Sacred Attention | A Conversation with Cole Arthur Riley

Transcript:

Cole Arthur Riley:  Contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life and the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds. At least that’s how I think about it.

Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast focused on the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spiritualties 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. 

Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest. Black Liturgies is a project of the Center for Dignity and Contemplation, where she serves as the executive curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the recently published book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us .

Cassidy Hall: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Your new book is absolutely incredible and your work is so important. Thank you so much for being here.

Cole Arthur Riley:  Thank you, and thanks for having me.

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love to begin is just kind of a way to orient our conversation. I’m wondering how you personally define the words contemplation and mysticism, and maybe also how you see them lived out in the world today.

Cole Arthur Riley:  I would say contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life in the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds, at least that’s how I think about it. How I see them in the world today, I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard to–I think, especially in western contexts to have it show up, particularly mysticism, with any kind of clarity. It’s hard to see in other people. There are certainly these kinds of spaces where it’s safe to talk about one’s kind of exploration of mystical things, and mysticism, but I don’t find myself always in those spaces. I’ve lived a life kind of tangential to the academy, to college settings and worked with academics for many years and talking about their kind of connection to spirituality and what they do in their work or their research. And I found that was all very exciting. But when it came to talking about kind of element of mystery and the unknown, and in terms of engaging that spirituality, it was a little more difficult to do it felt like more is at stake almost.

Cassidy Hall: I love that fidelity to mystery or fidelity to magic. When I hear that, when I think about that, I also think of things like transcendence. And I’m wondering if you see any association with Reverend Dr. Holmes, Barbara Holmes, who talks about this notion of public mysticism. And I wonder if you see that fidelity to magic is also existent in activist movements?

Cole Arthur Riley:  Absolutely. I think, that there’s something there. When you think about what activism requires, the kind of belief activism requires, the kind of moral imagination, just general imagination, it requires for you to kind of protest. You’re protesting, which shouldn’t be, but to do that it requires you have some kind of concept of what should be and I think that takes a lot of kind of contemplation and mystical work to, to dream up a different way, almost. But I think that there is a very credible tension, I would say between the life of a contemplative and the life of an activist. I talked about this in the book, briefly, that I had a boss and a mentor who said, right before I began writing This Here Flesh, she said, if there’s anyone that I’ve met who’s both contemplative and activist, they’ve never been able to do both well. If they’re out there, I haven’t met them. And I mean, immediately, I thought, that’s what I want. Challenge accepted. That’s who I want to be in the world. But also, I do think there’s something really credible about that tension that he was articulating. The kind of urgency I think that activism can seem to require and does require, at times can seem in conflict with the contemplative, but I don’t think it needs to be. I love what Barbara Holmes says about the contemplative life. I’m also thinking of this really brief article that Christian Wiman wrote for the Christian Century actually, a while ago, I think it was like a decade ago, he wrote about this tension of the contemplative in him and this kind of desire for action. Anyways, it’s a really beautiful remarks on what I’m describing about that tension.

Cassidy Hall: It’s kind of going back to a previous thing you said, where essentially, this idea that academics have a harder time hosting that ambiguity, hosting that space, you think it’s just this determination to put language to things or, what do you think that is? 

Cole Arthur Riley:   Well, I can see some of it in myself. I’m not an academic. I’ve worked closely with them and I’m not an academic… I think I was just kind of born a mystic and it was like, worked out in me. So when I was little, my sister and I–I’ve only just recently been reflecting on these weird stories, but my sister and I, we would like literally mix potions out of expired condiments and give each other these signs. Like you’re the sun sign today or you’re the moon sign. And in the book, I talk about this friendship, one of my earliest kind of friendships with this girl, and we would have like ceremonies in the field at recess before, I think we even understood what a ceremony was, we would like call them, this is our ceremony, and like eat chocolate icing and talk to clouds. And so I had something in me that, I think, as I grew up, became more and more legible. And what became more pronounced was like this hyper rationalism. It became serious and dare I say, rational. And when we speak of, I think, the mysterious and the miraculous, I do sometimes find it difficult to believe. I think maybe academics have had some of that childlike wonder and mischief worked out at them as well, drilled out of them. So it requires a resistance in me. This like resistance to the formation that says, clarity and like you were saying, articulation: “Clarity and articulation are the most important things.” I’m very suspicious of that. But I’ve been formed to think that that’s the most important thing. So anyway, I’m constantly trying to travel back and revisit my child self and her wisdom, kind of homecoming, really,

Cassidy Hall: And that fidelity to magic is also kind of like you’re saying this fidelity to play, to pleasure, to joy, to engaging with the natural world as your child self even and, of course, our adult selves. I’m thinking if I were to go make potions in the yard right now, which sounds like a great idea, and talk to the clouds which are pouring down rain right now. But my adult mind would so much say, oh, but rationalize this. You look crazy, or all these things that kind of hinder our fidelity to play or hinder our fidelity to this magic.

Cole Arthur Riley:   Yes, yes. It’s so true. It’s difficult. I’m not mixing potions in the basement anymore sadly, but I’m trying to learn how to just be open to mystery. But even mystery in the mundane I think. So I was watching the barn swallows. We have a barn on our property and the barn swallows are returning and just watching them fly earlier this afternoon and watching them kind of swoop and dance and make the wildest shapes in flight and somehow communicate. I start thinking how do birds do that? How do they know? And even just to kind of pause and let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit in that very mundane observation. It’s not quite the magic of the like recess ceremonies but there’s something there. 

Cassidy Hall: I love that. Let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit. It’s beautiful. And your work with Black Liturgies is a work of artistry, poetry, therapy, activism. What’s the origin story of creating Black Liturgies?

Cole Arthur Riley:  Yes. So I started Black Liturgies in the summer of 2020 July, I believe, and what a summer that was. I feel like that’s forever going to be kind of etched into everyone’s consciousness. It was in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. And we had these resurfacing accounts of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. And I’d been in liturgical spaces for a handful of years by that point, and found a lot of rest, I think, rest and beauty and liturgy and I’ve always written and so it’s been a kind of natural way for me to connect with God. But I found myself so hungry, like so desperate for a spiritual space that was capable of holding my Blackness, the grief of the moment and the anger, my rage. I wanted a space that could hold that. And so I started Black Liturgies, kind of hoping to find some like-minded people.

Cassidy Hall: And within that work, do you continue to get in touch with kind of that that space of tension? I think my question is, is contemplation a part of your writing process and how do you maybe hold the tension in those moments when you write?

Cole Arthur Riley:   Yeah.. definitely… Black Liturgies is definitely developed and it’s continued to contain that the anger, the grief, but I think it’s expanded into other emotional expressions. I’m really interested in just connecting the body and embodiment and emotional experience… in my writing, I think I absolutely need contemplation and mysticism. I use this language, I made it up of contemplative storytelling in the book. So it was kind of important for me to put language to that, so it feels a little bit distinct. I’m really disinterested in contemplation, purely as a mental experiment. I think more and more people are. I’m interested in embodied contemplation and emotional contemplation, and I’m trying to nurture and preserve stories in the book that are so important to me. And I think they kind of demand a contemplation. If you want to use the language of attention, they demand a kind of sacred attention to ensure that I’m most honest, and a good steward of the stories. So one way that looks, I mean, I wrote my book in about three months. Of that time, around 15 – 17 days were actually spent writing, the other days were spent in listening, and in thought, and embodiment. Being attentive to the stories of my grandma and father, and resting in them as I sat in bed, or I sat in the shade of the oak tree next to my house. And an embodied contemplation as well. I very rarely will relay a movement or motion and a story without practicing them. I don’t describe a person folding a piece of paper without mimicking that in the air with my hands. And so it’s an embodied contemplation as a part of the writing process as well.

Cassidy Hall: That’s such a deep, deep commitment to the work. Like you’re saying, even folding the piece of paper in taking the time to really let the fullness of yourself engage and tell the story. 

Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, seeing writing is just a small, small part of that. 

Cassidy Hall: You also in the book, as you’re saying, you write so much about the mind, body, spirit connections, and the importance of embodiment and spirituality. And similarly to me, you write about the importance of undoing the whiteness of God. Do you think these things are connected and that as we move towards undoing the whiteness of God, we might also move towards a deeper embodiment of spirit as a closer enmeshment with the truth and the valuing expanse and have movement towards liberation from those hindrances of those false images?

Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, beautiful question. Yeah, I do I think the more we undo the whiteness of God, absolutely. I think we experience a kind of deeper and closer connection with the divine, I think, whiteness loves disembodiment. I’ve started to ask this question recently of like, when I’m disembodied, or when I’m kind of find myself really out of sync with my physical self. I’ve been asking my question, if you weren’t in your body today, who was? And the answer to that question has so often been like, white capitalism? The kind of threat of productivity and I think whiteness loves disembodied people because it makes those bodies more easy to colonize, and to take control over ultimately. And I think if you think about whiteness as a force, I mean, how does integrate it? Does have to be to commit the tears that I think whiteness is committed. You have to be a pretty disintegrated person, if you want to talk about what your body is doing. If you want to talk about the hand that holds the whip, and the chains, and then the person with the heart and an emotional experience, I think man has, emotional restriction that absolutely nurtured through the hand of whiteness, this emotional restrictions, detachment from one’s physical self and the acts you’re committing, and one’s emotional, self and empathy. So I think whiteness is absolutely a tool for disintegration–loves it, continues to nurture it. And the more we undo the kind of the force of whiteness in our spiritual imaginations, I think the more the divine, at least for me kind of expands, it opens up, it becomes less about narrowing in on exactly what one thinks about any given topic. And it becomes much more about this kind of play and curiosity and, mystery even and, you know, my thought doesn’t need to be supreme. My experience of God doesn’t need to be supreme in order for it to matter and have value to me. I think that’s kind of the shift you see? I mean, you’ve thought about this as well is that how you’ve experienced it in your own work?

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. The more undoing I experience and the more embodied I am, the more there is to the mystery, to the expanse, to God, God’s Self. I mean, it’s like a deeper pool. But instead of this being a terrifying space where I need to cling and name, it’s a space of freedom and a space of embracing the vastness of God and in myself and in other people, and in nature, and in the squirrel outside my window. 

What you said earlier was a form of movement away from that sense of productivity and capitalism and whatnot, even the way you chose to write this book, the way you sat in story, the way you committed to having your body be in touch with story before you put pen to paper it sounds like. Was that like a conscious thing before you started doing that as practice? Or was that something that you kind of just knew you needed to do and it happened?

Cole Arthur Riley: Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. I think I was changed in the process of writing this book. Some of the stories, some of the familial stories I’d heard before. I’d heard fragments of them. But to become a kind of care caretaker of them in a new way, to have the responsibility of translating them to strangers, I think I felt a different kind of responsibility to their stories. And even now, my grandma passed while I was in the final stages of editing the book. And what that does to you in terms of wondering if you’ve done the stories justice. So as you know, as I was listening I’d call them pretty much on a weekly basis and I would have a series of questions for them and have them retell portions of stories or describe certain things. And sometimes I would video chat them or I have lots of videos from before I started writing the book that I would go through, and something about those moments felt so sacred and distinct that I couldn’t just rush to the page. If I would have rushed to the page, I probably would have brought all of me and very little of them ultimately, because I was so in my own experience of their stories, as a daughter, as a granddaughter. And so required some time and space and rest from the like, impulse of productivity, use these stories. How are you going to use these stories? I had to think how are you going to rest in them and honor them? And so that looked a lot like sitting around and staring at a wall or staring at a tree, for me to really be present. Toni Morrison, oh, she has these beautiful words in the sight of memory, where she talks about this practice of imagination for the interior worlds of the people that made her. She was talking specifically about her ancestors who were enslaved. But I think it definitely transcends that. What does it mean to have this really true and honest practice of imagination for my father’s world, for my grandma’s world, that requires time? And I love that she uses the language practice, because it is. And I think that’s really compatible with contemplation and what we’re talking about.

Cassidy Hall: Do you find that practice is also a form of healing, and a form of finding your connectivity to the story and your movement into your truest self from those stories? Do you find that as a form of, maybe healing is the wrong word? 

Cole Arthur Riley:   Yeah, it’s funny that you asked that because Morrison she talks about that practice of imagination. And then she says, they are my entrance. The people you are kind of cultivating this imagination for, they are my entrance into my own interior world. Which I think is really beautiful, and really profound. And I’m 31 and I think I’ll probably understand the depth of that as I age. But there’s something in that, that in encountering my father and my grandma’s stories, and resting in their interior worlds, their lived experiences, I become closer to myself. And there’s something really mysterious in it. Like I have a hard time articulating it if I’m honest, but I feel so close to myself, especially after writing the book, I felt nearer to my own soul than I ever felt. Because I think the honesty in their stories demanded an honesty in me. And so it brought me closer to what I think what I believe and what I’ve lived in my own body.

Cassidy Hall: I just want to name that you also have like this energy of utter groundedness that’s really centered. I experienced that in you, that you are close to yourself.

Cole Arthur Riley:   Thank you. 

Cassidy Hall: So I want to ask, and you can choose to answer both or neither of these, of course. I want to ask what was the hardest part of the book to write and what was the easiest part of the book to write?

Cole Arthur Riley: Storytelling really comes pretty easy, easily to me. In writing, I’ve realized very early on that my kind of strength as a writer is in storytelling and kind of play. But listening to the stories were, of course, difficult and costly, and going to the places that most parents and grandparents don’t want to take their children and granddaughters that was hard. But in the writing of it, it felt strangely natural. The contemplative kind of reflections throughout the book. Now those were more difficult for me because I have a really difficult time, pinning down what I want to say with any kind of certainty. So my editors will tell you that my earliest drafts were just like riddled with maybes and perhapses and I don’t know, could be. Because that’s just what contemplation is brought out and ultimately is more uncertainty. I think it’s a editors nightmare to make sense of that on page. What do you think? And my answer is like, well maybe, maybe not. That is really hard to communicate without sounding weak to have a kind of mystery and uncertainty in your contemplation that still feels like it has a depth, I think I learned it’s really difficult, because sometimes uncertainty can sound really shallow. And so it’s really afraid. If I don’t have a clear belief on this, well, it seemed like I haven’t thought deeply about it. And in paradox, I think the deeper you think about things, as most contemporaries will tell you, the more kind of curious and unsure you become. So I realized just how little I have a firm grasp on so the contemplative reflections were really difficult. I think when I’m 50, I’ll probably look back and just laugh at some of the things I’ve said, but at least I know I’ve told the truth, as best as I can tell it for who I am in this moment, but whooo it was difficult. 

Cassidy Hall: Maybe some of those contemplative reflections are more expressed in like bodily knowing rather than language. So right, it was maybe just kind of what do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely that as well. This kind of, how do you communicate the embodied knowledge, the intuition, the kind of, I mean, I tell the story of a very significant dream in my grandmother’s life. She was a dreamer. And I’m a person of just a lot of skepticism and doubt, but I believe her. I don’t believe most things people tell me but I believe my grandma. I’ve never wavered in that. But it was really difficult to communicate for example, that dream. It’s a very mysterious dream of an encounter with her ancestors and her father, her father’s father, and uncles and aunts and all these people kind of surrounding her in a dream. Anyways… it’s really hard to communicate what I cognitively think about that experience versus like this embodied intuition I have when my grandma would tell the story. Things like that are really hard to think to translate into pages.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Another thing you talk about in the book is, you kind of push us away from this binary of right and wrong work. And you hone in on expressing the importance of instead focusing on work with integrity and protecting dignity. And in our society, so focused on individualism and productivity. What is your hopes that someone might take away from, from understanding this difference among the other binaries you point us away from? 

Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, I think that society kind of has a vested interest in us making this big deal, this big theater of choosing what work we’ll do and what career we’ll have. I mean, especially if you’re privileged enough to attend college, it’s this very elaborate, vocational discernment. What are you going to do? What work are you going to choose? And that’s how we think about vocation. Man, I’m more and more suspicious of that. And like, oh, okay, when you have that sense of connection, that sense of I was meant to do this, how much easier is it then for a society and like a capitalist driven society to use that and say, like, do, do, do. you know, God’s going to use you? Or, I mean, even if that’s your kind of spiritual formation, how is God going to use you think society and that spiritual formation work in tandem to really get the most out of our bodies that they can possibly get. How exhausting. Now, if you have an idea of vocation, and that discernment is like, how will I do my work, becomes a little more difficult to exploit. If you think it’s about how am I going to do this work with integrity? How am I going to protect dignity and my work? It has a way of disarming I think, the powers that be, the systems that are more concerned with using you because it de-centers a product and it centers like a connection and an honoring. That’s one example as you said. I think I was more and more when I thought about communicating a liberating spirituality in the book. I did want to dismantle these binaries of like, this is the right kind of way and this is the wrong way and more so have us think about the why and the how and the lived experience of a thing as opposed to this definitive choice. Anyways, I think for me at least, the more I experience kind of contemplation as well as the divine God, as a with a fluidity, I think just the more free and like playful and curious I am in my daily life. It feels very liberating to me to not know or to not choose the right way or the wrong way and instead just ask why to convey a human experience. So anyways, people ask me what I want people to take away from this book. And I say in the book, I don’t really want people to come away thinking what I think. I think that would be a real failure on my part. As a contemplative, I would be really proud if people put the book down and were closer to themselves in some way, and closer to their, their own kind of interior world closer to the lives they occupy, and that they feel more free to explore what they think and believe.

Cassidy Hall: That reminds me of a quote from your book, where you write “protect the truest things about you, and it will become easier to hear the truth everyplace else.” Which is incredibly powerful, and goes back to what we’re talking about earlier about the true self and finding the true self. And it seems to me that a lot of true self theology, for lack of better expression, has kind of got that wrong, because it seems to me a lot of true self theology actually hosts some of those binaries and capitalistic and white supremacist values that are guised as your true self is within those. And it seems to me that you’re pointing us to a true self in a in a really new way.

Cole Arthur Riley: You know, I haven’t thought about it the way you’ve put it. But yeah, I hope I’m doing that I think there can be a kind of like, true self theology that becomes about pinpointing. The journey to your true self is about pinpointing these very clear things about yourself. I’m an introvert or I’m this or that, and it becomes this kind of process of narrowing. I’m really interested in expert exploration of my true self is, again, an expanding. So instead of narrowing in on this is, what that means you are these qualities I’m trying to travel into stories that have formed me. I’m trying to, I think encountering my true self, for me means just, you know, even just the practice of going back to six year old Cole and, you know, resting in a memory or these fragments, and not necessarily always needing to make a clear judgment about that, but there’s value in the encounter itself, the nearness itself with that story or that that experience.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Who are some people today that you might name as mystics or contemplatives in our midst?

