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Notes from a Restorative Justice Conference (NACRJ 2017)

Last week I participated in the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice conference in Oakland, CA. Powerfully held by the local organizing team, every session included recognition of land, ritual and ceremony, music, and art. Keynote and plenary sessions were led by and centered people who live in the work and are most directly impacted by the systems of oppression we are working to transform: women and LGBTQ leaders of color and indigenous people, formerly incarcerated leaders and organizers, children, youth, and grandmothers and grandfathers.

I have typed up the scribbled notes from my personal notebook into this blog post of key themes and quotes in the hopes that some of the wisdom shared in this convening continues to move through the collective.

(Where I have the name of the source, I will quote the material and provide the name. If I do not have the name of the source, I will leave the statement in quotes—if you know the source, please tell me! Statements that are my thoughts in dialogue with the conference are left unquoted as “mine”… in that collective consciousness way.)

Opening Dr. Gail Christopher, Vice President for Policy and Senior Advisor for the WK Kellogg Foundation’s efforts on racial truth and reconciliation processes:

  • We are hungry for compassionate response: “We are hungry for compassionate response… … those who carry out terrorist acts have within themselves a devaluation of their own humanity. Be restorative in your posture and say ‘there is so much more here than this act.’” – Dr. Gail Christopher
  • On the Both/And of Cultural Healing and Structural Change: “Structures need to be dismantled… and I must say there is something persistent about structures. If you don’t have a replacement, that structure will come back… … (for example) we didn’t address the fundamental consciousness that addressed why there was a need to segregate children based on race, nor did we enforce the rulings that would have dismantled it…” – Dr. Gail Christopher
  • On why “transformation” rather than “reconciliation:” “Truth, racial healing, and transformation—its not about reconciliation. Reconciliation implies a going back. Lets get real: we were never together. This country was founded and sustained on a fallacy—its about transformation—its about making it anew.” – Dr. Gail Christopher

Paraphrasing from time with Chris Marshall, Tom Noakes-Duncan, and Ted Lewis on “The Restorative Church”:

  • The Paradox of Vulnerability Leading to Life: In Jewish and Christian scriptures, there is the “paradox of vulnerability leading to life.” Unfortunately, our church communities can become “regressive subcultures” that rely on retributive discipline to address disputes and harms—and the ways these two (disputes and harms) begin to hybridize. In Chris Marshall’s book, Beyond Retribution, he relies on two parables—the prodigal son and the good Samaritan—as dialogue partners to show the ways we are called to show compassion to both “offender” and “victim/survivor.” Chris refers to the prodigal son as a “re-entry” parable of what, in that historical context, was a “serious offender.” In Hebrew and Christian scriptures, “God refuses to give up on the relationship God has with the offending party.”
  • Communal practices for restoration in churches: [before disputes/harms] (1) prevention, formation of restorative theology/practice, pedagogy; (2) decision-making and discernment; [after harm/disputes] (3) intervention, reconciliation, and problem-solving; and (4) post-incident healing with closure and the creation of a shared narrative.

Paraphrasing the “how to” of a “Restorative University” with Lindsey Pointer, Chris Marshall, Haley Farrar (New Zealand):

 Chris described the “restorative university” as one “where all policies and practices impacting and related to staff and students are grounded in restorative principles and values.” This first meant examining student disciplinary policy and working to make “restorative process the default option.” This is always posed as a question—because RJ is always voluntary—but that student disputes and harms are addressed at the “lowest level possible” (when appropriate) with direct participation, facilitated, and with consensus-based conversation about ways that things can be “put right.”

Residence Halls are thought of as “Restorative Communities” and circle practices, trainings, and an ethos/values system of these practices becomes foundational in the Hall. Emphasis is put on building real, invested relationships and investment in the hall: knowing that (imagining a pyramid) (a) relationship building is the base, (b) relationship maintaining is the middle of the pyramid, and (c) relationship repair is the tip of the pyramid. The more energy we put into relationship building and maintenance, the more effective (and less energy) we’ll have to put into repair.

They shared a recent event in which a “drunken party” made the news, and they led simultaneous circle processes on all of the floors (200 people involved).

From Judge Andrew Becroft (New Zealand Children’s Commission) and Judge Heemi Taumaunu (Founder/Presiding Judge of Rangatahi Court of New Zealand):

Judge Becroft said clearly: “a monocultural system will fail.” One successful tactic in New Zealand is “don’t charge” provisions for teenagers to ensure teenage disputes/harms are worked with and maintained at the lowest level possible. The NZ youth offenses and institutionalization graph is OPPOSITE to the graph in the United States (read more about the 2002 Youth Offending Strategy and the graph below, here). Even with these successes,New Zealand still charges and incarcerates Maori people disproportionate to their population.

