by Claudia Horwitz, March 2004
(This talk was delivered at the 20th Annual conference of COOL—Campus Outreach Opportunity League, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on March 14, 2004.)
At this time in history, we are being called to exchange the tongue of possibilities and, in that process, to become ever closer to our gods. We are being called to be intensely interested in liberation and suffering—other people’s and our own. Because of that, I want to talk about spiritual leadership for social change. I believe it holds one of the keys to our collective liberation and there can be no better time than now for collective liberation.
Often among progressive circles, including folks engaged in campus community service and activism, faith and spirituality are often expressed in one of three ways: backlash, neutrality, or isolation. Some, having experienced organized religion as a hindrance turn away from it altogether. Others of us may feel that the lines between the secular and the sacred must be clearly drawn, that faith must be, above all, a neutral force. And some of us express our beliefs by connecting deeply with those who share them, knowing it will be easier to act in concert when there is a base of similarity. I understand all three of these expressions of faith; I’ve shared in them.
But I believe we are being called to multi-dimensional, cross-traditional ways of bringing our moral and ethical values into the public square. To begin with, we are becoming a more religiously pluralistic society every day. Crossing lines of religious and spiritual difference is no longer an option. We have to learn to negotiate difference in ways we have not been adequately prepared for.
And just as importantly, we need to engage more directly and collectively with the energy that connects and sustains us, to deliberate how it is that we will find our way to our highest human potential, individually and together. Spirituality helps us do this because it gives us a way to examine and navigate our most defining and complicated relationships: our relationship to each other, our relationship to ourselves, and our relationship to what is larger than us. Because spirituality is about relationship and possibility and truth, it is inextricably linked to justice.
In order to further understand what this spiritual leadership for social change is all about, I’m going to invite us to wrestle with three facets of it: consciousness, empire, and mystery. I’ll take them one by one.
Spiritual leadership for social change is, first and foremost, about consciousness. By consciousness, I mean the ability to see what is real, to see beyond the illusion of separateness, the limits of fear and the tricks that the ego plays. Without consciousness, there are fewer choices, a tendency to live in patterns of reactivity and repetition. But when we think and speak and act from consciousness, we automatically move beyond old beliefs and thought patterns. We enter the realm of infinite possibility.
Part of my own journey around consciousness of the external world began here at this university, when I was as an undergraduate, 16 years ago. It was the late eighties and my hair was big—very, very big. I was listening to Tears for Fears and Prince. Ronald Regan was President.
I spent part of my junior year overseas and when I returned that summer, I had a tough time finding a job. I made my way to the volunteer office, then a tiny office on the second floor of Houston Hall. The coordinator handed me a brochure for a major event that was happening across the country called the “Hunger Cleanup.” The idea was to engage students in cleaning up local neighborhoods and raise sponsorship money for their efforts; the funds would go to support anti-poverty work at home and abroad.
I looked at the brochure for about 7 seconds and decided to organize the event. Maybe like many of you, I really had just been waiting for someone to ask me to do something meaningful, something big, something that would require more of myself than what I knew.
Things turned out well—we raised a lot of cash and got over 250 students involved. But most importantly, for the first time in my four years at Penn, I actually met and felt connected to some of the folks who live in West Philadelphia. I drank lemonade on their porches, looked at photos of their kids, saw the neighborhood through their eyes. I realized that my ivy league education had not taught me to read the world the way these folks could. I knew little about power and even less about how the world could work.
Only now do I realize how that simple act of service changed the course of my life. I was a senior and clueless about what I was going to do next. My friends were eagerly submitting their resumes for corporate interviews, and because Idealist.org didn’t exist at that time, I was anxious about my next steps. As fate would have it, the organization that coordinated the Hunger Cleanup the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness—offered me a job. And with that, a new phase of my education began. I spent the next two and half years going from campus to campus, meeting students and helping them organize programs like the ones many of you are involved with. I learned about the economics of poverty and the structures that keep people impoverished. The rebel in my soul found a home. And, I began to understand how a small but growing web of connection could fundamentally alter the future.
I got involved with COOL around that time, when I attended my first conference at Fordham University in the Bronx. It was 1990. It was one of my first opportunities to see that some critical mass of thoughtful young people cared about the same issues I cared about. I linked up with a small group of students and administrators who were urging COOL to be more political, more activist in its stance. It was symbolic of how I was beginning to experience life in the bigger world. I was beginning to understand that I was part of a small group on the margins of society, pushing everyone around us to become more political, more empathetic, more conscious. I was just beginning to understand that rebels usually come from the margins, and that the conversations and disagreements between the rebels, the radicals, and the reformers are among the most important in crafting lasting social change.
But that consciousness of the external world was only part of the story. In the summer of 1993 President Clinton’s national service initiative brought 1,500 young people to Treasure Island Naval Base, just off the coast of San Francisco, to prepare for a “Summer of Service.” I was quite skeptical about this program, devoid as it was of political analysis and focused on championing young people over older folks who’d been quietly committed to communities for decades. Still, I agreed to the invitation because many of the peers I respected were going. I decided to trust the process.
