Nuns & Nones: an unfolding expression of spirituality

Here’s a piece I wrote for the CSJ-Boston publication, The More. Read the original here. 

In Diarmuid Ó Murchú’s book Reclaiming Spirituality, prophetically written 20 years ago, the social psychologist and member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Congregation explores the spiritual hunger of our time happening outside of religious institutions. For Ó Murchú, it is increasingly urgent to provide “alternative sacred spaces for the spiritual seekers of our time,” spaces of “accompaniment and discernment” that do not support answers to questions but rather support the nurturing and deepening of those questions. As I read his incisive wisdom about the current moment we find ourselves in, here at the intersection of traditional religion and emerging spirituality, I think of the growing movement I have been a part of for the last year and a half: Nuns & Nones.*

Through our conversations between Catholic Sisters and millennial “Nones”, we see an alternative sacred space where our questions come together to gain the insight and scope earned within intergenerational dialogue. Since we started hosting gatherings in December 2016 – in cities across the country – the particular wisdom about the future unfolding before us, at this coming together of religious and spiritual life, is the greatest gift of such dialogue. As Sister of St. Joseph Pat Bergen said at one of the earlier Nuns & Nones gatherings, we all stand at the “prophetic edge” from which we are collectively able to see the newness emerging.

 

What is this newness emerging? And what does the future that is unfolding before us hold? While we do not know the answers yet, I believe it is in these alternative sacred spaces, through intergenerational accompaniment and discernment and holding big questions together in community, that answers might one day emerge.

 

As I have spent time with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Boston, especially through our own recent Nuns & Nones gatherings, I have increasingly seen women religious embracing and exploring what the challenges and opportunities of religious life today are. With each new conversation, I hear resonance to the same challenges and opportunities of the needs of contemporary spiritual seekers. It causes me to think that we might not just enjoy one another’s company, but more aptly I think we actually deeply need one another as we embark on this future together.

 

In Reclaiming Spirituality, Ó Murchú suggests that our evolutionary unfolding “is about transcending what existed previously in order to grow into the future that beckons us forth.” While we might not know exactly what this future looks like, efforts like Nuns & Nones can model the open dialogue and deep collaboration beyond affiliation and across generation that can allow our future to unfold in such a way that imagines us all having a place. In the midst of the decreasing number of vocations entering religious life, and increasing disaffiliation of young people, I can imagine no better adventure to embark on together: to find where at the edges of religious tradition and spiritual practice we can join together and create the ground on which future life can be rooted and grow.

 

*More on Nuns & Nones

Nuns & Nones is an unlikely alliance across communities of spirit. Bringing together Catholic Sisters and Millennial “Nones” (a term meant to include all those who check “none of the above” in terms of religious affiliation), this intergenerational dialogue and collaboration explores the common ground from which our communities can more deeply communicate and collaborate. As a growing national movement, there have been Nuns & Nones gatherings since December 2016 and hosted across the country, including Cambridge, MA; Bay Area, CA; Kalamazoo, MI; Philadelphia, PA; and St. Louis, MO. Additionally, there are local, on-going gatherings occurring in Grand Rapids, MI; Bay Area, CA; and Boston, MA. In Boston, we have hosted two gatherings with the Sisters of St. Joseph at the Brighton Motherhouse, including in June 2018 where we shared our stories and in July 2018 where we shared in the spiritual practice of contemplative silence. Nuns & Nones as a national movement is facilitated by a team of organizers from across the country, and locally convened with the help of Sr. Maryann Enright, Katie Gordon, Sr. Kathy McCluskey, Sr. Rosemary Mulvihill, and Rachel Plattus.

For more information, visit www.nunsandnones.org.

 

Sources

Ó Murchú, Diarmuid. Reclaiming Spirituality. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998.

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Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 5: Prophetic Community

What to say on my last day here? As I depart early tomorrow, I wanted to soak up the last bits of this place and these people today. I had breakfast with a Sister this morning, who after I told her my story and my spiritual questions, remarked that we’re actually quite exactly the same (a common response I get here!). I had energizing conversations from there on out – a phone call with someone in Minneapolis, a zoom call with the national Nuns & Nones network, and many more in person and digital conversations sprinkled throughout.

