Friday, September 23, 2005

October Surprise: Doable Interfaith Peace Action

Below is an article by Joan Chittister that is both inspiring and specific about an interfaith, soul-changing way to make a difference.

A Simple, Doable, Soul-Changing Project
By Joan Chittister, OSB

I remember the scene well. It taught me an important lesson.

For a period of time, I drove from Cleveland, Ohio, to Erie, Pa., on a fairly regular basis, a distance of about 150 miles. Time after time, I put the car on automatic pilot and head for home, nothing but straight road between me and it.

Except for one thing. Every time I made the trip, I began to notice a solitary man standing back off the roadside at the edge of a ragged corn field, a flag in his hand, a sign by his side, one small camp chair open behind him. Trip after trip. Week after week. In cold rain and sleet, in hot sun and wind.

As the weeks went by, I began to slow down as I approached the area. I craned to see what he was selling. Nothing. One day, I simply turned around and went back, drove down the berm slowly and stopped.

He was not an evangelist obviously -- too quiet for that. He was not a policeman -- no uniform. He was not a traffic controller -- no cars. Just one thing stood out: He wore army fatigues and on the broomstick standard which he held in one hand while he waved with the other, flew a homemade flag with a peace sign on it. He himself, I realized as I got closer, had braces on his legs.

In my mind, that single man, a veteran I presume, goes on waving every day of my life. It was his persistence, his dogged refusal to give up waving, his single-minded commitment to changing my mind that got me.

He stood in stark contrast to everything else my culture has ever tried to teach me about life: that big is better than small, that strong is more effective than weak. Embracing that philosophy of life has made us a nation of grand corporate schemes and huge human fiascos.

We build skyscrapers 100 stories high. Small buildings like the corner store on which our lives depend, we never notice. We count those corporations successful that are international in scope and everybody else as wannabes.

Large groups, we figure, are significant. Small groups are nice but, well, frankly, a bit pathetic. The creation of a vast military machine proves how strong, how right, we are. Talking is weak, negotiating is worse.

No wonder we are all asking the same question: But what can I do? I'm powerless about all of this.

The answer the man on the road taught me, of course, is a simple one. In the first place, just do something. One thing. One small thing.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are people who think that's true and, like the single man in the cornfield, they have gotten my attention.

In other periods of history, this group would have made unlikely bedfellows. The first is a small Jewish community that has always been against the oppression of Palestinians. The second is a small group of Muslims who are opposed to the fundamentalist definition of "jihad" as military struggle rather than as the interior struggle to be holy.

The third is a small group of Christians who have no doubts about the sins of Christianity against both these communities and, even more, a memory of Francis of Assisi, who in the midst of a Crusade against Egypt, crossed the battle lines to talk to Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

Like Francis, these people have decided to do what their governments won't do. They are stepping across battle lines. They are reaching out as friends to one another in formal, public ways. They are listening to the spirit in the heart of the other.

They call their project The October Surprise ( The surprise is that the Jewish High Holy Days, the Islamic Month of Ramadan and the Christian feast of St. Francis of Assisi, who opposed the Crusades and learned from an Islamic teacher, all come in October.

Even the heavens, it seems, are calling all of us to do penance, to be peaceful, to become the human community we are meant to be.

But how?

The group, after praying together themselves, encourages a public day of fast and prayer on Oct. 13 for all of us -- Christian, Muslim and Jew alike. They are asking congregations, organizations and families, to host members of the other communities in order to celebrate these common feasts together. They are suggesting that we all hold teach-ins to honor one another and to come to know our common teachings on peace, on kinship with the earth and all its creatures, on openness to the wisdom of others.

We could each, in addition, alone and together, celebrate these feasts by doing something to protect human rights, to save the earth, to promote peace: sign a petition, send a card to a senator or representative, support a group that is pursuing these issues.

We could even set out to learn from one another things that would bring us all to mutual respect. It's so simple, so obvious, so real that it's a little embarrassing.

Each of us could do something to break the chains of passivity, to change the mindset of helplessness, to join in the process for universal peace.

This call to join an Oct. 13 fast and to create shared multi-religious local and regional events during the month was initiated by The Shalom Center, with The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah. It has been endorsed by the National Council of Churches, the Islamic Society of North America, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, an ad hoc committee made up of more than a hundred rabbis and other Jewish leaders, and a number of local and regional groups.

