20 Years: From Ally to Accomplice

It’s been twenty years now since I publicly declared myself an Ally to LGBTQ persons. Twenty-three years, if you include my trembling words at a church meeting in South Bend, Indiana. But twenty since I—as a writer—“came out” in print. That decision began the twenty most creative, rewarding years of my life. Nothing has been so life-giving to me as to stand alongside these persons, offering my witness in their pursuit of dignity, visibility, affirmation . . . and simply LIFE.

I have grown immeasurably in my self-understanding as well. Today I would declare myself an Accomplice to LGBTQ persons (and to persons of color and immigrants, too). That is, I want to be clear: full human flourishing is not something I already enjoy and (from that vantage point) hope to extend to others. NO. Full human flourishing is a shared project. Until others are also free, my own sense of freedom is merely an illusion tempting me to indifference. My goal is to be an active accomplice in everyone’s pursuit of flourishing . . . thereby to take my own small turn at bearing the risk of challenging and thwarting the systems that threaten life.

Here, on the 20th anniversary of my own journey “from Ally to Accomplice” I share these two pieces from my first steps:

Spirituality and Coming Out
Originally written, October 7, 1999

October is home to National Coming Out Day. Still, it surprised me recently when some students of mine asked me to share some thoughts on spirituality and coming out. You see, I’m straight. But as I pondered what to say, I realized that I do have a “coming out” story of my own to relate. Two years ago, following my first ever GLBTA meeting at Luther College where I teach, I was reviewing with the faculty advisor the constituency covered by the acronym, “Okay, I know it’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, . . . and what? What does the ‘A’ stand for?” “Allies,” Janet replied. And I said, “Oh, that’s me! That’s where I fit in.” So this is a short reflection on my “coming out” as an ally for GLBT persons.

I “came out” in February 1997. By then I had already come to a fairly well-developed sense of why I affirmed the integrity of sexual orientations other than just heterosexual. Driven by more than simply tolerance, I was increasingly persuaded that God’s freedom to love, affirm, and include such persons was far bigger than any of the prejudices I grew up with. I had a number of gay and lesbian friends, and I was openly, even articulately supportive of them———-behind closed doors. Not that I was in any way anti-gay in public. I was just decidedly silent.

While a graduate student at Notre Dame I read through the regular waves of debate over homosexuality in the daily student newspaper (debates carried out almost entirely by straight persons). I was disturbed by the rhetoric, but remained otherwise quiet. Notre Dame’s Catholic tradition wasn’t my own. This was not my issue. Not my cause. Bottom line: not my life. So why take the risk?

In the spring of 1996 I began teaching at Notre Dame, and very subtly my perspective began to change. The mass of Notre Dame undergraduates, previously just a sea of faces to me, suddenly and inescapably had names . . . feelings . . . and lives. Then, the following February I read a poem in Scholastic, a weekly student magazine. Entitled “Living in Fear,” it was written by an anonymous gay senior student at Notre Dame and recounted his daily four-year battle toward self-acceptance while driven by fear to remain in the closet. This time, perhaps because this wasn’t a debate but a poignant lament, I wasn’t “disturbed but quiet,” I found myself weeping and raging. Late into the night I poured myself out onto paper in a long letter of response that I titled “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” In it I ransacked the Bible for every manner of image to comfort and affirm him (and there are many of these!). As I put it in the letter, “I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words.” Later on I wrote, “Against all this [the fear] that you know so well I can offer only words—but maybe this is precisely what I have not done often enough or loud enough or long enough.”

When my letter ran in the next week’s Scholastic, I was “out.” An ally. And there was no going back. I received a good number of e-mails of gratitude—but also more than a few words of derision. Coming out—even just as an Ally—has its price. But also its rewards, which leads me to my point about coming out and spirituality. I had reached a place where for me not to come out publicly as an ally of GLBT persons would have been, by my silence, to deny the very graciousness of the God who has encountered me. Instead, coming out as an ally has afforded me the chance to get on with the essential work of integrating my personal spirituality with my public commitments—the vocation of living my whole life in response to God’s grace. I know from friends that this is true for GLBT persons as well. It’s hard to hear the gospel in private if fear keeps you in the closet in public.

So I might be tempted to close with an invitation to all GLBT persons to “come out,” but I don’t think that’s my invitation to make, at least not directly. I can say, if you’re an Ally still in the closet, National Coming Out Day is for you, too. However, my direct task is to keep on “coming out” myself as an Ally, again and again, to do what I can to make the room beyond the closet a place that is safe when the closet door is opened by someone from the inside. And that’s not something I do as an “extra” or “add-on” to my spirituality; it’s the way I bear witness to the God I know

*     *     *

This is the text of my letter which originally appeared in Scholastic Magazine, February 27, 1997.

Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.

I need to say this quietly in deference to your eloquent anguish. But I need to say it nonetheless. And I am angry, and it will be hard to keep my voice down; angry not at you but for you. And if I misread the last lines of your poem and you already know all this, that’s okay. I’m sure someone else needs to hear it.

You say, “God knows, but God loves me anyway.” Wait. Let me say it gently but firmly—unequivocally. God does not love you “anyway”—despite your being gay. God does not need to overlook the way you are to smile at the beauty of your humanity, at the earthy reflection of divine love as you are gaily—and I don’t mean just “happily”—imago Dei.

Do you hear me, my friend? I will be downright strident about this because I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well, here they are.