This evening was a highlight, though. I went out with a group of Benedictines – Sisters, oblates, and friends – who have a standing Thursday night golf outing and dinner at this place on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. There were about 10 of us, and I think it’s the most I’ve laughed this week. Some folks there were Sisters, nearly all worked in the Sisters’ ministries, and some of them actually used to be in the community, then left when they fell in love and wanted to get married. But you can tell – even if people decide vowed life isn’t for them, they are still welcomed into the community. I’ve actually heard this mentioned – if someone leaves in those first few years of discernment, it’s not a failure on their part, it’s not a failure of the community, it means that the discernment process is working. Religious life isn’t meant for everyone, but everyone can find a place in the broader community.

 To see this value on display tonight, with a group of 10 or so women that have been meeting for golf and dinner weekly for many years, who all act as best friends and family, well – that’s what community is. I heard it a few times in dinner – these Benedictines have been there for one another through the good and the bad. This is what community is. It’s the Vow of Stability, it’s choosing to be alongside these people for good, for life. It is accepting one another and walking alongside one another. And the thing is… this isn’t just the way these women treat one another. It’s the way they treat everyone around them. At this restaurant, they knew the cooks, the servers, it seems like they knew half the people that walked into this place. Two of the Sisters even have their pictures on the wall inside. They invite people into community wherever they go. I have felt it this past week. I have been invited into community at every meal, prayer service, ministry visit, and conversation. I’ve seen so many people invited into community as we move about our days.

It makes me think about something that Brittany Koteles, fellow Nuns & Nones organizer and dear friend, said on our Nuns & Nones Zoom Conversation today. She said, “The charism we [Nuns and Nones] share is one of prophetic community.”  We all feel called into a community that calls us – and our places – into greater being. Community that challenges what is wrong, and works toward what is better. Community that invites us across our traditions and across our affiliations to collaborate toward the common good. I don’t know if we, as a collective of Nuns and Nones, have quite figured out what that prophetic community looks like yet. We have some great models from Sisters. We have some great energy and aspiration from the Millennials. The recipe is all there, we just have to build it together, over time, through relationship.

Although I’m leaving tomorrow morning, I know the work is well underway. The possibilities are there, and we – in our various pockets – are moving toward those possibilities. I believe prophetic community is possible because I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it, and I’ve felt the hunger for it from my age-cohort. Now… we keep building, and see what unfolds before us.

Erie Benedictines Visit, Day 3: The Vow of Stability

Right before my trip, I learned that monastic orders often take a vows unique to their communities, beyond the usual vows – poverty, chastity, and obedience. Monks, or at least Benedictine monastics, take three vows –  the vow of obedience, the vow of stability, and the vow of ‘conversation of life.’ I was especially intrigued by the vow of stability – which I’ve heard described as a vow to stay put, a vow of relational commitment to people and places. The vow of stability is a commitment to stay in one place, in one community, and commit themselves to it. One Sister told me that when she said her vow of stability over 40 years ago, she was saying that vow of stability to stay here in this community to welcome seekers like myself, a vow to an unknown future relationship with whoever wanders into and even out of their monastery.

This vow has also inspired place-based ministries that are always responding to the evolving and emerging needs of the community. Some ministries might come and go, but Sisters stay in one place, committed to listening to what is being asked of them in this place.

I saw this so clearly today as I was given a tour of several of the ministriesthat the Erie Benedictines have throughout Erie, mostly in inner-city Erie.

As I wrote yesterday, the building that used to hold their convent now holds offices and classrooms. St. Benedict Child Development Center is on the first two floors, Benedictines for Peace is on the third, and the fourth is home to Benet Vision, Monasteries of the Heart, Alliance for International Monasticism, and Emmaus Ministries. Emmaus’ reach extends across the city, including to a building next door called The Studio at St. Mary’s: Space to Create, which houses the Kids Café, an artist studio spaces, and other gathering groups. Emmaus also runs a soup kitchen, food pantry, and Urban Farm just about a mile down the road.

Back in this main block, dubbed the Benedictine Block, is the St. Benedict Education Center, which focuses on the “social, spiritual, economic, educational, and vocational needs of a wide range of persons.” People come here to build skills to join the work force, including refugees who use a space within the ministry called The Mending Space, focused on utilizing seamstress skills. Next door to this is an inclusive recreational facility, called St. Benedict Community Center, and an additional house, which includes a store and factory level for people to shop affordably and utilize maker-space. The front of this house has a sign that says “Nuclear Free Zone.”