The question is: Why isn't the name of every diocese, every Catholic group and parish, every religious community and seminary in the country on the list?
The project is simple, it's doable, it's soul-changing. And it gives us something we can all do, if we will, both together and alone. It is one person waving in a field, perhaps, but who knows whose eye it will catch in the process.

From where I stand, it is simply not possible, in the light of something like this, to say, "This is all too big for me. There is nothing I can do."

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at . Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Place to Stand

Network of Spiritual Progressives offers ‘a new bottom line’

Having never visited U.C. Berkeley, as I approached College Avenue in Oakland in the early light, I almost expected a gilded glow over the campus.
What I found were rather ordinary buildings on a tree-lined street, across from a lineup of tiny shops on the south side of Bancroft Avenue. Except for the massive white columns and steps nearby where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke, this corner of the campus was decidedly “state university plain.”

I had come for the first Network of Spiritual Progressives conference, an interfaith gathering of progressive people who were ready to take their spirituality into politics. Unfortunately, my first words about God that morning were muttered over a broken parking meter—the last open space for blocks.
“You’ll have to pay for that,” said a gaunt, shabby man who walked by as I pounded the meter when my quarters didn’t budge the red “Expired” sign.
I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“The city said if they don’t work, you have to pay,” he called over his shoulder. A street prophet was warning me that my wasted coins wouldn’t save me from a fine. Already late, I shrugged and re-parked.

When I got to the glass doors of the Student Union, a hand-written sign read: “Spiritual Activism Conference.” No budget for the event, I recalled from the welcome letter. None of the speakers were being paid, not even for travel expenses. Among them were best-selling authors Jim Wallis (God’s Politics) and George Lakoff (Don’t Think of An Elephant) as well as many more leaders and experts in their fields. I gained a deeper understanding of “grass roots.”
I had stumbled onto the conference while reading a ZH article (June/July ’05, “The Rise of the Spiritual Left” by Dave Belden) three weeks before. Having never heard of Tikkun, the lead sponsor, or its leader Rabbi Michael Lerner, I read their website ( Including an even mix of Jewish and non-Jewish members, the purpose of the group was tucked into its title, tikkun, the Hebrew word for “healing.” Their mission? To heal the world.

Right, I thought. Idealistic is an understatement. But after five years of the fingernails-on-chalkboard sound of leaders voicing Christian words followed by violent foreign aggression and social neglect, I needed some healing myself. As a Christian, I couldn’t go along with this version of spiritual politics, but the Left offered no indication that my spirituality mattered. My leaders were going empire, but I couldn’t go with them. It felt like I had no place to stand.
So I took this dangling bait of hope called progressive spiritual activism, and here I was.

A spiritual crisis
I wasn’t alone. The organizers expected 400 people, and 1300 registered with scores more turned away the last few days. When the opening plenary began in Pauley Ballroom, the atmosphere was electric. Folks from New York, Florida and Pennsylvania sat around me. I heard that nine others from Texas were crammed in here somewhere.

The first speaker, Michael Nagler, U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature, described his own history of non-violent activism alongside the great names. Thunderous applause repeatedly interrupted this quiet man. The packed ballroom of pilgrims couldn’t wait to celebrate ideas they all shared.

More than thirty speakers discussed topics ranging from war and peace to reproductive issues, the economy, science and health care. Names such as Arun Gandhi, Dr. Susan Linn, Van Jones, Esq., Dave Robinson, Ahrar Ahmad and John Shelby Spong. They spoke of spiritual values that spawned their hopes and dreams for a better future, the abandoned values that several said had sparked a spiritual crisis.

From the podium to the back corner chair were Buddhists, Muslims, Sufis, Sikhs, members of a dozen Christian denominations, humanist organizations and Jewish groups from the Tikkun community. Work groups met daily, composed of attendees whose job it was to craft the first draft of a platform plank for their respective policy areas. These included the economy and jobs, materialism and meaning, the environment, non-violent resistance, sexuality, women’s issues and more.

The goal, according to Rabbi Lerner in his opening address, was not to provide Bible verses or God-words for pre-existing liberal/progressive policy, but to demand a radically different view of life. “We’re proposing a whole new way of determining what is efficient, rational and productive,” he said.

“We must challenge the Right and its misuse of God and religion,” Lerner said. “And we must challenge many on the Left who have demeaned and ignored religion and spirituality.” To loud applause, he offered a campaign theme calling for “a new bottom line of love and caring to counter the old bottom line of greed, materialism and power that dominates our society.”

