Powerless: In the Wake of the Wilson Grand Jury Decision

I am powerless.

I am powerless over my news feed and its link after link after link to more information, education, opinion, or debate about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, and the protests and riots that have followed.  I can’t seem to stop reading, no matter how inundated or horrified I am.  I can’t bear to look at it, and I can’t bear to turn away from it.

I am powerless over the decision itself.  Powerless to do anything but pray, which feels impotent right now.  I did so last night for a mixed group of mourners, gathered in grief and confusion and anger at Reconciliation Park in downtown Tulsa.  I asked that our ears and hearts be opened to the difficult and varied emotions and experiences that would be shared in our vigil.  I hope they were.

We left without closure, because there was none to be had.  As poet Mia Wright had implored earlier, we did not sing this time, though we had planned to.  There was nothing to lift up in song, no feel-good moment to ride out on.  I could not feel the joy or hope my colleague had called for in closing; I could not feel much of anything.

All I could feel was the weight of 400 years of systematized racism bearing down on my soul, breaking the backs of my brothers and sisters of color, blinding the eyes of my white siblings.  It is so much to bear, this legacy.  It is painful to admit; like any trauma, it brings a mess of emotions, all wrapped up in shame.

And because I am white, I can go home and shut the door on it, at least temporarily.  I can change into my pajamas, watch Doctor Who with my girlfriend and her son, and put it aside until morning when the news feed and the text messages and the cries of my human family reach me again.  The war on inequality did not go to sleep when I did.  The system itself certainly didn’t.

And my friends of darker-hued skin did not have the luxury – the privilege – of forgetting, even for a moment.  For them, it is constant, regardless of racial background or national origin; and for many, whose ancestors were brought here by force, it is the context for their very existence in this country.  I can say little more on that, because it is not my story to tell.  And I am learning, little by little, when I need to shut my mouth and listen.

Right now I am listening and watching more than I talk.  When I share articles on Facebook, I am trying to share facts and let them speak for themselves; it can be hard to restrain my commentary.  I am trying to be present to the suffering of my brothers and sisters of color and know that while it affects me too, as a member of the human family, it is a pain I can never fully embody or understand.  Try as I might, I am powerless to understand what I do not personally experience.

I am powerless.  As one mournful, horrified white man, I can do little to change the system.

I am.

But we are not.  Collectively, we are powerful beyond measure – if we work together, if we can open our ears and our hearts and really listen to each other’s realities.

They are hard to hear.  They are hard to hold.  The truth is heavy.  And borne alone, it breaks us all, regardless of color.

But borne together, we can shoulder the load of the work that is our birthright.

I have no words to close this, like we had no songs to sing last night.  There is no neat package, no moral, no lesson.

So I will keep listening to the storm raging in my heart and the shared heart of my human family, and trust in that collective power that is greater than any one of us.

Namaste.

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Dearly Beloved: On a Truly Blessed Union

Yesterday I married Jim and John.  It was my first legal wedding, and surely one of the first legal same-sex weddings in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.  We stood before God, our congregation, and an array of friends and family to bless and legally sanctify a union of 35 years.  Throughout the ceremony, there was barely a dry eye in the house – including my own.

John and Jim are 62 years old, born six months apart.  They have been together since they were 27.  They have had an extraordinarily rich life together; their love and respect is palpable.  Jim is mostly confined to a wheelchair these days.  He has terminal brain cancer.  The doctors have given him a year to live.  The Supreme Court has given John a great deal more peace in these transitional times and in those to follow.

They wanted a traditional ceremony, short and to the point.  They wore Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants at the altar.  After three and a half decades, John said, why be formal?  So, down the aisle we walked, four attendants, the grooms, and me.  John’s sister gave him away.  Their longtime friend gave Jim away.  I called the space in the familiar manner:  “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

I kept as close to the traditional script as I could; but I could not, in good conscience, leave it untouched.  The wedding ceremony was written for people at the beginning of their life’s journey together.  It offers both hope and forewarning that, to a couple who have spent more than half their lives together, is old hat.  (As I said in my charge to the couple, “What can I tell you about marriage that you don’t already know?  I should be asking your advice.”)  Plus, however casual the tone, this was a momentous occasion, not only for Jim and John, but for their loved ones, for our church, for the town, for the nation, and, indeed, for humanity.  So I kept the spirit of tradition while honoring the unique beauty and power of this union of souls.  Most of the changes were subtle:  “reaffirming” versus “creating” a life together; taking vows “that you have lived out over these years.”