Impacts of Youth Offending Strategy (2002)

Judge Taumaunu helped developed a set of courts that are rooted in the cultural practices and beliefs of the Maori. These courts “speak in the language of one’s people” – in tongue and in embodiment, and include elders working alongside judges, ritual, song, food, and time for cultural guidance, support, advice, and encouragement. “Pepeha” occurs in which all participants (including outsiders and visitors) identify themselves with the mountain, river, and tribe they come from as a valued cultural introduction with the goal to affirm identity, belonging, and located-ness in the community. Read more here.

From Mike Hinton and Naida Glavish on the topic of restorative processes in New Zealand and their possibility as collaborative or colonial:

In New Zealand, every case that goes to district court has to be considered for RJ—this is a national law. Yet, RJ is always voluntary. The role of the RJ facilitator is “to create the safe space for a conversation to happen—but its not the facilitator’s conversation.” As for the colonial aspects of RJ in New Zealand, as RJ has become more and more part of the legal process, it becomes more prescriptive and requires certain “check boxes” and timelines are to be met (in the name of “accountability”)—which can be counter to the responsive, improvisational spirit of being with the actual people in the actual room with the actual situation. Furthermore, in an effort to prove the cost effectiveness and evaluate RJ, “RJ over-evaluates based on offender’s behavior and the cost-savings of the process—they are not calculating whether or not the victim can get out of bed and go to work. The valuing is one sided.”

On language, says Mike: “As part of a colonization process, the thing you can take to destroy a people and an identity is their language.” Restorative processes include language.

[You can watch a documentary about Mike Hinton’s role as a restorative justice facilitator with families in New Zealand online via MaoriTelevision here.]

Naida describes that the reason RJ grew in New Zealand is because indigenous people brought THEIR practices into the space of the legal system, filling courtrooms where young Maori people were being tried by non-Indigenous people and demanding to speak to the young people: “We brought our practices from home into the court system… we have the power to deal with issues in our own communities before it gets to the courts.”

In response, a participant was moved to remind us that culture must be at the center of RJ processes. They responded to Naida by saying: “RJ is becoming a ‘trend,’ a process, a protocol, a script. We forgot it is about our principles as related people and getting back into our relationships. This is a lifestyle, not a ‘practice’ or a ‘program.’ We need culture at the center.”

From “White Fragility to Truth and Reconciliation,” paraphrasing from Kusum Crimmel and Arianna Caplan:

 Kusum and Arianna explored racial justice and whiteness from the perspective of the common questions of restorative justice: (1) what happened, how did you feel/think then, what do you think about it now? (2) How were you impacted? (3) How was everyone else impacted? (4) What do you need to do to make it right?

Kusum and Arianna relied on Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility,” as well as her listing of behavior patterns of whiteness, which remind me of the work by Tema Okun. For DiAngelo, these patterns include:

  • segregation
  • good/bad binary
  • entitlement to experiences of racial comfort
  • racial arrogance
  • individualism
  • racial belonging
  • psychic freedom
  • constant messages of superiority

A restorative justice lens keeps our attention on the system of harms that lead to individual behavior. In the words of DiAngelo, “The most effective adaptation over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This adaptation keeps us distracted, focused on individuals as supposedly independent moral actors, and perceiving racism as a conscious moral choice rather than the system that we live in.

From “Acknowledging Ancestor Wisdom: Honoring the Roots of Restoration and Transformation” with Jerry Tello, co-founder of the National Compadres Network and Director of National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute:

 There are so many gems from the gifted, funny, sacred storytelling, poetry, and ethical weavings of Jerry Tello. Here are some of the ones that made it through my hand and onto the paper:

  • You are the Dreams of Your Ancestors: “…your grandparents had a dream that you would have less suffering and more blessing.”
  • On Evidence-Based Practices of Young People: “Our youngsters have an evidence-based practice too. Their practice is: do you see me? … do you see that I am the dream of my ancestors?”
  • Restore to What? “When we restore, what do we restore to?”
  • If not a Blessing, its Just a Practice: “If you are not connected in some way, not blessed up and prayerful, then this stuff is just some practice.”
  • Embrace: “The most significant thing you can do for a child is to embrace them as yours.”

From David Anderson Hooker—quotes posted online and quotes overheard:

“Racial justice must be RADICAL: relationally constructed, authentic, dignified, ideologically transformative, connected, affirming, legitimated.”

On language: “How do we illuminate (an idea/phenomena) without limiting it?”

“On the Spot Responses and Practice Through an Equity Lens” with Cynthia Zwicky and Yaniah Pearson

“How can we turn a moment of conflict into a moment of realization?”

Cynthia and Yaniah were playful dialogue partners in exploring the ways people resist, ignore, and avoid conflicts—especially based on issues of equity—and the work they do to address conflict as a moment of realization in schools.