‘Pep rally atmosphere’
Plenary sessions held every morning and evening had a pep rally atmosphere. And the only reason I avoided the mountain-top feeling was due to my encounters with our daunting diversity and collective human flaws.
The diversity sprang up during the first work group I attended on sexuality. With eighty-plus there, we eventually broke into groups of five for discussion. Even in this tiny huddle, we encountered vast differences. The man to my right said that his organization wouldn’t approve same-sex marriage “in our lifetimes” because it was contrary to “divine law.” A woman across from me expressed discomfort with upholding monogamy as a standard of sexual conduct because consenting, non-exploitative adults could make different choices.

Why was I surprised? I celebrate diversity, and here it was staring me in the face. So, we had the opportunity to “come and reason together.” Vive a difference!

I confess: I bailed.
I went to another work group the next day. Not because I wasn’t up to defending my views, mind you, but because of the group’s size, and there were other gays and lesbians there who could stand up for our concerns. They didn’t need me.

The next day, our collective human flaws reared their ugly heads. During the afternoon, I heard whispers of an uprising in the women’s workshop the previous day. Reportedly, a number were angry that women hadn’t been more involved in the planning of the conference, with the result that the vast majority of the plenary speakers were men. So angry were these women, according to first-hand reports, that they continued their venting into the second day, after they’d received “work group” status. Due to the limited time, they were late getting to the business of drafting their statement.

So it is when we stumble. Old wounds reopen quickly. Despite the regret and explanations offered for the gender inequality, some of the women were reportedly disaffected enough to resist cooperation.

At least we won’t have any delusions about the difficulty of the mission.
The second day, I attended the Politics of Meaning work group. Peter Gabel, president emeritus of New College of California and director of the school’s Institute for Spirituality and Politics, facilitated a slightly smaller group. We were instructed to pair off and ask one another, “What keeps you from being present?”

I was paired with a young Asian American man who had as much difficulty as I with answering the same question repeated to him for three minutes. But the exercise certainly made us present to each other. I wanted to go have coffee with him, but there wasn’t time. One frustration of the conference: all these amazing people in one place and I don’t have time to hear their stories.
Anticipating this frustration, the conference arranged for small groups to meet daily. Our group of ten bonded immediately, despite the noisy restaurant on Telegraph where we first met over lunch. The next three days, sharing our heart-level responses to the conference, the group developed authentic relationships that continue.

Politics of the heart
And that’s where true spiritual progressivism starts, according to Lerner, with the heart. We’re afraid to talk about love and caring in the same breath with politics, he said, because we’ve all been disappointed or humiliated in the past when we dared to hope for the best in others. That’s why the network encourages small groups at the local level, because people need the safety and support of authentic relationships. Especially people who want to change the world.

This heart-centeredness lent me hope that maybe this movement would be different. With patience for our diversity and human flaws, maybe we could build loving bonds among us and actually birth creative, transformative solutions to age-old controversies.

The next day, we heard what I believe was an example of that hope.

‘Choose life’
On Thursday afternoon, Rev. Ama Zenya, senior pastor at UCC’s First Congregational Church of Oakland, spoke about her ministry and her views on the abortion issue. Before this crowd of liberals, feminists and Planned Parenthood leaders, she spoke of her support for women’s reproductive rights.
But you could have heard a feather land when she asked those of us who believe in the sacredness of the environment and the preservation of the smallest animal species, “does our honoring of the sacredness of all life begin only after birth?”

Not a sound.

In the stillness, the young pastor went on to suggest a commitment to both the legal right of women to make their own reproductive choices and the encouragement of women to “choose life.” We could have vigorous programs for the woman who gives birth and faces the choices that follow, she said, and for support and grief counseling for women who make the difficult choice to end their pregnancies. Rev. Zenya then told her own story, voice trembling, of choosing abortion for herself before finding out that her own mother had been trying to conceive and had failed. Her mom would have gladly raised the child.
I was exhilarated. Here was a model of what many hoped would come from this effort: discussion around creative, spiritual alternatives to the polarized, liberal-conservative standoff.

But no new idea goes unchallenged. Later that evening on the steps outside, I overheard a middle-aged woman emphatically explaining to her friend that Rev. Zenya was speaking from guilt and grief and didn’t know how much she was endangering women and the pro-choice position.
Certainly, these arguments must be addressed, but at least someone had had the courage to speak her truth even when it didn’t conform to the old liberal (and failing) formula. Perhaps now, embracing uncertainty and love in a world that includes faith, we can find our way to transformation.

