What Nourishes Your Activism? Reflections on Interfaith Sustenance for Social Change

I stood in the pouring rain, my numb fingers frantically pressing the buttons on the intercom box of the brick building where my spiritual director has her office. Sloshing my way through that Saturday morning, I felt desperate for guidance, for re-connection.

In the months since a jury let Darren Wilson walk out of Ferguson, Missouri, I have been moving in tight, restless circles. I can’t seem to catch my breath. Perhaps you’ve felt it, too?

A sense that the growing movement across our country is not only long overdue but precious – now, while the news cameras are already sliding away, onto the next big story – now, we have to act, keep pressing forward, keep moving. We can’t stop.

My activism has mostly occurred on Facebook and in face-to-face conversations. With my wife and young daughter, I am marching, going to justice rallies, peace vigils, trying to hold discussions. I am pushing and nudging and prodding the people at my mostly white liberal christian church: can we hang a bannerwatch a movie? read a book together?

Like many of you who are passionate about racial justice, I am experiencing push back from some folks: injunctions to be patient, gentle, give it time. Yet I’m also finding unexpected allies and renewed gratitude for amazing mentors who encourage me: “of course you feel lonely” and “don’t forget to be kind.”

Standing, dripping wet, inside the lobby of my spiritual director’s office that Saturday morning, I let out a long breath, the kind of stale air you get when you have swallowed more words than is comfortable, stomached more than you can bear. I scanned the bookshelves in the waiting room and felt a sudden uplift of spirit. (My director was trained at the Interfaith Chaplaincy Institute and her office has a wide variety of books.) I felt the world grow suddenly larger as I read all the titles and remembered all the many ways I can find and know the Holy, God-Love, Onenesss.

One of the blessings of interfaith community is the rich abundance of ways that Belovedness finds us. In my struggles to proclaim God as Bigger-Than-Evil, God as Justice-Rolling-Down-Like-Waters, God as Righteousness-Like-a-Mighty-Stream, I don’t want to lose all the other ways I know that Love is real. Night sky stars above the river on my way home from work, rough pine bark and soft dirt under my fingers in the park, even rain down my back…so many ways Spirit nourishes me. The diversity of ways to Belovedness reminds me that I have more allies than I realize, more people with something in common – humanness, holiness, need. We are all in this together.

On Sunday, we marched up Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in my hometown of Portland, Oregon with Don’t Shoot PDX and other activist groups. We marched to honor Rev. King and to call our city to wake up to face racism.

My daughter rode on my shoulders. It rained and rained and rained. We chanted: “I know / that we / will win.” It rained some more. Just as we squelched our way into the intersection at Killingsworth (which we occupied and held for long minutes, first in chants and then in silence), my daughter reached a little hand down and touched my cheek. Mommy sing? she asked and I felt all the breath rush back into my body. Yes baby, I answered, and we sang together.

This work we do – the work of dismantling racism and bringing justice, the work of interfaith dialogue, the work of finding Spirit outside-within-among each other – it is hard sometimes. Discouraging sometimes. But to be here now, living now, doing this work…can also be a kind of gift. The work reminds me I’m alive, that I can be of use, and that as long as I keep reaching for hope, I will find it.

I’m curious: how does faith or spirituality nourish your activism? What encouragement have you found for your work?

Image Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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4 thoughts on “What Nourishes Your Activism? Reflections on Interfaith Sustenance for Social Change

  1. Excellent and heartfelt piece Elizabeth, thanks for sharing! I think you are right that a lot of us feel, as you said, that “we have to act, keep pressing forward, keep moving.” Whether it’s in the context of racial justice struggles or social justice or environmental justice or whatever it is we feel called to do, it’s clear that there is a growing sense that this world as it is now is not enough, that we want–and can imagine–something else, something better.

    You ask about the intersection of faith and activism. I would say they are the same for me, coming from an earth-centered or animistic worldview. The belief in the interconnectedness of everything, and the demands for relational and respectful interactions that such a view imposes on us, cannot help but shape our politics. Personally I’ve always found this sort of question a bit odd, because it has never made any sense to me that you could separate your faith from your activism. I see them as simultaneous expressions of one deeper inner truth that guides our lives.

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris! I so appreciate what you’ve said about “one deeper inner truth that guides our lives”….what a beautiful way of capturing that coming together of spirit and action. Reflecting on your words, I think perhaps I’m using language shaped/biased by my context as a christian person in the united states. My country has a long history of appearing to separate religious beliefs from political ones (“church vs state”). Yet our politicians invoke God (who said “blessed are the peacemakers”) while blessing/praying over troops going off to war. I experience what I’d call dissociation: religious beliefs that don’t align with social and political ones. Shouldn’t our politics be ethical? Isn’t community about our connections with one another? I yearn for, as you said, relational and respectful interactions.

  2. Thank you for this piece, Elizabeth. What you are saying about the constant push forward in activism really rang true for me. I think it’s easy to be doing important work and get burnt out physically, but also spiritually. It is easy to feel hopeless when there is so much work to do. I know that for me, I start to feel off-balance when I can’t find “the spirit” in it, as you said. I think those moments, such as the one you described when your daughter said “Mommy sing,” are crucial. I find that sometimes it’s in the moments when a group of many different backgrounds is coming together to sing, that I feel most worshipful.

    1. Otto,

      YES! Singing is so nourishing and sustaining. Reading your comment, I suddenly wondered: how might our marches be different if we shouted less and sang more? Finding ways to bring spirit into action, especially public political action, is so important. Thank you so much for your sharing your thoughts!

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