  • The Work is Slow: Yaniah reminded us: “The work is slow.” Even though we long for a 3-hour-training we could provide every person who interacts with young people, that would not be the solution, nor would they become instantly “restorative” in their responses to the world around them. Unlearning what we’ve learned from a society that is retributive and conflict-averse, as well as learning to skills for the moment, as well as conflicts themselves, take time.
  • Some Resistance as Lack of Confidence: “What is the embodied experience of someone who says (about an equity problem), ‘It is not that big of a deal’? At the core of it is actually about personal ability—resistance is so often actually a lack of confidence.”
  • Maintaining Relationships Makes Repair Easier: Circle processes—ongoing, commonplace, reliable—allow us to make our mistakes sacred and a source of connection with one another. When we have regular places where (teachers) can go and share who they deeply are, those spaces can turn into spaces where they could also say, “Wow, I was a ‘bad’ teacher today, I need support.”
  • Listen in Conflict—You’re Hearing Values: They shared a quote from Hildy Gottlieb in the spirit of seeing the potential for realization in the midst of conflict: “When people speak in outrage and anger, when they talk about arguments and conflicts, listen carefully. They are telling you what is important to them. They are telling you their values.”
  • When Talking Race (particularly in classrooms, institutions): When discussing issues of race with others, particularly across identities and power differentials, the conversation “requires ground rules, a shared language, and a recognition of power.” Furthermore, “Institutionalized racism has a historical basis. The personal is historical.”

Closing Plenary on “Restorative Responses to Mass Incarceration: Formerly Incarcerated Persons Moving from Margins to Center” with George Galvis, Albino Garcia, Tina Reynolds, Jerry Elster, Julie Arroyo Guzman, and Troy Williams:

Activities that are criminalized are activities that are normal response to experiencing violence: In response to what others called “acting out” or “criminal behavior,” Julie noted, “I was actually having a normal human reaction to experiencing violence.”

Who is leading the movement? Jerry Elster challenged the audience about the RJ movement, particularly, whose voices and experiences are centered, who is considered “expert,” and who is leading the movement. He asked: “Who is leading the movement? Who are the gatekeepers? Let those who have been directly impacted lead.”

In response to a question from the audience asking if the leadership is going to be those most directly impacted, what should those of us with different experiences do as part of this movement. Jerry replied, “This movement is for everybody—just stay in your lane.’

Tina Reynolds shared about her experience of re-entry and her work creating spaces where formerly incarcerated people can be their whole selves: which includes not only them, but their families. She also challenged the gathered community to move beyond tokenizing most-directly impacted people, saying: “We keep being asked to show up rather than asked to be part of.”

Stop Taking Credit for Other Peoples’ Transformation and Inherent Power: She also talked about the tendency for non-incarcerated people to take credit for the transformation of others inside prison: “You are patting yourselves on the back… thinking they didn’t come in with their own power.”

Troy Williams showed his film about his experience of incarceration, which you can learn more about journalism and film-making here.

Welcoming the Stranger in Rural America: Nurturing Cultures of Connection

What does racial justice look like in predominantly white, rural communities?

(Co-authored by Samantha Gupta and AJ Bush)

From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to the contentious presidential election of 2016, the legacy and present day realities of race and racism in the USA have reached an even broader, national focus.

While there have been organized responses to these issues in many urban areas, rural communities have been disconnected from such movements. For many — including community activists, pastors, scholars, and concerned citizens — 2016 was a “wake up call” to this reality as brightly colored electoral maps created visual representations of a “rural”/”urban” divide.

Yet, we know that these electoral maps oversimplify the complexity of the people and the lives in every community– and in every state– and know that rural and working class white people have an important role in organizing for more just, more safe, and more inclusive communities. Informed by this belief, the following questions have emerged in dialogue between pastors and organizers in urban and rural communities:

What do inclusive and just movements look like in rural communities– across history and today?

How do white folks in rural and working class communities understand their lives and struggles as related to racial justice?

What kinds of spaces and shared experiences can be created that help support the consciousness, dialogue, and action of white community in building a more just, more safe, more inclusive world in partnership with people of color in their towns– supporting the power, health, and well-being of all?

experience
“Welcoming the Stranger” featured contemplative practices, group activities, and testimonies from community members of color.

Rural Race Dialogues: “Welcoming the Stranger”

Engaged by these questions, AJ Bush, a United Methodist Pastor in Gillette, WY invited colleague Samantha Gupta, a Unitarian Universalist community organizer and scholar of white identity from Los Angeles, California, to imagine what might be possible in her rural church.

During her time as pastor in a rural Wyoming congregation, Bush personally saw a need to engage church members and people in the community in conversations about “difference” and “otherness” — whether that be immigration, race, or religion. Sensing a disconnect from experiences and language of difference in rural contexts and many racial justice curriculums, Bush became interested in finding ways to create space for dialogue around these issues.