When Hosea spoke of a day when God would have pity on “Not-pitied” and would say to “Not-my-people,” you are my people—Hosea meant you, and I hope that day is now. When Isaiah welcomed foreigners and eunuchs (ever before outcast from the presence of God) into the Temple—well, Isaiah meant to welcome you as well, and to name your praise, like their praise, as more dear to God than even that of the faithful Jews (or Christians), perhaps because your praise is brought over the objections and insults of so many of us—and yet still finds its way to God. And when Peter, our first pope (no less stubborn than the rest) was treated to that heavenly picnic of assorted forbidden foods it was to remind him of Isaiah’s self-same insight, that the church dare not exclude those who come at God’s own call.

When Jesus stopped to speak and sip with the Samaritan woman at the well, perhaps she, too, thought that his fellowship came to her “anyway,” despite her ethnic outcast baggage. But I tell you, my friend, and I am not scared to be flamboyant if need be: Jesus offered her living words and living water because of who she was. He relished her Samaritan beauty; he chose her for the Kingdom, and when he did, he meant for you to feel chosen, too, not despite, but because of your gayness. So, remember when you walk past the silent, subversive statue of her and him at the well in front of O’Shaugnessy Hall, that while the administration might prefer you didn’t exist, or at least didn’t tell us who you are, Jesus is stopping to chat because you caught his eye not “anyway”—but just the way you are.

Can you hear me, yet, my friend? I am not afraid to be audacious if I have to. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, he said to them if any town refused to welcome them in his name, well, on judgment day those towns would fare far worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Okay, it isn’t in the text—I admit it—but I will say it anyway because it’s true: Jesus meant to say as much to all you same-sex couples who, not unlike those disciples, come, two by two, hoping for a bit of hospitality from the church. What irony that we who have so long burdened you with the guilt of Sodom and Gomorrah find that the fire and brimstone are finally aimed our way.

And when Jesus said that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head he knew that if ever a day came when churches with their gilded gold and schools with their omnipresent crosses in every classroom thought that now Christ surely had a place to lay his head, he knew that you, my friend, would know better. For with your anguish every night you bear a fearful witness to us all. Until your head rests fully welcome within these walls—until then Christ keeps his weary watch outside with you, still after all these years aching and envious of foxes and birds.

I hope that you have heard, my friend. I tremble for the silent “no” that closes out—and closets in—each day, the quiet daily unmaking of yourself by fears all too well founded. Against all this that you know so well I can offer only words—but maybe this is precisely what I have not done often enough or loud enough or long enough. So, I hope, my unknown friend, that at the end of this day, and the next, and on and on, that when you crawl beneath your covers of so much more than linen you remember these words I offer in gentle but firm—unequivocal, strident, flamboyant, audacious witness: You are loved by God already now, not “anyway,” but fully because of who and how you are.

And I wait with you for the day when “no” becomes “yes” and you place yourself truthful in our midst. I wait patiently, because who am I to tell you when to step beyond the fears that we have heaped up in your way? And because who am I to think your fear is not, in part indebted to the comfort of my own silence? And I wait impatiently, because I know at least this much that God is anxious for you to share the joy God takes in the very beauty of who and how you are.

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Saber Rattling

Saber Rattling

Dedicated to my Uncle Phillip (front row center in this 2015 family reunion photo), whose pain I share even when our politics diverge.

You hear tell
of family divided
against family,
taking up weapons,
joining opposing armies,
taking aim (!)
at their own kin:
spilling blood
just a few generations
downriver
from those joined by love.

We aren’t there
yet,
not in my family, at least.
But some weeks
the saber rattling
on social media
cuts deep.

I wonder,
is kinship yet capable
of inspiring us
to build bridges,
or—
like so many in our nation,
will we go on choosing
to rattle sabers,
hurls words,
and take aim (!)
at the humanity
of those
whose blood we share.

Somebody benefits from
all this saber rattling,
but I daresay
it’s not anyone
in my family,
and most likely,
not in yours either.

I say, invest in bridges.

drw 08.20.2017

 

Back story: Political views in my extended family range from far right to far left. More than once Facebook posts have become lightning rods for vitriol. Posts about events in Charlottesville were no exception. Saturday afternoon, pained by several posts and the comment threads beneath them, Phillip called for a one-week moratorium on political posts by family members. I’m not sure that will help, but I hear (and share) his pain. Hence, this poem.

Detroit: A Non-Review of a Movie I Won’t be Seeing

Detroit: A Non-Review of a Movie I Won’t be Seeing
David R. Weiss, August 26, 2017

As someone who’s spent the past couple years intentionally educating—challenging—myself to think more clearly, carefully, and critically about race in the United States, I was quick to put “Detroit” on my list of summer movies to watch for.

Then I read a short piece by Frank Joyce on Salo.com (re-posted from Alternet): “Detroit is not a movie.” The essay begins, “Are you thinking of seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s movie ‘Detroit’? Don’t. Read John Hersey’s ‘The Algiers Motel Incident’ instead.” So I did.

But back to Joyce for a second. I later learned he’s spent the past 50 years as an anti-war and anti-racism activist based in Detroit. In 1965—just two years before the police murders that are the focus of the film—Joyce (a white man) founded Friends of the New Student Movement, with the stated purpose to raise awareness about the white racism that “permeates the economic, political, educational, religious, and social institutions of the entire nation.” Fifty-two years ago FNSM pursued systemic change because “black people will be free only when they equitably control . . . those institutions which influence their lives.” Joyce has been relentless enough in his anti-racism efforts that a Google search of him returns numerous hits from alt-right/white supremacist sites, where he is regularly attacked . . . venomously.

The thrust of his complaint about the movie is that it presents “a case study in the limits of the white gaze,” reducing the systemic racism that produced the city-wide unrest as well as the murders at the motel to (as always) “just a few bad apples.” Because even white people can afford to cringe uncomfortably (or is it appreciatively?) when the stories of injustice don’t damn the entire system.