And if you go a few blocks down from the Benedictine Block, you find the Neighborhood Art House, founded by Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki in 1995. In it, there are free classes for children in music, art, poetry, dance, woodblock printing, ceramics, environmental issues, and more. My own favorite part was seeing the prayer flags that young people make with the woodblock printer, celebrating unity, love, courage, and peace. There is a quote on the wall somewhere in the Art House from Joan Chittister that says that “beauty breaks open the human heart. This place certainly does that.

Finally, my favorite part of the tour – the “Hold Fast to Dreams” Poetry Park. It was designed to bring beauty to this neighborhood in the inner city, and to be a space for creative and safe gatherings and events. As you walk around the loop of the park, there is poetry on the sidewalk, poetry in the sculptures, and poetry embodied in the space. Right next to this park is the Catholic Worker house, with brightly colored pillars on the front porch. And at the house across the street, which also belongs to a few of the Benedictine Sisters, there’s poetry on the steps up to the house. Art fills this street, and provides a model for other neighborhoods to do the same.

These aren’t even all the ministries of the Erie Benedictines, a group that numbers about 90 vowed women today. These are only the ministries I saw today. But it is easy to see the power of staying put. The vow of stability opens up endless opportunities to dedicate oneself to one place. Some ministries have come and gone, some have stayed open for decades, but the Sisters are always creating structures for solutions in response to systemic problems. They know this place, they know the people, they have the relational capacity to make transformative things happen.

I’m reminded of a quote that Mary Lou recently wrote about in her blog, Old Monk’s Journal: “Don’t just do something, the Buddha said, stand there,” Dan Berrigan. Sometimes standing there is what brings transformation to a place. The vow of stability is a vow of rootedness to place, tending to whatever arises in our midst.

Celebrating Fred Rogers today

There’s plenty about the United States that I am not celebrating or commemorating today, especially those that carelessly and heartlessly exercise power in ways that oppress and restrict our lives and pursuits of happiness (or even survival).

But, one person I am celebrating today is Fred Rogers! I just saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last night and am inspired by his life and legacy. He recognized early on in television’s creation that we are, and we become, what we watch. As a seminary-bound Presbyterian with a background in child psychology and a passion for communicating across differences, he recognized that television was the place for his ministry to occur – a ministry that simply told people, and especially children, that they are loved for exactly who they are uniquely.

He responded to national crises like the assassinations of the 1960s, blatant dehumanizing racist practices, the Challenger explosion, and even 9/11, by helping kids process tragedy and despair. And at the core of his ministry in television (a ministry that never espoused Christian doctrine because Mr. Rogers never wanted any kid to feel like they weren’t included!), he actually believed that television was a format that could build community throughout the country. I think we’ve failed his vision, or at least we have only built our siloed communities based on what 24-hour news channel we choose to watch, but – I guess I remain hopeful that something is still possible. It feels silly most days lately, but a relentless commitment to hope and possibility are the things that keep me going.

I never watched Fred Rogers’ programming when I was growing up, but I hope that I can continue to live out his legacy by modeling in media – social media, radio, public/community media, etc – a thoughtful critique of the status quo and engagement across perceived differences rooted in deep love for the sacredness of all life. I know so many folks who are doing the same today. While I wish that we had a voice like his today in our media, to help help us to process the trauma and enable us to action today, but I also realize we have those voices – everywhere around us. They just aren’t the voices that are centered, recognized, and appreciated as such.

And so I suppose this post is just a reminder to look for the helpers, because there are always helpers, as Fred said – and to be the helpers, support the helpers, empower the helpers, and vote for the helpers – because we need more today than ever.

Also go see this movie! It’s much more inspiring and grounding than any other performative act of patriotism today could be.

C3 Talk: Friendship as a Spiritual and Revolutionary Practice

On March 18, when I was back in Michigan over spring break, I got to visit C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection and give a talk on the good life. This was my fourth time speaking at C3, and my first since leaving the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and starting at Harvard Divinity School, so it was a treat to be back with a community that has seen me, my work, and my ideas evolve over the last few years. Plus, the conversation we are able to have before and after the service itself always deepens and expands my understandings of the topics I share with the community.

Below is the text of the “secular sermon” that I gave, and the video can be watched online soon, or found on their Facebook page.

The first time I considered the question of the good life was my first year in college, when I took a class on happiness and the good life. One of the books we read was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a true story about Chris McCandless, a young man who refused the wealth of his family, gave away all his savings, got rid of his possessions, and set out on a journey into the Alaskan wilderness.

