining and life giving.

So, Daniel and I are off to India with these questions: what does this movement mean in social justice? What does social justice have to teach this movement? What does this say of the spirit? Further– how does the movement frame itself in a way that includes or excludes different communities of people? When this knowledge is recognized as coming from brown and black bodies (much emphasis is placed on the wisdom from the bushmen communities of the Kalahari to the wisdom of council in indigenous North and South America), yet few folks of color are present at workshops, what does this say of the need to re-design, re-learn and listen more deeply ahead as we acknowledge the classism, racism and exclusion of our environmental movements?

The Jain community of North India will be dynamic conversation partners in this effort. Jainism is well-recognized for its emphatic focus on the life of all beings and the inherent, explicit interconnectedness of all life– physically and karmically. Furthermore, the Jain concept of anekantavada  or “non-onesidedness”/”many-sidedness”, has much to say to the adversarial antagonism of movements for justice that claim absolute truth or prescriptive answers to complex realities.

Our proposals are below– and we are hungry for feedback: what does a movement like this raise for you? Where have you experienced work and life that is “alive enough to be shared” and what made it that way? 

—–

Presentation Title: “Bird Song and the Listening Spirit: Growing the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In the United States, fragmented movements for ecological and social justice face language of scarce resources and adversarial needs—as social justice movements work diligently for the rights of human beings, ecological justice movements give voice to the inherent aliveness of nature and warning to our self-destruction. Both models, however, often lack the spiritual tools and self-reflection to sustain themselves in the midst of financial, social and political strains and embedded injustice in our society. An inclusive approach to the Cultural Repair movement is a response to this hunger for what sustains us by including earth- and human-connection and fueling (through living) in regenerative ecological communities of care. This paper will examine these philosophical foundations, current manifestations, opportunities and challenges for growing the movement to repair our world.

Workshop/Experiential Learning Segment: “Children and Youth: Our Radical Teachers in the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In Southern California, social and ecological justice activists have come together in common movements to provide learning spaces for diverse youth to reflect, connect, dialogue and take action in healing their community, ecologically and socially. These best practices are part of larger movements, returning to indigenous and ancient wisdom, that engage people in reconnecting to the earth, to themselves and to their own spirits through outdoor activities and community living. This workshop will share (and practice) some of these best methods in case studies from California in which youth and children serve as leaders and teachers in re-discovering what keeps them, and us, alive.

A Love Letter to My Husband (and a Lineage of Women)

I am hungry for stories of activist folks who fall in love deeply, who grapple with what it means to commit in their own lives.

In honor of Durga Puja, my husband (V) and I committed to exploring local mandirs (Hindu temples) in search of spiritual home(s). As we were driving, V pulled out his cell phone and wanted to read a love letter I had emailed him almost exactly a year prior. This post is an adaptation of that letter.

I think more activists should share the love letters they write to each other, to themselves and to their lovers. 

What letters have you written? What do they uncover in you?

————————————————————————-

October 12, 2012

Dear V,

When my mom got home from work (she is a third grade teacher), it was obvious that I had something I was excited about. You. I felt my internal resistance to talking to her. I was finishing an online posting at the last minute (as per usual) and we didn’t have much time. From my swivel chair she acknowledged that I haven’t been home as much… where was I hanging out?

“I’ve been visiting V in Los Angeles.” I’m trying not to grin.

“Uh oh. So this is serious.” She looks tired. She looks suspicious.

I knew she’d say that. I don’t tell my mom about male friends or boyfriends– I know internally that I do that because I’m afraid of disappointing her. I’m afraid that someone comes around and then disappears. I’m afraid that I bring someone home she doesn’t like. I’m afraid I repeat the same mistakes she did, or my grandma did– giving up my power for someone who isn’t worthy of it. I’m so afraid of settling. I’ve been afraid of “settling” all my life. This is typical of a #7 Enthusiast in the Enneagram.