Cole Arthur Riley: Ocean Vuong certainly comes to mind. A poet and writer who I really admire. Rita Dove, she’s a poet. She has that very famous phrase, if you can’t be free be a mystery. Who else? John O’Donohue, I would say Christian Wiman, who I mentioned earlier. As I’m saying this, what all these people have in common that I that really excites me is that they’re all poets, maybe even primarily poets. And I think that probably reveals a kind of innate trust I have in poets. James Baldwin, I mean, he talks a lot about the artists and the role of the artists. But at one point, he says that only poets, I’m paraphrasing, only poets can be trusted to tell the truth. I’ve just revealed that in myself, you know, there’s something about the heart of a poet, I think, that allows, you know, poetry, it’s not really about communicating a clear idea. It’s these images, it’s these fragments, often it’s the impressions that one is left with after they encounter a poem. And so I think, I have to think about this more, but now I’m getting really energized by the idea of like, what do poets know that we don’t know about contemplation and mysticism. There’s something there. 

Cassidy Hall: So Cole another question I want to ask you is, what is your hope for the future of Black Liturgies and for your book?

Cole Arthur Riley: I mean, Black Liturgies I hope it continues to be this kind of harbor. I mean, it’s hard. It’s a public harbor. So you always have to ask yourself how safe is the space if you can’t control who’s was in it? Who comes and who goes so? Yeah, but I hope to kind of find ways to continue to protect people in that space protect black people in that space and kind of have it be, a kind of harbor for black emotion, the black body, black literature, and yeah, kind of spirituality that just feels safe and restful and nuanced, I hope. And I mean… I’m just trying to become more and more honest. You know, in my writing. I mentioned, I’m 31. I think that the art and the literature that I’m most drawn to, it’s the people who have been able to find some connection with this deeply honest self. It even at cost and risk. I think I took some of those risks, and this year, but I hope to do that more and more, as my writing develops, to have more of a more of a closeness to, like an honesty and me. 

Cassidy Hall: I’m so grateful for your work and I really look forward to continuing to hear more from you, Thank you for the beautiful things you shared today, even the very beginning when you talked about contemplation as a certain commitment to paying attention and mysticism, as a fidelity to magic. And the way you talked about your writing practice. The way that almost gave me a sense of permission. Anytime I go into a writing space, the world tells us we’re supposed to write the whole time and we’re supposed to sit and write even if it’s garbage that comes out you’re supposed to sit and write, but the permission you gave me today to let my body know more about what I’m doing and what I’m saying was just really encouraging to me. So thank you.

Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you and thanks for having me. It’s been a really very good and peaceful conversation. So I’m grateful that you have trusted me with your space that you’re creating with your podcast. So thanks again. Yeah,

Cassidy Hall: Thank you. Thank you so much.

[OUTRO] 

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.

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The Unnamed Mystics | A Conversation with Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw

TRANSCRIPT:

Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw: …here I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements. For me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern context is most of our mystics go unnamed? 

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. 

Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible Old Testament at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature where she serves as the chair of the African American Biblical Hermeneutics Program Unit. She’s also an editorial board member of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Dr. Russaw’s many publications include Revisiting Rahab: Another Look at the Woman of Jericho, Daughters of the Hebrew Bible, and a work in the expanded edition of Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. She received her PhD in Hebrew Bible in Ancient Israel from Vanderbilt University. And she’s an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

CASSIDY HALL: Well Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I am pleased as punch to share virtual space with you. It’s been a minute.

CASSIDY HALL: It has, it has. So one of the ways I love to begin the conversation, so that we’re kind of on the same page is asking you how you define words like contemplation, and mysticism, and maybe also what they mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So this is pretty interesting because I often do not think about contemplation and mysticism, pun intended. But in anticipation of my Cassidy time, I said, well, as I think about or the way I like to frame or image contemplation and mysticism, because I do think they’re different. I think they probably rub up against each other, but I do think they’re different. To me, contemplation is a much more deliberate activity, a person decides to engage in this work. They both can have an aspect of spirituality to them, the contemplation is much more about the intentional thought and reflection. And to me, mysticism is much more involuntary. The moments of mysticism, if you will, you don’t plan for them, you don’t decide or make it part of your regular routine, it just happens to you. So perhaps, one way to think about it is a person is in the subject position when it comes to contemplation, but in the object position when it comes to mysticism. To me, mysticism carries with it much more of a sense of engagement or connection to the divine. But in a way that seems first of all, very special to you. Everybody does not have mystical experience but everybody could decide to be contemplative. Also, there seems to be this element of privacy or singularity when it comes to mysticism or mystic acts; at least when I think about them in the Hebrew Bible, they most often seem to occur when nobody else is around. So I think about not just Moses experience with the burning bush, but I also think about his experience on Mount Sinai. He’s the only one there to have this encounter and there’s something different about him when the encounter is over. For the most part, the mystic that seems to happen one-on-one. I do say for the most part, because I think that what we see over in one of the Samuels, where they Saul is with the prophets, he has this frenzied engagement, and he’s with a group of prophets. So it’s more it’s not a singular or a one off or solo experience, but it is a group. Those are my thoughts. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I wonder because when we look at the Hebrew Bible those words aren’t used. So I wonder, the way we talk about things like contemplation and mysticism today makes them seem inaccessible, even by the way that we frame them with those words. Does that make sense? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I agree with you. I think there may be something to this notion of language that in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps what we are seeing termed as visions are mystic experiences. So then when we see young Samuel and Eli, and Samuel, he is supposed to be asleep, and he hears his name called and he goes to Eli and Eli says, I’m not calling your name. That, to me is a mystic experience, but the text will refer to it as a vision. We see it all the time in the prophets. Everybody’s walking around either having a vision, or talking about a vision, that may really have been a mystic experience. Even Abraham, you don’t wait to the prophets to got them over in Genesis.

CASSIDY HALL: And I was lucky enough to take Hebrew Bible class from you and it was truly the first time I experience and was open to the Hebrew Bible and graspable way. I honestly avoided it, until your class. So it seems to me that a major part of your work and what womanist work does is it contextualizes and rebirths connecting us to our everyday lives, which is what I experienced in that class. And you wrote in Wisdom in the Garden, that “Womanist ways of reading the biblical texts are subversive, and that by and large they disrupt tightly held images of God and God’s relationship to humanity.” So my question off this is, this is really sacred work, when did you realize that this was a part of your vocation and your call? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Cassidy, I think I’m still realizing. I can tell you for sure that when I understood I had a call to ministry, and then when I understood that call was something different from traditional pulpit ministry, it never dawned on me, oh, you’re going to be doing some subversive work, and this is going to be how you going to contribute to the larger world–not really, never thought of it that way. I now understand that at the core of what I think I’m doing is I am providing people with the tools and the permission to see others differently. We start by seeing others in the text or seeing the text differently. And my hope in especially overlooked characters or over-read characters––I know what’s happening in Rahab, I’ve read that story, I’ve heard that story, I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it. That when we do that, then my hope is that, then we turn and we can see and engage others in real life that we may have read or that we may have missed or misread all along. And in that respect, that energy should create some different sort of change in the world and to the extent that it does, and yeah, that’s part of my calling. 

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Yeah. The tools and the permission that really resonates with me. And when I took from you later, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation class, I again, was just given the tools and permission and also able to see biblical scholarship as a form of activism; kind of this disruption, and this offering of the tools and permission to myself and to others as a faith leader, to again, yes, see that in real time and see the work of biblical scholarship as a form of activism. Do you experience your work as a form of activism?

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I don’t think about it as that but I absolutely have colleagues who I would classify as scholar activists. Absolutely. I’m not going to call names, they know who they are. I also have a scholar buddies, who are activist-adjacent, that they know that the work that they do is in service to those who are actively engaged in activism. I’m thinking about one who takes seriously the life-giving work of yoga, and movement and breathing. And they have decided that they’re going to dedicate some of their time to helping those who classify themselves as activists, who are actively engaged in these movements, and are burdened some if you will, that they decided that they’re going to offer their knowledge that was some of their time to sit with people and guiding them through the movement and the breathing as a way to help them go out and be better and stronger in their work of activist. Now, how do I see my work as activist? To the extent that it encourages somebody to go do that work, I’m an activist. When you read my Veils and Lap Cloths: The Great Cover Up of Bynum and the Bible in Black Churches, and you start to question well wait, how have we thought about maybe how have we been complicit in the oppression of women in the church by doing engaging in certain practices? And then you decide, I’m not going to do that anymore. And when I get the chance, I’m going to tell the people in leadership, yes, why I’m not doing it and I think we shouldn’t do it either. Then I’ve aided in the work of activism by way of myself. 

CASSIDY HALL: That truth telling, tools and permission. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: And I think what makes it challenging or subversive, or risky, in some instances, is because I deal with a text that so many consider to be safe. And so many come, like you said for yourself to the work of studying or engaging this text with some real commitment one way or the other. And so part of what we do is challenge those commitments, or offer you a different way to think about the thing you’re so committed to.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Which makes me so curious as to why did you decide for the Hebrew Bible to be your area of expertise? What was the revelation for you? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I like the story. It’s just that simple. I can’t say I had a mystic moment. I can’t say in a moment of contemplation, I realized, all worked out in my head, hey, this is where you can really make it happen. No, I was a seminarian and I was taking all of my classes, and I knew that within the disciplines of Religious Studies, or religious education, the other stuff really appealed to me. So Bible seem to make sense for me. And I came to seminary by way of corporate. So in many respects, I think that what I am doing now is very similar to what I did as a brand manager. Part of what I did as a brand manager was take all of this disparate information, whether it’s consumer trends, whether it’s consumer feedback, it’s what the people down in distribution are telling me, it’s what my finance guy is telling me, it’s what my sales person is telling me, and the people over in legal are telling me, and I weave a story that compels my audience to take some sort of action. In the same way I take this disparate information because the Bronze Age first century, Mediterranean culture is disparate information for people living in the 20th century… And I try to weave a story that compels my audience to add in the classroom, my greatest not written in the syllabus objective is that the students will walk away wanting to know more. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and this love of story for you, was that inspired by anyone in particular? Or was that just something that maybe was Spirit driven? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah, it probably is some combination, because I always want to leave room for the Holy Ghost. So I don’t want to foreclose on any spiritual move that may be at play. But I think that I come from a family and from a people of storytellers. My paternal grandmother used to write poems, I met her and she was like a million years old. So here’s this little old lady, who clearly did not go to school, she would write–when we were little, she lived with us six months out of the year, and with my cousins in Alabama the other six months out of the year. We come home from school, and she will spend much of her day writing a poem and she would write on the brown paper bag. She was a quilter–this actually is my Big Mama’s quilt that I had framed. She was a quilter but she would stand up at church, she would recite her poems, her cousins and stuff would come to visit and they would still tell stories and giggle, and laugh and have a good time. So I think now that I’m sitting on the Cassidy couch, part of my love of stories comes from my early years of watching story, the life-giving story, the communal, and story be positive. Yeah. 

CASSIDY HALL: That’s beautiful. I love that you had that framed too, it’s gorgeous. In your most recent book, Revisiting Rahab, you write about Rahab as a complex character, who upends patriarchal ecosystems and disrupts. Do you think there’s a mystical nature or a kind of transcendence, perhaps?

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I cannot say for sure. And here’s why I can’t say with any assurity or I can’t speak to that responsibly. And that is because the biblical writers do not provide us with any of her internal dialogue. I think that I could make that claim if there was something in the text that said, and she thought to herself, I’m going to negotiate with these fellows because I had a vision that the Israelites were coming. We don’t have anything like that. To me, Rahab is much more in the moment, in her actions, than a mystic would be. 

CASSIDY HALL: And in your experience of your writing, and your scholarly work and research, what does that look like for you? Does that require a sense of contemplation or pausing or making a sacred space in order to reflect and think? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think part of my part of my process, first of all, journaling is a spiritual discipline for me. But it also, as it relates to my scholarship, sometimes I will use journaling to get me back in it, if you will. So in that way, it’s deliberate. I’m not just doing laundry and all of a sudden something comes upon me and I have an experience. No, I sit, I realize you’re not even close to what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Hold on, let me re-center. And one way I do that is by journaling. So that’s the way contemplation shows up for me. And it’s not that I end up writing a wonderful book, or wonderful article or essay in that contemplative moment, but that contemplative moment clears me, or frees me up, or clears a pathway, so that I can see clearly what I should be doing in my writing. 

CASSIDY HALL: You named some earlier, but are there any other Hebrew Bible characters that you might suggest are mystics or contemplatives?

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So we talked about the prophets, we talked about Abraham, absolutely people like Jacob, Israel, whatever stage of his life, we want to reference him. Either when it’s the engagement with the ladder going up to the vision, going up to heaven, or what happened. Nathan and King David story, absolutely, I think we’ve got visions going on here. So I would classify him as a mystic. Isaiah, Ezekiel, half of what they are doing––they’re saying I saw it in a vision, this came to me in a vision. Daniel and Joseph, we got to think about those two. Even in the Minor Prophets, I think we see it with Obadiah––probably my favorite minor prophet, because it’s the shortest book we’ve got going on out there. I don’t think we see much contemplative work in the Hebrew Bible, because the work of the Hebrew Bible turns on action. And the writers would not have said, oh yeah, Job sits around, and every morning Job gets up and thinks… The closest you might get is Job providing sacrifice on behalf of his children every day in the first part of the Book of Job. That’s a slippery slope. But I think that the deliberate nature of the contemplative act is antithetical to what the biblical writers were probably trying to do. There might be a way for us to say that what we see in the book of Psalms, what we see in the poetic stuff, may be a product of contemplation. But we don’t see a character contemplating. I think that music may play an important role in mysticism. This whole idea of when, and I think if you speak to musicians, and ethnomusicologists and people who teach this stuff, and research this stuff––they can talk about there’s this moment in the musical experience that could be otherworldly, transcendent, and can have this sense that you are no longer just here. It’s more than just when they say I was in the pocket––No, no. But I think when you talk to some of those people, because I think about like a Yo-Yo-Ma, I think about absolutely some of the early classical composers, when they were in it they were outside of themselves. And so I think about the work that musicians do in the biblical text, as well as in our modern context and say, there’s probably an element of mysticism there, so to that point, that may have been part of Young David and his heart that had a mystical property associated. 

CASSIDY HALL: Look at you still teaching me. What are you teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary? And another question I want to ask is, are you teaching again African American Biblical Hermeneutics Womanist Biblical Interpretation, because that class was the most transformative class.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Amen. There was some mystical moments or transcendent moments even in that class now that I think about it. At the heels of a conversation we had with a particular scholar, that triggered a lot of things for people that put them in a mystical place. That was fun. I am teaching a foundational Bible course there, they divide up Hebrew Bible between Genesis to Esther, I’ll teach that in the fall. And then my colleague will teach the rest of the cannon in the spring. I’m teaching two semesters of Hebrew and then I’m teaching Women in the Pentateuch. So we’ll do like a feminist spin on Genesis through Deuteronomy. And then here’s my shameless plug for the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Women’s Leadership, I will be teaching the intensive course on Womanist Biblical Interpretation for them in January. 

CASSIDY HALL: You know, one of the other things that the last class that really made the Hebrew Bible come alive for me again, and African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, the elevation that we really focused on of intersectionality, and intersectionality’s presence in the Hebrew Bible. Do you feel like the intersectionality of the Hebrew Bible is in part what allows us to connect to modern day story? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So I think a couple of things. I think that one of the reasons why the Bible, whether you understand it to be sacred text or not, is so popular, is because people are able to either find something of themselves in the text, or find something of the self or the community they want to be. And so to that extent there’s some intersectionality going on. So the world in front of the text, the reader is intersectional whether they want to admit it, or are aware of it or not. And so that when they’re looking for themselves, whether they can name it or not, they’re looking for some things that are intersectional. Most often, I think that people read very flat, but with a twist. So I’m always amazed that people read with the hero, when you know good and well, you’re part of a community that is not the hero. So everybody wants to be David, everybody, but nobody wants to be Goliath. Nobody wants to be a Philistine. Or everybody wants to be an Israelite and nobody wants to pay attention to the Canaanite. All of a sudden, everybody wants to be Rahab, but only because she ends up the hero of this. Nobody wants to be a bumbling spy, everybody reads with Rahab and wants to be this one woman in the whole city who saves her family and gets a cape because she’s a hero. And so to that extent, I think people read very flat, but really what’s going on behind there is some combination of gender going on, some combination of difference or other, some sort of community identification going on. Which when you broaden it and think about it that way, now you can bring in other groups of people who identify as something other than the normative gaze. If we say that the normative gaze is a male, cisgendered, male, hetero normative, probably elite–nobody aspires to be among the poor, everybody aspires to be among the rich, anything other than that would be considered other. There are so many people living in the year 2022, who fall into the other, more people fall into the other category than fall into the normative gaze. So I think when we give people permission, or even point them in the direction to say, have you considered this by way of Biblical studies. We also need to be honest and say that there’s elements of this step that are not life giving–I’m dealing with Judges 19–where is there something good about that? These are the stories we read over but I think it does us well, to sit with those in the same way we sit with the Deborah’s of the world, or Solomon’s of the world. We need to sit with the unnamed.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, this theme of permission and tools, it’s just so life giving.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Permission, tools and responsibility. Give people are tool and they’ll go out there and make a mess. But we also need to create some understanding of is that really responsible–Can you really get there? I like how Dr. Renita J. Weems used to say when she was at Vanderbilt: Is that what God said or is that what they say God said? I’m teaching a Bible study for a consortium of churches in Chicago now, and we’re reading Rahab. And so I was asked, we opened zoom and so one of the lady is like “yeah, she heard God speak, she heard God speak and that’s why she did so and so.” I said “ma’am, where? We all have our Bibles open, can you point us to that particular verse?” My point here is, so often we’ve read over, we’ve embellished upon, we’ve made the stories work for us, when often times, that’s not really what’s on the page. And that’s without doing any language translation, we’re just dealing with English.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that aspect of responsibility. And I think, to your point earlier about addressing the stories of the marginalized and the non-marginalized, addressing both aspects. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: We like to get excited about King David but nobody wants to take responsibility for — Hey! that’s the dude who basically stole Uriah’s wife. But no, we got to talk about that too. 

