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.

[Outro Music]

Mysticism is a Riot

Mysticism is alive.

It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.

Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.

Mysticism is a riot.

In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.

The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.

Mysticism breeds revolution. 

Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”

Mysticism is a protest.   

Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement. 

The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.

Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves:  Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”

Mysticism is on the streets.

So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”

Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”

For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”

Mysticism is now.

If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.

Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.

 

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Merton’s Voice For Today

Recently, I was invited by Orthodoxy in Dialogue to write about why Merton matters in today’s world. You can read the article in full here or at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

The most obvious characteristic of our age is its destructiveness. This can hardly be doubted. We have developed an enormous capacity to build and to change our world, but far more enormous are our capacities for destruction.
Thomas Merton, “Theology of Creativity,” 1960

Many of us sense an aura of doom when we wake up to the day. Destruction consumes our news feed as we scroll past the dead, the hate, and the eerie joy of our friends’ and families’ photos as though nothing were going awry. While we know our looking away doesn’t make things go away, we try and try, and try again.

We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.
Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 12/8/62, audio recording

There is an unfading relevance to the words written nearly 60 year ago by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Many of us are rereading his books and essays with bewilderment, assuming they must have been written in and for this very time. Alas, we know that this beloved monk, said to be one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century, rests in that place of mystery beyond death while his body lies underground at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Why does it matter?

What difference does it make if the words of this monk remain true for centuries?

Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, 1966

It matters precisely because it testifies to the need for love and truth in an age of unending destruction, perpetual ignorance (largely a deeply ingrained desire to not know the other), and endless falsities that lead us into a place where love is forgotten and our fellow human is dismissed. Merton, on the other hand, seemed to point to a way out—a better way of moving in these times.

…Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing.  But love changes everything. We are stronger than the bomb….
Thomas Merton, “Message to Poets,” 1964

Just the other day, CNN’s Chris Cuomo mentioned a passage from Thomas Merton’s 1960 essay, “Christianity and Totalitarianism” (found in his book, Disputed Questions, pp. 133-134). During his prime-time show, he shared some of these words from 60 years ago:

…for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies the enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand… Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice, and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and understanding which makes man the living image of God.

Many of us assume we’re incapable of such an extent of love because we fear. We fear walking forward with open arms because we’ve been taught to trust no one. We fear the other because they’re different.

Yet the day after Cuomo quoted Merton, something else caught my eye. The nurse on duty at the Pittsburgh hospital when the gunman of the Synagogue shooting was brought in for treatment spoke out about being the murderer’s nurse:

…Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings….
Ari Mahler, RN

In a world of destruction, ignorance, and falsities—there is not only a place for love, but love is the only answer. Love is the way out—a better way of moving in these times. Love is the only way we can begin to clean up the messes before us. This love cannot hesitate. It cannot stutter-step its way to the other when such a pause can cause death. It is only by bringing our love back to a place of innocence—a place where it is free to grow and give of itself, a place where it no longer fears—that we can emerge with the ability and the desire to love.

Currently, I’m working on a documentary film about Thomas Merton’s final years in the hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Entitled Day of a Stranger, the film pieces together some never-before heard audio that he recorded of himself alongside meditative images of the hermitage property. Taking the walk that Merton took to and from the Abbey, listening to his late-night jazz meditations as the fireflies roll by the oil lamp, looking into the letters and essays that he wrote and the work that he edited—there is no doubt that this cinder block building was the home of some of Thomas Merton’s most important work.

My hope for the film is not for it to be a place of romanticizing the monastic life, Thomas Merton, or his words. Instead, my hope is that it becomes a place of interior recognition for the viewer: a place that points to the infinite possibilities of love we’re all capable of, a place that reminds us that—no matter how simple—our lives, our work, and our love matter.