It was those old familiar vows that got me.  I had kept my composure fairly well up to that point, breathing away a tear or pausing to keep my voice from breaking.  But those vows took me back – not to my own wedding, as I’ve never been married, but to my teenage years as a fledgling activist, half my life ago.  I have been working for LGBQ and trans rights since the late 1990s.  I marched; I petitioned; I organized; I educated; I endured threats and abuse from peers and power figures; I spoke; I made art; I wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.

I wrote everything from poetry to op-eds to research papers.  One such paper marked a crucial moment in my understanding of civil rights, and of marriage as a critical one.  I wrote it at age 16, and I can still quote it.  In my research, I read a book (which I only now realized came from the UUA’s publishing house), Richard D. Mohr’s A More Perfect Union: Why Straight America Must Stand Up for Gay Rightsin which the author closes his chapter “Understanding Gay Marriage” with this vignette:

Two men clutch each other; one is at the edge of life.

“In sickness and in health.”

The other has sold the house to pay the medical bills, changed the hospital sheets himself, sacrificed even beyond the point where assistance could help.

“For richer for poorer.”

They are married to each other in their own eyes, in God’s eyes, in the eyes of their church and community – in every eye but the law’s.

“For better for worse.”

And so now, as the doctor unplugs the respirator, as the lovers’ duet ends, the law will put the living lover through a hell for which not even his beloved’s decay could have prepared his imagination.

“Til death do us part.”

As I began to recite the vows and watched the tears in John’s eyes, present since they walked down the aisle, turn into rivers on his cheeks, that scene flashed through my mind.  I could not help but imprint it on these two men, one looking up at the other from the chair that allows them to move together these days, and that will carry him through the winter of his life.  Three weeks ago, that could have been their scene.  But today, it looks like this:

“In sickness and in health.”

The minister’s eyes sting.

“For richer, for poorer.”

The minister’s voice trembles.  Cancer is not cheap, but in this moment, these are the richest men in the world.  Their wealth of love is abundant.

“For better, for worse.”

The minister’s heart is so full it hurts.  The stories these two have!  The things they have endured in a lifetime together!  The immeasurable joy in this room that they get to have this day they never thought would come!  The bittersweetness in this room, knowing that their days to come are numbered…

“Til death do us part.”

The minister’s voice breaks; a tear rolls down his cheek.  That day is not far off.  No one here is pretending otherwise.  But today is not that day.  Today, we affirm life.  Today, we celebrate this wealth of love; all those present bask in it, rejoice in it, find hope in it.  Today, we laugh death in the face, and the Universe conspires to join us as sunlight pours into the sanctuary windows, through which brilliant blue skies and vibrant yellow and orange trees are visible.  Yes, this day is very much alive.

Later, as I walked to my car, I watched the tree above it shake yellow leaves onto the still-green grass.  It seemed a metaphor for Oklahoma:  change tumbling in from above while the ground level doesn’t know that the season has turned.  In truth, the season is still turning; though the legal milestone is in place, the work of changing hearts and minds is ongoing.  The power of the change we are witnessing is certainly not lost on me, though; 15 years ago, I did not think I would see this day in my lifetime, let alone be the one performing the ceremony.  It felt blessedly surreal to say, “By the power invested in me by the State of Oklahoma, I now pronounce you husband and husband.”

Turning out of the driveway, I saw lingering wedding-goers standing under the banner the church put out for this occasion:  “Standing On the Side of LOVE.”  In that snapshot, I felt connected through the generations of Unitarian Universalists who have done just that, and suddenly, the minor crisis of faith that had been hanging on me this week lifted.  I remembered that core of our theology, our hermeneutic of love, and felt restored in my call to preach and live that gospel truth far and wide.

I drove home feeling that John and Jim had ministered to me as much as I had to them; and as I type this, I think to myself, “Isn’t that always the way?”  From what my more seasoned colleagues tell me, yes, it is.  Congratulations, gentlemen.  It was an honor to share this day with you.  You are forever in my heart.

On the Eve of Katrinaversary, 2014

August 28, 2014.

 

Tonight I will light candles.

I can’t light one for each of the deceased, and certainly not each of the displaced.

But I will light one for each of those groups,

for those who never came home.

For many, they have faded from consciousness.

But I must remember them.

