"Landfill Baby" by Deb Nikula

Noticing the Foot

It is the end of my first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit. Four-hundred hours of supervised spiritual care at LA County Hospital—and I feel as if I am standing amongst the rubble of my life.

It is like a moment from our time in class, told with permission from its transmitter and my colleague, Wally. Wally was sharing an incredible learning story. He had just returned that week from an emergency request to tend to a man that had died and come back to life.

The man was a roofer. He had driven his truck to the landfill to drop off old tiles. Backed his truck in, dumped the tiles, and had stepped out of his truck to ensure all the tiles had been disposed of. As he stepped out, standing at this pile, a plowing truck turned the corner. The truck was plowing the landfill trash to make more room for more dumping and, unbeknownst to that driver, was headed straight for the man, his truck, and his pile of tiles.

Without much time at all, the man found himself swept up by the landfill plow, carried away with the pile of rubble, tiles, baby diapers, dust, leaves, trash. Screaming and yelling, the driver couldn’t hear him. Bit by bit, carried away, the man’s body was compacted by the oncoming trash as more and more came upon him, his screams muffled as his lungs took on the refuse. He was sure he was finished.

Despite that, his upside down body compacted, someone at the landfill saw the plough, saw the trash and noticed something strange—a single, human foot shaking and moving peeping out from the top of the trash. Something was more human about that foot than usual, so the person ran screaming to the plough to stop its motion.

The plough stopped. The paramedics were called. The next thing the man knew, he was staring into Wally’s eyes, coughing up dust, whispering gratitude.

Wally tells us this story, touched by the experience. We are stunned.

To get the words flowing, our supervisor asks the obvious question one would ask after a story like that:

“And where was God?”

Her question, his story, stay with me. I know I have fashioned my life an incredible city—with a mighty landfill. Landfills—our temples to dispensability. Cathedrals to the “its in the past.” Congregations of “I’m over it.” Stained glass windows of what got broken and never restored. Just dump and go—don’t hang around too long. Dump and go. Don’t look. I came to CPE expecting I could go to the dump to drop off my latest dreams and intuitions for compacting and returned unscathed to become an ordained clergy person.

But this time, I didn’t make it back.

And really—who ever does? If we are not caught in the rubble now, when? I was born in 1987—the first year, scientists say, that the earth began to consume more resources than it could sustain. I have been born at a time of unprecedented dumping—the dumping of human lives into Twin Towers County Jail or the human landfill of Skid Row, testimony to our belief that certain lives are more dispensable than others. Each year of my life I’ve lived in the largest cosmic landfill we’ve ever known. And at what point will each of us finally get swept up in our own rubble? What about me? When I have or lose my first child? Lose the last of my parents? When I wake up in a job that I thought was a calling, but was really the closing of other dreams? An illness, a cancer, that puts me in this hospital?

There we are, each of us, caught in the momentum of the rubble of our own lives.

So… where do I see God in that?

As a Universalist mystic, the sacred and profane are one—holy the moment, holy the expanse, holy the plough, holy the paycheck pushing the plough, holy the tiles, holy the diapers, holy the screaming for life.

But for now at this moment, baptized in the rubble of my life, it was and is most profoundly and specifically this:  holy are the story catchers who sit among the expanse of rubble, thoughtfully available, to notice the foot.

Thank you for noticing my foot.

I will leave here to sit, like that thoughtful observer, amongst the rubble of my life and amongst those who see the rubble for what it truly is—the gritty foundation for something more incredible, more true, more honest. The rubble from which life begins again.

This piece written for a closing ceremony of Summer Interfaith Chaplain Interns at LA County Hospital / St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, CA. June 2014.  

Cosmos

Know yourself. Know yourself very, very well.

There we were. 15 weeks of asking how to create “Ecologies of Care.” 15 weeks of video taping care sessions, readings, in-class fish bowl exercises, video examples and one-on-ones. 15 weeks exploring the question of how to help people and how to know when we are helping people and when we are projecting onto people. 15 weeks of tension, break downs, break ups, break opens and break throughs.