You will answer: “Waiting is not inertia. To be quiet and bide one’s time is to resist. Passive resistance is a form of action.”
That is true when one is waiting for something, and knows for what he is waiting. That is true when one is resisting, and knows why, and to what end, he is resisting, and whose he must resist. Unless our waiting implies knowledge and action, we will find ourselves waiting for our own destruction and nothing more. A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.
Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irruption and doubt, while ‘they’ fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables ‘them’ to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes….
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, pp. 55-56

You can read the article in its original form here.

Archival photograph ©The Merton Legacy Trust.
Used with permission of The Thomas Merton Center.

 

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The Tireless Pursuit of Peace

Looking up, I knew this was a moment to behold. Across the living room from me sat Jim Forest, laughing among friends while in Toronto for the first annual Voices For Peace conference. The 76-year-old peace-activist, author, storyteller, and lover of humanity was frozen in a moment of pure joy. I grabbed my camera to capture the glance of a life dedicated to peace, love, and a deeply rooted adoration of God.

Many know Jim by way of his friends: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Henri Nouwen –– to name a few. But having spent a few days with Jim, it’s hard to not count yourself among the list. His humility and sincerity pointed time and time again to a new way of listening, truly seeing, and deeply caring for my fellow human.

Throughout the week I had the honor of sitting down with Jim for meals, conversations, and laughter. We arrived in Toronto amid the backdrop of the van massacre that killed ten people just a day prior. Diving head-first into a pre-planned peace conference felt like apostolic work in a city mourning such a tragedy, but questions kept pressing me. How is the accumulation of information truly accompanying my neighbor? How is knowing the immorality of the weapons economy disarming my nation? How am I really helping the kids in my life and the land I stand on to see another day?

“Who is a peacemaker?” Jim asked in his keynote address, “Anyone who is acting peaceably to protect life and the environment… Peacemakers are engaged in a war against war, with the goal not that war should be made less frequent or less murderous or more humane but that war should be eliminated. War should be made unthinkable. Otherwise all of us are losers. As Merton put it, ‘There is only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.’”

Jim was editor of the Catholic Worker and co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. He was arrested numerous times while protesting war and jailed for burning draft cards. He’s an award-winning author. But a list of achievements isn’t what Jim is about. His passion for peace is entirely rooted in relationship. His centeredness goes beyond those friends in the living room. Jim has created a lifetime around loving all people, enemies included:

“Love doesn’t exclude outrage. Love and outrage are sometimes as woven together as a strand of DNA. Dan’s [Berrigan] many acts of civil disobedience were animated by, as he put it ‘outraged love.’ For Dan ‘outrage’ was an adjective; the key word was ‘love.’ Love opens the way for conversion. But outrage without love is a blind alley.”

The days we live in are bleak and barren without love. Every news feed, each source of media, and conversations that surround us — are drenched in outrage untethered to love. Why is it that as soon as we can reconnect our outrage to love we see another headline that tears them apart again? “Fear is the great force that restrains us from acts of love,” Jim said in his second keynote address. “Fear is useful only when it serves as an alarm clock, a device that wakes us up by briefly ringing… When fear takes over, it tends to rob us creativity, resourcefulness, and freedom.”

As fear engulfs us, I wonder, are we debilitating ourselves from action that could better serve the world? The way of peace is as urgent as my next breath, and this is a literal statement for many, so why is it not for me? How can we navigate peace in the spirit of urgency? Is the response of a peacemaker not more important than the springboard of reaction born of urgency and conceived in the bowels of fear? How can I transform my fear-riddled flailing into a life of protest that is steeped in outrage and love?

“That’s the message we’re supposed to receive,” he told me, “’What you’re doing is a waste of time.’ But the truth of the matter is, it does make a difference. It doesn’t happen fast, and it sometimes doesn’t even happen in our lifetime. Sometimes it’s so slow, the iceberg is so big, so much of it is so hidden, so much of it is beneath the water line, watching it shrink is not easy for us. We live 60, 70, 80, even 90-100 years, but you know pick up a pebble on the beach, it’s 100s of millions of years old, it’s a different time scale.”