In the wild, living off the land, one day Chris accidently ate a poisonous plant and ended up facing his imminent death. In the last moments of his life – moments spent alone, isolated from society and family – he scribbles notes in the margins of a book he was reading. The words he wrote in these last moments of his life were: “Happiness is only real when shared.”

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

Whether intentionally or not, this has shaped much of my own approach to attempting a good life over the years. Looking back, I see that relationships are at the core of all work I engage in. In Model United Nations during my college years, relationships created coalitions and shaped policy proposals. In my interfaith work, relationships transcended differences in theology and tradition. And in my media and radio work, relationships enriched and deepened interviews.

Then… as you may know, this past summer I left Grand Rapids and moved to Boston to study at Harvard Divinity School. Alongside my classes, I now work with the How We Gather team, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Sue Phillips, who are the Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School.

Their work began with the initial report entitled How We Gather, looking at where non-religious and unaffiliated millennials find community when they leave behind religious institutions. The communities they studied in this report were places like the Sanctuaries, a multi-racial, multi-religious arts and social change community in Washington DC, The Dinner Party, a monthly dinner held at people’s homes for those experiencing the loss of a parent, and even Soul Cycle and Cross Fit, organizations with an evangelical zeal that focus on personal and communal transformation through fitness.

Over these past four years, they have convened the leaders of these communities, and learned much about this world of spiritual community building today. The newest report they published – just this past week – explores that new, yet actually very old, work of caring for souls. Thus, the Care of Souls report names the emerging religious landscape we see today, and names the roles that are required for the work.

In Care of Souls, Casper, Angie and Sue suggest that the task now is to bridge the ancient and the emergent, and to discover how to apply wisdom to new generations. Their central question, and the thrust of my work alongside them, is: “How do we care for souls in the 21st century and beyond?”

I share all of this to introduce the context from which I now enter into this question of the good life. Beginning as a college freshman, hearing the words that “happiness is only real when shared,” to now in a calling centered on community and care, there seems to be a thread that suggests what my own good life has been rooted in: friendship as a spiritual and revolutionary practice.

WHY WE SHOULD TAKE FRIENDSHIP SERIOUSLY

 It’s only in this last year I started to take friendship as a spiritual and political practice seriously. After first noticing it as a powerful presence in my own community-building, I started noticing it explicitly discussed in theological and philosophical practices of spirituality and movement-building.

And none of this is new or radical, I think it’s something we all feel in our bones. But to speak for myself at least – I often forget. I forget the transformation possible through deep friendship. In this hyper-individualized society, we’re all taught, conditioned, and expected to make our own selves our own bottom line.

So the reason I chose to share about friendship today is because I think friendship tends to be something that we don’t take seriously enough, or something that we sell short, lacking an appreciation of its power. After all, while we’re more connected digitally than ever – we have thousands of Facebook friends and twitter followers at our fingertips – we’re actually more isolated than ever before.

In recent decades, researchers have discovered that loneliness left untreated is not just psychically painful; it also can have serious medical consequences. Studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Isolation has become a public health epidemic in the modern world.

So, responding to this epidemic of loneliness and crisis of isolation, and looking to a vision of the good life based in authentic and transformative relationships, what I want to share is several teachings on the role of friendship. Through these insights from various communities, texts, theologies and philosophies, I hope to begin to uncover the tradition of friendship as something to embrace as a spiritual and even revolutionary practice.

TEACHINGS ON FRIENDSHIP

 There are six short examples of what this looks like.

 About one year ago, along with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, we started gatherings called “Nuns & Nones” a meeting of Catholic women religious and non-religious millennials. Many unexpected friendships immediately flourished from that space, and the inter-generational nature of these friendships made them even more special. These friendships between 20-somethings and 70-somethings rooted the group in a larger sense of time and a deeper sense of hope; they swapped strategies for change and tools for resilience; they shared histories of oppression and stories of liberation. After gathering about twice a month from last year April until now, one Sister even said that the highlight of her year was building friendships through this unlikely community. Nuns and Nones taught me that friendship has the ability to cross social barriers and transform us at any age.