CASSIDY HALL: We might cancel or write it off today…

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Absolutely.

CASSIDY HALL: One more question is, are there any contemplatives or mystics, maybe in modern day or in our midst that you would name? Whether they’re scholars or activists, or the grocery store clerk? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think I have to go down the road of history. My list is not exhaustive. And here, I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements in our history. So for me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. And I definitely think, let’s start with the big one. Let’s get Howard Thurman off the table. Everybody, we admit, there’s no kind of debate, he absolutely is on the list. The other person I will put on the list would be Harriet Tubman. I think about the work of Reverend James Lawson, who was the guy who taught the college students civil disobedience during the civil rights movement in Nashville. So I’m thinking about Lawson. And there may have been some moments where some of those young people whose names we’ll never know, got themselves into such or had to get themselves into such and other worldly space in order to sit in that space. That may have been part of what Lawson was up to when he was teaching. I think about the names we know in the civil rights movement. But more importantly, the ones we don’t know. All the pastors whose churches were used as staging grounds, and the prayer meetings, that they would have, all of the people, here we go, who would spontaneously lift up a hymn or a song that became part of the fuel that drove the activity. Whether it was the actual march or just the commitment to do the work behind the scenes that showed up in what we understand as the Civil Rights Movement. I think about that, the women behind the BlackLivesMatter movement. So here’s the thing. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern times, is most of our mystics go unnamed? Because in some ways, I think about Howard Thurman, had he not had a stage like Boston? He was a professor, so he was teaching all over the place. Had he not had the stage of the professor would we have even known what he was up to? What about all the people who don’t have a stage who absolutely engage in mystical work? I wonder about artists. And here I’m thinking about the stories we hear about when Denzel Washington played Malcolm X and he tells the story about how he had the sense that Malcolm’s presence was there. So I wonder if a Spike Lee and Denzel may have a little bit of mystical to them and Ava DuVernay, all these people who have to invoke something in order to get the product out? 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah, there’s so many mystics that go unnamed and yet the live on because they’re work was focused on common good or mutual well-being or betterment of life. Yeah, to another extent, I like to think that the Spirit maybe takes over in those situations and helps to guide that prophetic call,

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Or even think about when you get together with extended family, and you hear the stories of the great, great, great, great uncle/aunt or whatever that you never knew. Some elder tells the part of the story that makes you go, you say your aunt Isabelle had dreams?  And she would wake up and she would write them on sheets of paper, and then she would put those sheets of paper in your shoe for when you went to school. Wait a minute. Wait a minute, maybe? Oh.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Well, Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I think that your work is important. I think that I would encourage you to keep at it. And to find ways to little by little, this is not going to be — I doubt Oprah is going to come calling. But somebody is going to sit around and go, now I get it. And it’s that one spark that can change your life that could change the world.

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. And I know and I experienced you giving that spark to so many, so I’m really grateful our paths have crossed. Thank you.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Thank you friend.

[OUTRO] 

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.

Opening Unto Mystery | A Conversation with Dr. Elyse Ambrose

TRANSCRIPT:

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I start to think of mysticism as an openness to mystery, not as something that I go and do or that one goes and does and sort of sets the scene for that sort of openness per se, but I see it more like as an orientation to life. 

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. 

Dr. Elyse Ambrose, PhD (they/them) is a blackqueer ethicist, creative and educator whose research, art and community practice lie at the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and spirituality. Ambrose’s forthcoming book A Living Archive: Embodying a Blackqueer Ethics (T&T Clark, Enquiries in Embodiment, Sexuality, and Social Ethics series), centers blackqueerness and constructing communal based sexual ethics. Ambrose currently serves as visiting assistant professor of ethical leadership and society at Meadville Lombard Theological School as a Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow. You can find out more about them at elyseambrose.com. 

Well Elyse, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: It is my pleasure to be with you. 

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love beginning the conversation is asking how you define the words contemplation, and mysticism. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Mm hmm. Yeah, I appreciate the framing of the questions in terms of seeking definitions, because I think that it’s interesting to be in conversation with people, and then at some point in the conversation, discover that you’re working with different definitions of everything. And maybe that’s partly why, from time to time, we’re not able to see eye to eye about particular things. But you gave me an opportunity to really think about how I see these words, and I thank you for that invitation. 

So I start to think of mysticism as an openness to mystery. And I see that not as something that I go and do, or that one goes and does and sort of sets the scene for that sort of openness per se, but I see it more like as an orientation to life, knowing that we’re going to be encountering mystery, what is the orientation that I have to mystery? And how am I willing to be changed by what I encounter in the mystery? I think those are the questions of mysticism. And that’s where they leave me. And then when I think of contemplation or contemplative processes, I think I experience a pause because so much of how I encounter contemplation is not solely in my mind. And sort of, I think usually when I hear the word contemplation or contemplative, it has to do with reflection, and it’s pretty much framed as a rational process. But I think of contemplation in terms of like, listening with one’s whole self. And so that’s attunement through the body, attunement through previous experiences, and being able to integrate all of that within the realm of mysticism. So it’s being willing to go where the listening leads. I guess, the way that I frame both of these is kind of scary, but it’s also illuminating and exciting. And I think there’s a quote that goes, there’s treasure in the pathless woods.* And it makes me just think about yeah, like when you’re in that unknown depth, there’s a great deal of treasure to be found in those places if we are brave enough to go there. 

*(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Cassidy Hall: Yeah… I mean, first of all defining mysticism with questions seems incredibly appropriate to me. And then similarly with contemplation, you talked about the sense of integration and going where the listening leads. So like also like this openness, both as this openness. How would you say you see mysticism and contemplation lived out in the world today? I know that’s kind of hard because I mean, I think, you know, based on your definitions the mystical can be in the seemingly mundane, everyday moments as well as the seemingly profound. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah, I appreciate you pointing to the everyday-ness of mysticism and really, the profundity of the mundane. Womanist Ethicist, Emilie Townes, talks about the everyday-ness, and thinks of it as a resource of thinking ethics. So yeah, I think that everyday-ness ought to be a part of our conceptualizations of the ultimate because it makes me think of an earlier time in my faith journeying where — and I think a lot of people experience this, but I feel like I was always looking for that profound moment, that time when a prophet will come and speak a word, or when some sort of vision would take place or some enrapturing moments or something like that. And I was constantly seeking that, to know that the divine was present. And I think my faith really took a turning point, when I leaned into the everyday-ness of the divine and that it’s not just those super meta moments, but that it is in necessarily must be in the every day, and that I ought to take it as just true. Whether I feel it or not, whether there’s this amazing thing happening, whether there’s the heavens have parted for me or not, just this willingness to believe what it is that I say I believe and to just live into that as true and allow anything to speak to me, in terms of how I — and that’s what I’m signaling towards in the openness. Like being able to look at a pattern in snow and receive some message from nature or to listen to a conversation between people, maybe eavesdrop on a conversation, and learn something about myself in the process. And just to be open to the many ways that I would say not only God or the divine, but that all that is speaking to me and reaching out to me, and I’m reaching out to it. And it’s a very beautiful, organic and reciprocal relationship that we can be in, if I’m aware of it. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, one thing I love that you’re touching into that, that I’m going to try to figure out how to ask is this pairing of bringing our most full authentic self to the openness or the listening or the wonder or the questions even. I think my question is, do you think we can really have those moments maybe of whether we want to call them mysticism, or transcendence or authenticity, or even a sense of self liberation if we aren’t bringing our full, authentic self, because you also talked about, you know, when you allowed your faith to be what your faith is? So I’m wondering about that authenticity of self, the importance of that. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah. I’m really inspired by this quote of, and maybe it’s a paraphrase, but I feel like I’ve picked it up in engaged Buddhism sort of circles, but this idea that healed people, heal communities. Healed people, heal communities. And I feel like I was speaking with someone recently about how we have lots of thoughts around like, what social healing might look like in terms of like reconciliation or repentance, even forgiveness and all of these things about what these processes might look like or calling out or calling in etc. it occurs to me that if we, and I learned this in these communities of Buddhism, like if I’m not willing to sit on the mat and face myself, my shadows, when we’re talking about authentic self, we’re not just talking about that good. Yes I am beloved, I am a kind and compassionate person. Yes, yes. And also there are shadows. And that’s authentic to me. And I think the sooner I can be truthful with myself about that part of me, I can see it in other people and not be jarred and not be totally self-righteous, and be like, Oh, I can’t believe they’re that way, it’s sort of like can we look in the mirror and not turn away from what we see. And if we’re able to do that, and be authentic in that, and say this is where I am, then we can do for other people too, and be able to create a community where that sort of imperfection or that proneness to mistaken-ness, or that proneness to even hurting people, not harming but hurting people, can be a part of what makes our communities and our settings what they are. They are messy places, they are places where transformation is taking place. So if there’s transformation in me, transformation in you, we’re bound to clash every now and then, and even be transformed by what we mirror in one another. And I think that that’s a really beautiful invitation that we can offer one another, and we can see it in our everyday lives. Again, if we are open to the mystery of what happens when we see ourselves and when we see another person. And that’s hard. Because I think our structures do not lend themselves to truth. And I hope that, you know, we don’t get too caught up on the word truth or what is truth? But I do know a little bit about truth, in that I know the truth of myself, I know the truth that is revealed to me in this particular time and space, and I am invited to live into that truth. But I feel like our maybe obsession with appearances of appearing righteous, of appearing to have the right answers, of appearing to be justice-oriented and liberation-seeking, is really a hindrance to our actually becoming those people. 

I think about with my students sometimes it’s not hard to come across the right answer in this time in our world. We have Google, we have blogs, so many ways that we can come across the right answer of how to engage a person who inhabits difference, or a person who’s experiencing marginalization. We have the right answers of how to do that. But I often wonder sometimes, if when you’re giving me the right answer has the truth of that taken residence in you. And something takes residence in you typically, through a not easy path, is I guess the simplest way I can put it. So I think living into — I might say the wrong thing, I might appear to be racist, I may appear to be transphobic, being okay with that and then when that person calls you out, or calls you in, or when you reflect on your yourself in that moment and say, wow, that was racist of me or that was transphobic of me or that was classist of me, what have you. Then that’s when the transformation is able to take place. Because I don’t know maybe there’s something to confession and repentance and then going another way, like being able to face the thing and be transformed by face truth and be transformed by it. But we’re afraid of truth and therefore short circuit, the process of being transformed in the interest of preserving our comfort. 

Cassidy Hall: That was wonderful. And I’m led to thinking too about how, you know, in our world of like quick-fixes and easy-outs, how much of this transformation requires staying, requires being like you’re, you know, you’re talking about this discomfort, like sticking in that discomfort, being uncomfortable and not just being corrected and then moving on, but being corrected and staying, and being corrected and really deepening those connections no matter how uncomfortable. And I love the clarification between hurt and harm. Can you unpack that a little more? Because, you know, I think it’s so important to name that when there’s harm of course it makes sense to maybe to go; when there’s hurts maybe we need to stick with it and move through it together?

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I don’t want to put it full blanket on that, but I think that that sounds like a great way of creating that distinction. But if I could add to the brilliance there, I have really been taken by this metaphor that I learned, it feels like years ago, of what happens when there is tension. At the encounter with tension, there’s sort of two ways to go and pardon the binary, but let’s go with it for just for the sake of this conversation. It’s we can go in the direction of creative tension or destructive tension. In the course of a conversation, in the course of sitting with one another, I think we gain a sense of, is this going creative or is this going destructive, particularly for the person harmed or the person who’s experiencing some sort of pain, I should say. For the person who’s experiencing pain is this leading in the direction of creative or is this leading in the direction of destructive, right now. Maybe in time, that idea can change. But in the moment, if it’s leading in creative, I think we can say that perhaps there is a hurt that’s taking place and we can think creatively about how to address it, how to redress it. And then if we’re going in the direction of destructive, then perhaps there’s a harm and a need to create a boundary that can help in the process of healing for that particular person, or of that relationship, or maybe not, I don’t know, but I want to lean maybe to thinking about like creativity versus destruction in the encounter with tension. And that takes attentiveness, attunement, maybe a mediator, you know, maybe there’s something about intention there too. I know that intention and impact, intention in the face of impact doesn’t have as much weight but I think there’s something about a person who’s willfully raucous, rambunctious and unwilling to see the ways that they may be creating unjust situations for other people; that feels harmful too. I’d be willing to see what people think about those sorts of distinctions. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I think, you know, the distinction between the things that are creative and the things that are destructive, the power of creativity, also kind of puts us in that sense of wonder and questions. And also, you know, the communal aspect of that, it makes us co-creators, it makes us more bound to each other in the ways that we’re like innovating and imagining and thinking beyond, it’s kind of an invitation. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I think that’s a powerful way to think about it. Because creativity carries with it circling back. Like, we don’t know what’s going to happen in this creative encounter in terms of mystery. And so, what does it take, I wonder, to bring oneself to a creative moment? And to be willing to engage that process with someone or someone’s and to choose to go creative, rather than destructive? I think that seems like a really big question and it’s actually making me feel a bit a bit full and emotional, maybe because it’s hard, and not just hard, like, you know, first we have to do this and we have to do this and we have to do that, like hard in terms of like number of steps, but more like hard because trauma is real and hurt, harm, pain, and suffering are all real and they inform how we are willing or unwilling to come to one another and be vulnerable. And so much of creativity is vulnerability, and it’s like there is no way to be like maybe we can cut out this part and still get to the amazing, creative outcome that might be awaiting us. There is no cutting the vulnerability, there is no cutting the tension, just erasing that part of the process. And so it really pushes me to think how important it is to be in community and for lack of a better term invest oneself in community making, and to make that investment with the knowledge that I’m going to encounter humans that are going to rub against me in some ways that I’m not going to like. And am I willing to, to listen to my own humanity that yearns for connection? And to take the thorn with the rose as it relates to connection and what that means to be in community with others? Yeah, maybe thinking about what does it take to invest oneself in that process? That must be — it’s a doozy. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, the way the creative-destructive tension lives in all our relationships, and all of our interactions, it’s just really, really profound. And in a way to be creative without discounting, things like the trauma, the triggering, the real disruption in one’s life, that that can really disable us and put us in fight or freeze or etc. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Mm hmm. And I think I love the insight that you’re providing, because it makes us think of creativity as sort of a spectrum. So maybe we’re not ready to go full-fledged from day one. But we can move at the speed of trust, as I’ve heard in community, and be able to invest in the creativity, and that’s a process and to approach creativity in a way of like, I love the idea that every encounter is an opportunity to choose, creativity or destruction. And then when we in turn, in terms of creativity, if we want to orient ourselves in that way to the world, where on the spectrum do we want to enter? And how can that sort of openness and intention, and willingness to be building as well as tearing down if necessary, and rebuilding; how much we’re able to do each of those things, given where we are and where the other person is, meeting them at a place where they are and being able to do that building together. And again, that takes community, that takes trust. And when I say community, I don’t mean just proximity as in like, oh, we’re in community because we go to the same place or we’re in community because we live in the same neighborhood, but like community that has accountability, community that has shared values around responsibility, and growth, and mistakes, and returning to the table again, and again. That sort of community I think can lead us in some creative, beautiful, ugly places that are ultimately for our good

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Especially when I’m willing to sit through the ugly, yeah, and stay the same. So going back to this, you know, you named mysticism as an openness to mystery, as an orientation to life and added all these questions about how am I willing to be changed and you named contemplation as a listening with one’s full self, attunement to our bodies, which was so important, so powerful to remember the embodiment of contemplation and that integration. Do you find either of those things in your own life in your work as a blackqueer ethicist, educator and creative? 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Definitely, I feel like I have to have that orientation, those orientations in all of those in all of those parts of myself. I’ll take, you know, education, for an example. Students are coming to the learning moment with so many experiences prior to entering my classroom, our classroom. And I’m coming with a lot of experiences prior to entering our classroom together. And I’ve learned from my mentors, I guess, again to this point of like, right answers versus transformation. I think that for some people, it’s really easy to be a good student. And I heard this actually, at a religious Educators Conference recently easy to be a good student, that is somebody who can process information in a way that’s much like what I said, or process information in a way that’s clear and cohesive, rather Western and get an A for it. That’s a good student, quote-unquote, good student, but the person who’s going to be transformed in the space, I mean, that’s not measurable. And it may not show up as evidence for years. So as a teacher, as an educator, as someone who’s trying to invite students to see education as a practice of their own freedom, as a way of getting free and inviting others to be free. Like, as I’m inviting them to that I cannot be consumed with outcomes, and wanting to see what I want to see in a student to say that okay, this, the student has done well in this course. I have to be open to the process that they are in and create a culture in the classroom that says we are open to one another’s processes. And yes, we will disagree, from time to time. Yes, we will encounter a reading and want to throw it across the room, what have you, that’s fine, let’s do that. And let’s be open to what can happen in the process. And sort of my openness means that if a student says something I don’t agree with, very frankly, if a student says something I don’t agree with, maybe my reaction isn’t to jump on them. And… cause them to retract from the entire learning experience. I have to have an openness to their journey, as well as to what I can be learning in the moment. As the as the educator in the space––thinking about the word educate, like to pull forth, what is being pulled forth for me in this moment and how can I add it to the space and invite them to add what they’re feeling into the space in a way that can help us all to think differently about something. That’s my goal. Let’s think differently about something and in our thinking differently about it, and really sitting with it and allowing it to take residence, and that’s when sort of transformation can take place. And again, that’s long term. That’s a long investment. But, you know, we do our best, as I say, in my syllabus, we do our best and grace will abound.