Combining their passions, Bush and Gupta held the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event on Dec. 4th, 2016 in Gillette, Wyoming.

The event was a public event, hosted by Bush’s church and entitled “Welcoming the Stranger: The Stories We Share.” The short, initial program was designed to nurture skills for openness and curiosity through the practices of self-reflexivity, self-compassion, and direct experience with difference. Self-compassion for one’s own experiences and identities, Bush and Gupta sense, is a bridge to compassionate curiosity, dialogue, and risk-taking for the “Other.” The audience focused on “regular folks in the pews” who sense the issues of exclusion and disconnection in their community, but feel unfamiliar (and even uncomfortable) with how to engage racial justice issues and take next steps.

There were three key movements during this introductory event:

  • Contemplative, compassion practices that centered people on their natural capacity for care and curiosity (informed by Gupta’s experience as a facilitator in The Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology ).
  • Group activity that simulated the experience of white ethnic European immigration and assimilation to the United States in the 1800 and 1900’s. In this simulation, each participant was assigned to family groups, given information about the prejudice their family faced upon arriving in the US due to their ethnic identities, and the difficult choices they are forced to make (and identity they are forced to give up) to survive. The activity was designed by Clare Fox as part of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) as part of their annual “Unmasking Whiteness Institute” offered in California each summer.  Bush and Gupta adapted the activity to include specific histories and testimonies of European immigrant experiences in the Wyoming context.
  • A facilitated dialogue and reflection on the simulation experience, bridging white ethnic European histories of immigration to current, local and state-based stories of immigration by people of color. This component featured videos and testimonies of neighbors in their community who have recently immigrated or who represent a different racial/ethnic identity.

 

Nearly 30 participants joined the first "Rural Race Dialogue" event in Gillette, WY
Nearly 30 participants joined the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event in Gillette, WY

Feedback

Through this experience, participants were able to connect with their own family history and the experience of their family as “the other” as a bridge of empathy and curiosity with the experience of immigrants and those “Othered” in their community today. It also built empathy for such experiences, as participants could now relate to the loss and struggle of assimilation in their own family. In the words of one participant, “I begin to see that (our) identity had to be given up to avoid prejudice.”

In feedback, participants described renewed curiosity for the experiences of their own families (“This event made me wonder more about my grandparent’s experience when they came to the United States”), as well as for immigrant families in their town– reporting that they wished they had “more time” to hear more stories of local issues and imagine “possible action plans.”

Other participants appreciated the time to be in community with other people in their town who are also willing to engage difficult issues in new ways: “I appreciated getting people together face-to-face in a safe, respectful environment and being guided through a non-judgmental exercise,” one participant wrote. “This helped us focus on loss(es) as a way of feeling empathy for the stranger.”

Bush and Gupta imagine this series of activities to be supportive to church leaders who would like to engage their congregations on racial justice and identity, and need ways to begin the conversation with congregants. For Bush, her congregation plans to facilitate a book study on race and identity development as a next step to mobilizing more congregants in local organizing efforts in partnership with communities impacted by local hate crimes.

gupta-bush
Chaplain Samantha Gupta and Rev. AJ Bush

Next Steps

Cultivating curiosity and compassion for self and other are important skills for healing/bridging the divide between and within rural and urban experiences of difference, race, immigration. For Gupta and Bush, this work is important as we strive to establish justice, mercy, and beloved community within our world. The two plan to continue doing this work in rural areas, and are interested in engaging with other churches/communities in the Midwest on these kinds of conversations/events. They are willing to travel and consult.

If you are interested in more information about these types of dialogues in your community, email ruralracedialogue [at] gmail [dot] com. 

RELATED PRESS and LINKS:

Special thanks to AWARE-LA, Dara Silverman, and J. Audrey for their support of this project, mentorship, and encouragement.

Wading in the Waters at Standing Rock

Reflections on a journey in support of indigenous community action, after church call draws some 500 clergy as “protective witnesses”

Samantha-at-Standing-Rock_small.jpg11/13/16

Two weeks ago, I woke up in a tent in North Dakota.

At 6 a.m., the only light that visible poured in from across the Missouri River, a set of mega floodlights illuminating the ongoing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Less than a quarter mile away from me, a 70-year-old elder sat near the central fire and coaxed us awake into an amplified microphone that echoed through the fog and across the camp.

“Wake up… wake up! The Black Snake is creeping across the river! Sun Dancers! Pipe carriers, smudge your pipes! Christians, dust off your Bibles! The water is warm. We are here for a purpose!”

By 9 a.m., I was gathered alongside over 500 clergy from across the United States, representing over 20 different faith traditions. Surrounding us and continuing their day of work, recuperation, and prayer, people at the camp numbered in the thousands.

