The Fierce Call of Love  | A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

Transcript:

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Love is the call on our lives. And it’s a fierce call, a fierce love. And I believe that if we could speak more about that we could build a revolution that included people of faith and people of no faith.

Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. 

The Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis is an author, activist and public theologian. She is the first female and first Black senior minister to serve in the progressive Collegiate Church, which dates back to 1628. She’s a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Lewis and her activism work, have been featured by the Today Show, MSNBC, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others. She’s the creator of the MSNBC online show, Just Faith and a PBS show Faith and Justice, in which she has led important conversations about culture and current events. Her new podcast Love Period. It’s produced by the Center for Action and Contemplation. Her most recent book, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, was just released this month, November 2021. Raised mostly in Chicago, she now lives with her husband in Manhattan. 

Reverend Dr. Jacqui, thank you so much for joining me today.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Cassidy, it’s my honor to be here.

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love to begin is asking for your definition of the words contemplation or mysticism. What they mean to you and how you see them lived out in the world today.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, thank you so much. I think I’m a new convert to contemplation and mysticism. I have said so many times in my sermons, Cassidy, that I’m not the girl of mindfulness, or I’m not the girl sitting on a mat. But I think my work with Father Richard Rohr, and with the Center for Action and Contemplation, has just really helped me to broaden my definition of what that means. To be mindful of what it’s like to have a grape break in your mouth, you know, to be mindful of the feel of your granddaughter’s weight on your lap or on your belly, which she likes to climb on. That’s your favorite thing to do. Or to be mindful of the way that air feels on your body and sort of in this non-dualistic way I was thinking, I’m an extrovert, out loud, worshipping person, therefore I’m not contemplative. But actually, I am contemplative. And I think my definition would be the slowing down of our mind and our heart and our breath, to be in touch with the ineffable to encounter the things that we would rush through and to turn our awareness to them. And let that guide not only the way we, you know, meditate, pray, get on a yoga mat, but the way we encounter our relationships, the way we encounter the world.

Cassidy Hall: I’m so amazed at how much I felt myself slow down in my head and my body when you said, “the way of grape breaks in your mouth.” That one in particular really got me.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: I am a woman of a certain age, I’m 60-ish and I’ve lived my whole life sprinting. I’m honest to say, I’ve sprint through my life. And just these days of feel, touch, smell, being, honestly it’s urgent for me to downshift and so I’m really working on it. And that grape, those big, black seedless grapes… When your teeth pierce that grape you feel like there is a God. It’s so delicious. Yeah, I’m glad that one slowed you down.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I needed that, I needed that. And in your work as a public theologian, and this going, going, going, do you find that this slowing down this contemplation this mindfulness, informs or enhances your work in activism and your work as a public theologian?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: It does. And I’m an extrovert, off the charts, ENFJ. Everyone is a big letter, it’s not like little… And yet, what I’m noticing is, I’m a little slower to jump into the Twitter world right now, a little slower to make my comments about a world event, or a little slower in the way I write, to allow myself to be with the thing, with the words, with the thought. And this conversation is helping me too, Cassidy, just to think like: so what’s shifted? And I think, writing the book last year, was such a slow contemplative meditative process, even though we had deadlines, every day to set an intention, write outside as often as I could, or sit in my really big chair… So there is a new awareness of how much the Spirit is moving in the slower space. Does that make sense, what I’m saying there? So it’s not hurry up, it’s what is the insight? What is the inspiration? What is the breath saying? And it’s changing the way I feel like I need to be first out. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. How have you found yourself holding that in this world full of urgency, in this world full of injustices at every turn? And this deep desire to speak to it now, to show up to it now, to do something now? How do we hold that tension of urgency and there’s also that care of self, and there’s also that care of community… it’s tension. How do you hold that?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: It is it is tension. And I think just being honest about it, you know, being honest with yourself about the tension. And even I think, Cassidy, I feel like the word vocation is coming in my brain more. What am I called to do? To say? My friend, who media trained me a million times before I ever got it , is always asking, like, his prompt for me is what’s your core message? So I’m asking, what do I uniquely have to offer into the conversation right now. And in a way, if somebody already said that, I could just park that, I could just love that, I could just kind of thank them for that. I don’t have to have a comment for everything. But I’m asking myself, how do I talk about love in relation to that? And honestly, Cassidy a year ago, maybe even six months ago, I felt very much called to sort of them, around the people, the anti-vaxxers, the insurrectionists on the sixth. And in fact, my therapist one time said something to me, like, has that got to do with the love you’re preaching? I was like oh my goodness, that’s a really good question. So is there a loving way to describe the vision of a preferred reality? Is there a loving way to call people in not out? Is there a loving way to say, we can do better, we can do better? And just that question makes me go slower. Not be as tangy, not be as — you might get more retweets or something if you’re tangy, but I really am asking what does love have to do with it? Still progressive, still thinking these are injustices, still thinking that we need to do better, still disagreeing with all of that over there, racism and heterosexism and sexism and transphobia… All of that. No, I’m not that girl. But can I talk about it in the context of the frame of love, a love revolution, fierce love. That slows down what I write because I’m committed to write it through the lens of love.