And then in terms of my blackqueerness, the two that I hold together, I make that all one word, black queer, because both of those identities, which are also a politics, a way of relating to the world, speak to me of liminality, of making a way out of no way, of returning to the table to rebuild as frequently as I need to, of recognizing my interconnectedness and the community that makes me, and I am because we are. All of that is integrated in the blackqueerness. And it allows me to be open to the mystery of me. And that manifests in my art the Photo-Sonic work, it manifests in how when I collaborate with an artistic subject to bring forth some sort of art piece, it’s about when my mystery meets your mystery, what can we create that might speak something to a public in a way that is generative? Yeah, I feel like if I can’t be and become this being who is invested in expansion, then I guess I’m just going fold in on myself and implode and I really don’t prefer that for myself in this lifetime. I feel like, at least for myself, and I wouldn’t put this on anyone else but the invitation that I feel myself receiving in this lifetime, in this time and space is just expansion and abundance and more and not in that greedy sort of way, but in the way of like, there’s so much more to encounter. There’s so much more to know about what’s without and what’s within and won’t you journey with your ancestors and spirit and your community to discover that? 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, when my mystery meets your mystery, I love that phrase. And you know that a lot of this conversation is revolved around this notion of creativity. And you name the intersections of your work as race, sexuality, gender, and spirituality. You know, I’m realizing maybe the common language of all those things, comes down to creativity, comes down to when my mystery meets your mystery. And also accessible language, because of the ways maybe, you know, the intersections of your work aren’t always the intersections for every person. Yet, as we find and meet each other, when our mysteries meet each other it requires creativity and agility, to have those hard conversation, have that staying power. And I think where I’m going with this is, how would you relate your understanding of creativity and your work creatively, would you say that, that in and of itself is spiritual? 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah, it is that necessarily. And maybe I want to — when I’m thinking of the word spiritual, I want to say that I’m thinking of animation, not like a cartoon, but like that which animates. And so that’s automatically a material project as well and concerns all that is. Spirituality and creativity, I mean, they’re kind of like, we’ll call them bosom buddies, in a lot of ways. Because they interdepend, you know, creativity animates and moves like the Spirit, it blows wherever it wishes. And then and then spirituality must, or Spirit necessarily creates and is creative in its orientation to the world. And so it’s like, I really can’t think of one without the other. And I think that thinking of them together, helps to bring out the artist in me, and perhaps helps us all to see the ways that we are able to be creative people, that there is a propensity that many people have, particularly people who are like Type A to say like, I’m not creative, and it’s like a creative doesn’t only look like what you see among the pilfered items in a museum, or the sort of Western Art History that tells us what creative looks like. I feel like when I’m when I’m creating a meal, or when I’m thinking about how can I be more attentive to partners, or how can I in this very moment, I see this student struggling, how can I engage. I feel like that’s a creative process but it also takes that interconnected-ness that Spirit affords us because it’s and through me, and in and through you. And we’re able to inter connect in that way that we can respond to one another, respond to one another in a way that gets us somewhere. 

Cassidy Hall: Amen. Amen. I want to thank you so much. The things we touched on today were just really, really powerful and important. And I’m just so grateful for your time and your work in the world. So thank you.

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity to be creating with you. Yeah, thank you.

[OUTRO] 

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.

“One need not be a contemplative monk in a remote monastery to be overwhelmed by a sense of human inter-connection.”

Jim Forest was an activist and author, but more than anything he was a man of relationship and ritual. To know Jim was to know his family, his partner Nancy Forest-Flier, to feel his friendship, and to see the countless ways he saw and loved the world with great wonder.

Jim looked and listened with great attentiveness everywhere he went. On his daily walks, his museum visits, his time with new friends, and the vigor with which he reminded so many of us to pray.

His work was continually centered by his heart and faith. He worked with Dorothy Day as the managing editor at The Catholic Worker, he was a part of the Milwaukee Fourteen (a group of peace activists who burned draft cards during the Vietnam war), he corresponded and was friends with Thomas Merton, he was friends with at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh, he co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, he named Henri Nouwen his “spiritual father” amid a difficult time in his life, he was longtime friends with Dan Berrigan, and more. But somehow, even amid this list of spiritual giants–including Jim, it was impossible to not count yourself among his friends immediately after meeting him.

Writing this now, after the death of Jim and Thich Nhat Hanh only days apart, I think about these two friends reconnecting in the infinite mystery. One of my favorite stories of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jim Forest’s friendship comes from The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975), by Thich Nhat Hanh:

In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes. From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.

Jim and I last connected via email in December of 2021. I had the pleasure of spending time with Jim in-person on two occasions, first with friends at a Peace Conference in Toronto called Voices for Peace, and last at his home in the Netherlands in 2018. I joined he and Nancy in their evening prayers by the icons, walks, we spent time looking through stacks of books and papers, we climbed to the top of their local cathedral, and we navigated digitizing his tape cassette recordings of his friends including Thay and Joan Baez. At that time, Jim was compiling and working on his book about Thich Nhat Hanh: Eyes of Compassion: Living with Thich Nhat Hanh

The deep legacy of Jim’s life lives in personal relationship and the ways he taught so many of us to see. “What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives,” he shared. “Shape your life on truth,” he shared, “live it as courageously as you can, as joyfully as you can. And count on God making some good use of it — what you do is not wasted. But you may not have the satisfaction of seeing the kind of results that you’re hoping for. Maybe you will, maybe you’ll be lucky but you can’t count on it.”

Memory Eternal. Rest in peace, Beloved Jim. Your memory and your light live on in the way we see, the way we pursue peace, and especially the way we love.

If you’re new to Jim and his work, I encourage you to take a look at Jim and Nancy’s site: https://jimandnancyforest.com/ where you can learn more about their writing and books.

A piece I wrote about Jim back in 2018: The Tireless Pursuit of Peace

Jim’s interviews on Encountering Silence:https://encounteringsilence.com/jim-forest-silence…/https://encounteringsilence.com/jim-forest-silence…/https://encounteringsilence.com/jim-forest-silence-and…/

“One need not be a contemplative monk in a remote monastery to be overwhelmed by a sense of human inter-connection.”

–Jim Forest

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.

Maybe it’s time for me to let go of Thomas Merton

Today marks 53 years since Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand. I wrote the following article originally published by The Christian Century on December 6, 2021.

“How can we be sure younger generations learn about Thomas Merton?”

Every time I show Day of a Stranger, the documentary film I made about the Trappist monk, I’m asked some form of this question. Viewers find Merton’s words—which I excerpted from a set of stream-of-consciousness recordings made during his years as a hermit on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky—eerily prescient, and, like me, they want to share them with others.

This anxiety about Merton being forgotten has come up at every single Merton talk or panel I’ve been part of since 2011. That was when I quit my job as a counselor to travel to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States and began to work on my writing, films, and podcasts about contemplative life. Though I, a queer, young, non-Catholic woman, was an unlikely Merton ambassador, I was often invited to be a part of presentations and celebrations of Merton’s legacy. Every time, people would look around the room, take note of their mostly White, mostly grey-haired neighbors, and wonder how that legacy can last, whether his wisdom will be forgotten.

Typically I have responded with encouragement, mentioning Merton’s interfaith dialogue, his modeling of friendship, or the expansiveness of his correspondence as the ways his legacy might endure. But at my last film screening, after much self-reflection on the question, I answered with my own question: “What’s wrong with Merton disappearing?”

This month marks 53 years since Merton died in Bangkok after giving a lecture on Marxism and monastic perspectives. At the end of the lecture, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. . . . Now, I will disappear.” It was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy and controversial talk, but perhaps it was also prophetic.

The desire to disappear is a well-known tension at the heart of Merton’s work and his spiritual life, a desire that was often in conflict with his vocation as a writer. In 1946, 20 years prior to his death, he wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.” In Thoughts in Solitude, written from his first hermitage, St. Anne’s Toolshed, on the monastic property, and published in 1958: “As soon as you are really alone you are with God.” In 1964, while attending mass after meeting with Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, he wrote in his journal with apparent satisfaction, “No one recognized me or discovered who I was. At least I think not.” In a 1967 recording, he says, “I am struck today I think, more and more, by the fundamental dishonesty about a lot of my clamor.”

Merton was indeed controversial in his time, and his words remain relevant and often helpful. His correspondence and work explored and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences. He often seems to speak prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in today.

But Merton’s most recent work is now more than half a century old. And while his conversations spanned gender (Dorothy Day, for example), sexuality (James Baldwin, though it’s said he never replied to Merton, and I can’t say I blame him), religion (Thich Nhat Hanh, Abraham Joshua Heschel, D. T. Suzuki), racial justice (Martin Luther King Jr.), and environmental justice (Rachel Carson), Merton, as a White cis man and vowed monastic in a patriarchal church, perpetuates damaging exclusivity alongside his wisdom.

In truth, his prescience and ecumenism seem rare only if we’re looking at White spiritual writers or reading exclusively Catholic work from the 1940s–1960s. Does this context make his views appear more radical than they really were? I have to ask myself, before picking up yet another work by or about Merton, Who am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial today? What words am I reading now, by those whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives? What marginalized voices of experience am I listening to? Am I going to the source on these topics?

I’ve learned from womanist scholars that as long as I perpetuate the domination of only a few voices in spiritual leadership, I hinder movement toward liberation for all voices. I cannot learn from Merton what it’s like to be a queer woman, or to be an LGBTQ person who is rejected by one’s church, or to be Black in America, or to be a refugee. Merton can provide historical perspective and observations, but he simply cannot speak into an oppressive situation separate from his identity and experience.

Merton himself was often reminding us to go deeper, look harder, be willing to take the effort and time to seek out, read, and listen to the wisdom of voices missing from our libraries and bookshelves. I wonder if this is his true legacy—urging us to transcend his own contributions. To challenge the status quo, go beyond the comfortable, and heed the wisdom of the marginalized who have been too often overlooked.

Merton has words for those experiencing anxiety in the midst of change. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he writes of a crisis in the church in the 12th century, but he could have been writing about today:

In a time of drastic change one can be too preoccupied with what is ending or too obsessed with what seems to be beginning. In either case one loses touch with the present and with its obscure but dynamic possibilities. What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk. You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope. In such an event, courage is the authentic form taken by love.

“What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges of the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” I wonder if this is how Merton might have answered the question of how his legacy can endure.

On my way home from my last film screening, I went out of my way to stop by Gethsemani Abbey. After a rain-soaked hike, I paused at Merton’s grave, marked by a simple white cross en­graved with “Father Louis,” as he was known there. “They can have Thomas Merton,” he wrote in The Sign of Jonas of those who assumed they knew all about him solely based on his writing, “He’s dead. Father Louis—he’s half dead, too.”

What would happen if I let Thomas Merton die?

As I walked back to my car, I remembered the words from his essay “Integrity,” which had inspired my monastic travels in 2011: “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” Maybe it is time to acknowledge that my long obsession with the words and wisdom of Thomas Merton did crowd out other voices and other perspectives, preventing me from hearing them fully—including my own.

A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Now, I will disappear.”

Speaking Down Barriers | A Conversation with Poet Davelyn Hill

Transcript:

DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I am a mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me. I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not?

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. 

Davelyn Hill is the Executive Director for Speaking Down Barriers. Speaking Down Barriers is an organization whose mission is equity for all. It seeks to build community across all that seeks to divide us by ending oppression and valuing everyone. Davelyn has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Converse College, and is currently working on a Master’s in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry. Davelyn is a poet activist, and alongside providing counseling services, she’s led support groups, presented research and conducted University presentations around racial trauma and oppression. Davelyn Hill, also known as Davelyn Athena, has been published by the Plants and Poetry Journal, and has also been featured by Spark and Echo. 

CASSIDY HALL: Well, Davelyn, thank you so much for joining today.

DAVELYN HALL: You are very welcome. I’m glad to be here.

CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways I like to kind of begin orienting our conversation is by asking you what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you. And how do you see them lived out in the world today?

DAVELYN HALL: That’s a — I mean, you have some questions, but I don’t know, I feel overwhelmed by the idea of mysticism. I’ll start with that one. Just when you hear about the Desert Fathers and some of the people who have known God in ways that make me wonder about how it’s even possible to be close and achieve some sort of like felt oneness is kind of what I think about when I think about mysticism, is being super connected to God, so much so that you feel you have a felt feeling of oneness. I believe that oneness can exist without you feeling it, but I feel like my particular journey as a mystic is to be united, have a like a uniting with the universal Christ. That’s kind of what I see. And so when I think about people, some of the nuns of old and people who have had experiences that they then go back and relate to us, like Luther has, is to have said to have those meetings with God is just as amazing. And because of like, our society is so focused on logic, it feels like oh, well, that’s extra biblical. You know, a lot of people say, that doesn’t matter, your experiences don’t matter, the only thing that matters is the word because it’s written. And you’re like mmhhmm for a lot of folks it wasn’t written when it was happening not for them, they didn’t have access. So, I sometimes wonder if our logically… from kind of having the uniting that many of the mystics talk about. And so I think of contemplation as a way… to see mysticism lived out. So if I live a contemplative life and prayer as the mundane or in the mundane, contemplating blades of grass or thinking deeply about things that just kind of happen in the earth, in the universe, and how that leads us back to the creator in oneness. And so having a contemplative life through like reading, and journaling, and meditation, and community, and serving leads me to having then mystical experiences. So then I can refer to myself as a mystic. Because I don’t know how else you’d get there without contemplation.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love the things you’re saying and you also said, correct me if I’m wrong, but you said I believe oneness can exist without feeling it. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit more into that? Because it seems to me, right, there’s an effort to contemplative life that maybe draws us into mysticism that draws us into the oneness. And sometimes we don’t feel it because we’re doing it.

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I get. And that my feelings I can speak to those are, they’re varied. And so I keep working toward the feeling but the oneness already exists. So I come from just believing in my doctrine that I’m already connected to God that I’m already in oneness. And so my journey is having that felt oneness. So become more and more able to kind of tap into oneness in my life. And so that comes and goes. One day can be like, ah bliss, I’m so connected to the God of the universe. Oh! And the next day, I’m like is there a God? I think there is based on like my feelings. And so that’s what I meant by like, I have oneness every day whether I tap into it or not. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, right, right, that makes a lot of sense. And what about this oneness in terms of our unity with our fellow human? So I guess along with that, do you think that there’s an important aspect of being a contemplative and/or mystic that also innately makes us an activist and or someone who points to the collective unity of all of humanity?

DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I’m am mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me, I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not? Because each person kind of gives us another picture of who God is, and so how each time I’m connected to people in community, they reveal another part of God that I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. And so as they either growing towards their relationship with God and opening oneness, or are suffering because of the injustice in the world, and so I’m connected to that as well, to the suffering of God, the suffering of the Christ. And so if I’m not connected to those people, how do I get to see that lens? I can’t. And then also like, we’re literally the love of God made flesh. And so without us people don’t get to see God and we don’t get to see God. And so I don’t understand how — I really don’t. I’d love to meet some folks to tell me you know, I can live this life on my own and be connected to God and it’s wonderful... Right? Like, that’s what I think anyway.

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. So in your work with Speaking Down Barriers, which is about fostering dialogue and trust among people with different backgrounds and experiences, first of all, maybe you could tell us maybe the origin story of Speaking Down Barriers, and then I could ask a follow up question about that.

DAVELYN HALL: Sure. Speaking Down Barriers started in November of 2013. And it started originally, as poetry and conversation. Before the start in 2013, the founder of Speaking Down Barriers name is Marlanda Dekine and they were at a conference and did a poem and Scott Neely who is our current chief strategist heard her do a poem and was like [gasps] that was amazing how it transformed the room. It was like, ooh, then he saw her again, and same thing happened. And so they decided, I want to have poetry and conversation. And so Marlanda, who was a spoken word poet, she’s an amazing poet. She and some other spoken word poets, all black, or for the most part black, got together and started to do this poetry and conversation, and it began to grow. And Marlanda decided to make it Speaking Down Barriers. It was named by our current Admin Support, she was looking for a name like not poetry and conversation. So it moved into, well, we want to speak down barriers, and so that’s how it got its name. And so Speaking Down Barriers had poetry, conversation and food. And so you know, what’s better than that? A communal meal where you can eat together, starts that way, we talk about a topic, whatever it is, open up with a dialogue question and then poetry pushes that dialogue to places it couldn’t go,  especially first person narratives. It was for you to argue with your first person narrative poem. They can listen to it and receive it, and so it bypasses some of that stuff that comes up and blocks us when we think logically only. And also it causes us to feel things in our bodies. Whereas a lot of time I know for me, I didn’t even recognize my body was actually a part of life. It was so much lived in my head, and it feels and I was like, wait a minute, feelings actually happen in your body. So what am I actually feeling? And spoken word made me feel that. In 2015 it became speaking down barriers and then started to reach out and do trainings. Our current mission is equity for all, we revamped that in 2020. And beginning to think about what the world looks like when there’s equity for all? Well, first of all, it’s ending oppression, all kinds, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all the gender violence, the ways that immigrants are treated in this country, all of that. All of that kind of oppression needs to go. And then also valuing everyone. So while I might not agree with you, I value your humanity because you are human; when I devalue you, I’ll lose myself. So we’ll have to hold on to that, even if I don’t agree with you. And I can have a conversation with folks I don’t agree with as long as their disagreement doesn’t oppress me, I’m okay. When we start to get oppression, I can no longer be in conversation with you, but I still believe in your dignity as a human.

CASSIDY HALL: I’m over here, just like jotting down all these notes of these beautiful things you’re saying. You can’t be a mystic without being connected to community, and this notion of poetry, being able to transform the room, and what you just said, when I devalue you I lose myself. I mean, these are just such profound things. And I’m seeing the ways that this goes back to the beginning of the conversation where we talked about that experience of oneness, and its existence of oneness with God, with each other, and how to touch that. And I’m wondering if you’ve experienced kind of the moments where we touch that or where you’ve been able to touch that with other people in a room, with poetry as this transforming force that maybe takes us to this liminal space or this transcendent space.

DAVELYN HALL: It’s a good word, yeah, transcendence. Yeah, I’ve been in many rooms where this has happened. Where even things are stuck, until a poet does a poem. And it’s like, all of a sudden the room opens up. Or we’ve also started using art. So we’ve been using virtual spaces, so the art is like in your face, you can do it on zoom, where like the art is like, wow! Okay, so I’m seeing this art, hearing from the artist, and hearing their experience. And all of a sudden, the room opens up again, things you never thought of — It’s a tool of expansion. And so I’m really big on freedom chants, I love a freedom chant. Freedom Chants all the way from enslaved folks using the oral tradition, using language for all kinds of purposes, using it to be incognito, to plot the way forward, to encourage hearts then becoming part of the gospel tradition and become a huge and civil rights. And I feel like now — it’s even now, I was always been existing, but it feels like I’m more aware of it now. And so I’ve been in rooms where freedom chants have done the same thing. It’s like a uniting, like a oneness when we’re all like fighting and singing and hoping for the same, for equity, for justice and for just being able to kind of live and thrive.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. One of the things I noticed is that you define yourself not solely as poet nor solely as an activist, but as a poet activist. And I wonder if you could share what it means to merge these words as a role. Are poets also innately activists, by the nature of the way poets use words to transform or transcend the moment to point to something that could be amid what is?