His essay is a bit rambling in its rant, but at the very end he writes crisply, “So, you may say, don’t be naïve: what can you expect from Hollywood? More, that’s what. If you want to see a better example of racial truth from a Hollywood director, watch ‘13th’ by Ava Duvernay. It’s available on Netflix.”

Reading John Hersey’s book, written in 1968, just a year after the murders, was a challenging experience. Described on the cover as “a dramatic act-by-act reconstruction” of the incident, it’s an assemblage of fifty-two short chapters with 333(!) sub-sections, each containing one piece of the story. Based on personal interviews, court testimony, and newspaper accounts, I often found myself lost in the details. Hersey rarely pauses to set things in context; writing so soon after the events, he presumes a general knowledge foreign to me.

Nevertheless the impression given by the first person testimony of nearly all involved was powerful. Brutality, humiliation, anguish, contempt, arrogance, all come through with visceral verbal immediacy. I was most struck by how much of the narrative neatly anticipates what cell phone video reveals today. Our technology has advanced far more quickly than our social attitudes—or social systems. I suspect most black persons wouldn’t be similarly struck—except as it would confirm what they’ve known all along.

Then I read “‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible and Dangerous Movie Of The Year,” on Huffington Post by Jeanne Theoharis, Say Burgin, and Mary Phillips, all scholars of the Civil Rights Era (and at least one of them black). Like Joyce’s piece, this essay severely critiques the movie for leaving out critical events and context. Admitting the film “contains many black people,” they lament, “black people in the film are rendered largely as paper dolls—angry rioters, bloodied victims, or sad relatives—with little community, politics, work, joy, or even back story.” After explaining what’s at stake in a number of serious omissions in the film—which leave the viewer without the resources to understand the history or the systemic forces at play—they contend that the film’s forty-minutes of scenes of police brutality and torture become an “almost pornographic . . . fetishization of violence” that works to “normalize black death.” They charge, “ultimately what Bigelow (director) and Boal (writer) offer viewers is a public lynching of black men.”

Finally, I read “Detroit: a film by white people for white people” by John Sims, multimedia artist, writer, and Detroit native (who notes he was “in Detroit in utero” at the time of the Algiers motel incident). Along with the others, he criticizes the title itself—clearly a marketing choice to evoke the riot/rebellion that rocked the entire city in 1967, although the film focuses narrowly on one incident without rooting it in the larger urban/national unrest. He decries what he calls “the excessive humanisation of white cops” because it’s “unbelievable, unfair, and is used as a way to shift blame to a few bad guys, obfuscating the real culprit—the whole system.”

Sims then observes, “With the hollow character development, the minimal political context surrounding the rebellion, and evidence that the writers may love Motown’s music more than its people, I struggled to find an emotional connection deep enough to offset the pornographic violence featured in the film.” In fact, he states, “I have to wonder if this Passion of Christ level of brutality is what drives the white guilt that fuels temporary race-based empathy.”

As someone convinced that most of Christianity plays up the Holy Week mayhem for a very unholy adrenaline rush that misshapes our understanding of the cross (and of Jesus!), Sims words here strike me as near prophetic. There is something spiritually-emotionally twisted in using extended images of brutality to stir people to empathy (or faith) via guilt. Such tactics “barter” with our base instincts in pursuit of higher ideals, but most of the time these deals only feed our appetite for adrenaline—appetites which fall far short of a hunger for justice.

So, I’ve taken “Detroit” off my list of must-see movies. I learned plenty from the reading I did. I encourage you to read the Wikipedia entry on the Algiers Motel incident (it’s lengthy, but well shy of Hersey’s 300-plus page book). And then go through each of the three articles linked above. By the time you’re done (certainly in less than the two-and-a-half hours of film), you’ll not only learn something about this important chapter in race history, you’ll learn even more about the choices that matter in how we tell history. And whether those choices challenge us sufficiently so that we don’t continue to repeat it.

This entry was posted on August 26, 2017. 1 Comment

A Mini Manifesto

A Mini Manifesto
David R. Weiss, August 16, 2017

I am not even remotely interested in getting Trump to unambiguously condemn white racist violence. It is clear—it has been clear since during his campaign—that he is allied in principle and in prejudice with the aims of white supremacy. Any words that say otherwise are scripted lies.

Therefore I am interested in—and will be satisfied with nothing less than—removing him from power. Nothing less than this will begin to assert politically that Black Lives Matter.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been recklessly passive in this regard. Lots of political posturing from all angles, but as yet no one willing to take straightforward political measures to remove the mad man from behind the wheel of the careening car that is today’s United States of America.

From Charlottesville forward, every lost moment should be measured in lost lives.

Lastly, while I appreciate MLK’s moving rhetoric—and agree with him absolutely—it’s time to re-word his wisdom for THIS moment: “Whiteness cannot drive out whiteness run entirely amok, only the embrace of darkness as beautiful and beloved by God can do that.”

Until we are ready to say that black (and brown, and red, and yellow . . .) women and men carry within them wisdom that is essential to America’s promise, wisdom that must be at the forefront of our national healing AND AT THE HELM OF OUR POLITICS—until then we who have been raced as white stand condemned before God and our fellow humans.

Earth-Honoring Faith: A to Z

I’ve just completed a two-week workshop on Earth-Honoring Faith at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’ve written a series of short reflections on my experience here.

You can read them in this long blog post or download them in this pdf: Earth-Honoring Faith A to Z.

 

From A to Z – an Abecedary Journal of Reflections & Insights during the Earth-Honoring Faith Workshop at Ghost Ranch, July 2-8, 2017

David R. Weiss

A short note to those reading this “from the outside.” The Earth-Honoring Faith—Journey of the Universe workshop was the last of a ten-year series of EHF workshops curated by Larry Rasmussen at Ghost Ranch. Each workshop had a slightly different entry point (this year it was the film/book, Journey of the Universe) into conversation and reflection about how to midwife an “earth-honoring faith” in Christianity (but also in other faith traditions), one cognizant of current science, committed to addressing climate change, and able to foster a renewed mutuality with Earth and beyond.