I was particularly struck by Jim’s tirelessness in these efforts of peace. At the age of 76, he’s flying six time-zones to share these messages with generations of activists. He’s zealously waking up to speak at a nearby church (Church of The Redeemer, Toronto) the day after offering two keynote addresses and countless interactions with strangers the day before. I quoted some of Jim’s own poignant words back to him amid asking for some advice for those of us navigating the ever present waters of activism today: “In your book, The Root of War is Fear, you said, ‘At the core of what is sane in our society I think you will find the pacifist movement, constantly reminding the populace that life is sacred, that justice–not vengeance–is our job.’ How would you advise the wearied activist among us today?”

“Shape your life on truth,” he told me, “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.” 

Or, as his friend Thomas Merton once wrote to him in February of 1966:

“…Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

JimAndCassidy
My friend, Jim. (Photo by Paul Pynkoski)

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Loving to Love

Today I set out walking to walk. Visiting a new city fills me with childlike wonder and awe—each nook a new treasure to behold, every turn an adventure. I’m in Toronto, Canada just two days after a terrible tragedy that took the lives of ten fellow humans. And while wandering in the wet morning, the rain poured down like holy water attempting to wash away the pain so many are feeling. As my eyes looked up on Bloor street I couldn’t help but be captivated by a local bookstore begging for my attention, despite the 100s of books resting unread on my bookshelf at home.

Much like my routine at any bookstore, I navigate the poetry, hunt for the Thomas Merton books, and explore the sections where my friends’ books might be. This time, a particular Merton book caught my eye: Road to Joy: The Letters of Thomas Merton To New and Old friends. With just having had the pleasure of dinner with Merton’s friend Jim Forest, the night before, I promptly picked the book up and hunted for Jim’s name in the index. Instead — homosexuality pg. 344stuck out as if it was written in bold red among the black and white I was holding. Homosexuality, I thought, but Merton never really wrote about that. Though I’d heard my friend, Dr. Christopher Pramuk discuss this in the past, I wasn’t prepared for the violent language I was about to encounter. I took a deep breath while considering what I might read on the page the reference linked to and was sure enough not shocked but painfully disappointed with the words that corresponded. Words that continue to deeply wound and haunt LGBTQ+ Christians everywhere. Among these words in a note titled “Letter to an Unknown Friend”:

“…In other words, the pitch is this. Homosexuality is not a more “unforgivable” sin than any other than the rules are the same. You do the best you can, you honestly try to fight it, be sorry, try to avoid occasions, all the usual things… Maybe psychiatric help would be of use.”

Though reading nothing surprising, my body tensed up and shuddered with the deep despair I once felt about my own personhood because of such lies being told to me that there was something innately wrong with me, there was something “sinful.” To compare homosexuality with sin is not unlike telling me being a woman in sinful. It is of one’s personhood. One’s very being. In the bowels of that bookstore, I took a moment to thank God I no longer have this way of thinking and resolved to buy the book so no one else would read these wounding words that, to me, are incredibly theologically unsound.

In this city of great acceptance, I was flanked on either side by rainbow flags at every turn. Despite that, this small moment stirred up years in which I sat in self-hatred because I was told a part of my precise personhood was a sin. Looking back, I can still easily weep for my younger self and those who might still be thinking like this, speaking like this or receiving such hateful words. Knowing how deeply that struck felt like a bolt energy to share my truth, my love, my personhood with those that think theirs is somehow damaged.

LGBTQ+ friends, listen to me: There is nothing wrong with you.

Parents, there is nothing wrong with your LGBTQ+ child.

Church, there is nothing wrong with your LGBTQ+ parishioners.

The damage we do when we insinuate one’s loving personhood is sinful or faulty is nothing short of hateful, dismissive, and ignorant thinking.

Last month I had the honor of co-hosting Fr. Jim Martin (most recently, author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivityon the Encountering Silence podcast. The work he’s doing is undeniably opening the minds and doors for many, many people. The conversations he’s having and the work he’s doing is changing many lives for the better. I sincerely believe that when it comes to inequality, the elevation of a group must be done so that they can be seen. And it is not until this seeing becomes a part of our lives on a regular basis—for all of our differences in love—that we can come to a place of seeing our common humanity and embrace a vision of unity. Without this sight how is it possible for us to come together in a loving way?