And I will light one for my city,

my second home that sat in suspense

nine years ago tonight,

as the winds picked up

and the rains came harder,

holding its collective breath in the darkness

as those who had stayed prayed by candlelight in their powerless houses,

and those who had left tried vainly to sleep,

and failing that, sat glued to the TV, waiting.

 

I was one of the latter.

 

So I will light another candle for that memory,

for that early morning spent restless on my mother’s couch in Houston,

keeping the volume low as not to wake her or my fellow evacuee,

watching Anderson Cooper in his yellow raincoat

his perfect hair ruffling in the building storm

as the rains formed torrents around him

and street signs flew past

and trees lost their roots…

I watched.  And waited.  

And as the sun reached mid-morning in a cloudless Texas sky,

it started to peek out on the screen in front of me.  

Back home looked a little battered and beaten,

but all in all, not irreparable.  

The doomsayers’ predictions, it seemed, had been wrong.  

Relieved, I finally slept, thinking I would drive home in the morning,

help with the cleanup,

go back to work,

get back to my life.

 

But when I woke later that day,

I learned otherwise.

The sun was still out — but the waters were rising.  

Aerial views:

The muddy city filling up like a bowl,

full of river and salt water

like the streams from the eyes

of those of us who sat transfixed, helpless in our dry refuges, disbelieving what was before us,

and those at home who were climbing their stairs,

then their furniture,

then cutting through their ceilings,

then their roofs,

waiting and praying for help that, for some, never came,

and for many, came too late

for them to believe that they were cared for.

 

I will light a candle for the memory

of shock

of fear

of the unreal becoming brutally real

worse than the most twisted fiction

as it unfolded in the days to come,

chaos crescendoing and madness mounting

as our city was left to drown

in a putrid swamp of racism and corruption,

left cold in the oppressively humid, sweltering summer,

Black babies dying

as their mothers’ angry cries for help went unanswered,

poor white folks with nothing but the shirts on their backs

believing the cruel lie that the remnants of their property were more at risk

from those people in the Dome who didn’t look like them

than the power-holders in their towers who did.

 

I will light a candle for the miles of washed-out houses

still overgrown with vines and red tape

nine years after their owners were lost

in either the waters

or the system that, despite our best efforts,

is still built to preserve power

and block progress.

 

I will light a candle, too,  

for those who have forgotten

that the storm did not end

on August 29, 2005,

and the flood did not recede

when the waters dried up that fall;

who will go about their evenings

with clear minds and hearts,

blessedly free

of what my body and many thousands of others

still remember tonight,

the night that we waited:

Tense shoulders.

Clenched jaws.

Tight lungs.

Knotted stomachs.

Eyes dry from sleep deprivation and too many tears.

Hearts and brains strung out on adrenaline overload.  

Too cold from the fear that constricted our blood vessels.

Too hot from the anger that welled up inside us.

And so, so weary

from these years

of recovering, rebuilding, rehashing, reviving, reliving, redoing, renewing, retraumatizing,

remembering,

remembering,

remembering,

remembering.

 

And tomorrow,

I will get up,

and I will say a prayer for the anniversary;

and as I feel the ink of my fleur-de-lis tattoo

burning in my forearm,

I will go out into the world

among those who have forgotten

and do my work

and go to dinner

and see a show

and live my life,

fully aware that these are privileges

that many have not received

and for which I must be grateful — never guilty.

For guilt is useless.  We each had our fates.

And I will use mine for greater good

and treasure all it has given me

by reverently living my life

tomorrow.

 

But tonight,

I will light candles.

 

— SLW

My Summer in New Orleans: Reflecting on the Journey

I am sitting at my favorite coffee shop in New Orleans. This city has an abundance of great coffee shops, and I enjoy many of them, but Fair Grinds is my favorite. It’s a perfect mix of funky, reasonably-priced, ethical, and quiet. Its mission as a hub of community organizing and a social justice entrepreneurship tugs at my little activist heartstrings.

I’m sitting here staring at my computer screen, noticing the background noises of grinding espresso and chuckling patrons, noting the soft sunlight resting on my tabletop and keyboard, letting the memories of the past 8 weeks flow through me. My assignment, due at midnight, is a final reflection paper on my experiences here. I’m supposed to be writing about how this summer practicum has affected my spiritual and intellectual growth, and discussing “particularly formative” experiences. I have notes and snippets, ideas and connections. These will form into a cohesive paper, if I can just start writing.