DAVELYN HALL: I think when you say it like that, that’s it. 

CASSIDY HALL: I guess to be fair, right, we can we can all misuse words still. 

DAVELYN HALL: Mhmm. Yeah. And I don’t necessarily think — so when I use the word activist, I mean, speaking truth to power. And so in that way, not all poets are activists. Now, in the way that they kind of reveal what is and can a lot of times cause like all of the fluff around something to disappear so that you get to the heart of the matter, then in that way, I believe they could all be activists. To be able to take nature, even the way of like words worth and be like, wow, I see nature anywhere, have a deeper appreciation for nature. Or when I read Mary Oliver stuff, I’m wowed by the beauty of language and the ability of language to connect us in a way. Mary Oliver, and I don’t have anything common, but when she puts the words on the page, we have a lot in common. So in that way, like, causing humanity to maybe appreciate itself, and to see us in each other’s eyes, then I think it definitely works. However, I don’t think we all use poetry to speak truth to power. And that’s what I mean, when I say a poet activist. I want to use my words to make people feel something, like Julie Cameron says that she wanted her words make people feel something and I want the same. And so when you feel something though I want you to do something, and hopefully to be a part of the fixing the problem, be a part of change whatever that looks like.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. In your work do you see this work of poet activist, and mystic as intertwined? Do you see those as similar or one that leads to the other or is there a relationship there I guess I’m wondering?

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, sometimes like when I talk about the felt oneness, you have to pick up your pen and write down a poem because it’s like grand. And then other times, I’m just kind of writing from humanity, from that place of kind of whatever I’m experiencing, sometimes about various like traumas and joys, both. Find the page, but then sometimes there’s that work that you know, this poem was not mine. I’m just scribing it down.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Do you think there’s anything to learn from contemplation and/or mysticism that informs things like activism and/or collective protest or movements that take place today? And then vice versa, right? Can those also feed the contemplation and feed the mystical moments? 

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, I do. I do. I think when lots of people, especially you’re out in protesting and taking care of each other, making sure people have water and making sure that people are taking care of themselves, even in the midst of kind of protesting the state, that for me is beautiful community and an opportunity to think about in the moment, but definitely after the moment, like what was that like? How do we share with each other? Did we move anything forward? Having those discussions, I think helps you lead a contemplative life. So I think the feedback loop works both ways. And yeah, those things definitely feed poetry, I think, because poetry is of the stuff of everyday life too. And so being able to kind of really live in moments, with other people and alone, and see God in those moments, I feel like helps the page and helps the poetry, which then goes forth for people to read and enjoy and be moved by. I mean I write poems for myself too, but I want people to read it. And I think most people — well, some people do write just for their journal and just for themselves, but that’s just not the kind of poetry or painting or anything that I do. It’s not just for me.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Speaking of I would love for you to read a poem. I do want to ask one more question before we get to that. You talked a lot about logic at the beginning of the conversation. Do you think our obsession with logic and knowing and wanting to do things right and the talking about the thing but not doing the thing, do you think that makes — it doesn’t make us slow down, but doesn’t it also make things just less close to the oneness and the way it makes a lot of things inaccessible or unreachable or like there’s just too many words in the way? 

DAVELYN HALL: I frequently feel that.

CASSIDY HALL: Even my own right now, right? 

DAVELYN HALL: No, no, no, I frequently feel that way that there are so many words, so so  many, and even in silence, people like are like oh I had silent time today. But really, the silent time was music, with words, and it was reading. And so like even self wasn’t silent, even though you are alone, like solitude does not equal without words. And so, I’ve been thinking about that previously, like what does it mean to actually breathe in a moment, with actual silence. Not the phone, not scrolling, even not writing and journaling about it, but actual silence. So yeah, I think it does make things inaccessible. There are some things that just really need to be felt. We’re talking about — I was talking to a group of people who were talking about language and how even we who don’t speak the same language, you can still communicate, you can communicate heart and care and concern. Wow, I think that that means something. Yeah.

CASSIDY HALL: So at this ordination, where our paths crossed, you wrote and you read a beautiful poem, titled Beloved Community, which moved me and I’m sure everyone else in that room to tears. And I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading that for us today?

DAVELYN HALL: I do not mind at all. Thank you. I really love to hear that it moved folks. It’s really, you know, I want to make people feel and so feeling is not necessarily — I guess there is a direct feeling. I’d like people to feel connected to each other, connected to God, connected to themselves, that poetry would be connection.

         Beloved Community, by Davelyn Hill

Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives. Martin Luther King Jr. 

We, us, black, white, brown, human, 

Gathered like oaks, pines in the forest, 

Women, men, non-binary, transgender, gender expansive,

Are, is, state of being 

The image of God we shine like constellations in the galaxy. 

Beloved, be loved, one who is loved, taken care of, needs met, heart filled, accepted, forgiven much for terrible and for inaction, not fighting for the least of these and still being the beloved,

Community, I am because we are,

Sharing the cup, being the body, binding each other’s wounds in places we cannot reach ourselves. 

We are the bride,

God calls us woman, exalts woman, asks us to become woman,

To receive all our good from Spirit to enter into a covenant relationship. 

We co-create, expand, thrive, all things become shared,

Humanity, flaws, and all

Love made visible through flesh. 

Beloved Community loves all, endures all, because we do it together, 

Like trees gathered in a forest, like wandering lights in the night sky, who create constellations, binding each other’s wounds, loving the least of these because we are the least of these. 

We are the image of God, 

Be beautiful.

 At times bruised and broken, beloved, be loved. 

We are the Beloved Community, 

Ashe and Amen.

CASSIDY HALL: Thank you. Yeah, just as powerful once again. I also found some of your work on a page called plants and poetry.

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yes, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. So I have gone through years of illness, and at times, just really unable to do anything. And during that time, I had a tree outside my window, and I named the tree Dolores. And yes, Dolores, I would stare Dolores, I would talk to Dolores. And Dolores got me through, just thinking about her roots. I read a book on trees while I was ill, and just learning about trees and how they communicate with each other, and they’re super smart. And it’s just God’s little design is amazing. But yeah, like they communicate with each other, they help each other survive attacks, they will give with the other trees need and receive what they need from the other trees. And so just looking at the Delores after having read that I was like, I don’t know, like there’s some kind of vibrational thing happening between us. And we are all connected and we’re connected to all of life. And so I wrote a poem, a short poem about Delores in a Plants and Poetry journal, took it in…

CASSIDY HALL: I mean, I really want you to read that now. And you named her Dolores.

DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, so it’s really short, but it says it’s called Dolores. 

Delores, by Davelyn Hill

The tree outside my windows name is Dolores. 

I open my blinds in the morning and she waves at me.

This morning, she was changing clothes. 

The beautiful green she normally wears turned into hues of orange, red and yellow.

I was too tired to change clothes. 

The wind blew so fiercely, that she shook and trembled.

I would love to see her roots. 

I’d wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes.

CASSIDY HALL: That’s great. Thank you.

So Davelyn, thank you so much for joining and just for this incredible conversation. And I’m wondering where people can find you and find your work, and if you’re working on anything currently that we should be on the lookout for?

DAVELYN HALL: Sure, thanks. So Speaking Down Barriers website is http://www.speakdownbarriers.org. And not speaking, but speak down. And on our website page, and we’re also on Facebook, and Instagram at Speak Down Barriers. You can find out all the things. We’re having all of our events virtual at the moment, so we love it when people come from far away and from post by. Just love all the peoples to come and have a conversation. We’re really trying to build a multi-ethnic coalition and the only way we can do that is by having conversations together. Also we can find our poets, we have a spotlight poet every four months. And currently, her name is Sharae “FIRE” Walton, but we’ve all called her “Fire.” Fire is amazing as well. So people can find out about her work and the people who come before her. ShAy Black and a Hayle Oswell, (AKA Celestial Poet) had been our previous spotlight artists. And we want people to come and share their poetry and their life. And they do an awesome job using poetry and art to push us forward. It is good to get to know someone, so after four months, I feel like we know these poets and they know us in some part of the community. Right now I myself am holding abolition really close to my heart. I consider myself an abolitionist. And for me, that means abolition is creating things. So it means creating a world where everybody can thrive and where we have things set up for harm like conflict-mediation and conflict-resolution, conflict-coaching. We also have transformative healing circles and we have places where harm can be mitigated versus the system that we have with over-policing, over-surveillance, and just profiting off of crime, making things that really aren’t criminal-criminal, making things more important than people. And so while that exists, I just can’t get behind that system. So I want to bring it all down, and also build. So it’s a both-and for me.

CASSIDY HALL: Thank you so much for joining me today and for taking the time to chat. I really, really appreciate it and I’m grateful for your work. I’m grateful for your voice. And yeah, the mystical presence that you brought that day when I heard you read poetry was transformative and transcendent, so thank you.

DAVELYN HALL: Well, thank you. Sometimes I wonder, I think what my words are doing. I spend a lot of time with just sending my work out, somebody to take my work, somebody take my work. And so on the other end of that is like in the felt experience of folks. And so it gives me kind of joy, I think, oh, the work is doing something regardless of what it does in other places. When I hear from people, it’s like, okay, my work is doing good doing, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

OUTRO:

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.Support the Podcast

Breathing Mysticism | A Conversation with Dr. Angela N. Parker

Transcript:

Dr Angela Parker: I don’t often think about contemplative actions going together. But what does contemplative action look like among people where the breath of God is going through groups of people? And I think that’s what we see with protests, with the Black Lives Matter protests, that there’s that contemplative action that actually moves groups of people to do something.

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. 

Dr. Angela N Parker is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at McAfee School of Theology. She received her Master’s of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, and her PhD in Bible Culture and Hermeneutics from Chicago Theological Seminary. In her research, Dr Parker merges Womanist thought and post-colonial theory while reading biblical texts. Her books include If God still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, which is available now. And her forthcoming book is titled, Bodies, Violence and Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark

Well, Dr Parker, thank you so much for joining today.

Dr Angela Parker: Thank you so much for having me Cassidy.

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I like to begin is by kind of framing your definitions for a conversation of what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today?

Dr Angela Parker: It’s interesting. When I think about mysticism, I’d probably equate mysticism more so with my own idea of spirituality, and the aspect of what it means for me to be a person who allows Spirit Mother to invade and permeate everything that I do. And so when I think about Spirit Mother, I think about ruach in Hebrew as an idea of feminine spirit, and an idea of part of God’s presence that allows me to be contemplative, while also opening up ideas of even activism in the midst of my own spirituality in my own moments of contemplation. I think that for me, there’s almost a porousness between thinking through mysticism, contemplation, and spirituality. Even though for me, I probably use the language of spirituality more so than mysticism or contemplation. But they seem very similar in my brain and how they operate in my own life. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I love that, evade and permeate everything I do.

Dr Angela Parker: Yes.

Cassidy Hall: And in that way, a lot of times when we talk about mysticism or contemplation, it’s this whole like, dissolving of oneself into God or losing oneself into God. But in the way that you speak about it, it’s an enlivening of what already is present in us. And in that way, do you see that contemplation and/or mysticism plays a role in social action and activism and the ways that we wake up to what’s happening around us?

Dr Angela Parker: I definitely believe that is so. I believe that each and every one of us because we are humanity. We are human and we are beings that have been specifically formulated to do something. And I think that all of us are tasked to find out what it is that we are here on this earth to do. And I think that part of contemplation and then God’s spirit conversing with us allows the opening up of what our social activism may be. And so again, I don’t see it separately, I see spirituality and contemplation as ways of understanding who we are as humans in relationship to the divine. I don’t think it’s necessarily the divine coming upon us and saying, this is what you were supposed to do. But the divine actually revealing to us what is already within us.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah, that’s great.

Dr Angela Parker: I think that takes time though, as I’m pondering it. I think that the idea of being human is the ever-growing enlightenment of your own journey. And I probably would say that it’s only after years of just beginning to understand who I am as a person and what my relationship to God and to divinity is, that I begin to understand what my own operations and what my own missions are, so to speak.

Cassidy Hall: You said, correct me if I’m wrong, the idea of being human is an ever-growing enlightenment of your own journey

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. 

Cassidy Hall: I just love that the ways that that just — it’s a continual opening up and uncovering, like you’re saying. This uncovering of what’s there. And I wonder if you could share along with that, a little bit of your own story and your journey in being a biblical scholar, and how that’s led also to, you know, I see your work as an incredible form also of activism and the ways that it’s uncovering the truth of biblical scholarship. And I wonder if you could share a little bit about that.

Dr Angela Parker: I often say that my journey is a journey that takes a long time or took a long time. One joke that I usually make in the class context is that college did not take the first time or the second time, or the third time or the fourth time. It was usually the fifth or sixth time where college actually took for me. And after starting Community College, and being in community college for two years, while also serving in ministry and then realizing that being in a pastor position was not necessarily my gifting, but my gifting was in teaching and explaining text. And then after Community College, going into a four year program at Shaw University, while also still ministering and serving in a church context, and still teaching and preaching, and opening up my understanding of critical thinking in the midst of teaching and preaching in a church context. I think those two things along with raising children, being a single parent, and then going back to school, in the midst of that while also being ordained in preaching and teaching, that conglomeration of events essentially propelled me to then want to get a master’s degree in New Testament studies. And after that, while doing the master’s degree, and having conversations with professors who would often say something like, well, there aren’t that many black folks who do Biblical Studies or Biblical Studies is hard for your folks. And hearing those comments that actually solidified in me the desire to actually go into biblical scholarship. Because it seemed as though many of my professors, not in my undergrad but in my Divinity School just felt as though biblical scholarship was too hard for some people. So usually, you should go into theology, because with theology, you can kind of say everything, so to speak. And I always wanted to prove them wrong. Because I’d always been preaching and teaching based on the biblical texts. So why wouldn’t I continue to do that, and continue to study it, because Bible had always been a love in my life. So it just seemed appropriate to allow Bible to continue to be a love of my life, even as I critically engaged it. So that was part of the journey to biblical scholarship, while also remembering those folks who said I could not do it. And oftentimes it came from upper echelons of white masculinity, who told me I couldn’t do it.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And even the act of saying, I’m doing this as a form of activism and resistance to what you were being told. 

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. I always have to say that, even though that was my experience, and when I talk to other people in Bible, especially black women in Bible, that tends to be a lot of their experience as well. We all seem to have similar experiences but we still persevere. And we still do this work, knowing that there are allies who come alongside of us and help us do this activist work in biblical scholarship, that I always have to make sure I state that it’s not all white male scholars who think a certain way, but there are those who are very good allies for these conversations as well. And will interrogate their own identities in the midst of doing biblical scholarship.

Cassidy Hall: In your forthcoming book, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I, Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, you explore the fact that Christians are taught more about the way of whiteness than the way of Jesus. And I wonder if you can share a little bit about your own journey, as a Womanist, post-colonial biblical scholar, and also more about the book. 

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. I think about this book as part memoir, part of biblical scholarship. And so throughout the book, you’ll find anecdotes just about my life or about being in seminary and what that experience was like. And also a deep desire to interrogate our text in ways that others may not have thought before. One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed writing was the piece on the Gospel of Mark and the women at the end of Jesus’s death; with Mark, you don’t have a resurrection story, but they’re going to the tomb in order to anoint the body. And just that idea of thinking about what women see when they see the crucifixion, and what women feel as they were experiencing the crucifixion from afar, and what it means to be in a highly testosterone-charged environment that has a large military presence. I think that pondering what women feel and experience in the midst of highly charged militaristic presence and even thinking about what it means for women to live in Afghanistan right now, and to see highly charged masculine presence in a space that now becomes unsafe, and to have a conversation with scholars of the Gospel of Mark, who read these women in the text, but consider them unfaithful or consider them less than good disciples––without pondering what it may have bodily felt to be in such an environment where you could easily be accosted, and still thinking that I have to go to a tomb in order to pay some type of respect to a fallen leader. I don’t think we give the women in the text enough credit. And so part of breathing again, for me is actually engaging what those women felt in their bodies in the midst of going to worship a fallen leader. And instead of immediately taking on the idea of what contemporary male scholarship says about these women, what does it look like to think about them slightly differently? And even for my work in Galatians in this text, thinking about what it means to ponder all of us just making it home together. Home being the idea of we can all breathe, and not feel as though we’re stifled in the midst of reading our biblical text or we’re breathing and we are not stifled in the roles that we can play in ministry; or we can breathe again and we’re not stifled by what other people say about what we are supposed to be as black and brown people or even as women who want to work in a world for the betterment of society, for justice in society. I ponder a lot about male evangelical leaders who still can’t fathom that women can preach and teach. And I think I often thought that we’ve gotten past that, but it’s interesting moving from the Pacific Northwest to the South, to the American South of Georgia, and seeing those conversations resurge, and not just feeling as though oh my goodness, not only are they taking the life out of me with these conversations or having to prove myself over and over again. But to think about all of that, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd, and then thinking about others, who have died as a result of police militarized violence that there was just no way we cannot engage such conversations today where we — We have to imagine we can all make it home, we can all live, we can all prosper, we can all flourish, we can all thrive. There has to be some way for all of us to thrive and to make it home together safely. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. And allow faith communities to begin to have a different conversation about what it means to hold the biblical text as sacred and authoritative without allowing the people who think that they have the authority of the text to lower the authority or the authoritarianism of the text over them. And I see these power dynamics both within some policing systems and the policing systems of evangelicalism.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I’m struck by this, this beautiful and important refrain of breathing and the ways in which I wonder do you experience study of the biblical text to be an embodied experience in that way?