Our final class. The professor, Rev. Dr. Kathleen Greider starts with her delicious stare across the room inviting any last questions. I mean, after all, what more could you want to ask after 15 weeks? We have one minute left. Last chance.

A single hand raises. She recognizes the hand.

“Uh, so… this might sound strange but…. How do we help people?”

The class laughs in solidarity at the request for more clarity on a topic we’ve been studying for 15 weeks. After all, there is a saying in this community—before you can construct, you must deconstruct. And some of us? Well some of us were less Cathedral and more… legos.

She leans over the podium, removing her glasses. We are breathless. Waiting. Guru on the podium top, oh ye with dry erase marker, what is it that you know.

She states calmly: “Know yourself. Know yourself, very, very well.”

And so it is with the divine. From my Unitarian Universalist reading of the Judeo-Christian Genesis, we are imagined from a God who leaned over the edge, and, before any dictation or brooding or breathing or experiencing or dialoging with that great, tehomic depth is struck—for to lean over the waters is to see your own face upon them.

Know yourself. Know yourself well.

Like a child leans over to see their own face in a Southern Californian swimming pool or the mother bear, who stands in the alpine stream waiting for the salmon beneath the waters to leap– or the ways each of us does when we walk by the store front windows and we catch ourselves, even if but for a moment, struck by the sight of our own embodiment, our own being on the street—to create we are first confronted with our own creation. To create, God is confronted with the mirror of creation. God is confronted with God’s self. Before this God could create, she had to be confronted by her own being.

Now, this isn’t tehomic-depths navel-gazing. I’m not talking pop psychology or the cult of self-care. This isn’t that divine mystery taking a selfie to post on Facebook. This is the confrontation, that world-inducing reality when we are forced to see ourselves as the starting place of the holy task.

I’m grateful for the story of a God who stayed with God’s self. Not doubting the worthiness of her procalamation. Not doubting the dignity she could bring singing over the waters.  As children of non-profits and social movements and churches rife with misconduct and as students of a school hungry to figure out what religion and church means to this world so desperate for change and healing today—I am grateful.

I am grateful for the reminder that before there was the word, there was the recognition of worth.

May CST know herself. May our faith movements, our social justice movements know themselves. And may we know ourselves.

Very, very well.

A reflection written for the final Baccalaureate Service at Claremont School of Theology, May 2014 on Genesis 1.

During Daniel's and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.

We’ll Build a Land: 2 People. $2200 each. By April 22nd.

March 22, 2014

Two People. $2200 each. By April 22.

Help us buy 1 acre in 1 month before Earth Day 2014!

Sristi Land Visit
Sristi board members, including youth and adults, visit the potential site of the village.

Dear Friends and Family,

What would you do if less than 1% of people who were like you could find employment?

For nearly 10 years, my close friend Karthik has been asking that question. He has served as the director of Baby Sarah’s Home Orphanage in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India—a nationally-recognized community for children who have been orphaned due to intellectual or physical disabilities.  During his time there and during my time as the Executive Learner at CLP, Karthik and I worked alongside Indian young adult leaders to do intentional, inclusive leadership programming for youth from his orphanage and surrounding communities.

After 10 years, Karthik has watched the children of his community grow up into adults who have few options for sustainable, life-giving employment as they aged out of the orphanage. Nationwide, less than 1% of people with different physical or intellectual abilities in India receive viable employment. This community makes up nearly 31 million people in India’s population.

After nearly 10 years of this, he had an idea.

His idea is SRISTI—a word in Sanskrit that means “creation”—and the new name for his innovative venture into life-giving, regenerative and inclusive community. With his team of fellow social workers and youth from his orphanage who are now adults, Karthik has began the purchase of nearly nine acres of farm land in Tamil Nadu, South India with one plan—a safe, inclusive, ecologically sustainable and financially secure community for all people, of all ages and all abilities to live out their entire lives.