But I’ve experienced so much, I don’t know where to start.

Do I start with the obvious, jarring thing that happened just two weeks ago:  A herd of anti-abortion extremists invaded my church’s worship space, and through that experience, I lived my way into the pastoral role in a new and embodied way?

Do I start with the more subtle, mundane, but equally sacred experiences: The routine I developed, which was a balance of schedule and flow; the way I was invited into my internship space, and how I occupied that space in response; the minutia of my days in and out of the office?

Do I start with the concrete, task-oriented, perfunctory framework in which all of these things occurred:  A play-by-play of my initial orientation with Deanna, my internship supervisor, and the projects we laid out for my summer; how those projects actually played out as priorities shifted in the process; the meetings and trainings I attended or led, like the PISAB “Undoing Racism” workshop or a discussion of the Bennett Scale; the conversations I had with Deanna and my professor Ellen; the practicum seminars; etc.?

Do I start with the informal, even accidental experiences that ended up at least as formative as, if not more so than, the practicum itself:  the performance of Godspell I saw at First Grace UMC the night of orientation; the unsettling encounter, outside of the church setting, with a woman I’d met that day; the Justice and Beyond meeting I attended in Deanna’s stead that became the anchor point of my work here; the day I volunteered at a community kitchen driven by dignity; the coffee conversations with colleagues?

What about the personal experiences, unrelated to the “official” work I did but profoundly connected to the fact of my being here? Do those factor in? My personal story is intimately connected to my professional development, and I don’t think I can separate the two if I am to talk about my spiritual growth. I can no longer compartmentalize parts of my experience; in fact, I refuse to do so. Each area flows into the next; pluck on one strand of the spider’s web and the whole thing reverberates with that movement. This summer I laid old demons to rest. I wiped stained and grimy slates clean. I reopened and healed deep wounds and liberated myself from the bindings of their scar tissue. I amended old trespasses and laid new pathways for redemptive action and recovery. I made meaningful new friendships, strengthened some old ones, and quietly let go of others. And in the spaces between and through these, by phone and internet, a good friend and I laid the groundwork for a beautiful relationship that has great potential to keep growing deeper, richer, and longer-term. Surely all of this counts as “formative experiences” in my spiritual and intellectual growth? I know it will make me a better minister.

If there is a way to sum up my learning this summer, it is as follows:

Namaste, friends.

Steven


P.S. Thank you to everyone who has supported my work and learning this summer through my GoFundMe campaign. I am truly blessed to have such solidarity from my community. The page will remain up and accepting donations as I transition into my student ministry role back home.

Religious Terrorism in New Orleans: The Day Fear Entered Our Sanctuary, and How We Drove It Out with Love

Hate and Fear came into our sacred space this weekend at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (FUUNO). They wore the clothes of people they had already overtaken, and spoke in eloquently twisted bits of Scripture. They tried to commandeer our worship service, usurp our prayers of mourning for those we lost last week, divert attention from the youth leaders we were honoring at the end of the National Youth Justice Training of the UU College of Social Justice.  

Tried, I said. 

They did not succeed.  

They did not succeed because those same brilliant youth leaders, in their infinite wisdom and riding the wave of justice and solidarity from the week before, joined hands with the congregation and led them in a mantra of “Circle ‘Round for Freedom,” a social justice anthem beloved in UU churches. They encircled the sanctuary as Rev. Deanna Vandiver spoke compassion and light and unity from the pulpit, drowning out the proselytizers not by matching their anger and vitriol, but by loving the hell out of them.  They continued while a few of us peacefully escorted the insurgents outside. Meanwhile, I escorted three quieter members of the infringing group (whose version of the events can be found here) back to their seats, agreeing to engage in civil dialogue with them after the service on the condition that they remain respectful for the remainder of it. This tide of Love – which is so much more powerful than fear, so much stronger than hatred – firmly and gently pushed the disturbance out onto the sidewalk, where it continued its demonstration safely out of our worship space. We shut the doors and picked up where we left off, not missing a beat in the order of service, not diverting any time from Rev. Deanna’s message on mission and putting our faith in action – a sermon which, as she said, “preached itself” in the wake of that demonstration. 