Cassidy Hall: So I’m really struck by the fact and the way in which this focus on love has such a enduring quality to it, and really, like love is the urgent thing.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Isn’t it? It’s the most important thing.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Could you share a little bit more maybe about the origin story of your new book – Fierce Love: A Bold path to Ferocious Courage and Rule Breaking Kindness that can Heal the World?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, thank you, Cassidy. Honestly, I’ve been working on this book for nine years. It came to me the other day that it’s been a nine year gestation. And then a nine year write, you know, and nine years to write. No, nine months I’m sorry, Cassidy. Nine years to gestate, nine months to write. My first questions were, I think, you know, as an African American woman living in this country and just watching the Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandy Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, that whole trajectory of not new behaviors, but the ability to see Freddie Gray encounter. To see, just right, the seeing of it just, I think, traumatized, so many of us, and my brain is always connecting dots. So it’s like the violence here that’s around race is the same kind of violence in Palestine, Israel, around religion and ethnicity, the same kind of violence in Ethiopia. All of these things are connected to something and that they were also based on religion just broke my heart wide open. How does religion which we litigate to bind us together to connect us, how does religion become such a weapon? Causing, you know other things? So I started asking: What would it look like to have a grown up God? Grown up faith and grown up God? And I did a lot of writing on that, I did a lot of work on that, I went down that path. And what I realized was that my ambition was beyond God to love. Like, if you’re not religious, can you do love? If you are agnostic, can you do love? No matter what your faith is can we talk about love as the ground of our being? Not namby-pamby love, not co-dependent love, not love songs, rom-coms love, like really the kind of love that made Harriet Tubman go back and forth to free people, that made Frederick Douglass a liberator, that made abolition movements happen, the kind of love that made those South African women sit in the streetThe kind of love that made Jonathan jump in front of Ruby Sales and save her life. This is fierce love, right? It’s courageous love. It’s bold love, it’s risk taking love. And I think it’s at the heart of all the world’s major religions. And that’s what I want to convert people to, love. Fierce love as a way to order our lives. I’m convinced that this fierce call to love and Ubuntu, this Zulu concept: I am who I am, because you are who you are. Almost like that’s our natural religion, we know that. We crawled out of the cave knowing that we had to make a fire together, we had to raise the kids together, we had a hunt and gather together, we had to stand for our tribe together. So can we increase our tribe, can we increase our feeling of connection? Can we understand that is not just my kin, you’re my kin, we’re all kin… that’s the key to a kind of solidarity that can make a difference.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And in that book, you speak into the ways that that stories shaped us. The stories were told by others, including our nation, and you write the birth order, gender, religion, sexuality, racial identity, these are just some of the stories that are woven together to make itself. And you know that sometimes these stories are inaccurate or incongruent with our inner lives. And this deep self-love that we also need in order to move through the stories towards the truth. And with what you just said, I’m thinking about how, you know, one of the stories we’re often told the beginning of our lives is that we’re on our own, and that this individualistic society that we live in tells us that we don’t need each other and we don’t, we don’t need in community or communal care and how that really moves us away from what love really is.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yes. Yeah Cassie, that’s right. And, you know, that’s a predominant story in our culture. But it’s not the predominant story in lots of cultures. So I think about Nelson Mandela, 28 years in prison, and he leaned on Ubuntu and says, I came to understand the humanity of my captors. I came to understand the humanity of the jailers. And if he didn’t have that, I mean, he was a lion, right? If he had this kind of re-connection with that origin story and was able to grow a movement that led to the end of apartheid, which required black and white people and colored people and Indian people to collaborate to break down those walls. Dr. King would say we’re bound together woven together in a garment of humanity  and that’s kind of got bought Gandhi at base. So I’m just thinking about how basic it is this reliance upon each other’s story. And then, you know, Western thought European thought comes to America thought and we suddenly think of success is how fast can you go up and move away from your house? My friend Shanta is a South Indian woman. And like her family of you know, I don’t know, 90 people, I’m exaggerating slightly, but when they come visit her New York, everybody camps out in the same place on the couch. There’ll be offended if they were all staying in hotels. So in that culture, community. Think about Vietnamese families who immigrated to America. And then I bought a store, and then you bought a store, we all lived in the apartment and we spread out. Hispanic cultures, African cultures, so we could unlearn that individual story. And be thinking instead about who are my people and how can we together heal the world. Womanists, Alice Walker, my cousins are yellow and pink and black and brown, and we are all each other’s people Cassie.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And in that way, do you see I mean, this fierce love, you know, while it’s a returning and uncovering to the truth of who we are into what we already know, what’s in us, do you also see it in a way that it’s kind of cultural in some aspects? Now, do you also see it as a form of activism?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Absolutely. I think this fierce love, this new story is activism, and can see proof of that. We all watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered. And that critical mass of people around the globe spawned it. Because we understood that George’s death is our death, his baby’s grief is our grief. And we also understood that we weren’t going to get to the promised land of a peaceful nation, without each other. So is it is perhaps evolution, maybe, in the human spirit, to lean back into what we knew as infants, that we need each other, we need somebody to raise to raise a world together.

