This poem was shared with the people of Mountain Vista Unitarian Universalist Congregation at the time of their vote to purchase a new building. It was written one year prior as a reflection on those “in-between” moments that require our waiting, our faith, and then our vulnerability to risk imagining a different future.
Place Between Shells
There are times when you find yourself in the house of a crumbling promise: broken tiles, ruined doorways, busted windows.
It may be hard to dream a different future from such a place.
It may feel foolish to proclaim architectural imaginings when you still sleep where the rain seeps in, a bedroom with no ceiling.
Prophecies proclaimed may feel like lies said through teeth filled with longings for some bones to believe in.
What can broken houses teach us about broken hearts? What does the snail say about the moment between shells?
There are many ways to leave what no longer shelters you.
Sometimes you wait, sometimes you must stay still, captivated by water that drips through cracks in old ways of being, captivated by the light of distant stars.
Sometimes you are compelled by a knowing that you can be grown again: you can almost picture it, your spiral doorway, your blueprint flows out of you.
And sometimes you must go exposed, you must be the soft body, pressed to the earth, unsure yet unwilling to carry the heavy pieces of your last year’s best intentions.
Mountain Vista UU – “Let Us Be Moved” Sermon – November 17, 2019
“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.
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
“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.”
30 Days for the Earth at Throop: Challenging False Separations
As part of our religious community at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, we spend thirty days each year intentionally focused on rededicating ourselves to people, place, and planet. To kick us off this year, we focused in on the watershed of philosophical, structural, and systemic culture that we find ourselves swimming in.
We reflected on the ways that the dominant culture’s—white, Western, European, colonial culture – relationship to the “natural” world is one that has at its root a belief that informs all else: some of this world is alive, some of this world is dead. Some of us are classified as beings, some of us are classified as non-beings. Non-beings, that which is dead, that which is without power, that either needs to be useful to that which is alive—laboring, procreating, reproducing—or at least needs to be protected because it is interesting, exotic, and useful for its purity to us.
We acknowledged that this even informs how we approach “getting back in touch with nature” today: that even as we resist over-exploitation (i.e. the idea that nature and the wilderness is something to be used and consumed by human beings), that the tendency was towards “conservation, preservation”—that suddenly these wilderness landscapes needed to be protected, preserved, pure, virginal, untouched.
These options: exploit, use, and abuse or protect, defend, and maintain as pure—don’t have anything to do with being in actual relationship. Both of these postures, the posture of “you’re mine and I’m entitled to you” and “you need to be protected and only I know what is best for you” have at their root, a common ethic: the ethic of control.
There is something more generative, more worthy of our worship, and more real than control: an interdependent web of life is not about control. Living in the web of life is about saying “I am related to you.”
We are asking ourselves these 30 Days: how do I remember and re-embody my profound relatedness in the body of all life? How do I remember my place as part—not as separate from, or seeking to transcend out of—this world? What does it mean for how I live my life—my relationship to people and planet—to live with this knowing in my bones?
California: “Land of Fire” and the Fire Suppression
Plant scientist Kat Anderson writes that early Spanish colonizers saw the “California poppies set a tilted mesa north of Pasadena aglow with their blooms in springs” it was actually visible by ships more than twenty five miles away. They called the coast “The Land of Fire.”
Anderson tells us that fire shaped this land:
Fire was common—the same acre was expected to burn every ten to fifty years.
California species survive fires and some actually require fire in order to complete their life cycle and remain generative—one ecologist postulated that fires were responsible for shaping ¾ of all California’s vegetation.
Pyrodiversity—the diversity of “frequency, scale, season, and type of fire”—leads to biodiversity.
Indigenous peoples in California had maintained the art and science of controlled and regular burns, right alongside fires by lightning strike for centuries.
But, lets just say that hasn’t been state policy.