Particularly among women, friendship can transform ourselves individually and in community. In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible”, the feminist Benedictine Nun reclaims a history of feminine friendships that have been lost to the patriarchal storytellers through the ages. What I learned from Joan is that Friendship is a spiritual resource to tap into for strength, support, and empowerment, particularly for women who have been shut out of traditional forms of political power. Joan claims friendship not just as public “alliances of the court and castle,” but as a “personal tradition of spiritual friendship.” She follows in the tradition of St. Augustine and believes that “human relationships are the ground of growth.”

 However, this transformative, vulnerable friendship shows up not just in women’s lives. One of my favorite examples of deep friendship is between two Irish poets, David Whyte and the late John O’Donahue, who have frequently talked about their friendship and dedicated poems to one another. John O’Donahue, who died in 2008, wrote a book based on the Celtic idea of Anam Cara – translating to SOUL FRIEND. As he writes: “In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul.’” Friendship, for these poets, then, is a purposeful presence, an intentional integrity toward one another. In o’Donahue’s words, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” Again, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

It is also the nature of friendship across category, across difference that has a transformative power on people – not just personally, but in their political lives. Whether it is across differences in religious conviction or come from different generations, the practice of building friendship can lead to what Hannah Arendt called “thinking without bannisters.” Arendt, a 20th century philosopher, believed that friendship had political relevance and importance. And the essence of friendship existed in discourse, a discourse that through its practice the world is “rendered humane.” Friendship then, for Arendt, has the power to rehumanize us to one another and those unlike us, liberating us to think without bannisters which too often divide us.

In a new book, entitled “Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times,” writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman view friendship as the root of freedom. They remind us that “Friend’ and ‘free’ in English come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys the idea of a shared power that grows. Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties; I am free because I am linked to a reality greater than me.” Embracing the relational interdependency of friendship, then, is a revolutionary method of freedom; it is a freedom that releases us from the capitalistic profit-driven world and thus re-centers us on one another and the ways in which we can mutually support each other. In Joyful Militancy, friendship is a way to resist, a path for freedom, and a tool for collective liberation.

Friendship is a powerful element in many faith communities as well. One community in particular centers their entire theology on friendship. The Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay Catholic community founded in Rome exactly 50 years ago, and today holds a global presence in prayer, dialogue, and peace work in 73 countries with over 60,000 members. This global movement all started with a group of high schoolers in 1968 inspired by their faith to live into the gospel in radical, counter-cultural ways. Living out the gospel to them meant building friendships with the poor and marginalized, and letting all ministries and actions to follow from those friendships. In each community and each country now, Sant’Egidio members build friendships with the marginalized in their context, and let that friendship determine what accompaniment and advocacy looks like. Sant’Egidio sees the practice of faith as a call to friendship, a friendship that Jesus modeled as a transformational path of peace. They believe that a “glimpse of the Kingdom can be born through prayer and friendship with the poor.”

Through these examples, we can see the personal, communal, and political transformation possible through friendship.

The intergenerational friendships in Nuns & Nones. The spiritual friendship of women named by Sr. Joan Chittister. The “soul friend” connection beautifully articulated by poet John O’Donahue. The practice of friendship rehumanizing us to one another, taught by Hannah Arendt. The interdependency of friendship as a path to freedom for the authors of Joyful Militancy. And the Sant’Egidio model offers friendship as the foundation for living into peace and justice work.

In each of these cases, Friendship leads to resilience and sustenance… resistance and freedom… and faith and advocacy. Friendship is the process and the end, the method and the goals. From faith leaders and philosophers to poets and activists, friendship plays a central role in their personal and public lives. Friendship is not only what sustains us, but it liberates us; friendship not only inspires us, but it transforms us.

As we today – and this month – ask what the good life looks like, what caring for souls in the 21st century means to our communities – what answer does friendship provide? How can the wisdom of friendship from both ancient and emergent sources respond to today’s needs?

The poet John O’Donahue, in one of his last interviews before his death, reminded us that friendship is vital to our whole spirit – to our being, our character, our mind, and our health. But so many of us, he says, forget and don’t spend enough time with the friendships in our lives.

I know certainly for myself, I am guilty of this. Too often, I am caught up living a productive life, rather than a good life. I usually measure my days by how many things I cross off my to-do list, rather than how many conversations I had with friends.

“My friends are my estate,” wrote Emily Dickinson. In other words, friends are the wealth we will have at the end of our lives; they are the treasure we accrue.

