Category Archives: Personal is Political

Toward. Just. Relationship. (Sermon)

[A music- and prose-based worship service originally written for and read to Throop Unitarian Universalist Church on May 20, 2018.]

Toward.

“Toward” is a posture. She is an open body. He is an attuned heart. They wait with loving response.

Toward says, “I will face you, I will come near to you, I will look lovingly, even when it is hard to look.”

When Toward sees your tears, she does not rush to your face, a linebacker armed with Kleenex. She doesn’t say “Shut up,” or “Stop crying.” She doesn’t say, “Ah, it will be okay, don’t worry, I’ve been through it, I totally understand what you are experiencing.”

Toward says: “Ah. Tears are visiting. They come to this world to say something important. I honor your tears. “

When Toward hears the story of your hurt, he does not fear that acknowledging your pain somehow diminishes his. No. He witnesses you as flesh of this world. He leans forward because your experience in your embodiment is wise and he wants to hear it.

Toward is the one who comes over to your family’s home overly enthusiastic about looking at your baby photos. And, after dinner, they do the dishes.

Toward trusts that, if they can just lean into that space between you and them long enough—over the sink, over the hole that was the ground of your earlier life, the dying fire that was the marriage, the frayed trust that was the friendship, the accident, the violence, the vote, the loss, the daily moment-to-moment heaving heaviness that is class, race, and gender—if they can stay on the edge of their knowing in a way that centers your experience, if they don’t rush in to fix, if they don’t flee from disgust, that they will witness something emerge that is sacred.

Toward is one who knows how to wait for what is emerging from the cracks.

In fact, Toward is one of those fools with a succulent garden. Because, you know, drought tolerant planting. And, because he loves a good metaphor about beauty that emerges from rocky soil.

When Toward goes out to dinner, they prefer the stuff that gets sent back to the kitchen because it wasn’t “quite right.” Toward finds the nourishment on every plate; even the stuff that’s a little burned, a little runny, a little unsure of itself, bits of other people’s lives and truths that can be hard to stomach.

Toward drives for Lyft occasionally. They come to you. They pull up to you. Then they ask you “where do YOU want to go?” and when you answer they go with you.

When people say “this campaign… this effort… this movement… may take a long time,” Towards signs up first. To the defectors, she says, “Anything worth doing requires constant movement. If it was simple, it would have been done already.” Toward knows that what is worth doing takes each generation to carry forward. We may not arrive. We must keep moving toward it.

Toward does not need guarantees of success to make something worth doing. She delights in the possibility of holy failure. After all, each plate has nourishment.

Toward makes a promise that when everyone else leans back they’ll lean in.

Just.

If Toward is the direction, Just is our compass. And our compass is future-focused.

Just is a SciFi queen. A futurist. They go to ComicCon. And they dress up for it.

Contrary to crime television, Just does not ask “Who done it? What’s their punishment? Who gets to punish them?”

Just asks, “What would it look like if we survived this? What would it mean if we came out of this more deeply related? How could this tiny moment be one step towards creating that world we dream of? What is needed from each of us to take that step now?”

Just refuses to give over their imagination to an unjust world. They are notoriously off-script. They are the overly-enthusiastic improvisation coach in your high school theatre program that is always on the verge of losing its funding from the state. Just asks us to do something in this moment that is a little unrealistic, a little impossible, a little improbable, a little ridiculous, such that the new world we long for has a big enough crack to enter in through.

This is not child’s play, and yet this is a child’s play: this radical imagining is what will keep us alive. It is the only thing that has.

Because, in this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to stand outside of a Police Commission hearing, week after week, with an image of your daughter who died in police custody pasted onto a poster, and believe that you and your daughter’s life are worthy of being listened to and will be. That’s a radical imagination guided by Just.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe that you and your family and your church and your social movement can survive conflict or sexual harm and come out more connected, more strong, more healed, more accountable, and more related than before you began.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe, as a teenager, that you and all your friends and all their friends could challenge the NRA.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe that the stigma of mental and physical disability can be transformed into living in environments and communities that no longer disable you because of their stigma towards you.

In this world, you have to have Just’s radical imagination to believe that your town deserves clean water, that your family deserves nourishing food, that some day you could get sick and will have immediate access to the highest quality health care right there in your own damn neighborhood.

Those dreams are the work of Just’s radical imagination.

In a dominant culture of laws, procedures, and rules, Just turns over the table and tosses out your paperwork. Just is the auntie who speaks in tongues before dinner. He is the mumbling prophet who cries, “The end of THIS world is near!” and means it. A new world is coming, and Just is guiding us there. She is arriving in the moment at every moment—if you’re paying attention and know what to look for. If you are willing to see it, and feed it with your own imaginations.

Just is the creative imagination of a world committed to warm unfolding against all of our attempts to freeze it and each other, control it and each other, and script it and each other.