Dr Angela Parker: Definitely! I think that oftentimes, we’ve been trained. And when I say we’ve been trying to, I’m thinking about my own black Baptist upbringing, and what devotional reading looks like. And so devotional reading is singular and individualistic. But I think the idea of a collective breath is what stands out for me in reading biblical texts with people or even with contemporary situations. That breathing is embodied; breathing the text is embodied and thinking about God’s breath, and how God’s breath interacts with our breath. And I think that’s the contemplative experience. I think that’s the ruach spirit that kind of goes in between God and us. So that reading the text is almost like a wavy experience of breath coming in and out of us. Both our breath intermingling with God’s breath, and God’s breath intermingling with us. Which then goes back to how we begin to understand ourselves as humanity, and what that means for what our own activism is in the world. Because God’s breath is intermingling with us in order to do something. We think about the Genesis narrative that God breathed into Adam and how Adam becomes a living creature. We’re supposed to be living creatures that actually do something. And I think the text allows us to do that as long as it’s the text doesn’t become God. And for a lot of people, I think the text has become God and so you get this bibliolatry. Again, people use the text in order to beat someone over the head with it without this interactive breath that God wants to be involved with us as we read this text and that breath of God just kind of moves us. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. I just love the fact that yeah, I mean, the very fact that God’s breath is in us means that we must act, we must show up.

Dr Angela Parker: Well, I think, even as we ponder contemplative actions, and see that’s the thing. I don’t often think about contemplative actions going together. You think about contemplation and sitting by yourself and being very individualistic. But what does contemplative action look like among people where the breath of God is going through groups of people? And I think that’s what we see with protests, with the Black Lives Matter protests that there’s that contemplative action that actually moves groups of people to do something. That there is a breath that goes through collective bodies as well, that it’s not just individualistic contemplation, but it’s contemplation by groups of people in order to bring about some kind of change.

Cassidy Hall: How do you think groups of people or individuals get to that place where they’re able to open up and engage with the group and then, it’s almost like getting to a place of openness where we’re moved by each other’s stories, and we recognize our reliance on the collective breath in order for the individual breath as well?

Dr Angela Parker: This is where the conversation becomes a little bit difficult. And why does the conversation become difficult? Because I can imagine two groups. And I’m really in my brain, juxtaposing the January 6 insurrection against the Capitol with the peaceful protesting of Black Lives Matters in the midst of the summer of 2020. And I do believe that it all goes back, for me, especially being a biblical scholar, goes back to the idea of who Jesus is supposed to be for those of us who espouse Christianity. And for those of us who espouse Christianity that is not white, nationalistic Christianity that we can see groups of people coming together and trying to walk in the way that Jesus walked. Meaning as Jesus is walking on the road in Galilee, going down to Jerusalem, and he sees a blind man on the way and says, stand up, what do you want for me? And the blind man is saying, this is in the Gospel of Mark, I just want to be able to see, and Jesus heals that blind man. And then he goes with Jesus along the way. He’s walking along the way, not towards an insurrection, but towards his own death. I would believe that those of us who tried to walk in the way of Jesus realize that oftentimes we’re walking towards our own death. Because if you’re truly walking in the way of Jesus, you’re trying to walk in such a way that you know people may not like the way that you’re fighting against an imperialistic system. You know that people may not like the way you’re fighting against a racist system. You know that people will not like that you’re fighting against some kind of supremacist system. And so when I read Jesus in the biblical text, I see Jesus gathering groups of people to actually walk against a Roman imperialistic supremacist system. So if we are nuancing, what it means to gather people today, and for people to walk together today, it does not mean that you’re gathering a white supremacist system to fight against a system that is actually the democratic. There was something that was missed in the January 6 insurrection. Because I think what’s missing is the idea that Jesus is fighting against some kind of supremacist system. On January 6, Jesus becomes the supremacist system. So how do we have a conversation, especially in the context of the United States of America, that says that we can recognize these different groups that oftentimes espouse, a Jesus, but a very different Jesus? And then how do we break that box? And how do we move into an almost a better understanding of Jesus? I think that’s part of the conversation on what it means to think about groups of people who breathe together and then come together, because we still see groups of people coming together, but you have to ask, what kind of breath are they coming together with? And I think that’s what I want to do.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yes. Yeah, that makes sense. And beginning with that piece, like what’s the commonality of the breath that’s bringing the group together? Is it this false Jesus, this false authority and the way you talk about to really walk with the breath of Jesus? Can you share more about your other forthcoming book Bodies, Violence and Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark?

Dr Angela Parker: Yeah. So with that, I’m actually arguing that there is a connection between the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5 and Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross that there are similar — and again, it goes back to marks of empire on Jesus’s body and potential marks of empire on that hemorrhaging woman’s body. And instead of translating that phrase as a hemorrhage, I translate that as she’s in a flow of blood. And what does it mean to be in a flow of blood? Well, I make the argument that if we think about her as a woman who has seen so much blood shed as a result of imperialistic sufferings, that there’s something to what it means to be a woman who constantly sees blood flowing in the streets. Not just blood flowing from her own body, but blood flowing from those who are related to her. And I make the connection with the idea of her own suffering being classified as mastix. And that’s the Greek term for whips, or scourges or sufferings that also correlate to the idea of Jesus’ suffering, scourging at his crucifixion. And so is there a way to think about that woman, as a woman who essentially sees her own brown children, her own brown brothers, her own brown siblings, her own brown mothers and fathers who have died or had their bloodshed in the midst of a Roman imperialistic takeover in Judea. And so I can make that connection to what it means to be a mother who sees Tamir Rice die in a Cleveland Park; or to be a mother who sees her own child extinguish and that child’s body laying in the hot sun on an August day in Ferguson, Missouri. So there’s some kind of connection between the bodies, the violence and the emotionality of seeing all of this happen. And thinking very hardly thinking, just making a nuanced connection between why that woman’s story is important, and how it connects to Jesus’s story at the crucifixion. Because that’s one story that is not your typical healing story. A typical healing story, has someone cry out, Jesus calls that person to him. He asks them, what do you want me to do? They tell him he does it, everybody goes along their way. This particular healing story is not in that same form. So for those who understand form criticism, it’s not in that same form. She sneaks up behind and has and has to reach out. And so just thinking through that whole story, and what it means for a woman to show agency and touch Jesus’s garment, there’s something to that. And to even think about how Matthew and Luke tweak the story, because you can’t have a Jesus who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on, or you can’t have a woman touch Jesus. So Matthew and Luke kind of tweak it, so that in Luke, I don’t even think she touches Jesus at all. He just turns around and says, like, who’s about to touch me? So I think that there’s something to that particular story in the Gospel of Mark that allows me to actually engage contemporary issues regarding fallen black and brown bodies in these United States of America.

Cassidy Hall: Another piece I’m really struck by as you draw those two parallels is the connection of people not believing. I imagine people not believing that woman’s pain, the truth of her suffering, the truth of what she’s going through. And similarly, Jesus not being believed. And then thinking today about all these stories, and even studies of black women not being believed, the pain they’re going through in hospital settings. I mean, in all kinds of settings and in life, that the pain emotionally physically, quote-unquote, isn’t real.

Dr Angela Parker: There’s that feeling that we, especially for black women, we are supposed to be able to take so much more suffering than other people. And I think I’m often just struck even in the beginning of ministry and the beginning of working in pastoral settings and ministerial settings for me, that, especially black women in the church have often been looked upon to volunteer the most, to cook the most, to clean the most to take care of everyone else the most to the detriment of their own lives and bodies. And one work that opens that up for me is Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, if it wasn’t for the women. That for a long time, we’ve often been told that our suffering is going to be good for other people or for the hereafter. So just continue to suffer and continue to work and don’t make too much noise. Just continue to do and work through your pain, work through your suffering. And that’s not healthy and healing and whole for, for anyone, but even especially for black women. 

Cassidy Hall: When you joined us in my class with Dr Russaw, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, in that class you said allow what you’re fighting for, to shine through, find what you can do, and work with that hurt. We’re all too valuable to burn out.” And so I wonder, with all the hurt and the pain that surrounds us, how have you found your way to engaging so powerfully in your work? And how have you kept yourself from burning out?

Dr Angela Parker: There is actually one Amazon purchase that I still need to make, that’s actually a blanket burrito. So there are two things that I try to do. I try to first do my own self affirmations in the morning, just to at least remind myself that I am valuable, there’s still work for me to do. But even in the midst of my value, I can’t allow my own reserves to deplete to the point where I can’t do what I need to do. So for some people, and this was difficult. Because I think, as women, we’re often told that, or we often perceive from our surroundings, that we are not valuable. That we are to assist other people. And part of recognizing my own value means I have to actually say, out of my mouth, that I am valuable, I am resilient, I can resist and I can say no, in some instances, and actually do say no, and don’t feel guilty about it. I think that as women, we are often saddled with a lot of guilt if we don’t have children when we’re supposed to have children. I mean, it’s amazing to me the conversations that people have with women saying, when are you going to do this? Or when are you going to do that?  Why are you so worried about my timeline? My timeline is my timeline. And what it means to actually take hold of your own life and your own affirmations and just do you and be happy in that. That means that you have to have a change of thinking about who actually can be involved in your life as well. It’s okay to not answer every call, it’s okay to not have a conversation with everyone who asks of you, it’s okay to say no, it’s okay to take a day and rest on your couch in your blanket burrito. And then after you have had that recuperation, and a little bit of revival in your spirit, you get up and do what you can do for the cause, for the work that you feel called to do, for the writing that you have to do. I think for me, especially when I was in seminary, I was reading works that I did not see myself reflected in. So what does it look like to say, okay, I have to write work where people like me can feel reflected in it? So I have to continue to do that. But I have to rest in the middle of that as well because it can be difficult. It can be difficult to constantly see the hurt and harm that’s going on in the world and begin to write about it in such a way that people can actually breathe. And that’s what I want to do, but I want to do it with a little bit of longevity. I want to do it with a little bit of laughter in the midst of it. I want to do it with a little bit of celebration in the midst of it as well, and take time when I need to take time. So I will plan those moments for my life. And I will plan those quiet times, I will plan the absolute silence because I don’t think every moment of our lives has to be filled with so much buzz. We can have some silence, we can have contemplation on the couch and have that little bit of individualistic contemplation as well. Because I think all of it is important. I think the collective contemplation and the individual contemplation is important. But I also have to say that finding people who can help you on your journey and others that you can help with their journey as well is also important.

Cassidy Hall: And I appreciate that you note that. Because there’s still a piece of that collective breath in what you shared. So one more question before we go. Who is someone or some people that maybe embody mysticism for you, or that host that image of mysticism maybe that you were talking about earlier?

Dr. Angela N. Parker: For some reason, I keep thinking about Dr. Valerie Bridgeman. And she is a Dean in Ohio. And she has talked about and posted about on social media walking. And she’ll often say also on social media: “if someone didn’t tell you today, drink some water, drink your water. Have you had enough water today?” And that presence, even though she is not actually physically here in the Atlanta area, but she’s a presence on social media who says, did you drink water? Did you do your steps? That connection, which seems almost as if it’s nothing in a social media space, actually is a lot. I don’t know what it is about that presence and that reminder, it just seems as though she’s one of those scholars who allows me to say, oh, yes, I need to walk. I need to drink water. I need to replenish myself. And I think that’s what mysticism is for me. How do I replenish myself so that I can do what God has called me to do? I can’t say that I’ve read enough mystics, because I’m thinking even a lot of the mistakes that I read in seminary, they did not speak to me. And that makes me slightly sad as I ponder that question. Because I think for me, it’s those present-day people who are in my life who say: “Rest,” or “Have you noticed the trees? Have you noticed the purple in the flowers?” That is mysticism to me as well Color Purple, Alice Walker, saying God gets really mad if you don’t notice the purple. And I think noticing God’s beauty and God’s creation, and those books and the quiet times that remind me of that those are the mystics that helped me. I had a colleague, Dr. Chanequa Walker Barnes who invited me to the Botanical Gardens. And so we were in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and we see the purple, and we just stared at the purple flowers. Those are the contemplative moments that helped me most. So people in my life who actually pushed me to stop and look at the flowers and drink the water, those are the mystics and I think they’re the womanist mystics that I would name.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining today. Yeah, I’m just so grateful for your time and your wisdom and insight, your scholarship.

Dr Angela Parker: I really appreciate it. Thank you.

OUTRO:

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.

The Privilege of Contemplation | A Conversation with Dr. Anthea Butler

TRANSCRIPT

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop?

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. 

Dr. Anthea Butler is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and also the chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Her new book is “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” Her other book includes Women in the Church of God, In Christ, Making a Sanctified World and she’s also a contributor for the forthcoming book, a New Origin Story: The 1619 Project, which is due out in November of 2021. Dr Butler is a historian of African American and American Religion, and her research and writing spans African American religion and history, race, politics, and evangelicalism. Dr Butler is currently contributor for MSNBC Daily, and has also written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, and the Guardian. You can see her in the recent PBS series, the Black Church in America, in the forthcoming American experience on Billy Graham on PBS. 

So glad you could join me today.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

CASSIDY HALL: And so one of the ways I like to begin is kind of just asking for your personal working definitions of words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” what they mean to you and maybe how you see them lived out in the world.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think for me, personally, I think a lot of people think about these words as being passive words. But I would say that I have really been influenced by Ignatian tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And I think about that in terms of how the Jesuits move through life. I mean, they don’t spend a lot of time in prayer, they spend a lot of time doing things, they step back when they need to, and there’s the spiritual exercises of course, that help in order to sort of think through about how to be a contemplative in a different kind of way. And so I think that for me, being a contemplative doesn’t mean that you escape society, or you escape the world, but that you find a place to anchor yourself firmly first of all, and then secondarily, take care of those things in the ways in which you need to take care of them. And that might not be the way that people traditionally think that you need to take care of your religious or spiritual needs. 

CASSIDY HALL: And do you think or do you see contemplation or mysticism playing a role in social action today?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Not in the traditional ways, no, I don’t. And I think that a lot of times, if we go through traditional ways of thinking about what contemplation means, you set yourself apart, you think about things, which I think is a very good way to be if you’re going to be an activist. But I also think that an activist means that you have to be active. And if we have this tension between contemplation and activity, then there’s times where you need to be active, and there’s times that you don’t. And I think that probably–I’ll describe it like a Depeche Mode Song, you have to get the balance right, you have to think about how you balance that out. And I think for a lot of people, especially right now, the rapidity and the speed in which things happen in the world. Sometimes you don’t have time to think, sometimes you have to actually act. But if you haven’t done that kind of work before to sort of think through and to sort of ponder where you are, then I think it becomes much more difficult. 

CASSIDY HALL: So kind of in the sense of the practice, the engagement and the practice cultivates the action and a more immediate response to the things which we need to immediately respond to?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, you have to be prepared, because in other words — I mean, I think it’s like, people have an idea, like, I’m going to go — I’m a church historian. So I’m going to use an example. People think that the old monastics like, Simon the Stylite, who set up on top of a pole and contemplated is the way that you should be, or you should be like a Buddha and you should pull yourself away from everything. And I think that those kinds of — I’m not saying that’s wrong, I just think that that doesn’t work for some of us. It doesn’t work for somebody like me who is very reactive to what’s going on, especially for things that I care deeply about. So I think, you work through that in the ways that you need to. And for some people, you might think, oh, maybe you’re just going around and around circles. I’m not. What I’m saying is is that contemplation and a contemplative life means different things to different people. And not everybody is going to be able to go away and be on an island or be in a monastic place, or to have quiet in their house because they got three kids and a husband or wife or spouse and they’ve got to deal with things that you just can’t. In today’s world, it’s very difficult to be contemplative, but you have to figure out ways in which to do it that fit who you are. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I think to your point earlier, it seems like a lot of people can also use being a contemplative or having a contemplative life as an excuse to not fully engage in those things as well.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. And it means that they have the luxury not and I think that’s really important to say, is that, most people in the world, I’m thinking about Afghanistan this week especially, don’t have the luxury to stop and think about what’s happening or how to think through it because they have to be reactive. Their very lives depend on it. And so I think it’s also important to remember that these activities can sometimes be activities of the privileged and not of people who really do need time to think about things because they don’t have time. They can’t, they have to continue to work, they have to continue to run, they have to continue to try to figure out how to make their lives better. 

CASSIDY HALL: In a 2020 piece that you wrote, titled, In a Season of Reckonings Forgiveness is not Forgetting, you wrote “displays of forgiveness do not lead to forgetting but to remembering all the wrongs, all the murders, all the pain, all the suffering, we and our ancestors have experienced in America.” So my question for you from this in that incredible piece, when it comes to racism in America, what other Christian practices might do more harm than good when we’re talking about this idea of maybe contemplation can also be an excuse or a way to not engage, when we fail to engage in the fullness of these things. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How long you got? I mean, I think this is one of those moments where I’m just going to say, I’m sorry, I’m going to offend a lot of people. I think the Christian practice of just leave it to Jesus and everything is going to be alright is basically bullshit. This is a podcast, I can say bullshit. And I think that that’s number one. Number two, the ways in which, especially American Christians, like to think about themselves as in relationship with just Jesus and themselves, is stupid. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. Jesus lived in a community, he had to deal with racism. I always use the excuse the example of the Syrophoenician woman to say even Jesus was racist. He didn’t want to give her anything, she had to remind him and tell him. So I mean, if your Lord and Savior can be racist, you can be too. And I think that what my — I wrote a whole book about this, so let’s just put that out there, “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America.” What I think is the problem in America is that so much of American Christianity is individualistic. We sing these nice little worship songs that don’t mean anything, that are focused in on how much we love Jesus, and not how much we love each other. And we can see the ramifications of that right now with the way that people aren’t getting vaccinated, people could care less about people going hungry, people are willing to put forth ideology instead of true Christian charity. I could go on all day long. But I mean, the fact of the matter is, is I found this very wanting and I think that it’s a horrible witness. I just do.

