The “S” word

The intersection of spirituality in activist work continues to be a growing interest of mine. Mostly because I am exploring it in my personal journey, but I also believe that activists need to find out what role spirituality has (or doesn’t have) in their lives, in order to sustain and deepen our work. Below are portions of writing from a recent article I published in Critical Moment. I invite you to read the full article by following the links on my “Articles” page. I would love to hear any reactions, comments, or feedback.

Beloved Communities: Deepening Our Activism and Healing Our Communities

By the rivers of Babylon
Where we sat down
And there we wept
When we remembered Zion
-“Rivers of Babylon,” Black spiritual

As an activist, I’ve heard and sang plenty of “freedom songs” in marches and rallies. But the first time I actually felt a Black spiritual was last month at a Beloved Communities Initiative gathering…The feeling it produced was familiar to me, as a Chinese/Taiwanese Buddhist and my experiences in Sangha, the community of Buddhist practitioners. Both song and Sangha have an indescribable capacity to provide clarity, connection and renewal. The historical use of spirituals, however, is unique to the Black community and in its transcendent ability to bring together a community of people towards collective struggle and hope. For the gathering I was attending, it opened us to even deeper reflection on the state of our communities.


The gathering had an impressive roster of veteran civil rights activists, freedom fighters and community organizers from around the country, as well as one remarkable individual from Salvador, Brazil. All of us had been invited by the initiative’s organizers, through the Institute for Democratic Renewal/Project Change, to engage in deep reflection and conversations about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for the “Beloved Community.”

The weekend opened with a series of questions put forth by organizers of the gathering. What are the characteristics of a beloved community? How are some communities actualizing the vision for a beloved community in their locales? What makes the understanding of a beloved community important to the work we are doing now? How do we bring together a network of beloved communities to an actual movement that will transform our society?


At first glance, [our various work] appeared divergent in their composition, approaches and goals. However, themes emerged as we examined these as expressions of beloved communities. For example, many of these efforts brought together communities with strong connections to elders and ancestors, where members of the community are able to look upon their histories to draw lessons, guidance, and purpose.

In our discussions, the phrase “hidden wholeness” came up several times, as an underlying value and aspect of the beloved community. This phrase describes the universality of all our particular experiences; no matter what identities we experience (race, ethnicity, class, ability, gender, sexuality, etc.). Because the dominant society fragments our identities, communities and histories, one role a beloved community can serve is to affirm these particularities while strengthening our connectedness by uncovering the hidden wholeness. We spoke of how traumatizing our society can be to individuals and communities, bringing out an urgent need for healing through spiritual connection or practice. I saw that this process of healing could begin from the telling of our stories and speaking our truths in the presence of a beloved community.

Many organizing conferences or events that I’ve attended mostly encourage folks to discuss the issues or strategize on how to take power from a political structure. Very few of these convenings challenge us to speak as ourselves and share our stories as a way to live out the transformation and change that we seek. The opportunity for me to attend this gathering supported my personal search for spiritual growth, particularly as a young community activist. It has been challenging for me to retell the story of that weekend in Tennessee to my family and community. As an organizer, I’m eager to share fruits of my experiences with others, but I came across such unfamiliarity, or perhaps fear, with talking about the role of spirituality in our activist work. Some readers may even feel I’m coming across too abstractly, or may wonder whether I had some funny out-of-body experience with my head still in the clouds.

I’m not necessarily trying to send the masses to church or join some other form of organized religion. But I do believe that many young people have a hunger for spirituality and life-affirming relationships because of the way that the dominant culture damages and silences our ability to live out our fullest potentials. This is why so many of us are drawn to the transformative politics of organizations like Detroit Summer, the Boggs Center, Veterans of Hope and Tewa Women United. They are the places we go to affirm ourselves and heal our anger and losses, while planting in us new seeds of validation and hope. The beloved community is not going to suddenly appear after the “revolution” is over. Instead, we can work today to live the beloved community in our every waking moment, and in our every breath.

  1. Many times I get frustrated doing organizing work or working with nonprofits. I don’t feel like I’m traveling the right path or I’m really making a difference. When I pray, and take a step back to work on my spiritual body I find things fall much faster into perspective. Things aren’t perfect but I’m find an inner peace that was clearly lacking earlier. It helps me feel like I have purpose and gives me the strength to keep moving. Sometimes I really can’t explain how much better I feel when I don’t ignore my spiritual body. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an organizing conference or training that discussed spirituality.

    I also think many organizers are so frustrated with organized religion and feeling condemned by the church that they shut off the idea that spirituality can be an important part of one’s life. If they could tap into that it might serve as a very resourceful tool to keeping dedicated folks down for the cause. Of course, this comes from the perspective of someone who was raised in an organized religion. I DO realize how messed up it can be but that’s no reason to ignore our spiritual lives in general and the benefits that come from it. Thanks for talking about it sista.

  2. Hey Soft.heart. Hey Nikki.

    I think it’s important to for folks to know that there is a higher power or spirit, one that reigns above any system or ruler. I loved it when this one Christian minister asked God to bring a racist, discriminatory city government “under subjection” for the way they treated their workers. At that moment, I realized why so many oppressed people hold on tight to their faith—it comes from the belief that every human being is worthy of respect, love, and caring.