Its almost 5PM. My post is due at 5PM. We agree to talk at dinner.

I begin frantically reading. Its an essay from a book, Mining the Motherload: Methods in Womanist Ethics by Stacey Floyd-Thomas. I’m caught by the definition of Womanism proposed by Alice Walker in 1983:

WOMANIST
1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

I scribble “DAMN” in the margins with a black pen. How long have I held my heart back, not loving myself, not loving the Spirit, not loving men, out of fear? Why do I care so much about what other people think when it comes to love? Why do I approach love with a linear, phallocratic, Eurocentric understanding of being a “virtuous person” as someone who would have to “get it right” and “keep it together” and prove to the world she doesn’t make mistakes– because she has the intellect and moral righteousness to discern what is “good and right”– even with men. “Ah ha!” I would prove and show them in total perfect togetherness, “I figured it all out!”

The text continues, “…to survive in the subjugated roles as daughter, mother, and wife, but also to create a context in which she can audaciouslycourageously, or willfully be responsible , in charge and serious about her own self-determination.”

Have I ever felt that way about my personal life– the deeply personal, the intimate, the sexual, the creative, the regenerative? I do that in my non-profit work just fine, but that is external. That is like a phallus. It hangs out there and is in the light and “classically” masculine. But the divine feminine within me? Has she ever felt that way? Deeply responsible and self-determining? Not painfully conscientious of what “it might look like” to other people if she lost it, if she fell into it, if she was broken open or apart or fragile?

I think I understand Kali. I get it. I did something similar. There was a wedding at some point and the person I had been waiting for, my true love, showed up with dreadlocks just too long for an over-protective father, and the whole thing got called off, and I lost my sense of self-determination… and the world would know.  And I would let my non-profit be a shield for how deep the rampage would be. On the outside I’d just look like an old soul with deep purpose and on a mission, not someone avoiding real vulnerability and the pain of a broken heart and an over-functioning parental archetype.

I finish my post. Mom and I pour wine. She starts into it. She says she has been thinking about this– this me liking “…R… or is it V? Well, R is easier for me to say right now, so, I’m going to say that…” and she wants me to know she gets it.

“You get it?”

I’m easing up a bit. The fear of judgment is leaving. Mom is being vulnerable with me about her fears for my loneliness. So often, at family gatherings, we talk about me in the context of “probably not getting married or really being partnered with someone else.. just being single… doing social justice.”

This opens me. And I begin to share with her the little things, the details, the visions, that light me up about you. She listens, she responds, she affirms that something has shifted in me. “You’ve been lighter the last week or so. We’ve noticed.” I tell her that I believe something is deep and important about you and me. That I trust it. That I think… that I believe… it is something here to stay.

“Wow,” she says. “This is serious.”

Then she does something I don’t expect: she admits that she has been thinking about you and I since you first met my parents. When I was in elementary school/middle school my mom returned to college to complete her bachelor’s degree. My dad (biological dad) was working the graveyard shift in Los Angeles for satellite system development. They were a poor match. It was going south fast. And it coincided with my mom going back to college at Cal State San Bernardino. She wasn’t sure what she wanted: major in Liberal Studies and become a teacher OR major in Music?

I forgot this story– but it was big. This is part of my narrative and my mom and I relived it tonight through her story-telling.

My mom was stuck between music and teaching. She loved piano. The first year of her returning to school is characterized (in my mind) with the sound of piano – 24/7 – in the house. She practiced hours and hours. 3AM, 4AM… the sounds of piano. I’d fall asleep to her playing piano, woke up to it. She’d have classical music playing and would be memorizing the phrases, hungry to do well in her theory classes. She lived and breathed music. I’d sit and listen to her with chocolate milk, or I’d be responsible for turning pages. I’d feel proud if I could keep up with the music and turn the page at the perfect time.