Our incredible faculty for the week were:

  • Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Neibuhr Professor Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary. He is author of many books and articles on Eco-Ethics including Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key.
  • Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Asian religions, she is co-author (with Brian Swimme) of Journey of the Universe, and carries out multiple projects with her husband, John Grim.
  • John Grim, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Native American & indigenous religions, he is co-director (with Mary Evelyn Tucker) of the Forum on Religion & Ecology at Yale, co-author of Ecology and Religion, and co-director/co-editor of the Harvard conference/book series, World Religions and Ecology.
  • Bill Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Bill has written extensively on biblical perspectives of creation, including The Seven Pillars of Creation: Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder and Sacred Sense.
  • Betty Holley, Professor of Environmental Ethics & African American Religious Studies at Payne Seminary and a presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • Julianne Lutz Warren, Fellow at the Center for Humans & Nature with a Ph.D. in conservation ecology. She is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, an intellectual biography of his land ethic.

 

Each day at Ghost Ranch I set aside time in the afternoon and evening—often outside the Welcome Center until midnight—processing my thoughts from the day. Some are personal insights, most are drawn from the day’s presentations. They’re still largely unedited. And I didn’t write them in alphabetical order, but once I’d written the first couple (Night and Motion) I saw a pattern worth pursuing, and I followed it until I filled out the whole alphabet. I have so much more I could write about—and will. But this collection will be a seed packet. Who knows what will sprout from it?

Of course—these are MY reflections. They can’t begin to speak to the whole experience, but they offer a glimpse of mine.

 

Foreword – a reflection on my way to Ghost Ranch

Driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe I find myself swallowed—no, embraced—by landscape that is at once foreign and familiar. I don’t know this land. Not on the outside. I’ve only been a tourist here on a few brief occasions. But it seems as if this land knows me … as if, on the inside we are already well-acquainted.

Yes, there is a sparse stunning beauty on the horizon. The mountains, if not quite majestic are more than respectable. But it’s the close-up landscape that greets me like a friend. The scraggly land that only rarely—here and there, now and then—bursts into vibrant green. More often the land waits, unapologetically, between a dry brown and a windy tan, with only the barest hint of faded green. Like me.

This land echoes my inner landscape so well it is impossible not to feel instinctively at home, affirmed by the ground under my feet. It’s good to be here.

A is for Alchemy. In centuries past (likely still in some minds today) alchemy names the proto-scientific ambition that sought to transmute some common substance (usually some cheap metal) into something far more precious—often gold. Today we see it most often as a fool’s errand although the sincere diligence of its most ardent practitioners laid important groundwork for chemistry and pharmacy.

What I am learning this week is that while alchemy may well lie beyond the reach and patience of humanity, it is standard practice in the universe. From the Big Bang through supernovae and evolving life forms, alchemy is what the universe does. Starting with just quarks and leptons it fashioned hydrogen—and from there stars, planets, all the elements, oceans, plants, dinosaurs, and us.

It may overstate it to say the universe is consciously purposive. But is has been relentlessly creative and expansively expressive over its billions of year. Perhaps our place is not to play alchemist but to observe this alchemy already at play, to pursue an appreciative understanding, a posture of wonder, awe, gratitude.

 

B is for Bird. No happy tale, this one. Several years back the American Museum of Natural History was hiring an ornithologist (a bird expert). One of the most prestigious positions for an ornithologist in the world, the candidates were numerous and all top tier. When the search had been narrowed down to the final six candidates, each was invited to make a presentation on the bird that was the focus of their research.

At that point a sobering realization emerged. Of the six candidates, FOUR of them were studying birds that had gone extinct during the course of the researcher’s study. Life evaporating before their very eyes.

We aren’t perched on the edge of an extinction event; we have begun the cascade down the hill. As a direct result of this ominous intersection of human expertise and species extinction, the Museum added a dimension to their exhibits that treats the spiritual-religious facet of species loss, recognizing that this isn’t simply an historical event; it’s an existential one.

 

C is for Center. Our best science used to regard Earth as the center of all that is (which at the time wasn’t even the universe). Then Earth was displaced by the Sun (cause for no small bit of theological drama), but we still claimed the Sun-centered solar system as the center. Then we learned about not just stars but whole galaxies. And we discovered to our existential angst that we’re actually located in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, swirling around its center, while floating in (what we thought was) a static universe. Now we know the universe itself is dynamic: in constant motion, still expanding from that initial Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

Here’s the scale: current best estimates are 100 billion or more stars in each galaxy—and likely as least one trillion galaxies in the universe. These galaxies are gathered in groups (of perhaps several dozen) that revolve around a center in their midst. These groups of galaxies revolve around yet another center in a cluster of galaxies (hundreds, perhaps thousands of galaxies to a cluster). And these clusters revolve around yet another center in superclusters of galaxies (comprising millions of galaxies at a time).

Here’s where it bends your mind. The center of our supercluster is a massive star at the center of the Virgo Cluster. Mathematical calculations confirm this star as “the” center of cosmic expansion. Everything is rushing away from this point. EXCEPT our best science right now says that every other supercluster (and there are millions of them) also has an exact center of cosmic expansion. There are millions of centers, all legitimately claiming with mathematical certainty and the gravitational pull to prove it, that THEY at the center of this universe. Boom. Mind blown. We can’t think that way for long.