By the third afternoon, I was bleary-eyed from fatigue, so I let myself drift into the music of Holly Near and Peter Kater, two of the many live performances between speakers each day. And helping us not to take ourselves too seriously, comedians also performed—a Muslim and a Palestinian. Both let laughter form another bridge between cultures.

Living our politics
On Friday, pastor and journalist Byron Williams spoke a spirited blessing that roused even this somber, white Protestant. In his Oakland Tribune column afterward (July 24), he wrote that spiritual progressives need more diversity of color and ethnicity to become a vital political influence. While praising the event, he noted that only a handful of African Americans and other ethnicities attended, hardly enough to become the movement we envision.

In the words of Rima Vesely-Flad in the July/Aug. issue of ZH, “We must learn how to live our politics on a deeper, more intimate level.” That includes living in deeper relationships that embrace more and more diversity.

Now that I’m home in East Texas, I plan to ask questions of two of my African American friends—good friends—and deeply listen to their answers. Why have they not been interested in our peace and justice group? Is there something we can do to make it more worthwhile? Might the spiritual progressive small group offer more of what they’re looking for? Would they be willing to at least give it a try, because we need them? Not only to succeed politically, but to become whole people.

We will grow from the answers. More important, we’ll build more intimate relationships. From there, maybe we will heal the world. Maybe we’ll find the homeless man who warned me that my donation wouldn’t save me from a broken meter. I had to find a new one.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found a new place to stand.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Spiritual Activism: Random Thoughts

Now that our East Texans for Peace & Justice blog is up and running, I'll be using this blog to post my personal responses to life. You could say this is my journal of everything I'm willing for the world to read.

After two days to think about the Spiritual Activism conference I attended at U.C. Berkeley July 19-23, I am more inclined than ever to write about public affairs, especially from a spirit perspective. This group wants to start a network of spiritual progressives (NSP) who coordinate and organize to establish common values and develop creative spirit-centered philosophies and public policies. In short, to write a platform with which to challenge civic leaders.

The conference and the movement are interfaith. There were Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu leaders there to speak and guide workgroups. The goal is to develop a grass roots network of small groups and through them to promote progressive faith statements about the timely public issues. War, poverty, education, health care, reproductive rights, human rights, our greed and materialism economy, environmental concerns, science and spirit and women's issues were the topics of work groups attended by conferees.

Non-violence workshops were held the last day by both Buddhist and Christian peace and non-violence groups. Numerous speakers challenged the 1200 in attendance to bring spirituality back into progressive politics, as it once grounded the abolition, women's and civil rights movements. While the religiously justified policies of the Bush administration call for war and the slashing of social programs, these people of faith believe that neither reflects the heart of compassion and community caring central to all major religions.

At the same time, we individuals were all too human. Faced with 1200 people when they were expecting 400, conference organizers felt a bit overwhelmed--delighted, but unable to change things at the last minute in response to the flood of registrations. The work groups would have been more effective if smaller, as would have been the case with 400 people. As it was, the groups I attended had 70-80 people and were not fitted to the task of hammering out a first draft plank of a platform statement.

The women's issues workshop that met the first day revamped itself into a work group, concluding rightly that the issue is important enough to deserve its own work group. Reportedly, many in the group were very angry about this oversight in planning and angry that women hadn't been more involved in the planning. According to women in attendance, their anger spilled over into day two also. It became clear that the three work sessions set aside for the task was not enough, especially when this group had both emotional and substantive issues to address before they could get to the business at hand.

One surprise for me was the diversity among these people of common cause who gathered. The first day I attended the Sexuality work group of 75 people. We broke into groups of five, and even in such a small sampling, our views were radically different. One member believed that recreational sex (for consenting adults) was okay and that monogamy shouldn't be an unbending moral standard. Another one believed that, no matter how accepting his group was of individual gay people and couples, "divine law" would prohibit supporting anything like gay marriage.

Being a gay person, I asked this man questions to make sure I understood what he was saying. He said that a lesbian couple who attended his group were loved and accepted. Even so, gay marriage would never be supported by his religious group "in our lifetimes," he said.

Some folks there supported zero population growth, meaning that we should set a maximum number of people allowed and enforce it. Others supported such a strong policy of "separation of church and state" that they didn't see any place for the mention of spiritual values at all. And I met a leader from a humanist organization who said, "I'm not spiritual, but I do believe in moral values."