They did not succeed because our youth leaders, who had come from across the country, got a prime opportunity to practice what they had learned in their training to be agents of justice and peace. After the service, they engaged in respectful dialogue with those three who remained, and practiced their principles of love and nonviolence in word and deed. Once the three were eventually escorted out for becoming passively violent with their Scriptural references, these youth held each other through the tears and pain. They then took the protesters’ propaganda out into the courtyard and burned them in a pot, not to add angry fuel to the fire, but to release the hate and fear into the air and the earth.  The rains came as they concluded their ritual, finishing the job and driving away the demonstrators who remained outside the church.  

They did not succeed because the congregation – members and visitors alike – came together in the face of hate and protected each other with love. A good friend of mine who was visiting acted as a safe escort until the entire congregation had left the building; he stayed at the church in that capacity long after the protesters left to ensure that all of the youth were on their way to the airport before he let his guard down to go home. Others helped in similar capacities; no one had to walk alone through the wall of hate and fear.  Bart Frost, the Director of Religious Education, took the initiative of calling the police during the service to monitor the outdoor demonstration. Representatives from the Rapid Response Team of Planned Parenthood also came to debrief and guide in the aftermath, encouraging people not to engage with the protesters because, in their words, “You cannot reason with a belief.”  

And while this is true – beliefs are based in abstract faith, and reason is based in concrete fact – it is also true that you can be a reasonable person and a believer. And on a personal level, these religious terrorists did not succeed because I came away from the experience more rooted than ever in my own faith – including those parts of it that come from Christianity.  

In Matthew 22:34-40, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  This tells me that the core of Christianity is Love – and, by that token, that anyone who pushes hatred and fear in the name of the Law is a false prophet. Love is the be-all and end-all, the Alpha and the Omega, the source from which we come and that to which we shall return. This is the core principle of the Way of Jesus, and if that is the case, then I will continue to claim Christianity in the face of those who call my church a “synagogue of Satan.” If Love is the basis, then everything else is up for debate, and God is big enough to contain me and everyone else in the sanctuary this weekend – regardless of whether each of us believes in the same (or any) version of God. 


For more information on this past Sunday’s events and the aftermath (in which the Mayor of New Orleans, adding insult to injury, awarded the demonstrators for “service to the city”), see these articles: 

http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/benham-group-disrupts-synagogue-satan-unitarian-universalist-worship-services-receives-procl 

http://uptownmessenger.com/2014/07/mayors-office-issues-certificate-recognizing-abortion-protest-group-for-service-to-city/

To sign a petition to the Mayor to rescind his highly inappropriate award, click here.  

To attend a pro-choice rally and vigil in front of City Hall in New Orleans, show up at Duncan Plaza Thursday at 6pm.  Event details here

For ongoing coverage of the aftermath, follow me on Facebook. I’ll be posting articles and sharing statuses with more information. 

Namaste, 

Steven

My Summer in New Orleans: Initial Reflections on the Journey

Hello, friends!

I am three weeks into my 8-week practicum in urban ministry at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. I have been digesting many experiences and pieces of information, and am only now at a point where I can start articulating them to others.

So far, the guiding questions of my time here have been:

These are living questions for me, and I will not attempt to answer them at this moment. I am hoping to “live my way into the answers,” in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke. I am doing this by: 

  1. Observing. I am taking in as much information as I can. I am watching and listening to my mentors at CELSJR. I am watching the way meetings are run at Justice and Beyond, a community coalition I’m attending weekly, and noting what works in facilitating dialogue. For my coursework, I am reading two books about the shadow side of charity: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) and When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself. Both give practical insights on the cycles of dependency created by traditional models of charity, be they at the missionary or governmental level, and offer alternative ways of working for equity and empowerment. The latter book is posing some theological problems for me, as it is written from a conservative evangelical perspective; however, this is challenging me to lean into the second thing I’m doing in this process of living the questions, which is… 
  2. Listening more than I speak. It is easy to listen when I expect to agree or be compassionate to someone’s position; it is much more difficult when I encounter a person or ideology with which I am in conflict. In these situations – be they reading a book written by an evangelical missionary, or engaging with a white workshop participant who believes that the way to alleviate racism is to be “colorblind” – I am challenged to lean into the discomfort rather than defending myself against it, to listen more deeply so that I can more deeply engage with the person or subject matter. In intercultural settings, I am listening more than I speak as a means of being aware of and responsible with my privilege, rather than acting as if I can “give it up.” 
  3. Asking lots of questions. I’m asking questions of my professor, my site supervisor and staff, members of my local UU church, members of other churches, people at Justice and Beyond, friends, colleagues, fellow students, people I meet at Fourth of July barbecues, myself, my Higher Power… And I am doing so, to the best of my ability, after I have listened deeply and identified exactly what information or nuance I am missing so that I can question with respect and intention.  