She is reliving this story with me tonight at the dinner table. She went back and forth so much about her major… “Minor in Music and major in Liberal Studies? Minor in Liberal Studies and major in Music?” I’d make her these little print-out certificates off of our old computer that congratulated her and affirmed her every time she made up her mind about what she would do. There were probably three different certificates that went something like this (over the course of a year):

“Congratulations: Making Your Mind on Majoring in Liberal Studies and Minoring in Music.”
Then she’d take a theory class that would blow her mind, or she’d go to a show. I’d have to make a new certificate.

“Congratulations to My Mom: Master of Making Her Mind About Majoring in Music and Minoring in Liberal Studies.”

Then my parents got divorced. My grandfather disowned my mom and I for being too liberal and independent. She was doing three jobs to keep my sister and I with a “normal” life of comfort in the house we grew up in. We ate food she picked up on the way home from her work and her school at night at 8PM or later. She had to ask herself “the hard questions about what would actually make money.”

At this point tonight she is almost crying. She is wiping her eyes. I’m pushing our empty plates to the side to hold my wine glass in one hand and reach out to her with the other.

“My professors said I had it. I could do music. I could be a piano player. I could be a music teacher. I could be an artist. But it wouldn’t allow me to take care of you. Teaching would do that.”

So there was a third certificate I made back then. And when I made it then I probably didn’t realize that it was my mom making a sacrifice to take care of me and my sister rather than fall into the fierce heat of living.

“I have to admit,” she says. “That one night when V was here and said he played in the Rite of Spring, my mind couldn’t stop. Could I hear that music again? Could I have that part of my life again? I pushed it aside, I put a lid on it because I decided to take care of you all. The most important job I’ve had in my entire life was being a mother– taking care of you and your sister. But, I miss music. I want music in my life. I want that music in my life.”

…to survive in the subjugated roles as daughter, mother, and wife, but also to create a context in which she can audaciously, courageously, or willfully be responsible, in charge and serious about her own self-determination.”

My mom continues. “Did you know your grandma has perfect pitch?”

I smile. “No. But I believe it.”

My grandma was a show singer. That is how she met my grandfather (the same dude that disowned me and mom, they are divorced now, of course). She was singing at Radio City Music Hall in her twenties and my grandfather ran into her on a street corner in New York. He fell in love with her eyes– a lit-up lime green, with a huge heart to back them up. He asked her to dinner that night. She couldn’t, she had a show. She invited him to that. He heard her sing. They were married within months.

And, within the year of their marriage, he asked her to stop singing. It brought “too much attention” to her. He wanted to control, to own, to manage. She sang with so much expression– you could feel her emotion. Her heart. My mom sings the same way. People in church would say that it was almost too intimate to watch my mom sing– her whole body, her whole spirit sang. My grandma stopped singing. She sings at AA meetings (she became an alcoholic, got divorced from my abusive grandfather and ended up marrying a man in the entertainment industry to whom she is still married… barely.)

I’m sitting at the table and piecing this all together. I’ve thought about it before, but never with the full holding of my mom’s sacrifice of music to take care of me and my sister.

So, yes. I understand Kali Ma. I get it. I’d do it too. I’d destroy everything. Sometimes I feel like I’m responsible for destroying it all on behalf of these women. As if their fathers said, “No– you won’t marry the dirty Rishi.” And they went ahead with the nice boy at the party who studied at IIT and got the highest marks on the exam and came from a nice Brahmin family with great qualifications and fine Bio Data. And they held it in.

And the girl children they bore, if we are aware of it as the bearers of that internal sacrifice, hold within us a seed of that rage. That destructive, angry, rage. I know I carry it. I know I’ve fashioned myself armour from it. You have a metal armour you speak of melting… I think I have skulls and seeds and feathers. I’ve gathered the Earth around me, the days in the garden and in the forests, and I’ve built myself a wild thing to protect me from the metal and the cold and the plastic of nice boys who studied at IIT and the false promises they make to care for you when its really about control, management and fear of the flame.

And now there is you.