In addition to this colorful diversity, most of these people were assertive leaders in their own social and political circles, so you get an idea of the energy circulating at the event. At times it felt like being on a runaway stagecoach in the old Westerns: very exciting from the outside, but terrifying from the inside.

Nevertheless, because all good things are a miracle, the success of this movement, too, will be miraculous. Finding core spiritual values among the cacophony of diverse voices won't be easy. But worthwhile projects never are.

God help us.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

ET for Peace & Justice blog now active

If you have come to this page to view information about East Texans for Peace and Justice, please go to our new blog,

We're glad to have your interest and encourage you to read the blog and to interact by signing up to make comments.

Kate Hutson
East Texans for Peace and Justice

Monday, June 20, 2005

East Texans for Peace & Justice

At our June 11 meeting we named ourselves!
East Texans for Peace & Justice (ETPJ) has now been born and christened. I will post our mission and values on an ETPJ blogspot soon, along with a notice of our planned peace action.

I called Bergfield Park and asked about requirements, cost, reservations. When I called, Saturday, Nov. 12, was open, so I reserved it (Veterans Day is Nov. 11). Cost is $25 plus a $100 damage deposit. We'll talk about the date at our next meeting, and if there's not a major conflict, we'll make that official.

Thanks to everyone who attended the 11th and volunteered to do something in the first stage of our action. We can call this the pre-planning stage, since we're mostly getting info and spreading the word. Please pass this along to anyone you know who'd be interested and let us know any organizations you know that may be interested.

I got an email today from Karen and Risa. They've been in D.C. and saw Sen. John Conyers present his petitions signed by 540,000 people (us) asking the President to publicly address the Downing Street Memo. Karen reported a lot of energy in the Beltway around taking action to hold the President accountable for this evidence that he lied to Congress and the American people about the reason to invade Iraq.

Since this information confirms for me what we had all suspected, it is now a personal moral issue. If I now know that the President was lying, I must act to support some punitive action or I will share responsibility for those deaths. If we do nothing, then we are complicit.

Peace with justice,

Friday, June 10, 2005

June 11 Meeting: LOTS to do

What a week of new developments to discuss! At our June 11 meeting of the peace and justice group, we plan to do the following:

1. Vote on the name of our group from these nomination:

ETFPJ - East Texans for Peace and Justice
About FACE - About Fairness Advocacy and Community Education
FACES - Fairness Advocacy, Community Education and Support
DUOAYWHTDUY (pronounced 'doo-oh-AY-what-doo'-ee
Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You

2. Discuss writing campaigns for
-Tyler Pipe job loss situation
-Mineola police beating investigation progress, share content for letters we can write in support.

3. Talk about possible plans/date (July 4 or Veterans Day-Nov) for a 'Boots in Bergfield' peace action: rounding up 1,600 pairs of boots/shoes (that's 100 pairs from each of us; they can be borrowed, if necessary). This represents approx. the number of American soldiers killed. At the same time assembling care packages for soldiers in Iraq, asking public to bring items.

4. Other discussion on: Downing Street Memo petition/action; Gov. Perry's recent remarks about some returning veterans; civil liberties and the Patriot Act developments this week; any other topics on your mind.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Save the filibuster - Write paper today

It looks like Frist and the Right are gearing up for the final assault on our judges and courts by bringing the vote on the filibuster to the floor May 16. Here's an excerpt from MoveOn calling us to action by writing letters to the editor (with ideas on content).

"For months we've worked together to hold back the radical Republican scheme to break the rules of the Senate and stack the courts with far-right judges. We've matched their every move with a wave of popular opposition that has broken their ranks and sent them scrambling to regroup.

"But regroup they have – and Frist is now vowing to stage the final confrontation as soon as next week.[1] The vote remains too close to call and – once again – it's up to us out here in America to hold the line.

"As they approach the moment of decision next week, all our senators will be watching the local press trying to gauge the public's reaction. One of the simplest, most effective ways we can get our message out is by filling those papers with letters to the editor – and that means submitting your letter this week. With our online tool and talking points (below), aimed at exposing the Republicans' alarming new strategy of intimidating judges, you can write and submit your letter in just a couple of minutes.

Please write yours today:

Happy writing. When we get our group's name established, we can start referring to our group in these letters.

See you May 21.