But what if the same is true of religions? What if truth is not Christocentric or Judeo-Christian-centric or Abrahamic-centric? What if at the heart of all religions is a truth irreducible to others? What if, in our one universe, there are multiple centers of religious truth? Science (almost gleefully) bends our minds to tell us the truth of multiple cosmic centers. Would we expect spiritual truth to be any less challenging?

D is for DNA. Life’s evolved means of preserving the memory of its successes. Pythagoras’ greatest insight was his conviction that the essence, the ground of reality was not water, air, fire, but … number. Where many of us see only confusing equations, he saw sheer beauty in the endless array of precise mathematical patterns (including the theorem that bears his name).

But he couldn’t have known the extent to which he was right, not simply about abstract equations or the laws of physics or the exacting relationships that make for visual or auditory art, but about life itself. In DNA life codes its accomplishments in patterns. Meaning it doesn’t need to pass on each finished molecule from one generation to the next. It simply passes forward the genetic memory, the blueprint, so that each new generation can build on the last (occasionally improvising through mutations).

Most astonishingly if you think about it, through evolution DNA has “taken flight.” To some extent among animals who teach the use of tools, but especially among humans, with the development of symbol and language, life’s memory is no longer bound by genetic code. Through cultural tradition, religious heritage, the arts and humanities, and through scientific knowledge, we have “externalized” DNA.

Though hardly without risk. Our increased awareness, our self-consciousness, allows us to more actively “partner” with DNA than any other creature can. We help fashion the next generation by what we encode in rituals, books, and more. But whether by abusive eugenics, racist science, bigoted religion, or oppressive culture, sometimes what we pass forward is precisely what life would prefer to forget: dysfunctional hatreds that are hardly the fittest for survival. We have yet to learn how to consistently shape ourselves through wisdom.

 

E is for Earth. Every one of the speakers here refers to our planet as Earth. Not “the earth”; simply Earth as a name. It’s a rhetorical move I intentionally made in my own eco-speaking at churches over the past year, but I wasn’t aware of others doing the same. I do it to personalize the planet, to refuse to make language reduce this life-giving orb to an “It.” Following Martin Buber’s wisdom, calling Earth by name bestows a Thou-ness to the planet. (BUT—it’s a thou-ness that science increasingly suggests is less ours to bestow than to acknowledge.)

Tonight I recall words spoken this morning commemorating Rina Swentzell, a Pueblo wise woman and former teacher in this course who died not quite two years ago. Rina married an Anglo man and one of her daughters, Athena, spoke about how difficult it was growing up in the pueblo with features that followed her father’s Anglo heritage far more than her siblings. Just shy of outcast, she was consistently “edge-cast,” regarded as “less than” by many outside her immediate family. Athena said it was a tortuous childhood, yearning to belong, yet recognizing that belonging rests in the chosen embrace by others … in her case an embrace largely withheld. Until her mother told her as a young adult, “No, you don’t belong to the people. They do not choose whether you belong. You belong to Earth, and each day she upholds your feet, she is embracing you. You always belong.

Here, too, Earth not only stands before us as Thou. Indeed, her grace is that she “thou”-s us unconditionally and irrevocably. We are because she claims us as hers.

 

F is for Fusion & G is for Gravity. That these letters fall right next to each other in the alphabet is both convenient and appropriate. A bit like yin and yang, fusion and gravity represent forces that can hold each other in check and that provide the creative tension in which the universe unfolds.

Consider: it is gravity, driven by unimaginable mass, that presses elemental particles together until fusion occurs, ultimately pressing hydrogen into helium, generating the explosive energy of a star. But that explosive energy, rather than simply exhausting itself, is captured again by gravity, triggering another cycle of fusion. A star’s life is an explosion caught in suspended animation—with an emphasis on both words. It isn’t a frozen explosion, it’s an ongoing explosion that never dissipates (well, at least not for billions of years).

Two side comments. Gravity, the physical force of attraction between all things that have mass, might be analogous to love, the emotional force of attraction that pulls persons together. I often remark that I have a “blended” family, since Margaret and I “blended” our children together when we married. But I’ve heard two people here describe themselves as being from “fusion” families—a notion I like because it acknowledges what I’ve known to be true: when families, like elemental particles, are fused together by love, something more than the mere sum of parts results. Something altogether new—with a burst of transformative energy to boot.

 

H is for Hope. But we begin with hevel, the Hebrew word that opens the Book of Ecclesiastes. Often rendered as “vanity” (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”), it’s a wispy word with lots of nuance. Other options: futility, absurdity, passing away, vaporous. One German commentator proposes Scheisse. It’s just the way life is: hevel happens.

Hevel speaks a real truth. Shit does happen. Our best hopes evaporate. Our dreams prove futile. These are undeniable aspects of human life. Absurdity makes a strong case for having the final word. Regarding climate change, hevel might ask, “What did you expect? Have you not been following human history? It’s populated by people with hevel for brains!”

But we need hope. So, consider hope a trustworthy hunger. How do we know it’s trustworthy? I’ll guess because it’s bound up with the memory of stars—the whole saga of the universe—woven into our psyches. We remain part of creation’s book, even if we’re no longer paying attention to the story. The story still claims us. I recall, playfully but purposefully, Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot. When Pooh gets lost in the woods, he follows the “rumbly in his tumbly”—his own trustworthy hunger—home to his honey pot. For us, the hunger to be at home on earth is trustworthy as hope comes. (I also believe religious traditions offer hope through their varied stories, symbols, and rituals. Personally, I see these as distinct doorways into the primal universal hope described above. My greatest “fluency” in is Christian hope, but I don’t regard it as more “true” than that of other traditions … or that of sheer scientific wonder. And some religious hope may be less earth-friendly than others.)