This vision, Sristi Village, is a creation of love and passion. There are no communities like this in South India that combine the principles of ecological sustainability, intentional community and social justice for the marginalized due to ability—and Karthik is using his passion and innovation in permaculture (sustainable and regenerative design) and youth-led participation to make it happen.

During Daniel's and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.
During Daniel’s and my visit in January, the local community of supporters visited the site and shared information about best future farming practices for Sristi.

After years of planning this and talking to me about this over coffee, he is doing it. He left his job, moved into a small office near the available land, and started sharing his vision with friends—and people immediately jumped on board. He found the land—nine acres with nearly 50 mango trees, a water source on site and plenty of space to grow. A European foundation already made the commitment of 30,000 Euro to help him get the purchase started.

Unfortunately, due to international regulations between international non-profits, this money has been stalled—leaving Karthik empty-handed and half way through building relationships with the landowners as he begins to design and prepare the site to begin. To completely secure the purchase of this incredible land and to build good will with the landowner, Sristi needs a minimum of $13,300.

Luckily, individual citizens can help.

What Karthik is doing is truly innovative—and Karthik is a leader in his field. After a January 2014 visit to India, my best friend and colleague Daniel Francis and I saw a way to support this powerful vision—Daniel has provided several hours of permaculture design consultation and Daniel and I have committed to each raising $2,200 before Earth Day on April 22, 2014.

Luckily, an anonymous donor has offered to MATCH our money—for every $100 Daniel and I each raise, this donor will add an extra $100 until up to $2,200.

$2,200 (Samantha) + $2,200 (Daniel) + $2,200 (Match) = $6600

$6600 is enough for Karthik to purchase one more acre of land, putting him even closer to his goal of $13,300 and making Sristi a reality.

All support—from $10 to $100 – makes a big difference in putting Sristi on the map and demonstrating the power of inclusive, intentional and ecologically-inspired community with transnational support.

Would you be willing to make a donation?

We really believe that these two people can raise $2200 each before Earth Day on April 22nd—and with a really wide web of friends and fellow believers we can buy one acre of land in one month towards the creation of Sristi.

With gratitude,

Samantha and Daniel 

Donate Now




heresy

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.

drama kids

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

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.

alice-red-spiral-tree-apr-2010

Healing and Wounding: Personal is Political

During my Master of Divinity program at Claremont, we budding ministers are often reminded that ministerial misconduct will most often occur when a minister is not getting their needs for freedom, fun and belonging met. When one’s needs aren’t met, one get’s resentful. When one get’s resentful, one  make’s bargains with the responsibilities and commitments that are made to maintain collegiality, transparency and clarity of roles within organizations. The greatest way to avoid ministerial misconduct is to make sure your needs are getting met from a wide array of places—to have a life beyond the work you do.

Basically– your personal life will always have an impact on your political/ministerial life and vice a versa. 

In spiritual communities, in activist organizations, we know that the personal is political—that the work is not separate or compartmentalized from our lives, but a committed, integrated lifestyle that intentionally makes choices that challenge the unjust and strives for wholeness rather than fragmentation. When one is committed to this, one sees the connections between their food, their intimacy, their transportation, their housing tract, their elected leaders, their language, their income, their children’s schools and their choice of work in the world.

There is a feeling of inconsistency when this vision for radical integration meets the realities of corporate life—by which I mean, the organization, church or business modeled from the corporate model of governance (which nearly all of us are in an effort to receive the benefits and protections of aligning with some form of “rule of law”). In this world, to maintain a legal integrity and security that requires an outlined transparency of power, we trade in the organic messiness of real relationship for the legitimacy of corporate governance. This is a trade off many have already discussed within radical social movements and organizations (read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex). However, where has that left us?