I don’t know if this metaphor makes you Lord Shiva. I don’t know if you’ve offered your chest for me to stand on, just enough so I open my eyes and stick out my tounge and stop myself in the midst of my rampage. And I’m scared to say all that I want to say, because I know we promised we’d go slow. “Deliciously slow,” in fact. But, at the same time, I know something. I know that this is all meant to be.

And the thing is this: I’ve been praying for you. And maybe the whole time Kali was praying for someone, too. It takes a lot of energy to run around and destroy that much. But its true, I’ve been praying for you. I used to lay in bed at night or while driving and pray there was someone out there in the world, somewhere, who was very busy doing amazing things. At night, in bed, when I felt most alone and longed to be held and loved and honored I’d say, “You. I know you are out there. I know you are somewhere in this world, inspired. You are. And we’ll meet. And we’ll ask where were you? And we’ll say, you know. And I hope you are loving and living wherever you are right now. And I can’t wait to find you.” Sometimes I’d cry when I’d think it. But I knew, there was someone out there in the world moving and shaking and changing things and that I’d meet them when we both sat down for a breather.

Its hard to know what to do with so much happiness. I am learning to float. But you should know that I am firm in my belief for what we are creating. And I don’t want to scare you, I don’t want to chase you away or me away or worry you. I just need you to know that you are the prayer answered. I’m awakened. Two poems:

The first, an e. e. cummings poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

The second, David Whyte:

Self Portrait

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

And some kind of curse is lifted, a curse of women who left their music (their creation/their curves/their Spirit/their force/their food) for their men or their children. And I dare to believe I can fall in love and embody the ancient feminine, the masculine, the everything… and I can do it, not in spite of my partner… but because, just possibly, there is a partner that inspires it in me.

Now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened. And I promise not to hurt you, but to wake up at the touch of my feet to your chest. I promise to live with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of my sure defeat.

In that fierce embrace.

Your Sam

A Manifesto (For the Manifesting)

A Manifesto (To Manifest, Change, Adapt, Challenge, Question and Engage)

For those who do not believe volunteers and staff should (always) sacrifice their lives for “the cause.” For those who want to upset the belief that activism is external. For those who want to upset the belief that “Gandhi” and “MLK” and “Dorothy Day” should be our go-to pinnacles of activism. Who ache to overturn the idea that activism comes from altruism. Who want to acknowledge the woundedness activists bring to the work and perpetuate in their organizations and on each other. Who want to upset the belief that time spent in reflection, gratitude or care detracts from the urgency of “the work.” Who want to argue that reflection, gratitude and care are the work and what sustains the work. Who want to upset models of change that fall back on fear and adversarial politics to rouse “support” and “energy” and who want to piss off those who profess to practice activism from within the isolation of privilege.

Who want to connect people who hunger for an activism of wholeness. Who want to ask the deeper questions about why they are activated that go beyond models of sacrifice, perfection/redemption and obligation. Who want to connect people who operate out of their gifts and not out of their (un)conscious wounds. Who want to connect to activists that are wounded and asking questions about it—and how we perpetuate it. Who want to connect with other people who are practicing the world they are activists for, naming the mishaps, sharing the flaws and dialoguing about what is and is not keeping us alive as human beings who live in communities and in families and in relationships. The practitioners. The seekers. The lovers.

This is a site for those who want to co-lead and co-convene. Who want to lead and be led by people who unfold into knowing who they are as they become, who strive to know their wounds, who strive to know their gifts and who help others by practicing wholeness themselves.Who want to lead with other leaders who speak in an authentic voice, knowing the differences between them and not pretending to have the same experience but who carry a common belief—it matters what we’ve experienced, it matters how we’ve been wounded, it matters what our gifts are and it matters how we live and organize in the world.

This is the work. This is a space to practice self-reflection and curiousity. To seek out models of living and working that sustain and generate more life (rather than burn out).

It is possible for our organizations to leave us more alive than when we entered.