Just is the monarch butterfly. Imagine being a caterpillar, eating everything in sight, getting bigger than ever to the point of being immobile, and when people ask you “What are you doing?” your response is, “I’m thinking of flying to Mexico! To the birthplace of my parent’s parent’s parents! They never made it back there. I want to see it.” Then, when you go to wrap yourself into a silk sleeping bag, and people ask you “What are you doing?” your response is, “I think I’ll hang upside down, disintegrate into soup, and wake up with wings.”

No, really. Picture it. It’s ridiculous.

That is the work of Just.

Just is a quality of being where we are committed to the possibility of ours and each other’s wingedness. Nothing less than fullness, nothing less than belonging, nothing less than dignity, and nothing less than care. [And, in the case of the butterfly, nothing less than silk.]

Just doesn’t settle for how can I hurt you to show you how badly you hurt me, Just doesn’t settle for “well, I guess this is good enough, I guess this is all we deserve, lets go home,” Just isn’t here for a buffet of bones.

Just is here for the feast of our profound belonging. And she begs us not to give up our imaginations to a pre-scripted world of domination and violence.

Science fiction author Octavia Butler remembers a story that took place when she was nine-years-old: it was 1954, and she went to one of her first B-movie films. She remembers, quite clearly, coming out of the theatre saying: “Someone got paid for writing that story!” and “Jeeze, I can write better than that!”

Indeed. People are getting paid for writing the story we are living in now.

Just says to us, “We could be writing this better.”

“I Need You To Survive” as performed at UU General Assembly 

Relationship.

“I need you to survive.” This is such a tender, theological commitment.

I love you, you are important to me, I need you to survive– this is true in our most intimate, relationships.

I won’t harm you, with words from my mouth, I love you, I need you to survive– because our social movement depends on you and us. Our community depends on you and us. Because you are not just important to me, but to us.

“I need you to survive” because you and I are both the flesh of this world. There is no other world beside the one in which we are embedded in the thickest possible web of relationships. There is nothing that falls outside of our relatedness.

The space we tend between us is a portal to the world we are creating where we survive.

When we say, “We imagine a world with clean water. With no prisons. With health care. With reproductive care. Without gun violence by the state or by each other. With good food, with loving bodies, with beautiful shelter.” We are not talking about a world that will make it possible for someone out there to be more alive—we are talking about the people in this very room.

In this very room are those of us stigmatized for our disabilities. For our genders. In this room are those of us who lack secure housing, health care, meaningful work, a living wage. Us, our families, have been impacted by mass incarceration, guns, racism, sexual harm. We struggle with the PTSD of foreign wars, we breathe smoggy air, we cope under the strains of capitalism and the legacy of colonialism that leaves us struggling to stay connected to each other. We’re not just talking about some of our beloved people in some distant out there somewhere (although they are included): we are talking about us, the people seated next to us right now. We honor the people farthest away from us by honoring the people nearest to us.

But we don’t know that about each other unless our religious practice is to live in relationship with each other. We don’t know that unless we treat each person, each relationship, like a sacred portal to the world we are building. We don’t know that if we buy wholesale the dominant culture’s argument that problems happen to individuals who behave badly or just don’t try hard enough. We can’t see the etchings of systems of harm on each other’s bodies if we refuse to get close to each other.

“I need you to survive” begins the moment we say, “I’m gonna make this personal.”

When we say, “We go out and love the world from the heart of Pasadena,” we are saying “At Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, our religion is to make this life and this place personal.”

Personal—which is not to say “make it private.” It is to say, make it “particular.” It means that I can picture the particular face of the one I love who is most impacted by this issue because I know them and love them intimately. I can picture the dirt and soil and water of the place I live that is most impacted by this issue because I know it and love it and put my hands in it and grow my food in it.

I have moved toward what I love and imagined a future where they survive and I will fight and create for that future.

It is personal. It matters to my person. I have a stake in it. Our relatedness is not just a theory to me. It’s personal. I am close enough to my own self, and to this person, to this place, that I can see the etchings of a system on their flesh that is my flesh, and I love them, they are important to me, and I need them to survive.

So I’m gonna show up, I’m gonna give, I’m gonna be uncomfortable, I’m gonna be scared, and I’m gonna do it, because its personal.

“I need you to survive” means I take your future as our future personally.

What would it mean for us to take that to heart?

How could we each carry that knowing closer and closer with us in our bones?

“It goes on one at a time,” says Marge Piercy…

“… it starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say ‘We’ and know who you mean,  and each day you mean one more.”

Video: “Poittu Varen! Ethics for Translocal Partners”

At the University of Ottawa, Canada, June 2017 for the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial conference, Siva Mathiyazhagan (PhD) and Samantha Gupta (MA, M.Div) discuss their process of uncovering a “grounded ethic” from their experiences working together translocally as youth community organizers and friends from India and the USA since 2009.

[Publication of “Poittu Varen! Ethics for Translocal Partnerships” forthcoming.]

This presentation was at the University of Ottawa, Canada, June 2017 for the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) biennial conference. The original filming was from the conference via Facebook Live.

Learn more about the organizations they serve/served and reference here: Trust for Youth and Child Leadership-India (http://www.tycl.org.in) and Child Leader Project- USA (http://www.childleaderproject.org/ )

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?

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.

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!