One caveat as we follow our hunger home. The more we re-member ourselves into the universe story, the more we’ll grieve for the pages we’ve ripped from the book (see “V is for Voices”). This grief is not disempowering, though it may be overwhelming. It represents the muted joy of getting closer to home.

Hevel happens, and is wont to revel in its happening. But hope—watered by tears—will have the last word. Because, finally, this story rests on perspective far larger and longer than ours. Be hungry. Go home.

 

I is for Intuition. How else to name the deep insights harbored in the sacred stories of indigenous peoples? (Plus, it was the word chosen by one of the Native women at our workshop.) I’m not concerned with the scientific “accuracy” of these many tales—and, I daresay, those who first told them weren’t either! Rather, these stories offered up the holy intuitions of those sages and seers in varied cultures whose vision outpaced science by centuries. Whose tales told truths far more fecund than mere facts. They tethered the people to the ground and sea, to the moon and stars, to the plants and animals, to the seasons of nature and the cycles of life. They didn’t imagine this web of life. No, they perceived its objective reality through the wisdom of their hearts. They saw our interconnections—often all the way to the stars—and simply spun tales so that others could hear the drama they intuitively knew.

I’m honestly not sure that modern ears (attuned to contemporary science and/or contemporary religion) can easily or fully “hear” what these indigenous traditions say today. The gaps in worldview are so great, it’s almost like trying to interpret a whale song. Such songs undeniably carry rich meaning, but rely on a “grammar” and “syntax” that we have yet to fathom. Regarding intuition, our contemporary minds have invested so much energy in linear-logical thought that we may well have rendered them incapable of hearing other tones. In which case, respectful listening to what we cannot hear may be the best we can do. And that virtue alone may help us hear.

J is for Journey. Of course. That’s the theme of the workshop: Journey of the Universe. In a nutshell, the point (the power!) of this unassuming phrase is that, far from being a static backdrop against our lives, the universe itself is an unfolding story—a drama, in which we have a role. This ought to humble us: we are, after all, players in a cast that includes supernovae and black holes—forces beyond anything we can conceive of. But it also ought to inspire us: we are the fruit of a story fourteen billion chapters in the making—and not one chapter is dispensable to our being here. It’s taken everything the universe has in it to reach this point where we step onto the stage. Whoa.

Sadly, we’ve assumed our role is to plunder our corner (read: planet) of the universe. Driven, I’d argue, by existential insecurity and a patriarchal order that equates dignity with dominance, we’ve invested deeply—and across centuries, perhaps millennia—in a project destined to be our death if we cannot find another role.

I recall the words of early feminist theologian Nelle Morton who said to her sisters, lest they be wearied by their own arduous journey toward gender justice, “the journey is home.” From Big Bang to first stars to our galaxy, our Sun, our Earth, we dwell within story upon story upon story. An endless cascade of journeys, one nested inside the other. Our role—uniquely ours because of our capacity for culture—is to be troubadours of the journey. To learn the stories as best we can and to find our place within them, offering songs (whether scientific, religious, philosophical, or artistic) that honor the journey we’re on.

 

K is for King. Today Betty Holley’s presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us see the profoundly creative connections between “King and the Cosmos.” Although understandably best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement, Betty showed how wholistic King’s vision of a truly universal justice was. It’s possible we prefer to keep King’s reach bound by race for our own comfort, but his words and wisdom touched on economics and militarization, indigenous rights and ecological concerns.

Far beyond the claim (itself resoundingly important[!]—though also historically conditioned) that “all men are brothers,” King also declared “all LIFE is inter-related,” comprising “an inescapable network of mutuality … a single garment of destiny.”

Moreover, his capacity to move the conscience of the nation on civil rights helped inspire the environmental movement—and the environmental justice movement (the wing of environmental activism focused also on racial justice). As Betty read through the Principles of Environmental Justice drafted in October 1991, the echo of King’s wholistic vision of justice, now embraced and developed by others, stilled the room in awe.

For me, it was a revelatory affirmation of what liberation theologians call the epistemological privilege of the poor: the clarity of vision that is uniquely accessible to those on the underside of systemic injustice. Suffering does not guarantee insight, but privilege almost always insures ignorance. And in this document, suffering’s voice is crystal clear. (http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)

 

L is for Light. I’m a poet: I listen for evocative connections; I take delight in the suggestive. So listen to this. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear, does it make a sound? I’d say, No. It’s sending out a puff of waves, but if there are no ears to hear them, it just vibrations moving through air.

God said, “Let there be light.” Did anyone hear that? God doesn’t have physical ears, and there were no humans and no animals around to pick up those “spoken” vibrations. I know, it’s all myth. I agree. But play along. Listen for the delight.

The Milky Way is a galaxy with a spiral structure. When scientists first noted its spiral “arms,” they thought the arms were comprised of matter swirling around the galaxy’s center. Now they understand that the spirals are caused by gravitational waves pulsing outward through the galaxy. Think waves of powerful attraction, waves of love.

Imagine the vibrations of God’s breath saying “Let there be light,” despite there being no ears to hear the words. Only silent vibrations pulsing outward. But as these words-waves move they pull gas clouds together with such force (love) that they IGNITE into massive stars—“Light!”—and burn for millions of years until they’re expended and the waves-words pulse further outward igniting more stars along the way. We SEE Genesis 1:3 occurring in the spiral arms of galaxies, the universe responding to God’s soundless-but-brilliant call for light.

 

M is for Motion. We started the morning 250 million years ago up on the mesa. The ground exposed under our feet used to host a jungle populated by dinosaurs. Part of Pangea back then (the great singular land mass before our current continents went their own ways) this ground was equatorial at the time. Like me, it traversed a thousand miles or more to get here this morning. Now some cosmic dance places us as partners. Here. Today.