CASSIDY HALL: And speaking of that book, your book “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America,” you examine this incongruence, this deep incongruence in white evangelicalism. Like how white evangelicals often claim morality amid supporting immoral acts and immoral ways of being. Case-in-point the list you just offered. How do you think that this understanding or this understanding of that incongruence can help guide anti-racist movements or work in America? 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Well, I think as a starting point. I mean, I wrote the whole book, as somebody asked me: what do you want to have out of this book? I said, I did what I wanted to have this book, which was tell everybody is this you? This is the way you behave? So that’s one but I think the incongruence is going to have to change when realities change. I mean, I think one of the things that is very difficult right now for a lot of evangelicals in this country to see is that, them harping on critical race theory, at the same time while they’re not getting vaccinated and their kids are dying, is pretty bad. And they’re worried about the wrong things. And this is just, it’s a waste of our time. It really is in a world in which time is of the essence, it’s a waste of our time to have to be dealing with these kinds of issues about so called morality. And I think that it’s really important to understand that when I say morality, it’s about not just treating your neighbors right and everything else. I say about there’s great moral issues of our time. Are we going to feed people? Are we going to make sure everybody has a living wage? Are we going to make sure that everybody has voting rights? I mean, there are moral issues and then there are moral issues. And I think that for evangelicals and others in this country, moral issues have only centered around personal moral issues, as opposed to structural moral issues that should be resolved like racism. And so when you ask me this question about how does this make somebody anti-racist, I think the first thing you have to address in anything about racism or anti-racism, is to realize the racist structures. And if we can’t get people to agree that the structure is racist, how do we get to anti-racism in the first place?

CASSIDY HALL: I appreciate what you said about it being a waste of our time and seeing that it’s almost a distraction of a large group of people being so individualistic and harmful to the world at large and not even touching the structures that we’re really after. So how do we hold that sense of urgency and action alongside the fact that evangelicals that are in this space, are really gaining momentum in and of themselves? Or is that just what it seems like in the news?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think you think that they’re gaining momentum, I don’t think that they are. I think that people like to think this because they have a way to amplify their voices in the public square, but I think that the bigger issue right now is not even evangelicals it’s really about the ways in which people believe disinformation. And that’s including evangelicals, whether they believe in QAnon, or they believe other kinds of fantasies about the virus, or anything else. That’s actually our biggest issue right now alongside of racism, because the disinformation and racism go hand-in-hand. If you are inclined to believe all these things, and you’ll be inclined to believe other things. And there are just some truth that we need to grapple with in this country. And I think that at this particular time that we’re in, which is really dangerous for a lot of different reasons, I sort of despair about thinking about people being able to think straight with their heads on their shoulders, to be honest with you. I don’t know that the average Christian in this country, who misses going to church because of the vaccine and decides to go anyway, hopefully they go masked up or maybe they don’t, or maybe they’re like… others who have decided that they don’t care about that and they should just March and be out there with white supremacist and Oregon. Because that just happened not too long ago. Those are the people that I look at and I think I’m not sure we have a lot of hope here. At the same time where all these people are hoping that Jesus is just going to come back, I’m like Jesus might come back but he ain’t coming back for you all. I mean, I say it in the most Texas way possible, he’s not coming back for you. He’s not coming back for you because I mean, basically, you’re not his people. And I think it’s really, it’s something that people need to hear right now and that they don’t hear enough; that maybe you’ve been waiting, you’ve been found wanting. And maybe the result of all this is the chaos that we see right now because we can’t even come together to just wear a mask, to treat other people well. I mean, just to think about somebody else, to do the golden rule. I mean, if you can’t even do the golden rule how do we think that anything else is going to last? I know, we started this off, like you were asking about contemplation, what I contemplate a lot, is the fact that we don’t have people in this country that I think that I could rely on if something really bad happened. Because basically, I don’t think I could rely on their Christian charity, I don’t know that I could rely on their common sense to be quite honest, to do the right thing, because they are so much willing to be involved in thinking things that will harm others, and even harm themselves.

CASSIDY HALL: So where the hell did this Jesus come from? Is this just a product of America?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah absolutely. I mean, it’s a product of a lot of different things and I go through that a lot in my book, but I think these idealized Jesus’ that are always going to be there to support the nation, and always be there to support a white male patriarchy, maybe that sounds like a misnomer to put it like that but I think that’s the best way to say it. And these ideas about what family should be. I think that all of this stuff really has hurt us in certain kinds of ways. And if you put your moral center on these kinds of constructs, that nobody in the Bible had like a really great father, mother, two kids family. I mean, look at Solomon, how many wives? I mean, how much stuff is going on? Look at somebody like Paul who didn’t treat his mother right… There’s all kinds of crazy families in Scripture. And if we claim to say we want to look at scripture to be the model, then look at all of Scripture. Look at how people treated people. I mean, no different than what’s happening today.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I mean, back to what you said earlier about Jesus being racist. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I know that’s hard for people to hear.

CASSIDY HALL: No, but that’s important for people to hear. Like you say, I mean, and that a woman had to explain that to him and teach him.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. But I mean, nobody wants to be taught now. Everybody believes that they know everything because they looked something up, or they believe a certain television station, or a certain personality or a certain president, depending on which one you want to pick. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And that way, it seems like contemplation or space away when it’s really trying to gather clarity. Could be really healthy in order to respond properly to the things in which we find ourselves present and awake to, as Therese Taylor-Stinson says. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s times where you just should shut up. Honestly, I mean, shutting up is not a bad thing. I mean, I talk a lot on social media but I don’t think that I need to say everything about everything. I mean, I’m just, like right now I’m at a loss for words about Afghanistan. There’s tons of things that are horrible about it. Do I need to say something about it? Probably not because that’s not part of the world that I’m knowledgeable about. But at the same time, I’m very fearful about it because I know that this means that there’s going to be an uptick in fundamentalist religion. I know that this actually gives a lot of oxygen to people who are thinking about these kinds of regimes, whether that’s Islamic or Christian, that don’t treat women well, that have a very strong patriarchal structure. It’s a time of strong men. And we have to figure out how we’re go come out of this.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about your work as a contributor for the forthcoming book, “A New Origin Story: The 1619 project”?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Sure. This particular chapter in a 1619 book came about in part because I had contacted Nicole Hannah Jones back when the first project came out and said, “I don’t think you can really write the story, or do whatever you’re going to do with the story next, without talking about black religion. You have to talk about, the contributions that African Americans have made in the religious realm.” And so when they started doing the book, they contacted me. And so the chapter, without giving it away, is to talk about the ways in which the black church has always been a challenge, and––how do I want to say it, the fulcrum about democracy in this country. In other words, how has the black church always kept America to account about its foundational documents? In other words, why is it that you say that this is supposed to be for everyone, when in fact you didn’t give that to African Americans, you didn’t do this for Native Americans, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this. And these founding documents, which say all men are created equal, we seem to have to continue as African Americans to remind everyone in this country, that all people are created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that there’s lots of people here in this country who don’t think we should have any rights. And we need to continue to keep fighting for them all the time. And so that’s what this chapter is about in the 1619 project book. And I’m proud of it, it took a long time to write and it was really difficult, because this book has been fact checked so many times, it’s ridiculous. But that’s because of all the fear. And I expect that when it comes out in November that everybody will lose their mind, but you know, it’s okay.

CASSIDY HALL: Dr Butler, what are some things that give you hope amid all things we’ve kind of discussed so far?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I have to say, if there was a character that I would associate myself with, it would probably be Chicken Little, but even Chicken Little had to be hopeful that at the end of the day, he could go home, and live in some nice little hutch and maybe have a roof over his head have something to eat. I mean, what I’m hopeful for is that those of us who are thinking, who are trying to act and the people who are activists and stuff, are going to continue even with incredible odds. I get hopeful about people who are willing to stand up and speak the truth. I get hopeful about people who are willing to help others. I get hopeful about when I’m in the classroom, and if a student gets it, or they say I just didn’t know this, and I learned something, those are kind of little things that give me hope. I’m not sure that I’m hopeful about climate change, or am I hopeful about wars, or am I hopeful about the Coronavirus, I mean, that to me, are hopeless things. But I think the thing about the virus and I will say this, is that what’s been hopeful is to see how rapidly people have adjusted to thinking about things, whether that’s getting a vaccine, or research that’s happened or how people have tried to come together to help each other. That makes me help hopeful. And for those of us who’ve tried to do the right thing all through this time of virus, where we’ve tried to wear a mask, and we’ve tried to think about other people and tried to be as careful as we possibly could be, that gives me hope. Because it means that not everybody is a selfish son of a bitch. 

CASSIDY HALL: And I mean, you remind me to be looking for and looking at those things more, and putting my energy towards those things and towards increasing those things and expanding the frequency of the hope. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I think we tend to think about the whether it is contemplation or activism, all these things on a big scale. I think we have to think about them as everyday quotidian things that we do, that can engender hope or engender a space of maybe this is going to change, maybe, hopefully, somebody is going to get it today. It might not be a hundred somebodies but maybe it’s one somebody. Maybe we can get one somebody to change their mind about getting a vaccination, maybe we can help somebody in a classroom or in everyday work, and our everyday lives are. Those are the little things that add up. And I think that taking that instead of just thinking about the big things that might overwhelm us all, is a way to take a bite out of this life that’s very different. And that in and of itself, is contemplation about where you are, when you are, and how you are in society.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, well said. Who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you? 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: That’s an interesting question. I think — Sorry, nobody alive. Nobody alive. I was going to be real with you, I’m not the kind of person I really honest, this is part of my Catholic tradition. I don’t think about people who are alive as people who are helping me, I see people who’ve been in certain situations I was thinking about one of my friends, who teaches at Penn, wrote a book about Josephine Bakhita, who is a saint. And again, I think about those kinds of people or St. Ignatius or others who’ve gone through tremendous trials. Or to think about the everyday lives of black people in America. I spent a lot of time when I was doing graduate work reading slave narratives. And I think about those are the people that really speak to me in terms of having to have hope in the midst of really horrible situations, of being enslaved and having your children sold, having to been raped or beaten, all of these things. I think about that and I think about those are the people give me hope, because they managed to take a lot of things that happened that were bad, and turn them into something good. Do I think about people like that today? I mean, I think there’s people who do certain things in their own communities that help. But I don’t look to people who are alive as a sense of this person focuses me about contemplation, or hope or anything. Because again, I’m a historian. I tend to look at it through a historical lens than I do present day lens.

CASSIDY HALL: We kind of went over this a little bit earlier and I’m wondering, in your personal work and experience, have you seen social justice work or activism point to the need or experience of a contemplative life? We’ve kind of discussed that. But…

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: You know, yeah, I think I’ll be straight up with the answer, no! You know why? Because you can’t do this while you’re trying to do be an activist. The whole thing about what’s going on in this country, and you think about the kinds of responses that African American people especially have had to make, to whether that’s been Mike Brown, or the myriad — Trayvon Martin, there’s so many people, I could just go through this list. There’s no time to be contemplative, because shit is happening all the time. And this is the point I was trying to get at in the first time but I think it’s really important for me to say it this strongly so people understand what I mean, is that how can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society, and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop? How can you do anything? How can you have time to think? How can you have time to step back and replenish yourself? This is why we have a lot of activists who have committed suicide. We’ve had activists who just said, I’m burnt out, I’m tired. I mean, I think as a black person and a black woman in this country, just the idea that I could take time off to be contemplative is a- blessing, but,  it’s privilege because even to say the word contemplative at this moment, is a word that it says privilege. And that, you know, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about the podcast or anything, but it’s a word that says privilege, it means that you have time. And most people don’t have time. They don’t have time to think about things or to sit back with a scripture or a book and think about stuff in that traditional way that we think about being contemplative, because stuff is happening in their communities all the time that they have to respond to.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love what you said that even to say the word contemplative at this moment is to say privilege, and to reveal that too. I think often about the people who go off for a Silent Retreat paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars, when people are dying, people are hungry, people are…

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, I mean, I would love to take people in my community in Philadelphia, someplace where it would just be quiet and in the woods for a weekend because people kept hearing gunshots and stuff. They hear the sound of screeching tires, they hear all kinds of things. Just to even just be silent, not even to think about anything, but just to be silent. Silence is actually something that you get with money. So I mean, I think that’s a different way to think about all this. And maybe I hope, somebody’s listening to this. And you’re like damn, I wasn’t expecting her to say what she said. I think we have to think about the ways in which even being contemplative is privileged, to have silence is a privilege, to exist in this world of cacophony and violence and anger and illness is in silence is, you know, something.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, silence is a rich person’s reward — it’s privilege–

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: It really is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it doesn’t mean that, you know, I hope that people can get it. I think, it’s just something that we don’t recognize as a privilege when we in fact, really should recognize it as such.

CASSIDY HALL: And also to your point, and some of the earlier things you’ve said, in striving for it we should be looking to share it and to offer it to others. Because it’s another thing that we’ve taken as this individualistic, this private retreat, this silence individual retreat away from the world or stepping aside without offering that space to others too.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, there we are.

CASSIDY HALL: I really appreciate everything you said, I really appreciate what you were saying about the changing one somebody was very, very powerful to me. And the association between contemplation and privilege is a really important reflection point, especially for white contemplatives.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. Because I think that whole construct just means that you have money. It just means that you have the means, you have money, you have time, those are things that most people don’t have. Yeah.

CASSIDY HALL: Well, thank you so much for joining and thanks so much for taking the time to be with me. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah you’re welcome. You’re welcome.

[OUTRO]

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.

Mysticism in the Streets: A Conversation with Dr. Leah Gunning Francis

[Intro Music] I never want anybody to feel like if you can’t be in the street protesting then you’re not a quote-unquote true activist. No! Activism first starts in the heart.

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. 

Dr. Leah Gunning Francis is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Dean of Faculty at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. During the Ferguson uprising in 2014, after the murder of Mike Brown, Dr. Gunning Francis was serving as the Associate Dean for Contextual Education and Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. As a result, Dr. Gunning Francis wrote the book Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. In the book she interviewed more than two dozen clergy and young activists who were actively involved in the movement for racial justice in Ferguson and beyond. Her forthcoming book from Chalice Press is titled Faith after Ferguson: Resilient Leadership in Pursuit of Racial Justice and is due out later this year. Dr. Gunning Francis earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing from Hampton University, a Master of Divinity degree from the Candler School of Theology and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. 

CASSIDY HALL: Alright, well, first of all, thank you so much for joining me today and for your willingness to have this conversation.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS:  Thank you so much, Cassidy for having me today.

CASSIDY HALL: So one of the things that’s really helpful to orient us to this conversation is, what does the word contemplation mean to you? And also, what does the word mysticism mean to you? And both maybe how you see those lived out in the world today?

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS:  The way I thought about contemplation and mysticism, even in my own life is the act of contemplating. The very process of giving sustained, intentional attention to something and not just doing what we often do is where we might think about something for a minute or two, and then we’re moving on to the next thing, or we might look at a piece of art for a minute or two and then we’ve gone on to the next exhibit. But rather to contemplate is to, to look at longingly, to think about intentionally, and to synthesize those thinkings and insights with other experiences in your life. And so we don’t do contemplation in a vacuum, if you will, but rather, when we really give our full self, our full attention to say something, to someone, and to really lean all the way into that process of reflection, then we can take out of it some very key learnings about ourselves, as well as others, some insights for how we connect those things with other areas to our lives. And that is what leads me to thinking about mysticism, where we take all of that and connect it to our thoughts and understandings about God and God’s activity in our lives and in the world. And so for me, the kind of first steps are contemplation and the thinking deeply and longingly and intentionally and reflective piece, and then the mysticism for me comes into when we connect that with: how do we see God at work here? How do we understand God to be speaking in the midst of these circumstances? How do I feel and know God’s spirit is within me? So that’s how I understand and try to live into both contemplative and mystical ways of being.

CASSIDY HALL: That’s beautiful. I wrote down right away when you said “look at longingly and think about intentionally,” very, very powerful. And so along with that, as you discuss contemplation and mysticism. How do you see those things––or do you see those things playing a role in social action and social justice in the world today?

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS:  I do. You know, when you think of mysticism, one of the first people that comes to my mind, as well as many others is that of Dr. Howard Thurman. And when we think about his writings, and we think about his work throughout his career and vocation, he very much integrated his reflections, his writing into the work of social action and social activism and speaking up and speaking out, as to how we need to connect these things. So, absolutely. And so whether you’re talking about Dr. Howard Thurman or you’re talking about one of the young teenage activists that we see on the street, who is there because she or he knows that number one, injustice have occurred; two, they’ve thought about, they’ve contemplated how should they respond and three, the very act of responding in a way that gives voice to who they understand themselves to be, what they feel called to do, how they want to show up in the world is an expression, I think, of those very early steps of contemplation. So yes, absolutely. So often, we like to think about the act of contemplation as solely being kind of the quiet still action, but that’s the first step in the contemplative process. Because at the end of the day, what you’re contemplating ought to cause you to live differently and intentionally.

CASSIDY HALL: Amen to that. Yeah. And Dr. Gunning Francis, in your book, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, you write about the role of faith in the experience of Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown in 2014. First, this is going to be maybe a two-part question. Because first, I’d love for you to kind of tell that story of your experience of that and participation in that. And then perhaps also how you might define the role of faith in activism, and how you’ve perhaps seen that change since Ferguson.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: You know, when I think back to that very, very tragic time, on August 9th of 2014, it was just an ordinary regular, hot August, Saturday afternoon. People were out and about, folks are getting ready for the new school year to begin and we had this tragedy of this unarmed teenager being shot and killed in the middle of a residential street in Ferguson, Missouri. And as we all know, after that, young people took to the street and said, no, we’re not just going to look away, we will not pretend that this is just another tragic incident that we can’t do anything about. But rather, we’re going to stay and demand justice, and demand that this stop happening. And what we saw was some clergy starting to join those efforts. And I was one of them along with many others. And to be able to see people who identify as clergy people, whether they’re serving in churches or other kinds of ministry contexts, but to go into the streets and to be there as an expression of their faith. Not saying, okay, why don’t you come and — let’s come into my church and talk about this, or just merely pray about it, but rather, clergy found themselves praying with their feet, leaving the pulpits, going into the streets, standing with young people, being a voice for justice and for change in really, really remarkable ways. And so to be able to record some of these stories of both the faith leaders, as well as some of the young activists really just shed light on a lot of things that people didn’t know were happening. So for example, a lot of times people would say, well, we saw the tanks and the tear gas, but we didn’t know that so many faith leaders and clergy, people were out there, were bailing people out of jail, were providing food and supplies, were providing safe sanctuary. And so to be able to tell those stories in a book, like Ferguson and Faith, really gave other congregations some imagination for what they can do too. For so many they thought that those kinds of things only happened back during the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, but rather, to see those very same things happening today in the St. Louis area and now fast forward to the year 2021, we’ve seen this happening all over the country. I’m very heartened to see faith leaders and faith communities, waking up to the really important tangible ways that they too can and should engage in the movement for racial justice. And as we know, not everybody can be in the streets. There are some people who have said to me, Dr. Francis, I would love to go out there, but I just can’t do it. And I say, that’s all right. What can you do? How would you like to give expression to your faith? And so you have people that provide food in safe sanctuary spaces or are being advocates to their legislators and making phone calls and sending emails and galvanizing other groups that they’re a part of. Listen friends, all of that is being a part of the movement for racial justice. I never want anybody to feel like if you can’t be in the street protesting then you’re not a quote-unquote true activist. No! Activism first starts in the heart. And when you determine in your heart, that what you are seeing in our world should not be, you cannot let it stand, then out of your heart can come the kinds of actions and activities and words that will help move the movement forward.