We circled around the fire in our sacred clothing—robes, stoles, albs, protest-prayer signs—and observed, as representatives of our faith traditions stood alongside several indigenous elders from the #NoDAPL camp. Each of the represented traditions had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in their denominations, and read aloud from those repudiations into the microphone ringing over the camp. (Written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery formalized into writing a set of patterns of domination that became the basis by which European monarchies claimed lands and resources of indigenous peoples. Ultimately, land was deemed “unoccupied” if it was not settled by Christians. The doctrine has been cited in court decisions as recently as 2005.)

After their statements, a copy of the Doctrine in the original Latin was given to the elders, and then burned in an abalone shell among the ring of people near the central fire.

Each of the 500 of us were smudged with sage by local community leaders as we made our way along the road to Backwater Bridge where police waited, in long lines inside cars, and watched us from roads and hilltops. The bridge was the location where, one week prior, 141 indigenous and ally Water Protectors were arrested by militarized police in riot gear.

We wept, we raged, we prayed, we sang as police helicopters flew overhead, snipers watched from hillsides, and the Missouri River wound its way over the horizon.

“Wade in the water!” we sang, each of us holding the other. “God’s gonna trouble the water!”

Sedona-Unitarian-image_small.jpgIt was only one week prior to that moment that Father John Floberg—a man who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock—put out an email to several clergy networks, calling upon clergy of all faith traditions to come to North Dakota and serve as “protective witnesses” with the Water Protectors.

He had only expected 100 of us to respond.

Father John was also clear: The actions of we 500 witnesses would reflect on the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, long after we left. He and the elders who stood beside him asked for four things of all of us: “that you remain prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent, and lawful.” And most of all, that we return to our communities and call upon our people to join this protective resistance.

Standing near the fire in my stole that morning, an elder from the camp approached me and expressed that our presence was a welcome pause in the recent escalations of violence, a chance for the community to regroup. He shared that he hoped we would carry prayers that the community of leaders at Standing Rock maintain their spiritual structure as they are continually battered, instigated, and even infiltrated by DAPL security or police forces. As clergy wandered the camp, police presence was minimized for the day—with fewer helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Some expressed how this was a welcome pause in the ongoing assault of the senses and the spirit.

For others whom I didn’t speak to our presence, I suspect, was complicated, if not painful and enraging—particularly as representatives of religions that have undergirded, if not outright orchestrated, native genocide. Alongside the stories I’ve heard before arriving, I have personally experienced the ways white, non-native visitors occupy space at the microphones, or take up resources without return or regard. As white folks, we have so much work to do to “call each other in” as white people, to unlearn entitlement and domination, and to learn new patterns of relationship that generate life and honor the sovereignty of that life. This shows up in the ways we reach for microphones, to the ways we use policies to grab resources for profit. This is an urgent task.

It is urgent because Standing Rock is not only a specific struggle in North Dakota—Standing Rock is everywhere we are. It demands of us, particularly as community psychologists: Where do you come from? Whose land do you occupy, whose land do you call home? Who were your people? And who are your people now? Perhaps, in the time of Trump, we might add: What life and whose life experience have you disregarded, and what are your relational obligations for restoration?

It’s personal, it’s communal, it’s ecological, it’s economic, it’s political, it’s ancestral, and it is work that requires us to be where we are, right now. Be with one another, right now. Practice accountable relationship, particularly with the indigenous communities where we live, right now. Not as a task to complete, but as vocation—as in vocare, that sacred call—that we are responsive to for the rest of our lives.

As a community psychologist and a theologian, I understand that our role is to make visible that web of relationships and issues that connects each to all, such that this sacred web becomes actionable and our role within it becomes strategic, intentional, resilient, and restorative.

Will we take up our role?

Take Action

What is needed at Standing Rock: Please visit their websites to know what they are asking for. They need ongoing financial support as they prepare for winter (portable restrooms and trash services alone cost $1,500 per day), advocacy/direct action at local, state, national, and corporate levels, and bodies—especially humble bodies capable of listening and learning, with offerings for healing, feeding, building, and the ability to be arrested.

What is needed everywhere: knowing whose land we are on, honoring the treaties where we are (all treaties made with US government have been broken), anti-racism and public recognition of the positionalities we carry (especially for those of us who hold identities as white settlers, we can turn to national organizations such as SURJ to turn this idea into embodied practice), repatriation of land and resources, funding Indigenous-led movements, a move away from entitlement to deep and humble permission and learning, centering the voices of indigenous community psychologists in our field, and an actionable awareness and reverence of where the sources of our life come from (our food, water, power, people). For more on these ideas, visit the Standing Rock Solidarity Network resources.