In some ways, it has left us very hurt. We experience this hurt when non-profit leaders leave and move to other organizations—were they committed to us, the people, the vision—or just the job? We experience it when we play with the organic messiness, then find ourselves relying on the legal mandates of our rarely-touched Bylaws when something “goes wrong” and we need something stronger to “fix it” (i.e. there are no bylaws for breakups, but that can be what this all feels like). We experience this hurt when ministers and congregations have conflict and ministers or congregants leave—were the relationships real in the first place, or were they interchangeable for the next “called” person in the pulpit? We experience it as leaders, feeling shame at our burn out or how tired we are of our jobs… I mean, why did we start this in the first place?

Two trains of thought reunite here:

1) Where and how do activists/ministers get their personal needs met in the development of deeply integrated lives? (i.e. the personal is political)

2) How do organizations, churches and social movements make decisions about the way they will embrace the organic messiness of integration (where people get their needs met in the midst of the work) in cities and countries dictated by a corporate way of rule that is often disinterested in personal needs? (i.e. the political is the political in an effort to protect the personal)

These are the sorts of questions that take conferences, lifetimes, solidarity circles and therapy—but here are a couple leads:

1) Healed people heal people, wounded people hurt people. Work on your healing if you want to be a healer. This is not to say people are perfect. I don’t think “healed” is perfect—I do think healed is honest. For example, do we want “perfect”  leaders (Note: this is impossible, so it would be a lie in the first place), or do we want leaders who admit fault ? Name their own wounds out loud? Do their own internal work? Name it when they are acting from it? I’d opt for the latter. I’m not one to romanticize the “wounded healer” concept– I think all of us are wounded healers, but we do our best healing when we model what healing feels like, looks like, struggles like. Let’s aim for being healed healers. Therapy can be expensive, but not always—spiritual directors, ministers, counselors, chaplains are beginnings to the internal work that can lead to therapists who are affordable, accessible or nearby. Knowing your needs is the first real step to naming your needs, claiming your needs and integrating your needs.

If you are in social work, non-profit work or ministry of any sort– you should have a therapist, spiritual director, mentor or personal coach who knows your depths, tracks your patterns and keeps a mirror up for you.

2) Healed organizations heal people, wounded organizations hurt people. I’m a firm believer that the organization is a reflection of the people inside it—there is a mutual impact that organizations can have on their people and people on their organizations. As we know, organizations are made up of people—they are the face of the organization or the church or the ministry or the movement. We can learn a lot about designing healing organizations from acknowledging some of the ways we create healing people…

  1.  PERSONAL WORK IS WELCOMED: organizations cultivate a culture that acknowledges what happens (things don’t just happen—we make meaning out of them). Reconciliation of any sort necessitates a truth-telling where people’s stories and experiences are honored—this requires individual people to have done enough of their own internal work to reach a point where stuff gets acknowledged (i.e. non-profit chaplains, folks trained in Council and therapists would be God’s gift to the future of our movements);
  2. GROUP WORK IS PART OF THE CULTURE: when “bad” things happen, we talk about them and when “good” things happen, we talk them—issues that are “hush hush” become issues that build resentment—building processes for talking about the hard things helps prepare people and build some sense of consent for how the tough stuff gets processed (more on how one might do this in future blogs, I promise)
  3. RITUAL ALLOWS FOR NEW STORIES OF “ME” and “US”: we process grief and create meaning through community and rituals of belonging (ritual and care is not something that gets in the way of our work, but improves our work and creates resilient bonds between people; this also allows what happens to become part of people’s stories and integrated into who “we” are.

Organizations build upon people developing their sense of self worth models what it means to live out our inherent worth. If organizations become places where authenticity happens and is cultivated, they also become places where we might reveal more of who we are—which includes naming the boundaries in ways that invite authenticity rather than a sense of artificiality.

But more on that side of things later.

Overall, rest assured: your personal wounds will show up in your political life. Your political wounds will impact your personal healing. How about we start thinking about organizations as places where we learn new ways of healing, rather than places where we act from the wound unconsciously?

Image from website of MyDesert.com

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: 

gmwords (2)

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.

decentered

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!

fathers

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.