For me, and for some others, the experience was a complete disaster. During our final wrap-up meeting, I went outside and sat under a tree. Staring at the beauty of Marin County and the San Francisco Bay, I recounted the failures of the week, mine and those beyond my control—the incomplete training curriculum, the focus on photo opportunities, the way many of the young participants were treated by those in authority.
I realized that I had assumed a role I did not want and was not in any way prepared for. Where was the anchor that would have led me to make a different choice, that would have helped me remember my core values and my deeply-held beliefs? I began to weep. Then, mysteriously, I began to pray. I heard a different voice coming through, one that felt slightly familiar and entirely new at the same time. I asked for help from a powerful presence that I felt, but could not name. I made a vow to never again be involved with something I didn’t fundamentally agree with. And I committed myself to finding more sources of integrity, strength, and meaning.
For me, this was the crisis that led me to develop a daily spiritual practice of quiet reflection and meditation. Through the breath, I find am fed by the same energy which enables growth and death and everything in-between. This essential part of my day instills a sense of peace and it reminds me what it means just to be. We all need this—regular periods we devote to renewal, to pausing, to rest. In the past couple of years, almost everyone I know has spent some significant period of time being overwhelmed, burned out, exhausted, or sick beyond the common cold. We are grapping with how to process an influx of information and somehow compost this into wisdom, we get confused with the ever-quickening pace of life.
Consciousness can be cultivated through an infinite number of modalities—through prayer or praising, meditation or motion, in solitude and in community. For me, it has happened largely by being mindful of what is going on in my breath and my body. I can feel the chaos of the world in a single gulp of air, in the slumping of my shoulders.
In a deep and abiding presence, we may find it easier to deal with complexity, to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas at one time. As we become more mindful, anxiety recedes and we grow in our capacity to take risks and to sit in the fire of conflict. People come into new situations wondering how they can grow, how they can become more themselves, how they can become more of use here on planet Earth. Consciousness is the perfect antidote to self-consciousness, a state of internal censorship that can paralyze us and keep us from doing our best work, leading our fullest lives. It is a western affliction to continually ask, “Am I right? Is this enough? Will it work?”
All of our words and actions contribute to the construction of the world as it is. Consciousness is not a grand or sweeping motion. It is a moment to moment phenomenon. To be conscious we must find ways of living in the present, of licing in presence.
And it is consciousness that allows us to expand our understanding of reality, so let me turn to empire. If we are going to be spiritual leaders for social change, we have a duty to confront the reality that this country, this United States of America, is not just a country but an empire, one with a reach of unprecedented breadth and depth. I know this may not be what some of us want to hear but we live in a unilateral superpower, a nation whose authority is virtually unmatched and unchecked. Our economic, political, cultural, and military influence over much of the world is unparalleled. We can and we do intervene in any conflict or situation we deem worthy of attention and resources, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And we have made it clear that if we feel it’s necessary, we will do so without the support of international governing bodies we helped to create.
The question I’m really interested in is not whether or not we are an empire, but what kind of empire we will be? How will we use this accumulated power, these vast resources, this enormous reach? And I raise it here because any question about the use of power is a spiritual question. Will we continue to build our power from within or will we continue to use power over others? Will we use our moral will and our resources to transform the planet into a true global community, one in which democratic cooperation, ecological sustainability and cultural equity prevail? Or will we divide and conquer? Will we find more ways to look to the margins of the globe for wisdom and examples of lasting transformation or will we use the values and standards of the American mainstream as a yardstick for all? Will we make room for the stories of struggle or only those stories that end in victory? Arnold Mindell, a psychologist who founded an innovative process called “WorldWork” maintains that the mainstream only grows when it pays attention to the margin.
Jim Garrison, founder of the State of the World Forum, puts it this way: “This interplay between American power—unsurpassed and currently militarily oriented and unilaterally directed, and the needs of an integrating world—highly diverse, culturally conditioned, and requiring a spirit of stewardship in order to effectively govern, is the framework within which the American empire will play out its unique and special destiny during the twenty first century. Both America and the world, for better or for worse, will be shaped by how this is done.”
Three years ago I had the privilege to work in the Balkans on a summer institute for 40 students from nine different countries, countries that had recently been at war with each other. Through days of intensive work around conflict-resolution and community building, the students did what they could to differentiate themselves from one another. In a region where difference had historically been denied in favor a greater Yugoslavia, the students were committed to reclaiming their particularity—culturally, linguistically, nationally. They taught me that the spirit of differentiation is a strong one for all of us.
And yet they were also very eager to connect with each other, to transcend the borders of their nations. About halfway through the Institute, we had a talent show and the entire group of students did a skit for the faculty that acted out their recent history. They began by sitting in small groups, defined by nationality. They acted disconnected from each other, suspicious and hostile. They began taunting each other verbally, acting out a group conflict that almost simulated a mock war. At the height of it, they fell into a quiet exhaustion. With everyone lying on the ground, one Roma man got up. “Roma” is the more appropriate word for the peoples some of us might know as “gypsies.” He began walking through the group, singing an old song. Everyone knew the song and they slowly began to join in. The voices were whispers at first, then they grew louder and more boisterous. The skit ended with the entire group singing, arms linked. The spirit of joining, of connection, was palpable.