As community psychologists in the field, in non-profits, and in academic institutions, we are uniquely positioned to bring embodied awareness to the patterns of “discovery” and colonization that have informed our lives and our field, to learn in community and model the life-generating alternatives, and to put our bodies on the line to bring that alternative into reality.

May we respond to such a sacred and necessary call.

This post has been featured in the following places:

  • Society for Community Research and Action “Personal Stories”
    Read more here.
  • UU Young Adults for Climate Justice. Read more here.

International Conference on Community Psychology: South Africa Summaries

In late May, I was a participant in the 2016 International Conference on Community Psychology in Durban, South Africa. This year’s theme was “Global Dialogues on Critical Knowledges, Liberation and Community.” I will be publishing a few blogs on the experience, this one highlighting my presentations at the conference.  Future posts will highlight other contributing scholar-activists and notes from presentations I attended.

Interested folks can also check out the video made by the conference organizers, highlighting the keynotes and key themes that emerged:

My Presentations:

I made three presentations at the conference. I give BIG thanks to the mentors, professors, family, friends, colleagues, and cosmos– all of whom have initiated, contributed to and helped further these ideas. Heartfelt thanks.

  1. Decolonizing Reconciliation Processes for Historical Harms: A Dialogue for Action
This image represented on a poster of "expressions of community psychology."
This image represented on a poster of “expressions of community psychology.”

This presentation emerged from my experience as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR-USA) delegation to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Fellowship of Reconciliation (JFOR) in recognition of the 70th commemorations of the use of atomic weapons. The question being asked here is, “how do we mobilize across racial, ethnic, and class communities to create consensus around processes of reconciliation… especially if those events happened before our lifetime?” As intergenerational communities seek to do repair for historical wrongdoing, psychological cultural-workers must also negotiate their current diverse positionality in contemporary and historical webs of violence as the basis for reconciliation.

In other words, when a hibakusha (Japanese term for “bomb survivor”) begins their testimony of the bombing by imagining their place and their ancestor’s place in relationship to the harms cause by Japanese imperialism on Korean, Chinese, Pilipino… even USA… citizens, they are locating themselves in a web of relationships. Many Hibakusha use this awareness as the beginning of their testimony.

In the case of our FOR delegation, we realized that if we were to do similarly—if each of our delegation members “located themselves” in the web of relationships (positionality) as racialized, gendered, economically-informed beings, particularly around issues of racialized militarization in the USA, we would each be led to different ways of responding to the people in front of us, even if our intention (reconciliation and healing) was the same and our sense of wrongdoing about the use of nuclear weapons was the same.

Social location—naming and claiming our relationships and differences—matters in reconciliatory work.

Why is this important?

  • It challenges the belief that reconciliation requires a coherent consensus of a history, an individual or an organization. In fact, it relies on us emphasizing the differences, contradictions and complexities in order to and as part of really get to the interconnectedness.
  • It also decenters the overemphasis that can occur to “find the similarities” when doing difficult relational work.
  • In our experience in dialogue with Japanese activists, the most impactful experience was our willingness to share our ancestral and present locations and speak from that experience.
  • Reconciliation is not about a fantasy future of unity or an imaginary past “before” the rupture—rather, it involves standing in our particularity in order to accurately imagine and/or re-member the threads that connect us. In the words of Watkins and Lorenz (2001), it is about gathering around the “rupture” to see what new possibilities may be emerging.

II. Life in the Rupture: Towards an Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC)

My second presentation focuses on some of the ideas within the field of community psychology itself.

“Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC)” is a model of measurement that has been described as a “lynch-pin” that holds the field of community psychology together. It has been used as a tool by community psychologists to determine the aspects of community that create the feeling of community, roughly grouped into (1) membership, (2) influence, (3) integration and fulfillment of needs, and (4) shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis 1986).

While PSOC has led to innovations in analysis and measurement in efforts to replicate what exactly makes community “work,” there have also been critics that name that the ways PSOC breaks down component parts of community might not capture the essential quality of an experience of community that we are all working hard to identify and move towards. For example, communities with a higher level of homogeneity (for example, the KKK), will likely score higher on PSOC than a community with more racial and ethnic diversity (which may be labeled a “disordered” community by these measurements and by some measurers). In response to these kinds of critiques, McMillan acknowledged that PSOC will never quite capture the “spirit” of what the we are really talking about—and, further, that PSOC “is a theory to describe reality, not a theory to prescribe reality” (2011).

However, for community psychologists who value interrupting and disrupting systems of power and domination that are part of our described reality, we may be seeking to measure and move towards a different kind of PSOC—something that does guide us towards nourishing and sustaining communities that honor and engage differences and interrupt oppressive power dynamics.