What if we all measured our life this way, instead of by the hours worked, emails sent, or money earned? I think if we remember friendship at the beginnings and ends of our days, and the starts and closes of our weeks, we could all get a deeper sense of a good life. Or at least the good life that is possible through a shared life.

As Joan Chittister says, “It is surely, then, of the highest spiritual order to celebrate the Sacrament of Friendship.”

Reflections on reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

There’s nothing better than picking up a book and feeling an instant connection to its contents, like it was just waiting for you to read it. The ideas from Paulo Freire are ones that were integrated into my education, both formally – through a liberation theology inspired professor and mentor – as well as informally, in my community, coming along side organizers that lived the pedagogy Freire promoted. Feeling familiar with his ideas, it is a gift to receive his beautiful language and thoughtful strategy. There are three shifts in thinking in particular that sparked questions in me as I seek to fulfill the vocation that Freire suggests, to humanize our world and make it easier to love.

 

From isolation to communion. According to Freire, communion with one another is the core of our work. As Che Guevara has said of his own work, “’communion with the people ceased to be a mere theory, to become an integral part of ourselves’” (170). Freire builds upon this that in dialogical theory, “at no stage can revolutionary action forgo communion with the people” (171). This turns into cooperation, and a fusion between leaders and people. True revolution is built upon communion. This links to Freire’s claim that the pursuit of full humanity “cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity; therefore it cannot unfold in the antagonistic relations between oppressors and oppressed. No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so” (85). Communion is the process and the goal. With this in mind, I’m left asking: What is my theology of communion? As a cradle Catholic who views communion more as a weekly sacrament and less as relational presence with one another, how can I ground this personally, and spiritually?

From banking to becoming. Freire suggests that our dominant educational system is like a banking system: knowledge is treated as a deposit that is hierarchically delivered from teacher (subject) to student (object). It is treated as rote memorization rather than true transformation. Shifting to a dialogical model of knowledge and transformation, where student and teacher join together in dialogue to uncover the truth of topics, rather than the facts, allows a horizontal structure for learning alongside one another as co-creators. This treats the individual – both teacher and student – as well as the world as constantly becoming. In his words, “Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming–as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (84). This is “revolutionary futurity,” “prophetic,” and “hopeful,” according to Freire. While this view of educational projects as constantly evolving with the people, with the content, is inspiring, and I have created and sustained groups that lived this value out, but I wonder how to live into this constant change while also providing stability and certainty for people. How can we be comfortable with change while also being something consistent for people to rely on? And what does it mean to provide transformational models while living in a transactional market system?

From political to cultural change. How do we make the change we seek happen? My answer to this question has become more about cultural, changing people’s attitudes and perspectives, rather than political, changing the policy that dictates our lives. As I heard once, while Jim Crow laws no longer exist, Jim Crow hate still does. While approaching change as an either/or decision between political and cultural is not the answer, I do think that some people’s energy is better spent on the long, hard cultural shift work, whereas others can deal with harsh political realities. Freire highlights this through the difference between systematic education, which is changed by political power, and educational projects, “which should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them” (54). As he claims, in these educational projects, “it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted.” This leaves me wondering where the coalition between those working for political and cultural change is possible: How can those working with political power, the reality of our systems, as well as cultural power, the hope of our societies, come together to imagine new realities together?

Freire wrote that “to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87). What power we yield as students, writers, speakers, and educators! I leave Pedagogy of the Oppressed with more words than before, with words that can promote dialogue and thus create communion. With words that continue the cycle of reflection and action in a way to deepen our vocations, individually and collectively. With words that can work toward a world “in which it will be easier to love.” It is through this love of the word, and love of the world, that I hope to keep asking these questions, and living into the answers.

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Additional quotes from Pedagogy of the Oppressed

On the Word, Reflection and Action.

The essence of dialogue is the word. He goes on, “Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed­–even in part–the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world” (87).

On love.

From his preface, Freire sets the intention for the book to help “in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” In a footnote, he adds:

“I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. … The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. [Che] Guevara was not afraid to affirm it: ‘Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.’” (89)

On Culturally Confronting Domination.

“The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation. In both states, it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted. In the first stage this confrontation occurs through the change in the way the oppressed perceive the world of oppression; in the second state, through the expulsion of the myths created and developed in the old order, which like specters haunt the new structure emerging from the revolutionary transformation.”