I will continue to update this blog as I live my way into more answers. I am shooting for once a week from here on out; some weeks may produce more, others less. This is not only to document my process for myself and those I serve, but also to create accountability to those of you who are donating to my GoFundMe campaign, which I have set up to help pay my living expenses for the month of August and part of September while I finish this practicum and transition into my student ministry position at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville.  Please feel free to share the page with your networks and/or donate what you can to support my learning process, through which I am gaining valuable skills to bring back to my community in Tulsa and beyond. 

Thank you for reading, my beloved community! 

Namaste, 

Steven 

 

 

My Summer in New Orleans: An Intro to My Current Journey

I am five days into an 8-week stay in my second home of New Orleans, LA, and it is breaking my heart and breaking it open.

I’m doing a practicum in urban ministry through my school in partnership with Christian Renewal New Orleans (CRNO), and I am grateful to be interning at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR), which is based out of my home congregation here, First UU New Orleans (FUUNO).  I get to learn how intentionally intercultural faith-based outreaches are serving this beautiful, hurting city in ways that empower people to heal themselves and their communities, and I get to bring what I learn back to Tulsa, which needs so much of the same medicine.

On a personal level, I get to experience that medicine for myself.  I came here with the intuition that my own growth and healing are integrally intertwined with the work I will do this summer.  Already, I am seeing that play out.  I am experiencing immense grace and getting to be a channel of it for others.  I am smoothing scars over old wounds and turning them into testimonies to divine, steadfast love.

I ran away to New Orleans at age 18, fleeing a tumultuous and traumatic adolescence in Tulsa; I ran blindly, for survival, and as a result, unwittingly ran into more tumult and trauma.  At age 31, I am now blessed to return with a purpose, mission, and vision; I have a clear reason for being here, and an openness to what more I may discover.  This visit feels different from any other, most notably because I am different.  I feel as though I still know everything I know about the city and my seven years here, but have entered with a clean emotional slate, free of expectations and biases.  As I heal my own brokenness and light my own shadows, I get to run towards instead of away, not only in my inner life but in my work in the world.  Thus, I get to align with others who are moving toward something, and help people and communities move toward something:  toward healing and wholeness, toward reconciliation and redemption, toward life and love, toward honesty and authenticity.  These moves are both inward and outward, individual and interdependent.

In recent months, I have been learning how to show up and be authentic in all areas of my life and work.  This visit is taking that learning to a new level as I revisit Hurricane Katrina with the primary purpose of a minister, versus that of a survivor.  I get to process how that lived experience informs and empowers my work today; thanks to years of recovery, therapy, and spiritual healing, I am now in a place where I can stay with my difficult emotions (anger, grief, remorse, discomfort, despair) as they arise, and let that experience heighten my empathy for others instead of isolating me in my own pain.

This, I think, is the essential work of relational ministry:  to first learn to be present with my own complex experience so that I can show up fully with others in theirs.

 

——

My practicum runs from this week through August 8; I’ll be back home by August 15.  Over that time, I will be documenting my process here, both for my own reflection and for the communities I am serving here and back in Oklahoma.  You support my journey in many ways, and I will show my gratitude by keeping you in the loop about what I am learning for our collective benefit.

 

Namaste, 

Steven

 

Leading Edge 2014 Day 4 and MountainTop 2014: Wrapping Up and Reaching Out

Today, we wrapped up the Leading Edge 2014 Conference, then spent the rest of the day at MountainTop 2014: Putting Spirituality into Practice, an event that Auburn Seminary put on for leaders “with a stake in building the multifaith movement for justice.”

The day started with a session on Conflict and Healing in Faith Communities by John Janka, and closed with “The Leader’s Journey: Coming to Yourself,” an activity with Elizabeth Lesser of the Omega Institute  in which she asked us to write six-word memoirs for our personal and spiritual work (the latter, for me, was “Transcending divisions in self and world”).  After closing the conference with a short spiritual reflection, including a laughing meditation, the MountainTop workshop began.  We went very deep, very fast, and had the privilege of engaging with spiritual social justice leaders from all over the country (one came in from Honolulu just for the half-day event!) about how our personal practices inform the work we do in the world.  I learned a beautiful calling-of-the-elements meditation from Valarie Kaur, and, with a small group of fascinating people, created a 5-minute presentation on how spirituality and sexuality come together in social justice.