Laura Cunningham, a field biologist, tracked these state policies. By 1905, the Forest Service outlawed fire on public land. One “early-twentieth century federal forester disdainfully described Indian burning as ‘Ancient notions of ‘Piute forestry’ whose deep fire-scars remain upon so many of our giant landmark pines and sequoias.’ He disparaged this ‘unscientific’ old way of setting ‘light surface fires’ aimed a ‘producing a smooth forest floor.’ They wrote:
“The Forest Service is solidly opposed to every sort of ‘light burning’ because they have seen it in practice many times, under all sorts of conditions; so are the foresters of all civilized nations… The underlying principles of all scientific forestry however, are these: Save the young growth as well as the mature trees; protect the soil; encourage reproduction; fill up all possible gaps in the forest cover—do not make more by surface fires—fight all fires to a finish.”
Do you hear those key words? Save. Protect. Reproduce. Fill up. Fight.
By 1935, there were state and federal governments that began a paramilitary-like program to quickly stamp out wildfires through “rapid mobilization of firefighters, equipment, and technology.”
Economics drove land relationships, land classifications, land science, and land policy. Increased density of trees led to more money for foresters. Fighting fires to a finish led to saving buildings—saving private property. I also imagine that there is something so powerful, so sacred, so transformative, so unwilling to be controlled by fire, that it was an affront to an ethic of domination and control. If you do not have a relationship with being out of control, if you are used to being in control, you won’t make friends with fire.
With land relationships driven by a belief in the inherent separateness of beings and non-beings, with the removal and genocide of indigenous people driven by a belief in separateness and non-being, and with economics in the drivers seat—California lands, California trees, lost one of their primary partners in creative collaboration: human beings.
The ecological results of fire suppression were enormous. Forests clog. Young saplings, unchallenged by regular fires, suck up all the water leaving old trees stressed and susceptible to attacks by bark beetles. In one study, fire-suppressed San Bernardino had 300 trees per acre—a similar stand of trees in Mexico, left for natural fires, had 60 per an acre. The Mexican trees were healthier and survived the beetles. One biologist called the number and mortality of North American trees “stunning”—revealing the underlying attitude of our culture that more is somehow always better. Catastrophic fires, thriving on the build up of twigs, branches became the new norm—but do not have the same benefits. Their heat, their magnitude devastates rather than regenerates.
And what about those very trees, those Giant sequoias, that all those men tried to save and protect from other men who might use, log, and exploit?
Those trees require fire to release seeds from their cones. The cones require ash and open gaps in the forest. Due to fire suppression, “small cones hung on the trees for years, waiting for the heat of a fire passing below to open the cone scales and release a seed rain as great as eight million per acre.”
As a result of these policies, Sequoias stopped producing.
The trees needed sky to set fire, or they needed humans to set fire. They were in a relationship. The very trees that some men set about to protect from other men who set about to exploit them, are the very trees that required the co-created generation of sky fire (lightening) or people (fire).
Without interdependent relationship, without fire, no Sequoia. No relationship, no tending, no transformation, no heat, no flame, no Sequoia.
It appear that that pristine wilderness landscape that had enchanted so many, that so many people wrote about, photographed and painted… and then protected from human beings… was actually, Anderson writes, a cultural landscape. It had been co-created.
The Fire Inside
What does this mean for us, in relationship now, here, in this place, with this people?
My friend Daniel Francis has been working with fire for most of his life, particularly fire by friction. Fire by friction reminds us that at the heart of any fire, is the art of teasing out the sun’s sacred energy from another being.
“The sun’s energy is stored in the body of all living plants as carbon. This reminds us that in the body of all beings lies a transformational potential. Fire-making teases out this stored energy (carbon), transforming it into heat and light. This is how all of ancestors managed to get us this far: fire to cook our food, to warm ourselves, to protect us from predators and to illuminate our way through the dark. Equally so, we need fire for ceremony, to see this same cycle as fundamentally a part of our own cycle. From a star’s light, to a living plant, to a burning flame, to ashes and back again. Magic.”
Fire refuses a philosophy of separation: that some is dead and some is alive. Fire says: I’m in everything, it is all alive.
And saying, “It is all alive” is a theological commitment.
To believe and to treat this world and other people as fundamentally alive—as on fire, as transformational, as powerful— is a theological commitment.
What are some ways to live with that commitment to an alive world in our bones?