Farewell Interfaith Insight: Why This “None” is Going to Divinity School

This Interfaith Insight appeared in the Kaufman Interfaith Institute Inform on 7/18/17 and in the Grand Rapids Press on 7/20/17. 

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I am writing this Insight as my final piece working for the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. Having been the Program Manager for the last four years, and as a college intern before that, the interfaith community across west Michigan has become my own community.

However, the time has come for me to build community elsewhere, and that place will be Harvard Divinity School in Boston. This fall, I will begin studies on religion, politics and ethics through their Master of Theological Studies program, learning alongside students of all religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds.

So in this final piece, I wanted to answer the question that many of you have asked me over the last four years: why do I, as a non-religious person, do interfaith work? And more relevant to my current plans, would would a non-religious person go to divinity school?

As I have written previously, I am one of those millennial “Nones,” a term that Pew Research coined to include the over one in three people under the age of 30 who are atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious, and basically anyone who would check on a form, “None of the Above” in regards to religious or spiritual identity.

Being a so-called “None” who convenes and facilitates religiously diverse interfaith spaces, my secular identity has often come up. Almost always the reaction I get is one of surprise and confusion. “But, if you’re not religious, why are you interested in religion?” Or phrased differently, “If you don’t have a faith, why would you be involved with interfaith?”

I never felt the need to ask myself this question until I moved to Grand Rapids. In my undergraduate studies, while certain stereotypes existed against atheists, I was never questioned as to why I was in such spaces. In my religious studies and political science classes, it was clear why I and my secular counterparts cared about learning about religion. Religion, spirituality, and faith were important to us – not only in our political activities nationally and internationally, but in people’s lives – in their activism, organizing, and careers.

For me, it was obvious: religion still matters. It was important for me to understand the traditions and followers in order to understand the world I am a part of. It makes my study of history, politics, and activism deeper and more authentic to the human experience, of which religion is such an integral part for so many individuals and communities.

While I may not be a person of faith, I am a part of a world where faith is an active dynamic affecting all of our lives. To engage with interfaith was a way of appreciating this aspect of existence, with an emphasis toward the lived experiences of people’s stories of faith as well as the doctrines that shape our lives and institutions.

Over these four years of organizing interfaith efforts in west Michigan, our dialogues and service projects did more than teach me new things about religious traditions. Each conversation, each relationship, quickly invoked a sense of “holy envy” in me. A term from Krister Stendahl, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School, holy envy is the recognition of something so beautiful in another person’s tradition that you wish to reflect it in your own tradition.

Realizing how deepening I found interfaith work to be, both personally and professionally, I sought to continue this formation through divinity school.

But this leads to a second question you may be asking: why does a Divinity School let in someone who does not necessarily believe in the Divine? What even is Divinity School?

To many people’s surprise, Divinity School is about much more than training future pastors and ministers. Most notably, places like Harvard Divinity School and many others leading schools have programs that intentionally reflect the religious and non-religious diversity of our country. Harvard itself has multiple theological and ministry initiatives around all religious traditions, not just the Christian tradition.

Further, more and more atheists and spiritual seekers are attending divinity school out of a desire for grounded, morally-rooted education toward careers in activism, social work, and community organizing. Instead of the pulpit, though, these leaders are taking their divinity school skills into the streets, political offices, non-profit organizations, and more.

Specifically, I chose Harvard Divinity School because, as leaders they just marked their 200-year-anniversary, they are on the forefront of the conversation around the future of religious life in America. This is a future that they recognize not only includes the secular, the spiritual, and the seeking, but it is a future that needs these voices in particular to shape our society and communities that will serve all.

It is in this space that I wish to bring my experiences learned from Grand Rapids over the last four years into a place where we can imagine what the future of our shared public life looks like – across the religious, spiritual and secular diversity that too often divides us. After all, in the enduring words of civil rights leader Vincent Harding, we live in a time that calls us “to see visions of life beyond the old boundaries, to search out the new common ground.”

I hope to continue to be a part of this conversation beyond the old boundaries, and seeking out new common ground, both continuously in Grand Rapids, and in my new home in Boston.

For those I have worked with and gotten to know during my time at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute, I want to thank you for the ways in which you have welcomed and challenged me in my growth as an individual, an interfaith leader, and as a human being seeking spiritual meaning. I hope to keep up with as many of you as possible during this next chapter in my life! Please never hesitate to reach out and stay in touch. My continuing email will be katiegordon24@gmail.com.