Also, on my lunch break, I had the pleasure of talking with (actually, mostly listening to, at my own request) Rev. Bob Chase of Intersections International, who spoke on Sunday, about the commonalities between his work and my vision.  I came away from the conversation with a clear idea of where the vision meets practical application, and the beginnings of what that reality will look like.  (Hint: it’s starting to look like  a hybrid of interfaith nonprofit and community ministry.  More on where the rubber meets the road later.)

I’ve taken in more than I can distill into a blog post, so while I digest it all and reflect, I’ll leave you with some quotations from the day, some of which I tweeted.  These should give you a rough sketch of this rich, fulfilling day.

“Once a conflict issue arises, it can quickly be eclipsed as an issue by people reacting to one another.” ~John Janka

“Everyone needs to be able to tell their story in a safe space. This means they need to agrees on some ground rules for having those discussions… And as soon as they begin to tell their stories, healing has already started.” ~John Janka

“[If a colleague is exhibiting dysfunctional behavior,] they need help.  Resistance to looking at how to get healthier is surely going to lead their demise.”  ~John Janka

Get so comfortable in your skin that you no longer have to do leadership – you can just be it.”  ~Elizabeth Lesser

“We need to examine our own family system as an organization.” ~Elizabeth Lesser

“Showing up fully with whoever and whatever is in front of you right now has the potential to change the world.” ~Elizabeth Lesser

“How dare we try to save the world at the demise of our own soul’s journey.” ~Fred Johnson, at MountainTop

“Sexuality is the divine invitation to find our destinies not in loneliness, but in deep connection.” ~Sexuality group paraphrasing writers Jim Nelson & Sandra Longfellow

“Your personal story shatters the framework of assumptions and opens the door for real connection.” ~ Unknown MountainTop participant

And, finally, my favorite, originally said yesterday and repeated as a benediction this evening:

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to heal the world.” ~Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

Thank you again, my beloved community, for sending me on this journey.  Your investment will pay off in dividends, and I will keep you posted of it here.

Namaste,

SLW

Leading Edge 2014 Day 3: Healing the Soul Wounds of Racial and Economic Injustice

Hello friends, 

Today’s conference started with a good dose of gratitude.  After a fitful sleep in a hostel with paper-thin walls and a half-hour detour on my walk to the conference (I confused 7th Avenue and 7th Street), I graciously caught the second half of Lynne Twist‘s “Generating Generosity to Heal the World,” which addressed the scarcity mindset of contemporary consumerist culture and how adopting a mindset of sufficiency is its antidote.  By the end of the session, during which I shared a personal gratitude list with my seatmate, any momentary stress I’d felt from the morning had passed.  

Lynne addressed the three toxic myths of scarcity thinking, which apply not only to financial resources, but time, energy, love, and, ultimately, self-worth: 

  1. There isn’t enough.  There isn’t enough food to go around.  There isn’t enough money in my bank account.  There isn’t enough time in the day.  I’m not enough; I can’t get everything done, or spend enough time with my family, or do enough to justify my existence. 
  2. More is better.  More food in my portions.  More money in my bank account.  More stuff in my house.  More gadgets.  More work.  More busyness.  More friends.  More sex.  More consumption.  More credit.  More debt.
  3. That’s just the way it is.  Capitalism is here to stay.  We live in a money-based economy.  It’s normal to hold onto things, save them for later, put them in boxes that gather dust.  I have to work at this job I hate to make the money I need to support the family I’m too exhausted and unfulfilled to be present with.  

She went on to speak of a new paradigm of sufficiency thinking, which is different than the abundance thinking that has become popular in self-help movements in recent years.  She drew on ideas from Buckminster Fuller, one of her teachers, and asserted that:

Sufficiency is being met by the Universe.  Sufficiency is the exquisite distinction of “enough” — not abundance [which is excess].  

She closed with a poem by a Sufi teacher (whose name I didn’t catch), which ended,

“I got nothing I wanted, and everything I needed.”  

You can watch Lynne’s related TEDx talk here.  