    I stopped attending church regularly as a teenager, but for some strange reason, those songs and sermons of the Black Church never left me. I seem to be unconsciously drawn to public speakers who resemble the power of southern-style preachers. Any person who can approach that level of rapture, I listen attentively.

    I guess the closest I get to spiritual practice these days is listening to music, or singing. Or helping younger people, or listening to older folks talk about their younger days. When older folk talk about their past, I feel connected with them in a way that’s hard to describe—like I can recognize myself in them. This feeling transcends any sociopolitical divider—gender, race, nationality—you name it.

    I will have to think about this more. Take care sisters, and be well.

    Best, Y

  3. Thank you both for sharing your experiences.

    I think we are all works in progress, but I hope more youth/young adult activists get in this dialogue more. I have come across such resistance, perhaps fear, of this topic, especially because “spirituality” quickly gets seen as 1) oppressive and repressive organized religion, or 2) coming across as very white, hippy/pagan-like, and misappropriated.

    It *is* more than the identities we each experience, and one of the biggest challenges for me is to put language to that feeling, or way of being. In many ways, it seems experiential. Perhaps the task at hand is to see the spiritual and the wonder in our everyday lives..

  4. joyce

    Hi everyone. This is my first time posting a “real” comment and it happens to be on a “controversial” issue! 🙂

    As a person actively involved in a community of faith, it’s my hope that social justice/racial reconciliation wouldn’t be considered secondary to the Christian gospel. It’s very much a part of it, and the american christian tradition has been too individualistic since its conception. It’s really difficult to see the greater american evangelical community write-off social activism, and to see activists suspect communities of faith (christian churches in particular). On the flipside, I think there has always been activists of faith, but there is a new generation of leaders/students that are thinking hard about injustice and participating in many dialogues. They’re mobilized by hope, and I think there’s a lot of potential in that community.

    To comment on your post w.softheart. I thought it was great. I would add one thing though–even though MLKJr. wasn’t overtly Christian (he didn’t drop the words ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ very much) I think (on the MLK Symposium site) his work, especially with “the beloved community”, has to be contextualized in his spiritual tradition as a christian preacher. But it’s great that the intersection of spirituality and activism is a part of the discourse on social change!

  5. Joyce,

    Thanks for your comments! As someone who is not a participating member of the Christian tradition, I’m glad to hear that there is a new wave of people having dialogues about how social justice can be part of their practice and faith.

    I’m glad you mentioned Dr. King. I agree that it is important to remember MLK’s spiritual tradition as a Christian. What I love about his work/words is that he has the ability and capacity look deeply into his faith and create universal messages to reach people like me. I would like to share some of my favorite quotes from Dr. King on the beloved community, from speeches that he made during the last years of his life. I believe they are still very relevant for our times. You can read the rest of this speeches from the Beloved Communities Network site or the website that is associated with his memorial in Atlanta.

    “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end or that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community” (1966).

    “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world” (1967).

    Let’s keep this dialogue going!

  6. Mini-me: Thank you for writing the article. I’m proud of you. It is very good to hear about your spiritual journey. (my english is becoming taiwan-fied) I hope that you’ve gottan in touch with Joe. From the book I am currently reading, “The Present is the point in which time touches eternity.” ~C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, p.75

    Everyone: Thank you for your thoughts and experiences on the connections of Spirituality and Activism. It seems to me that the very ‘act’ or ‘being’ of ‘spirituality’ is activsm because it is taking an active step towards an acknowledgement and acceptance of the sacredness within each person, creature, being. Thus, if indeed everything is sacred, then the way(s) in which we interact with each other and self must be based on mutual respect, compassion, forgiveness, joy…love. If one does really believe that it is a necessity of spirituality to pursue these ideals, then it follows that one must be active in living in a way that is just. Of course no one will ever be able to do or be any of these perfectly, but if one chooses to acknowledge the sacred within each being, how can activism not follow? The vice-versa also appears logical to me. If one is dedicating her/his life to the pursuit of justice, what is it for if not because that person places value on whomever they are seeking justice for.
    Ok, I’m done for philosophizes for tonight… 🙂

  7. Thank you for writing this article. I too am interested in the intersection between spirituality and activism. I’m really drawn to the concept of “hidden wholeness.” I’ve shared your observation that many activist spaces and events focus on the external and the political and don’t make the space for personal stories and inner transformation. It seems to me that transforming society necessarily involves transforming yourself (and vice versa), and that, for many at least, such transformation includes a spiritual element. I think that a lot of progressive and radical people view spirituality as a threat, something to be guarded against. This is often grounded in their own experiences of spiritual traditions being misused as institutions of control and/or their understanding of this trend in broader society. I know my own experience of being raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment was quite damaging and oppressive and I also know that my current spiritual path and community have been an integral part of my resistance, healing, and growth.

  1. 1 Addressing spiritual violence « wsoft.heart

    […] think that something is taking place in my own spiritual development, where moments of opportunity, affirmation, and reconciliation are taking place. To have had the opportunity to share my story at this conference, in a Christian […]

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