Depth psychologist Joe Coppin, speaking of the work of archetypal psychologist James Hillman, once described to me that to be in an “alive” world requires moving in that world with a kind of sensibility that imagines that the world might have a better idea of what you should be doing than you do.
This is captured in archetypal psychology in the phrase “noticia” – which literally means “to notice.” It means you are available to the world because matter is wise. For example, you might leave here today and walk by the nasturtiums in the Throop Learning Garden. And you will be struck by those nasturtiums. But you will not be struck by them because you noticed them—you will be struck by them because they noticed you. It is a quality of availability to the world where your baseline assumption is that the world is alive, the world has wisdom, and that which is Other to you in the world has a right to your attention.
This right to your attention, and this aliveness, is also some of what
is core to the most sacred and important justice movements of our time right now. To say, “Water is Life” at Standing Rock is a theological commitment that the world is alive, water is alive, and that indigenous people have a right to self-determination of their own, and for those of us who are indigenous, our own, lives.
To say, “Black Lives Matter,” is a theological commitment that believes black bodies—all black bodies: black trans, queer, disabled bodies—are alive, are wise, are self-determining and have a right to people’s attention, and have the right to change you—or, for those of us who are black, trans, queer, and/or disabled, that we have a right to self-determination and the power to transform you and this world.
To say: It is alive. They are alive. We are alive. I am alive. And we will transform this, and we will be transformed, and you will transform, and I am transforming. These are theological commitments about how you will be in the world.
And here is where our responsibility comes in. To tend a fire, to create fire, to keep fire, you have to be in a responsible relationship with heat and transformation. To build it from something small to large, to keep something going, to soothe, to excite; you have to be responsive to what is actually in front of you. To notice the world, you have to be responsive to the relationship that is actually here.
When I say “responsibility” I do not mean moralistic duty. I mean it in the way of sacred responsiveness to one another.
Philosopher Kelly Oliver actually splits that word into two: “response” and “able.” Response-ability asks this: is what I’m doing creating the possibility of response from the one who is in front of me? Is the way I am approaching, speaking, showing up, noticing, responding, creating possibility—or closing off possibility?
Is what I am doing opening up, like a seed rain, the possibility of transformation of me from the one who is in front of me?
Is what I am doing making it possible that I will hear the call of a world and a people that have a right to my attention and a right to change me?
This is, as Oliver writes, what “love beyond domination” looks like. And this is our task as a people swimming in a culture of domination: we are learning to love in new ways and old ways that do not require us to rely on false securities of being “in control” for us to be in relationship with people and planet. We are learning to love beyond domination.
If the root of an ethic of separation is control, then the root of our ethic of relationship is the possibility and willingness that I will be changed by you; that you and I co-create each other; and that I will act in service to the possibility of that co-creation.
It means I will act in service to the possibility that you will transform me.
It means for social relationships that have been harmed by domination and histories of control, I will act in service to tending the harm, to healing, such that trust is possible, such that response-ability is possible between us, such that transformation is possible.
It means I will notice you, I will respond to your call, and I will go with you.
Conservation biologist Edward Grumbine writes, “Biological diversity will not be sustained if new ways of managing nature do not transform how we experience our place in nature…”
We have a theological statement to make and practice together: that our place is to be part of an interdependent planet, not separate from it.
Reflections on a journey in support of indigenous community action, after church call draws some 500 clergy as “protective witnesses”
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!”
It 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?
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.
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.
So many incredible writings by friends, colleagues and beloved strangers about how allies can be connected to the work of #BlackLivesMatter. I wanted to add some of these things here with links– hope this is a resource that keeps growing, would love to receive what other people find.
Writings, Resources and Tools from Across the Web:
From the Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) Campaign, a Ferguson Conversation Guide (Script) helping guide facilitators in a faith-based, principle-rooted approach to the difficult conversations about race and racism. If your community is talking about “now is the time to listen,” use this tool to help you get started– don’t make listening happen in isolation. Listening in isolation isn’t listening.