Cassidy Hall: And how do you see or experience… You know, I like the way that you’re using love as this clear connecting point, because oftentimes, it seems like when we get into religious jargon and language, whether it’s of any religion, it seems like we can lose a lot of people, we can lose touch with what connects us, it can really turn off people. And so wonder how have you found a way to talk about this as a connecting piece rather than a separation piece, when obviously, you experience God in this kind of love that you speak of?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: If I’m honest, I would say that I’ve been on that journey, that grownup God journey for a long time, almost 10 years. My faith community demands, insists, allows depending on what it is that I speak about God in ways that are Universalist. There’s Jews that join the church, Buddhists in the church, so I’ve had to translate a lot for a long time. You better translate. There are young people who care less about some of these stories, especially when they’re saying you can’t be part of my family, you can’t be on my team. And so love, agape, we would say, you and I. Agape, this ubiquitous, powerful, unconditional love, directed at ourselves, directed at our people, our neighbors, our strangers, directed to the origin, especially the holy is committed by Jesus for us Christians. He tells a story of a Samaritan who’s outsider, when he’s trying to say this is what love looks like. So he’s kind of breaking the code, breaking the rules, breaking the norms. The outsider is in. The first is last. Young people count women count. Actors can come in here and kick it. You know, love is the call on our lives. And it’s a fierce call, a fierce love. And I believe that if we could speak more about that, we could build a revolution that included people of faith and people of no faith. 

Cassidy Hall: You reminded me of this in with head and heart when Howard Thurman talks about his vision for the church. And he says it was my conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists. To me, it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage, and the spiritual resources of the church, there must be provided a place, a moment, when a person could declare, I choose. And I love the way he’s talking about community. It’s not about Jesus specific language or anything like that.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: It’s just about community. And, you know, Jesus was not a Christian, let’s all take a breath on that. He was not a Christian, he wasn’t trying to start a new religion called Christian. He just was trying to invite people on a path. And so as my job as a pastor is to invite people on a path where Jesus is a rabbi, or itinerant rabbi. And also, Cassie, there are other teachings that augment that from Alice Walker’s 0 The Color Purple, which I think should be in the cannon, to Let it have a Birmingham Jail, to some Octavia Butler, story, to James Baldwin to the — so many good words about how to be good in the world that are not explicitly Christian, but that I think, belong in the canon called love.