Later on—the layers in the exposed mountains tell the story—this land was all sand dunes. Dried out by a mountain range, itself long since expired, that stopped all the rain on the western slopes. And millions of years after that, it was a large inland sea. Jungle, dunes, seabed. These are my neighbors in this place across time. And they have graciously welcomed me to the neighborhood.

 

N is for Night. Sunday night—my first night here. When have I known the comfort of such dark? When has silence been such an intimate companion? Too rarely, for sure.

My roommate headed to bed shortly after nine. I showered, gathered my things and headed to the library, where I read and reviewed notes for tomorrow’s conversation. From 9:30-10:30 I was alone … then the high school and/or college kids came. Hardly noisy, but the stillness was gone. By 11 I finished my work and had my phone & laptop fully charged. I made my way, clothed in darkness, to the Welcome Center where the rock patio stills holds a bit of the day’s warmth, and I have been sitting in the dark wrapped in nothing but stillness. No voices. No cars. No media. The lazy chirp of crickets at most.

I don’t imagine I could live like this daily. I know I could. In this expanse the voices that clamor inside me don’t feel so much urge to run amok seeking attention. They quiet down and organize themselves into something like a lilting symphony. A soothing melody with myriad variations that rolls like a lazy—friendly—river behind my thoughts without disrupting them.

I was made for silence. Sure, I am head over heels in love with words. But apart from silence, they become unruly noise. In the stillness they unfold themselves with the patience of leaves. It is such joy.

And this: whoever taught us to be afraid of the dark did so to keep us from learning the liberating wisdom that lies beyond sight. (Yes, I know there are things to fear in the dark, though no less fearsome things operate in broad daylight if we’re honest.) But darkness carries a beauty deeper than eyes can see. Not simply that it compels us to look inward—but that it reminds us, sometimes, simply to stop looking at all.

 

O is for O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. The famous artist stumbled upon Ghost Ranch in 1934, first spending summers here in a rented cottage, eventually managing to buy the house and a few acres of land. She spent her summers here exploring the terrain on foot and then capturing it on canvas. A loner all her life, she sought isolation on the Ranch and only uneasily fashioned alliances with the other residents. When she could no longer live at the ranch, she retired to Santa Fe, eschewing social contact to the end, declaring, “I find people very difficult.” Me, too.

I need to add—and quickly—that there are plenty of people I love: Margaret, my six kids, nine grandchildren, parents, siblings, and plenty of other family and friends to make a short working list.

But the truth is, my best gifts, my deepest joys and strongest sense of purpose, unfold mostly in solitude … and tend to wither in its absence. I might well fall prey to despair were I not tethered to others, but I need to cultivate space—especially in the form of time and solitude—for my best self to come forward more consistently. I want more “social balance” than Ms. O’Keeffe chose, but no less honesty. So, although I don’t say if very often, here it is: I find people very difficult. J

 

P is for play. Longer recess may have begun as a genetic mutation that lengthened our childhood, humanizing us in two distinctive ways. We see “play” in the young of many mammals—it carries an essential role in building the skills that equip them to successfully navigate their world. But as childhood lengthened dramatically for our earliest human ancestors, they spent successively more and more time “at recess.”

First, this meant their brains had significantly more time to mature while still young, tutored by play in ways that stretched and deepened cognitive development beyond anything the animal kingdom had ever seen. Second, one “by-product” of play that followed us into adulthood is doing things that bring delight as an end in themselves. Thus, sport, art, literature, music, dance are all instances of “play” polished to a fine point. Indeed, the freedom we experience as beings with a sense of choice is also a form of play carried forward into adulthood.

Ironically, under this hypothesis, we stand—in truth—not simply on the shoulders of our wisest elders, but equally on the giggles of those mischievous children in our distant past.

Carrying this notion one step further, many development theorists (I’m thinking particularly of James Fowler) posit a stage of post-conventional awareness in which adults—those who reach it anyway—experience a second naiveté, an ability to relish wonder and complexity with joy that is play in its richest form. Unfortunately, modern society—from education to market to employer to parish—all conspire to halt our development shy of post-conventional maturity. Today, more than ever, if we hope to bequeath a breathing planet to a next generation of children, we adults must remember how to link the knowledge we have to the wisdom of play.

 

Q is for Quest. I am my own worst critic. (That’s sheer assumption—maybe people say worse things about me behind my back than I imagine. I just know the critical voices in my head can be severe, even savage.) Blessed with many gifts, I rarely manage to bring them together with focus. Despite my plentiful passion, my days are usually defined more by distraction than determination, shaped more by my anxieties than my aspirations.

I’ll be honest. My “quest” in coming here was fundamentally to disrupt the distracting rhythms of my life sufficiently to re-center myself. Yes, “earth-honoring faith” is a central passion for me, and cultivating some contacts and deepening my understanding will be helpful. But I needed something more than another academic conference. I needed a setting that invited personal transformation as much as professional development. Ghost Ranch has been that for me. (And—holy shit!—I still have eight more days here!)

Maybe next week, after the workshop is over and I’m here as part of the Adult Service Corps (read: free labor for five hours/day), I’ll take in the museums and a few hikes. This week—maybe you’ve noticed—I’m writing. Processing each day’s ideas a bit, although I barely scratch the surface of all there is to think about. Most importantly, I am daily re-making myself. Giving words and silence the place they need in order for determination, focus, and joy to blossom in my life. (But see “V is for Voices”; this joy is both gracious gift to my soul and anchor for soul-rending grief.)

This is heart-work for me. Remembering who I am and what I need. Tending the desert in my soul. I came to the right place, surrounded by the right people, to do this work. And I’m determined to carry a well-tended desert back with me to the land of ten thousand lakes.