So my hope, going forward, is that we can all commit to doing a few things:
• Acknowledge the discomfort. Acknowledging and understanding the ways in which racial disparities play out in our homes, schools, workplaces, and especially our churches is hard. It just is, and remaining silent about it won’t make it any less uncomfortable.
• Listen actively. Most often, we can only see beyond our own lens not by talking, but by listening. Putting ourselves in positions to hear the stories of people who are most deeply impacted by racial disparities will grow our heart and head muscles, and at this moment in our nation’s history, we can’t afford not to listen or grow.
• Understand the significance of #blacklivesmatter. Shifting the focus to #alllivesmatter erases the realities of systemic racism and, in order to deal with that problem, we have to be willing to face it head on. Rev. Daniel S. Schatz’s excellent response to a community member who requested that he take down the “Black Lives Matter” signage posted outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is most instructive and really well done.
• Widen the circle. We cannot adequately address these issues within the confines of our own understanding. We have to go out and build relationships that can broaden our viewpoints, whether that’s by offering deeper learning within our own faith communities or by partnering with other communities and organizations who care about these issues. And however we widen the circle, we must do so giving primary voice to people of color in shaping the nature of the conversation and the collaboration.
“Right now the United States is reverberating with the shouts of voices and the steps of marchers demanding justice for unarmed Black citizens killed by police officers. If you use Twitter, you may have seen the hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. It is carried on signs and declared in chants. I’ve got a theological newsflash for you: this proclamation isthe gospel.
“Good news only can be declared in light of a problem. And the problem is that in far too many instances, our society’s actions reveal that Black lives don’t matter. Extrajudicial killings, police harassment, and intimidation of Black people is a this-worldly anti-gospel. #BlackLivesMatter offers itself as a succinct, holy antidote.
“Some people are put off by such specificity – don’t all lives matter? Isn’t all life sacred? The result is the counter-hashtag popping up everywhere as a critique: #AllLivesMatter. It tries to universalize the answer. While it is a “true” statement, it is also completely irrelevant and contributes nothing as a response to Black oppression. It actually obscures the problem. It forgets that the gospel always addresses concrete problems. The problem is not that everyone is a target of the police; hands are not reaching for weapons when persons like myself, a white man, interact with them. #AllLivesMatter drains the specificity out of the good news. A generic gospel is no gospel at all.”
From my own community, Rev. Rick Hoyt of First Unitarian Los Angeles wrote a compelling response from Los Angeles. You can read more of his writings on his blog here or check out the faith community’s response at their Facebook here. The response below is excerpted from the church Facebook page:
“… What we do know, is that what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness, is not the circumstances of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. But the accumulated circumstances of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And the circumstances of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill, unarmed black man shot by police in South LA this summer. And the circumstances of Amadou Diallo shot 19 times because New York City police officers mistook his wallet for a gun. And the circumstances of Oscar Grant killed at Fruitvale Station in Oakland when he was on the ground with his hands behind his back being subdued by other officers.
“Because what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness is not even the white cops and the black men, not the police abuse and the unarmed citizens, but an entire culture of racial fear and prejudice and guilt.
“Our anger is not about Darren Wilson, whether he personally is a tragic or a culpable figure. Our anger is not about Ferguson. Our anger is not about police procedures, and Grand Juries and the facts of this case.
“Our anger is that we have inherited a culture that is founded on the unequal treatment of human beings based on the color of their skin. And that unwanted inheritance is constantly re-made and perpetuated unwittingly by our every action. We participate in that hateful legacy through our choices of where we live, were we work, who we socialize with, where we spend our money, and what we say, and who we vote for, and where we give our attention.
“This is what Christian theologians call “Original Sin” – a spiritually unhealthy life cirumstance that we are born into rather than choose for ourselves. The evil inheritance of racial fear and prejudice is so built-in to our institutions and systems and structures that when we notice it we are instantly overwhelmed by our inability to change its course and so we mostly choose not to notice it but nevertheless keep on re-making it, day after day. And some days, horrifically some one person like Michael Brown gets crushed beneath it, and every day, just as horrifically but more quietly, an entire community of people gets crushed beneath it.