Cassidy Hall: The Canon called Love, I like that. Another important thing that I really love that you spoke into, in your book, Fierce Love, is the importance of space, what’s in a space, what’s of a space, and I appreciate the way you pointed to this and all areas of life when you wrote, if we don’t take care of the space, we all share, if we allow it to be filled with the objects of violence and hatred. There will be millions of human beings who don’t love themselves sitting together in classrooms or board meetings, standing in line at the grocery store, or competing with one another a job interviews. So how does this notion of space impact the way that we pursue change or engage in these movements, maybe now outside of church walls as community?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: That’s a good passage you picked there Cassie, thank you. The space there is both, you know, physical space because that matters. And also container or world. So there psychologically I’m talking about object relations. I’m talking about the school of object relations. Donald Winnicott being my favorite, but the idea that we are raised in a container, the first container is the womb, your mother’s arms, the playpen, the classroom, the church, but also the streets. What are the ingredients? What is the characteristic? What’s the nature of that space? Children grow in the context of loving space where if you cry, someone’s going to come and feed you. If you’re wet, someone’s going to come and change you. And that almost leads to a sense of magic. I look at me, I’m crying about the battle. Whoo! This is great, you know, and you wish every child would have that sense of magic and omnipotence. Like I can conjure up food when I’m hungry. I can conjure up comfort. So that space is transitional space, that space is a space of growing and development. And I’m saying in the streets, police officers and community members and parents and teachers could create a safe space for children and adults to play and go. Zechariah in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, in the city, they were old people hanging out with canes and they were children, shooting hoops. I’m paraphrasing, but like the streets are safe. Jon’s vision, at Patmos, the streets are so safe you don’t even need streetlights. Because we make it that way. We are responsible, we can do that. We can make it that all the children have enough food. All the adults don’t have to choose medication or rent. Everyone has enough. We can make it so that waste is a pastime paradigm and all of our children grow to love each other. That’s what I mean by space. And I mean, you and I, and all the people listening, have a contribution to make to make good enough space for all of us. Classrooms, streets, subways, you know, highways, good enough space that all of us can thrive.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. As you were writing this book, and you were in those contemplative moments, writing and thinking and creating this work, what was the hardest part to write? What were the parts of you that stuck maybe in that contemplative space and really had to, you know, push something out, I guess, which is appropriate, given the timeline, I guess, the nine months.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, I had to push it out I really did. I think it was the hardest chapter to write, was the  Chapter on truth. Like to tell the truth on truth. My mom’s death is prominently in that chapter. And I felt like she was with me as I was writing. She’s been gone for four years, but I felt she visited by, but it was hard. Like, I was sad, you know, it was hard to write, to take myself back to the hospital room, to take myself back to blue lights, you know, the blue cast on her face at night and the [inaudible 26:26] hey, what are you staring at mom? I’m looking at you. You’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful. I love you. I love you more, you know, like, those were both beautiful memories, but also, you know, teary  making memories. And how hard it was sometimes Cassidy to believe what I’m supposed to believe in preach. The truth I didn’t have a resurrection sermon that year. It was hard to get that out. But my congregation really responded to my wrestling. Which just proof texts for me how much people yearn for the truth. Not the platitudes, but the truth. I’m struggling [inaudible 27:12] our time, people yearn for that.

Cassidy Hall: You remind me of this story, I don’t know if it’s marked eight or nine, when Jesus asked the father to believe to heal his son, and the father says, I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief. And the ways in which God honors honesty, and that we can honor each other’s honesty too that we’re actually closer to the truth through our honesty.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: And just imagine the world we make if we do not have to mobilize all the false self, all the persona, all the pretend, it’s risky, to be honest, but it’s so right and good to be honest, feels good to get the truth told in love, you know? Yeah.

Cassidy Hall: Do you experience or do you see anyone today in your life as a mystic, whether it’s a public mystic or someone who is a contemplative mystic that’s kind of under girding a movement or something like this? Do you experience mysticism in the world today?