But what happened the next day of the training was even more interesting. Having come together in a universal show of Balkan pride, the students were now ready to differentiate themselves even further! The young Roma man—the only one in the group with brown skin—wanted to talk about what it was like to be Roma in Bosnian society. Three young women, from three different countries, had a lot to say about sexism and how they were treated in their campus organizations. One woman with a severe disability offered her own reflections on the difficulty of merely getting around day to day.
Somehow the students knew that they could only create the “integrating world” that Jim Garrison talks about if they explored and respected the differences in the room. If we want some kind of collective liberation from suffering—and I believe at our core we must want this—then it begins with the weaving a story that honors both our particularities and our universalities. If we’re operating from fear, mistrust, anxiety or anger, only distinctions get magnified. If we’re operating in denial, difference is literally white-washed. But, if we’re operating from curiosity, compassion and intense regard for our collective future, these distinctions become the stuff that will assist us to forge unlikely partnerships and create what we so desperately need—a transcendent pluralistic narrative of human liberation.
I believe this is the responsibility of the empire: to make space for and encourage a transcendent, pluralistic narrative of human liberation. To reach beyond the story of the mainstream to the margins. To see what is bubbling up. To understand empire, we must be engaged in continual analysis and we must be willing to engage the other.
Finally, I have come to see that spiritual leadership for social change is fundamentally about mystery.
Why mystery? Without it, we cannot take the hero or heroine’s journey to the depths. If any of you saw the film “Whale Rider” you got a taste of what I mean. In this amazing film from New Zealand, a young girl named Pikea knows somehow that she is a key to her people’s survival. But she is the only who knows this, so she goes through her preparations, steeping herself in the ancient teachings of her culture and secretly attending was are essentially training sessions in leadership and warriorship that her grandfather is running for the boys of her village. She looks everywhere for allies and teachers and support. But in the end, it comes down to her and the whale. There is no one else.
Like Pikea’s journey, the hero’s journey is about grief and loss and letting go. It’s a willingness to let something die in order that rebirth might be possible. It’s a process that is full of mystery and wonder. If we cling too tightly to what we know, we miss the larger possibilities that surround us. There isn’t anything easy about mystery. For many of us, it goes against the grain of who we are and how we raised. At home parents tell us we should know better. At school we are rewarded for answers, even if all we have are questions. To live in the mystery is to allow for a reconditioning of our patterns, a reconstitution of our cells.
So we must ask ourselves every day: Where does mystery reside? Mystery resides in our questions: What life will be like five years from now? What will be the next sentence out of your mouth? Who is this so-called stranger on the bus next to me? The more we ask and live with the open questions in our souls, the more we are likely to say “I don’t know.” It is radical to say, “I don’t know” and to make space for others to say they same. The moments of greatest learning and transformation are usually accompanied by discomfort, fear, confusion. If we keep putting pressure on ourselves to know we only short-circuit our growth. Great guidance comes to us in mystery.
Mystery also resides in our poetic and artistic expression, how we take the fragments of our experiences, ideas and perceptions and put them together in a new way. The process of creation can be a revolutionary act, and one that is full of mystery. An appreciation of mystery is what allows for sanctification—the act of making something sacred. And perhaps this is what we need most, to see all people, places, and time as sacred or holy.
And finally mystery resides in our love. Never be ashamed of what you love. I have found myself more willing to fall in love over and over again, to open up to that intense experience of beauty and connection that helps me keep going in the face of despair.
Patrisia Gonzales who writes the “Column of the Americas” says it like this: “I believe our lives are a love story—to love ourselves, to love what we do, and to search for purpose so that we can love how we live. For those of us who have survived injustices and violence, to love is a primal, everyday act against injustice. For all revolutionary love leads back to our souls for the revolution that begins inside of us, so that we can begin to love, and change.”
Let these ideas roll around in your for the next few days—these notions of consciousness, empire and mystery. See what happens.
As I got more involved with COOL, it was the relationships that mattered most. Relationships with people who used their hearts and their heads. Relationships with people who believed change was possible and who embodied that belief in their daily actions. Many of my greatest friends and mentors grew out of this network, people I am still deeply connected to today. Some social scientists call it “social capitol” but I call it *survival. It is a web of people whose names may or may not mean anything to you, but they have helped lay the bricks we walk on this weekend.
In gratitude for that, I want to close with a poem by Rumi, a 13th century Persian mystic and poet. It’s called “A Community of the Spirit.”
There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street,
and being the noise.
Drink all your passion,
and be a disgrace.
Close both eyes
to see with the other eye.
Open your hands,
if you want to be held.
Sit down in this circle.
Quit acting like a wolf, and feel
the shepherd’s love filling you.
At night, your beloved wanders.
Don’t accept consolations.
Close your mouth against food.
Taste the lover’s mouth in yours.
You moan, “She left me.” “He left me.”
Twenty more will come.
Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
widening rings of being.