“Peacemaking begins with seeing, seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of… What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives…” Jim Forest, The Root of War is Fear

Of course, I don’t agree entirely with Fr. Jim Martin on a number of things. But that didn’t prevent us from having a loving conversation, it didn’t stop us from both discussing the LGBTQ+ community in a way that elevates its ability to be seen and loved. And, although conversion begins with conversation––conversation with the intention of conversion is a limited space to come from. In a Message to Poets essay Merton said, “We believe that our future will be made by love and hope, not by violence or calculation…a hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.” With this in mind, I speak to my fellow human in a way that is true to love itself for that is all I can do, that is all I can bring. And for my fellow LGBTQ+ friends who may not be able to have such conversations because of the pain it brings—I will continue to speak. I will continue to have these hard conversations that point to the destruction and violence this kind of language creates, the ways in which we’re limiting the spirit’s flow within people because we name their personhood as sinful instead of seeing the beauty, joy, and spirit’s flow within their lives.

There is a penalty in admiration when we only seek how it serves us. As much as I admire Thomas Merton and Fr. Jim Martin, I cannot agree with them on everything and certainly have never claimed to. Though people change and thoughts evolve in their own ways in accordance with their own personhood—who am I to say that a given stance is more evolved, lest for the these kinds of stances that directly point to lack of equal humanity, as the aforementioned rhetoric suggests. Merton’s untimely death (1968) will leave any of his current thought on this as a mystery. But, I must interject my own assumption based on the fact that most of Merton’s life was based upon love.

In 1966, Thomas Merton wrote young peace activist Jim Forest a letter that has since become referenced as the Letter to a Young Activist. In it, Merton addresses Jim’s frustrations with his work in the peace movement during the Vietnam war. Jim was working tirelessly at the Catholic Worker house after having left the Navy. He co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship in 1964, and served countless conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war era. Both Forest and Merton were doing unequivocally important work, despite just how different the work was. These words that he wrote to Jim wouldn’t have been written without Jim’s initial letter of frustration and agony. In fact, many of Jim’s letters allowed Merton’s own thoughts on things like war and pacifism to change, grow, expand, and evolve (see The Root of War is Fear).

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything. 

Everything.

Whether or not one chooses to see the LGBTQ+ community does not eliminate its existence. But it is not until we truly open our eyes to one another that we can begin to stop diminishing one’s personhood as sinful. And the LGBTQ+ community will go on loving. After all, it is the centerpiece to our personhood. It must become the centerpiece to everyone’s personhood. And it’s a beautiful centerpiece to sit at the table of. To have a conversation around. To create a personal relationship over.

It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Everything.

I could have let these few words I read today ruin my day. I could have chalked them up to Thomas Merton not being admirable. I could have minimized his words as a sign of the times. But that’s not what any of this was about. I set out walking to walk. And, I believe that when we set out loving to love, miracles can happen. We can begin to see one another. Truly see.

Toronto is assuredly not the same after this terrible tragedy. Beyond the rain, there is a dreariness that sits over the city as people discuss just what happened and how it could possibly happen here. But people are going on talking, they are going on being kind, saying sorry, greeting and smiling at one another. This city is truly a space of personal relationship.

And, now, as I sit across the table from my new dear friend Jim Forest, I realize the deep legacy of his life pouring forth in personal relationship and loving to love. Many know Jim by way of his friends including but not limited to Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and so on. But having spent a few days with Jim, it’s hard to not count yourself among the list—his deep humility and sincere way of being has already taught me so much about listening, truly seeing, and deeply caring for my fellow human. Tomorrow, Jim will speak at a conference in Toronto titled Voices For Peace.

Between Toronto and Jim, I think I’m finally starting to truly grasp what Thomas Merton meant when he said to Jim in that 1966 letter: It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

Everything.image007.jpg

 

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