'Transforming the urban edge’ illustration by Paul Kearsley from the Urban Permaculture Guide 始まる新しい生き方 and the 2016 Permaculture Calendar
‘Transforming the urban edge’ illustration by Paul Kearsley from the Urban Permaculture Guide 始まる新しい生き方 and the 2016 Permaculture Calendar

I think Hughey and Speer (2002) move us closer to the “spirit” in their use of network and systems analysis to demonstrate that actually healthy environments require “individuals and groups to develop and exercise features of social networks that function to position themselves at the boundaries of networks” (p.74). Here, boundaries and edges are opportunities—opportunities to access different kinds of resources, build resilience, and generate the changes that allow for communities to survive. By bringing their language into dialogue with PSOC, we can challenge metaphors and models that value or prioritize “orderly,” linear, homogenous, progressive and cohesive patterns—we can create measurements that value the seemingly disordered, the diverse, the creative and the boundary-crossings that make life evolutionary. This is a language often used to describe aspects of ecological systems—a system that requires the edges, the chaotic and the adaptive in order to survive and thrive.

With guidance from these critiques and some support from depth and liberation psychology (Watkins and Lorenz 2001), here is where we might imagine an “Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC).” These contributions to the language of PSOC suggest that there is something beyond the component parts of being an individual as part of a cohesive system—even hinting that the fantasy of a cohesive system (and “orderly” communities) is not a universal reality at all, nor would its measurement and duplication make meaning out of the diverse locations and experiences where healthy community happens.

Perhaps “E” stands for “Eco” or perhaps “E” stands of “Edge”—no matter what, it means we engage the way our measurements maintain rather than interrupt systems of power and domination.

Why is this important?

  • PSOC as a measurement model may not go far enough in (a) the decolonial project of deconstructing the fantasy of a unified, progressive self or community nor (b) sufficiently valuing the rupture of that fantasy (and the role of conflict) as a sign of life within a social system as an ecological system.
  • We need to acknowledge the implicit values of our “measurement tools” in our field—and re-imagine what we are really looking for as signs of health and vitality that support us in interrupting status quo power dynamics.
  • Community psychologists should be looking for edges as a sign of health and well-being—edges are where our vitality, creativity, and resilience emerge.

III. Eve, Adam, Snake and the Garden of the Global North: Decolonizing Theologies Through Theatre

Photo by G. Zhuang
Photo by G. Zhuang

This presentation was an “Innovative Presentation”—a part of the conference that allotted me a ninety-minute session to use theatre, story and movement to engage issues of coloniality in theology.

 

This presentation might be captured in a pseudo-mathematical equation:

(Scriptural exegesis of Genesis II) + (Anti-Racism) + (Bibliodrama) + (Academic and faith-based interrogation of borders, walls, and border-crossing) + (Theatre of the Oppressed techniques) = The Real Story of Eve, Adam, Snake and Tree

I relied on writing from Rev. Rebecca Parker’s essay, “Not Somewhere Else But Here: The Struggle for Racial Justice as a Struggle to Inhabit My Country” from Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue. Parker imagines the ways that the story of “The Fall” in Genesis II acts in support of white privilege in that it describes a relationship with God where to know one’s self as capable of both “good” and “evil” is to lose one’s relationship with God—to stay obedient, innocent and pure is to stay in relationship with God. Yet, in the work of anti-racism, we need white people who are able to see ourselves and our history more clearly and more honestly.

Parker’s writings are supported by Chicana scholar-activist Gloria Anzaldua’s work on the seven stages of conocimiento from “Now let us shift… the path of conocimiento… inner work, public acts”—a coming into consciousness that requires the bridge-builders, the in-between walkers, that are willing to have reality torn apart and brought back together in new, more life-giving and more generative ways. She writes, “According to Jung, if you hold opposites long enough without taking sides a new identity emerges. As you make your way through life, nepantla itself becomes the place you live in most of the time— home” (p. 548). We need the tearing apart of what isn’t working as part of creating something new.

Anzaldua’s imagining of the border as something to bridge makes for an interesting dialogue partner with Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. The wall around Eden and the wall through the southwest deserts of the USA are a form of “psychic insulation,” maintaining USA fantasies of purity, innocence and goodness—keeping the privileged and abundant lives of those within it without a horizon worth questioning and the people beyond it as invading, marauding, evil force to be stopped (Brown, p. 120-121). This, embodied in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, becomes a theological value. While Brown does not go so far to make the theological connection that Anzaldua makes in her first movement towards consciousness, both are seeking a bridge over the wall—and Parker’s Eve is alongside them.

"FLAG" questions from Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (2014)
“FLAG” questions from Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (2014)

Bibliodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed techniques (Peter Pitzele 1997 and Augusto Boal 1993) give us a way to engage this story as both problematic and potentially generative.