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. It was one of the things you just spoke to about clergy being present in activism as an expression of faith and the ways that we pray with our feet. And especially this activism starts in the heart, and I’m drawn to thinking about the biblical text that shows us the presence of activism from time immemorial. The desert fathers and mothers essentially going away from empire in order to actually express themselves. And where do you think Christianity began separating activism from our faith? I think in America, that’s probably easy to point to things like white supremacy culture, and those types of things and the way that’s corrupted and co-opted faith in America, to think that activism is not a deep, deep part of faith and an innate part of faith. I wonder if you might speak to anything, as to where you see that separation beginning to happen.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: One could argue that the separation began with the way in which biblical interpretation has been done to privilege and prioritize white male patriarchy and reinforce that system. So I mean, I think quite honestly, that perhaps is where it began. And it’s not until we’ve seen over the past century or so to have more scholars who have been insistent on saying, no, that is not what the text says, that is not what the biblical evidence supports, or the other archaeological evidence supports. And so we are de-centering, this notion of white male patriarchy as sort of the crux of the Bible, and rather opening the stories, a more truthful narrative, and embedding that in contextual realities, I think, has made a significant difference. And so you couple that with the various movements, again, over the past century or so, that have shone light on the discrepancies, the disparities, the systems that reinforce the system of white supremacy and the pushback against that. Inevitably, the Bible has come under much needed closer scrutiny as well. And as a result of that, our theological understandings as well. So I take it all the way back there and sort of pull it forward. And I just see those same struggles continuing to happen, and they’re going to have to keep happening because, look at what we see happening today with the assault on critical race theory, which is a very truthful fact base telling of our history in this country. But when you look at the onslaught of this actual legislation being passed today to prevent teachers from teaching actual facts about the United States history of enslavement of Jim Crow, redlining, and lynching, the list goes on and on and on, the truth about what happened during the Reconstruction Era. And so all of this pushback is not separated from the biblical understandings that have been promulgated for so long, that reinforce and re-inscribe this system and pattern of white supremacy, and how we have to continue and it just speaks to the fact of how we have to continue to be adamant in correcting that record.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Do you think it would be safe to say that our pursuit as clergy people in tethering and ensuring our faith is tethered to activism, especially racial justice, social justice activism, is actually a return to the truth and the roots of our faith?

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: I think that it is, because we can see throughout the biblical narrative, anybody would be hard-pressed to not see Jesus as a revolutionary. When you look at the very practical actions that Jesus took throughout his life, they were actions of what? Bringing in people that were in on the margins, engaging women in respectful ways and ways that were designed to lift up and not further subjugate them, to say, welcome to little children, let them come to me, to running the money scammers out of the temple, to really being able to look at the system and provide a critical lens to the system of the empire that was subjugating to many people and say, we need to set a new order. And that’s what he set out to do. So absolutely, it is a return to the core and the crux of our faith.

CASSIDY HALL: Could you share a little bit more about your forthcoming book, Faith after Ferguson: Resilient Leadership in Pursuit of Racial Justice? And maybe you could share a little bit about the origin story of why you’re writing another book, and maybe what was missing the first time around, and maybe how you’re sharing what has changed since then.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Sure. So a few years ago, the good folks at Chalice Press, which is the publishers for Ferguson and Faith reached out to me and said, Leah, would you be interested in writing a follow-up to Ferguson and Faith? And I said, sure. So I set out to go back to St. Louis and Ferguson, listen to the stories of people who had been engaged in the movement since the Ferguson uprise to find out what happened. What’s changed since then? How has the movement made an impact on the city of Ferguson and the region around St. Louis, and within St. Louis? And so in listening to these stories of some of the things that have changed, laments of things that hadn’t changed, we saw that unfortunately, these killings were still happening around the country. And so even though I gathered these stories about what happened since Ferguson in Ferguson, I couldn’t turn away from what was continuing to happen in cities all around us. And so this past year, more specifically, when we look at what has happened since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and how that arrested the attention of people worldwide, when we had to watch that harrowing video, where George Floyd was killed right before our eyes. And that too became too much to bear for too many people. And we saw the protests and the outrage all around the globe. And so to bring the story of Ferguson forward all the way to today, through the George Floyd protests, through the Breonna Taylor protests, all the way to the US Capitol invasion, where we saw before our eyes, US citizens standing at the foot of the Capitol, the US Capitol, taunting, pushing police, police barricades, making their way all the way up the steps of the US Capitol, busting out the windows of the US Capitol, beating police officers with flagpoles, bursting into the Capitol while the US Congress was in session, making their way all the way to the floor of the house into our representative’s offices, stealing laptops, all this happened literally right before our eyes. But none of that was enough to prompt the US Capitol Police to fear for their lives and start firing on everybody. However, when Philando Castile is driving down the street and tells the officer yes, I am a licensed to carry gun owner, there’s a gun in the glove compartment of wherever it was, but he wasn’t committing a crime. He and his girlfriend and child were driving wherever they were going. He ends up dead. Tamir Rice, 12-year-old on a playground with a toy gun within seconds ends up dead. Breonna Taylor asleep in her home, they’re serving a warrant for somebody, she ends up dead. I mean, and the list goes on and on, how within seconds, seconds of police coming into contact with somebody that they deem suspicious and that person too often being Black, they wind up dead. But yet, we saw before our eyes, police literally being threatened, literally being beaten the US Congress, Congress people’s lives were endangered, and the response was stand back and stand by, pretty much. So, ladies and gentlemen, we are at a point where under no circumstances are we able to continue to tolerate this myth that there is not a stark and significant and lasting divide between the way white people are treated by police officers and Black people are treated. The US Capitol completely blew that myth out of the water, that there’s equal treatment under the law, has blown it out forever and ever, amen. So bringing all this forward into Faith after Ferguson, basically, the premise is not just to say, okay, well, here’s what happened with all of these events. Anybody who’s been paying attention kind of knows what’s happened. But what Faith after Ferguson is challenging us to do is to say, okay, one, this is who we are. Every time I hear a politician say, well, this isn’t who we are, we’re better than this. The data doesn’t support that. This is who we are. The capital invasion is who we are. George Floyd lying on a Minneapolis street pleading for his life, is who we are. And Faith after Ferguson is calling us to stand in our truth. To stand in that truth and to say that if we want to forge a better way forward, for our children, our grandchildren, all of those coming after us, we have to stop and pivot. Otherwise, we’re going to keep living this out, playing this out time and time again. And if we don’t hurry, like there’s an urgency to all of this, Cassidy. This is not something we can continue to say, well, let’s just kick back and wait. Let’s see what happens. We have to we can’t rush, we have to take our time. No, we cannot wait! Dr King said that, what back in 1960? No, we can’t wait. And here we are in 2021, still yelling, screaming the mantra, we cannot wait! The time is now. Urgency is upon us. And if we do not take action, if we do not take the kind of action that is going to put us on a trajectory of true equality for all, where all people are truly valued as full human beings created in God’s image and given the space to be able to live in that truth, we’re going to keep having this kind of tyranny, if you will. This tyrannical way of living and being in this country, and it should not be permitted to stand any longer.

CASSIDY HALL: I really appreciate you mentioning the importance of urgency. And then you mentioned King and the fierce urgency of now. And he also speaks to the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. And if that is not a drug that most of America is taking, I don’t know what their drug choices because, wow…

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Well, it’s easy to take that or to accept that we have to gradually do this, when you’re not the one being impacted directly by the effects of the actions. The only people saying, well, let’s take our time, are people for whom they’re not feeling the daily effects of injustice. Those are the only people that the people for whom the system was designed to work, are the only one saying, let’s take our time while trying to squelch the voices at the polls, at the ballot boxes in the streets of those who are saying no, this isn’t working for all of us, we must change. Why do you think there is such intentional and speedy efforts? Why are they taking their time in changing voting rights to something that’s good for all? They’ve sped through actions to restrict voting rights, they’ve sent through actions to restrict the teaching of an actual and factual history of this country, they’ve sped through all these other kinds of things. But when we talk about taking speedy acts of justice, that’s when it becomes well: we need to take our time.

CASSIDY HALL: Once in a class, you came and spoke with… Actually it was my cohort, I believe. And you came into my cohort and you were sharing your vocational story. And you started talking about Ferguson, and you mentioned, Ferguson didn’t know they were Ferguson until they became Ferguson. And it’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the ways that it points to the fact that we’re always in the midst of that collective progress through struggle if we choose to participate. And it seems to me all too often people wait until they know what’s happening before they begin participating. But this has been happening our whole lives. And yet people all too often wait to show up. And I wonder if, I mean, this goes to the urgency point, but I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: As you said, Ferguson didn’t know they were Ferguson. People used to say that to me, when I was touring with the book. They would say, oh, Dr Francis, you don’t understand. Our town is not like Ferguson. And that’s when I would respond and say Ferguson didn’t know they were Ferguson until they became Ferguson. And my hope is by now that more and more people are seeing that we can’t continue to either wait until something, quote-unquote, happens in our town in our community, because as you’ve said, things have already been happening. This has already been going on for so long and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. If it were not for these cell phone cameras, we would still be thinking about this the way we did in 1975. So beginning to think that oh, things aren’t as bad as they are anymore, though. Yes, they are. So cell phones have brought that to light for us and put that in our face in a way that can no longer be denied. That helps us to understand that yes, there are times when police officers do not tell the truth about what happened in an incident. We’ve seen that documented time and time again. We no longer can just pretend that we haven’t seen what we’ve seen. And to encourage people to ask yourself, if you are somebody who is saying, well, let’s just wait ,or we don’t have those problems in my community, to really take it upon yourself to one, explore why do you feel that we need to wait? Is it because you are not feeling the brunt of the negative impact of these kinds of things, one. And two, start talking to others in your community, if you feel like, oh, those things don’t happen here. Go talk to some clergy people or other clergy people, if you’re a clergy person. Talk to some local teachers and find out what’s happening in the schools, talk to some social workers and find out what’s happening in the community. But let’s broaden our circle of inquiry to do a little bit more investigative work to uncover what are the kinds of issues that you and your voice are needed to be an advocate for, right where you are in your community.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and as you mentioned about activism beginning in the heart, recognizing especially for white people and my own experience, understanding the heart issue of not seeing the urgency of other people’s lives and other human beings that are my neighbors, my friends, my community. So I think that that’s such a big heart issue.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: My whole life I have wondered why one scripture, in particular, is not held up and heralded the way some other scriptures are used to justify discrimination in all kinds of forms. And that one scripture that I never hear on repeat is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Why is that? If we were to truly just take that into our hearts and minds and be able to empathize, use that as a basis for cultivating empathy, to be able to look around us and say, gosh, even though my child is never stopped for walking down the street because they’re a black or brown person, I can imagine how I would feel if that did happen to my child, or if my sister was treated this way. So even though something might not be happening to you, how do you take that one scripture into your heart, into yourself, use it as a basis for cultivating empathy? Even though my native language might be English, how might I feel, if I were a person who had another native language and in this country of being treated in a very negative and harmful way. And the list just goes on and on. Even though, the even though’s, that might not be me, or happening to me or somebody that I love. Let’s use that scripture to cultivate empathy within ourselves, within our hearts, to ask ourselves, what would I want somebody to do if I was being treated that way? And why don’t you get busy doing that? 

CASSIDY HALL: Amen! Yeah. You spoke a little bit about this earlier and in the context of being Dean of Faculty, and a faith leader in the community of Indianapolis and being Dean of Faculty at Christian Theological Seminary. How does social justice activism look in scholarship and the world of academia, in terms of redefining that? Institutions are historically so corrupt and oppressive.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: I am so thankful to be a scholar in this particular era because we see scholars of all sorts, of all colors, of all ways of being in the world, pushing those boundaries all the way out. And so to be able to learn and grow and expand one’s mind, from the writings and the works of scholars into today’s academy around the world, and this is global. This isn’t just about US scholars, these are global ways of writing and being that are really pushing back against white patriarchal, heteronormativity, classist norms that are really causing us to say, no, we’re not going to continue to think, write and talk about these issues in the same way anymore. We’re not doing it. So what a joy! And I think that students today are able to benefit from it. That’s why the books are pushing back so hard again, saying no, we can’t teach anything truthful about race and racism. We can’t say the words white supremacy, we can’t criticize empire. Of course, they are, who is saying that? Opponents of empire. So the resistance movement is happening in the academy. And let’s get on board with that. Let’s support that. Let’s have that trickle down into K through 12 because we don’t need to have our students unlearn these things, once they’re going into college, but rather learning the truth as very, very young people. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. You also touched on this a little bit earlier. But I wonder if you might speak to how you’ve maybe specifically seen contemplation and activism as a part of collective protest and movements and how maybe there’s a specific story about a person, you mentioned young people and seeing mysticism in young people in the streets. And I wonder if there’s maybe a specific story or a specific person where you’ve really seen this mystic come alive through their work in the streets.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: One particular action of contemplation that I think illustrates the way that a group can engage in an act of contemplation, is through the die-ins. And what a die-in is, is when a person or group will lay on the ground, in sort of commemoration of the person who has been killed. So for example, after the horrific killing of George Floyd, we had a march here in Indianapolis where there were estimated a little more than 1000 people that we rallied at the Indiana State House and then marched to the City County Building. And once we got to the City County Building, we held what was called a die-in, where we invited all of the march participants to just lie on the ground where they were. So you had people in the streets, you had people on the sidewalks, on the grass, wherever they could find a spot to just lie down on the ground. And we asked them to lie there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which at that time is what we thought was the time that George Floyd was lying on that Minneapolis Street. And as people were lying on the ground, we had someone read the name of a person that had been killed by a police officer, un-armed people killed by a police officer. And after each name was read, our drummer would hit the bass drum. And so during that, 8 minutes and 46 seconds, people reported lying on the ground, and just being able to think and reflect and imagine not only what it would be like or must have been like for George Floyd lying on the ground during that time, but to think about all these other names of people that they’re hearing called, who also ended up on the ground long before they ever should have. And to be able to reflect on their own roles in this movement for justice. So the die-in, the time of intentional thinking and reflecting and contemplating exactly what this impact is of police violence on real, living, breathing everyday people was a really stark and meaningful moment for those who participated. And many people reported back to us that very thing. And so out of that can grow actions of mysticism over saying, hey, this is not what God wants. This is not what we believe God calls us to do. How do I join where God is already active in this world? A funny story from Ferguson and Faith with that was when I was interviewing some of the young people in St. Louis back in 2014 and 2015, and a young woman named Alexis who was very active in the streets. And she said, during the protests, there was one time that I went to church with my grandmother just to kind of make her happy. And I think many people know what that’s like. And so she said, she was not protesting that day and went to Bible study with her grandmother. And as soon as she gets in there, the pastor starts talking about those young people, they need to come off those streets, and they need to come into the church. And she said, she spoke up and said, well, I thought your punch line was go out and do. And I’ll laugh about that for the rest of my life, the go thee therefore into the world, she called that the punch line. And so if the punch line of our faith is to go out, why are you chastising people for being out there and for standing up as expressions of their faith? And so here she was because so often, people think, oh, those young people out there, they don’t know anything about God, they don’t know anything about faith and that’s not true. Just because they don’t worship and understand and engage actions of faith the way you do, that does not mean they don’t worship and engage their sense of spirituality in a way that is not very meaningful. So we’re seeing that all over. We’re seeing people that are saying, I don’t feel welcome in your church because of who I choose to love or because of how I choose to show up in the world. And since I don’t feel welcome in your church, and you make me feel like an outcast, we’re seeing people start various communities of spiritual growth on their own. Where they’re having times of gather, they’re having times of prayer, they’re having times of using resources and readings that are meaningful to them, that can include scripture, that can also go beyond scripture. So it’s not that there are not people that are not yearning and longing, and living into contemplative ways of faithfulness, they’re just not always doing it in these traditional ways of being church that they have found very hurtful.

CASSIDY HALL: Beautifully, beautifully put. As we come to the end of our time, one question I want to be sure to ask you is, you mentioned Howard Thurman in the beginning, and you’ve mentioned some young activists. And I wonder if those might answer this question or maybe someone else but, who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you? 

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Every time I look in the eyes of young people, of not so young people, out there, on the streets standing up speaking up, I see mystics. I do, I do. And even if they’re not using God language, if you will, I see their hearts coming and shining through their eyes. I hear it in their voices, I hear it in their cries, I hear it in their laughter, I hear it, I see it in their tears. And so that is what is giving me hope. How is it that you don’t become discouraged? How is it that you stave off becoming despondent in the midst of so much adversity? And my encouragement to people is just to lift up your head and look around. Yes, the opposition is fierce. Yes, the opposition can cause you to become discouraged. I know what that feels like. But if I just keep looking longingly, I see signs of hope, and growth and love all around. No, it may not always have the loudest voice. No, it may not always have the most prominent place, and definitely will not have that on television, and other kinds of outlets like that, that we’re seeing, but we can’t let that chatter distract us from the realities that are happening all around us. And there really is a movement afoot of men and women and Black people and white people and Asian people, Latino people and Native people and young people and children and elderly people, all around that are actively engaging. And so I just say just lift your head, look around, look in the eyes. But don’t forget to look at your own heart. Have a heart to heart with yourself and say, you know what self, now is the time, now is the moment. I’m ready to take that next step. And just go and do it.

CASSIDY HALL: Dr Gunning Francis, thank you so much for joining me and for taking the time to connect with me today.

DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: It is always my pleasure to talk with you Cassidy. Thank you so much for the remarkable work you’re doing and the way that you’re doing it. I know it’s making the difference. Many blessings to you.

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.

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