“We feel guilty, so we soothe our pain by blaming others. We feel prejudice and justify it with myths and stories. We feel fear and make ourselves brave with guns….”
Stay tuned for more, or share your own ally and spiritual activist tools. Will continue adding to this or blogging more specific pages of resources as I find writings that can assist spiritual activists with language, prayer, conversation and action tools to address communities of privilege with the grief work and transformation work needed to take real action– to risk their comfort, security and ideology in the creation of a world where the idea that #BlackLivesMatter is an obvious, embodied reality.
It is the end of my first Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit. Four-hundred hours of supervised spiritual care at LA County Hospital—and I feel as if I am standing amongst the rubble of my life.
It is like a moment from our time in class, told with permission from its transmitter and my colleague, Wally. Wally was sharing an incredible learning story. He had just returned that week from an emergency request to tend to a man that had died and come back to life.
The man was a roofer. He had driven his truck to the landfill to drop off old tiles. Backed his truck in, dumped the tiles, and had stepped out of his truck to ensure all the tiles had been disposed of. As he stepped out, standing at this pile, a plowing truck turned the corner. The truck was plowing the landfill trash to make more room for more dumping and, unbeknownst to that driver, was headed straight for the man, his truck, and his pile of tiles.
Without much time at all, the man found himself swept up by the landfill plow, carried away with the pile of rubble, tiles, baby diapers, dust, leaves, trash. Screaming and yelling, the driver couldn’t hear him. Bit by bit, carried away, the man’s body was compacted by the oncoming trash as more and more came upon him, his screams muffled as his lungs took on the refuse. He was sure he was finished.
Despite that, his upside down body compacted, someone at the landfill saw the plough, saw the trash and noticed something strange—a single, human foot shaking and moving peeping out from the top of the trash. Something was more human about that foot than usual, so the person ran screaming to the plough to stop its motion.
The plough stopped. The paramedics were called. The next thing the man knew, he was staring into Wally’s eyes, coughing up dust, whispering gratitude.
Wally tells us this story, touched by the experience. We are stunned.
To get the words flowing, our supervisor asks the obvious question one would ask after a story like that:
“And where was God?”
Her question, his story, stay with me. I know I have fashioned my life an incredible city—with a mighty landfill. Landfills—our temples to dispensability. Cathedrals to the “its in the past.” Congregations of “I’m over it.” Stained glass windows of what got broken and never restored. Just dump and go—don’t hang around too long. Dump and go. Don’t look. I came to CPE expecting I could go to the dump to drop off my latest dreams and intuitions for compacting and returned unscathed to become an ordained clergy person.
But this time, I didn’t make it back.
And really—who ever does? If we are not caught in the rubble now, when? I was born in 1987—the first year, scientists say, that the earth began to consume more resources than it could sustain. I have been born at a time of unprecedented dumping—the dumping of human lives into Twin Towers County Jail or the human landfill of Skid Row, testimony to our belief that certain lives are more dispensable than others. Each year of my life I’ve lived in the largest cosmic landfill we’ve ever known. And at what point will each of us finally get swept up in our own rubble? What about me? When I have or lose my first child? Lose the last of my parents? When I wake up in a job that I thought was a calling, but was really the closing of other dreams? An illness, a cancer, that puts me in this hospital?
There we are, each of us, caught in the momentum of the rubble of our own lives.
So… where do I see God in that?
As a Universalist mystic, the sacred and profane are one—holy the moment, holy the expanse, holy the plough, holy the paycheck pushing the plough, holy the tiles, holy the diapers, holy the screaming for life.
But for now at this moment, baptized in the rubble of my life, it was and is most profoundly and specifically this: holy are the story catchers who sit among the expanse of rubble, thoughtfully available, to notice the foot.
Thank you for noticing my foot.
I will leave here to sit, like that thoughtful observer, amongst the rubble of my life and amongst those who see the rubble for what it truly is—the gritty foundation for something more incredible, more true, more honest. The rubble from which life begins again.
This piece written for a closing ceremony of Summer Interfaith Chaplain Interns at LA County Hospital / St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, CA. June 2014.
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.
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.”
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?