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah. I think Richard Rohr, Father Rohr is really and I’m  going to say, you know, the new school and… helping with that, and two young women I know and love Ashley and Lauren, you know, who did the new school and then to this thing called widen, so there’s like a pulse of beautiful CAC folks who I find to be Barbara Holmes, you know, find to be doing a really great piece of work. And then somebody like Angel Kyodo Williams, she’s so deeply connected to source and her radical Dharma deeply moves me. And I think she’s just a unique voice, an African American, Buddhist sensei voice in the world of contemplation and mysticism. Those are two places that come to mind right away.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Yeah. And you are the first African American and first woman to serve a senior minister in the Collegiate Church, which was founded in New York City in 1628.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: That’s  right. That was a long time to break that ceiling.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. What is your hope for the next 100, next 500 years? I wouldn’t say of the Collegiate Church, but really the church at large.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yep. That the church would really get back to Jesus. Not to white blond created European Jesus, not to Constantine Jesus, but to from that to Empire Jesus, but to Mary’s boy, Joseph’s child, marginalized person, poor, itinerant handyman, Jesus who had the most incredible sermons from which we can learn. And to get to that. I know the Red Letter Christians kind of get to that, But like all of us to get to what did Jesus say? What did Jesus do? What would Jesus have me do? WWJD. What would Jesus do? And to be like liberated to do that? Which would be less about the institution of church, less about the boundaries, and the rules, and the who can’t, and the don’t know no mores. Oh we’ve been transformed. We don’t smoke no more, we don’t cuss no more. Just what is it? Love your neighbor as you love yourself, love you God with everything you have. Now, what love period, let’s get to that, and see what kind of world we can build and who could be included in that? That’s my hope. Yeah.

Cassidy Hall: And what advice would you give to people who feel like they’re in that mode of love, and yet, are tired, because not everyone else is there yet? 

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: I’d say tired is a part of our journey. I write this, I write one chapter about joy. And that really quote, right, if you do something from your soul, it’s a river. It’s a joy. So in that chapter I’m saying, you get to tag out, I’m tired, I need a break, I need a rest. I need some Sabbath. And let somebody else do it. We can do it, Cassidy, and I got you, we’ll do it. We’ll do this. Then you come back in and I get to take a break. And there’s just breathing in and out. We’re not going to get to the promised land tomorrow, it’s going to take time for us to make the world better. Our faith is about both our individual transformation and the healing of the world. We have what C.S. Lewis would call “God’s unbounded now.” God’s unbounded now to do it. It Kairos time, so take a breath. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. We need each other.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: And we got all day. We have all day to recreate the world.

Cassidy Hall: Well, thank you so much. I’m so glad you’re able to make the time and and be able to join me.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: yeah, thank you so much. I hope to see you soon. Thank you, Cassidy, for great questions and great conversation.

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA, MDiv, MTS) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, and holds a Masters of Divinity, Masters of Theological Studies, and Masters in Counseling. Born and raised in Iowa, she now works at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Indianapolis where she is pursuing ordination in the UCC. Throughout her time at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, she worked as a Teaching Assistant while studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees (December, 2021). During her time at seminary, she also served as the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society and continues to serve on the board of Enfleshed. Cassidy co-authored Notes on Silence (2018) and has had her work featured in devotionals including most recently: Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink; Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C, from Clear Faith Publishing (2021). Her essays have been published in the Christian Century, The National Catholic Reporter, Convivium Journal, The Thomas Merton Seasonal, The Thomas Merton Annual, and she has also been a contributor for The Huffington Post and Patheos. Before pursuing her MDiv and MTS in Indianapolis, Cassidy lived in Los Angeles where she worked on the production team of the documentary feature film, In Pursuit of Silence. The film’s success on the festival circuit and beyond led to its worldwide theatrical release. Her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger, paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years and received the Audience Choice Award from Illuminate Film Festival.   She is the co-host of the Encountering Silence podcast, which explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. And more recently, she created a podcast hosted by the Christian Century titled Contemplating Now, which examines the intersection of contemplation and social justice.

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