 

Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews spoke about what he called “prophetic imagination” in his talk, “Imagination + Organizing = Healing.”  His thesis:  “Organizing that is fueled by a hope-filled imagination is essential in building a movement for racial and economic justice and healing.”   He used Walter Brueggemann’s definition of imagine: “To utter, entertain, describe, and construe a world other than the one that is manifest in front of us.”  Prophetic imagination — the ability to envision a different future — is essential if we are to break the dominant narrative that power rests outside of the self and community, that there must always be an other, and that we must be in conflict with that other because of the scarcity mindset Lynne described. 

 

In the afternoon, Rev. Dr. Miguel De La Torre, of whom I’m becoming quite the fan boy (for his fabulous bow ties as much as his badass theology – and yes, those words can and should go together) shared how he came to decolonize his understanding of Jesus in a talk called “The Political Jesus: Reading the Bible with an Accent.”  He described himself as a young man who, after being racially profiled by a police officer, thought to himself, “I’m glad the police are doing their jobs”: 

My mind was so colonized… that I saw my body through other people’s eyes.  

…To decolonize my mind, I have to let go of the Jesus of the colonizers.  

To do this, he began to read about Jesús, instead of Jesus.  In his words,

To read about Jesús becomes an act of political rebellion… because Jesús himself was a colonized man [under Rome].

He went on to quote 20 New Testament versus that show Jesús as a man who was born homeless and in poverty; became an undocumented immigrant in Egypt, where he was surely taunted and othered for his accent and ethnic difference; was called to minister to the marginalized because he dwelled among them; and was not afraid to stand up to power and neo-liberalism, to reinterpret Scripture, or to admit when he was wrong and change his point of view.  I’ll be unpacking this set of ideas for a while, so I’ll table this talk for further discussion.

 

Finally, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church and Anurag Gupta, founder of BE MORE, presented “Healing the Divide: Acting for Racial Justice and Equality.”  Anurag did an amazing job of explaining the difference between racism and unconscious bias, and argued (convincingly) that what we tend to identify as the former in today’s world is usually, in fact, the latter.  He explained the Racial Empathy Gap (REG) and how it “explains disparities in everything.”  I can’t possibly reduce his synopsis of the 300-year-old concept of race (and yes, it is only that old) to a blurb in a blog, but suffice to say, I had a paradigm shift.  I also intend to research this further, so stay tuned for further thoughts and reflections.  In the meantime, do yourself a favor and watch this video on the need to be intentional about creating multicultural, multiracial spaces in worship and beyond: 

Thank you and goodnight!  I’m very excited to be sleeping on a quiet couch tonight instead of that noisy hostel… 

SLW

Leading Edge 2014 Day 2: Telling Our Truths and Forging Connections

Hey everyone,

Today was mind-blowingly awesome beyond any succinct description I can come up with right now.  Irshad Manji and Robert Chase led a challenging discussion called “The Truth Teller’s Dilemma: Can Confrontation and Compassion Coexist?” (spoiler: yes).  Marcus Borg talked about mysticism and the common cores in the Abrahamic faiths’ differing views of Jesus, invoked William James, and joked that Moses was a cross-dresser because he wore a veil to shield people from the light emanating from his face on the descent from Sinai.  Valarie Kaur reinforced the age-old power of storytelling in her presentation “Storytelling + Advocacy = Social Change,” showing us how her documentaries share people’s stories in meaningful ways that have created concrete change in police brutality, prison policy, and interreligious relations. She also gave us Marshall Ganz’s formula for “telling your public story” as a tool for connection and change-making.

All of this was indescribably amazing.  But for me, the most important thing that happened today was this 2-minute video:

That, my friends, is the essence of my street ministry idea in professionally-made digital media form.  I came here with the question, “How do I get from where I am now to the Big Vision? What are my action steps?”  Tomorrow, I am supposed to talk with Rev. Robert Chase, the founding director of Intersections International in NYC, about how he has lived the answers to those questions and created this dynamic, life-giving, bridge-building ministry.  In other words, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel; it’s already in use.  I only need to ask for guidance so we in Tulsa can adapt it to our own community’s needs.

Between that joyous serendipity, a rich conversation with Irshad about identity, integrity, authenticity, and self-care, and a mystical encounter with a random stranger/fellow seeker who bought me dinner in Greenwich Village, I can safely call this day a win.  I’m going to sleep well tonight knowing that the path is unfolding beneath my feet, good works are happening all over this vast and troubled world, God is in the Heaven of the Here and Now, and all is right in this tiny, crucial moment.

Thank you again, community supporters, for sending me here.  Your investment has already paid off in dividends – and we’re only halfway through the conference!

Namaste,

SLW