 

Methodologies: Sharing a new version of the story generated from my time in seminary that imagines Eve, Snake and Adam as escaping the garden to go beyond the wall—with the possibility that there had been people on the other side of the wall along—is the starting point for our embodied play using character embodiment, followed by character interviewing in dyads, and an “empty chair” technique to imagine the characters who are part of our story. Each person in the workshop takes an empty chair, embodying the character with a pose. We then imagine the internal longings associated with that character to understand more clearly what they may be trying to tell us and make those statements to one another out loud.

Having told this new version of the story in different contexts, sharing it in the South African/international community psychology context led to important conclusions and realizations:

  • It was an important revelation to interrogate the wall in the Garden of Eden: what is this wall? Who is outside the wall? Who built the wall? Who does the wall serve? What would the wall say to us now as we deal with issues of borders and walls in our communities?
  • Workshop participants longed for a more equitable relationship between Eve and Adam—even in my own re-telling, my story chooses to center the story on Eve as agent of social change as an anti-dote to the dominant narrative that tends to degrade her being. Still, what would be a more satisfying relationship between the two?
  • One workshop participant who expressed a “resistance” to changing the story, acknowledged that in his role as “the fruit,” he felt a strange and unexpected longing to be eaten. How might we activate and animate the “non-human” creatures and beings in the garden and what might they tell us? What voices have been left out by our over-emphasis on human voice?

I look forward to bringing this story and workshop methodology to other communities as dialogue partners in re-imagining this story—clearly, there is much more to be said by many more of us.

The next ICCP conference will be held in Chile in 2018. 

Tools for Allies: From “microagression” to “microresistance”

Wanted to share this incredible resource from Inside Higher Education, offered up by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

How do we show up when a hurtful situation so often lends itself to freezing? So much emerges: the feeling of the offense, the desire to say “the right” thing, the fear of relational or social fallout.

Not only is it hard to observe a microaggression– it is also hard to figure out how to respond in ways that both honor the target of the aggression and “call in” the aggressor into right relationship. This is difficult to do effectively without the conversation (1) forcing the target of the aggression to “teach” or “take on” the work of fixing the situation or (2) centering the group’s attention on the hurt feelings or defensiveness of the aggressor.

In light of that, I found this article and these materials (including a video of a panel on microaggressions and microresistance!) helpful. 

Some highlights from their post:

“Try Moving From Reacting to Resistance”

Learning about microaggressions has allowed you to see previously unrecognized hostility in your department’s environment. Right now, the way you understand your role in these interactions is “reacting to microaggressions.”

What would happen if you reframed your role? Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”? In other words, instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?

I don’t know how this sits with you, but I love this reframing of my own behavior. When I understand myself as actively engaging in microresistance, it has a different energy than reacting to microaggressions. It keeps me focused on the structural nature of the problem.

In other words, it’s not just one person acting like an asshole; what’s occurring in everyday interactions is a continual manifestation of privilege. As such, my words and actions matter to the higher-level goals of equity and inclusion. Microresistance empowers me and makes me feel that my daily choices contribute to the overall climate in which I’m embedded.

“Practice “Opening the Front Door””

Ganote, Cheung and Souza taught us a technique called “opening the front door” (OTFD) as a first step to engage in microresistance in the kinds of contexts you’ve described (such as faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings). It’s quite simple:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.

  • Think: State what you think about it.

  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.

A Prayer for Cities

A pastoral prayer inspired by the work of Urban Partners Los Angeles, a ministry of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, prepared for worship at UULA on April 19, 2015.

withoutcracks

Pastoral Prayer for Cities, for Los Angeles
By Samantha Gupta

Spirit of Cities,
We are gathered in your concrete
 And wood
  And dust
   And asphalt
    in worship and in gratitude.
You who are worthy of our loving attention,
Hear us.

We gather in sorrow for what aches and moans
 Beneath the weight of sky scrapers,
  Bank buildings, pay checks,
   Food trucks, dandelions in the cracks of cement.
    Crushed beneath the weight,
Sometimes the shadows of these too-tall-trees
leaves us wandering if we are seen at all,
if any light will come.
See us.

In times of shadow, we gather around this chalice
with reverence for those who make themselves known.
  Graffiti prophets tagging story and name to wall
  refusing to go quietly.
  And corner prophets singing praises to a God
  they know who might see them.
  And the mothers and fathers and children who live each day
  wondering if the day will come where life moves with a greater gentleness.
And the lives of the women and men
who sat in these rooms, responsive to what they heard outside them.
Guide us.

Spirit of Cities,
  Spirit of Life,
   Lady of Los Angeles,
Open our ears that we may hear more deeply the sounds of these streets,
Our eyes that we may see more clearly the stories of these faces,
Our hearts that we may respond from a place of connection
The connection that we may know in our bones, whispering:
We belonging to these people,
            We belong to this place.

Spirit of Life, of Cities,
Teach us how to be at home, and how to be a guest in the homes of others.
Right here. Right Now.
Amen.

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.

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




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?