R is for Religious. I won’t argue if you’re skeptical. Religious traditions have done their damned best to stain their own image. They’re too often pressed into the service of top-down power and hierarchy. Wielded as cultural weapons rather than serving as wombs for wonder, they are—without question—ambiguous at best.

And yet, how else to stand before a world—from the terrain our eyes meet to the stars rushing away to ancient days beyond our gaze—a world “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)? Go ahead and replace God with Mystery or Allure. Reduce it to a capital-G Grandeur, and put the period right there, if you wish. The bottom line is that, given our sensuous perception and given the world’s sheer Isness, our fundamental response should begin with wonder and awe.

And religious (keeping organized and institutionalized religion at arm’s length) is the human posture that allows wonder to wind its way like ivy around our lives. It invites awe to grow in our souls. Finally, being religious is not about believing in God or practicing strict rituals. It is about meeting the world with a deep bow of boundless gratitude. Now go practice.

 

S is for Stardust. It sounds fanciful to say, but it’s true, we carry stardust in our hearts. The iron that reddens our blood was born in stars. Indeed, all the elements that comprise this planet, from rocks to plants to animals—all of this is made from stardust. But we alone know this.

The Earth Charter, which we reviewed today, is glorious in its aspirational vision for our life together. It’s like a moral murmuration (see W is for Whirlpool): a glimpse of human lives moving in full alignment in a pattern of justice. It’s what moral consciousness looks like under the right conditions so that universal self-organizing dynamics can emerge.

It’s also a long way from aspirational charter to actual change. I get that. But stardust! In its powerful Preamble, the Earth Charter summons us, both individually and collectively, to a life geared toward “being more rather than having more.” That change needs to happen (and quickly, because the time is short!) in our lives, our communities, our common commitments, our governments, our actions of resistance and hope. But it begins in how we see ourselves. It begins in our hearts—the very stardust core of our being.

We are stars come to life. It’s time for us to trace our genealogy back to the beginning. To find our place in a proud family, where our ancestors truly shine down on us each night. A family where it is already an honor, already enough, simply to be.

 

T is for Touch. This is perhaps THE challenge of “earth-honoring faith.” Yes, we need to grasp the basics of the science, both cosmology and climate change. And, yes, we need to reckon soberly with the implications of our present economic-industrial inertia for our livelihood on the planet—and the livelihood of our fellow fauna and flora. But we need more than this.

We need to touch hearts. The stark numbers are essential, but they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, for most people, numbers don’t tell stories at all. Which is exactly why religion (and arts of every kind) have a crucial role to play here. We must move people to grief, to hope, to imagine, to resolve, to resist, to renew. Our knowledge must find expression in stories that can touch.

 

U is for Us. Though likely not the “us” to which your mind races. I’m thinking of the “us” in Gen 1:26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings …’” Many have wondered or argued at length over this “us.” Some say it’s simply an instance of “the royal ‘we,’” as when a monarch speaks on behalf of the whole realm. Others believe it shows God speaking to the angels. And still others hold that it reflects an early intimation of the Trinity. I don’t really care, but I’m going to cast my vote for a yet more evocative reading.

Genesis tells us, “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation …’” creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’” (1:11, 20, 24) I don’t imagine for a minute that the author of Genesis is making scientific or historical claims. He’s spinning a tale that will orient his people meaningfully in the world in which they dwell. But it does seem significant that he portrays a God who works with creation in creative partnership.

So, given what we know today of life’s unfolding course, why not read the “us” as God turning to the entire animal kingdom (all brought forth in the immediately preceding verses), and saying to them with a grand evolutionary invitation, “Now, let us—all of you creatures—let us together make human beings in our image … so that they carry within themselves both the seeds of creaturely roots and the aspirations of God.”

 

V is for Voices. A whole symphony of them. Silent. Silenced. Tonight we listened to audio recordings of birdsongs of five birds gone extinct in the past century. I was wholly unprepared. These songs were instances of aural beauty that will. Never. Be. Sung. Again.

We heard them tonight. Though not resurrected. Still fully dead. Songs from beyond the grave. As I listened a macabre scene played out in my head against my own wishes. I imagined myself plucking each bird, feather by feather, until I took each brutally bared body and twisted the neck to stop the song. Forever.

Julianne Warren’s presentation was as exquisitely poignant as anything I’ve experienced. Teary-eyed and breathless, I scrawled in my notebook, “Oh————you ripped a hole in my soul! I did not know how to feel such grief. Only that I needed to. And you led me there. What a strange thing to say ‘thank you’ for.”

I know, I’m not to blame. But my “innocence” does those birds no good. And I have my own strong intuition that hope is something sown deep in the soil of our souls, where it requires the salty water of tears before it sprouts. Tonight I watered hope.

 

W is for Whirlpool. This patterning effect occurring with water is emblematic of the self-organizing dynamics at work within the universe. Seemingly present at all levels of matter and perhaps responsible for producing the spark of life itself, these dynamics are manifest when matter—even at a very simple chemical level, encounters conditions that lead it to organize itself spontaneously (and without any outside direction) into a patterned and persisting order. From crystalline structures to nanoparticles, from whirlpools in water to murmurations by starlings, we see a universal tendency to resist entropy (the tendency toward disorder and chaos) with creative pattern.

Hardly inevitable unless the conditions are right, self-organizing dynamics might offer a clue to human morality. My own flight of fancy here (still refining it): is it possible that ethical principles like justice, compassion, altruism, mutuality and so forth are the “moral whirlpools” that appear in human consciousness—under the right conditions? Might they represent consciousness intuitively organizing itself for life-giving purposes.

Within matter, self-organizing dynamics arise only when the physical conditions are right—temperature, pressure, etc. Otherwise entropy holds sway. So … are there conditions—physical, social, spiritual—that are prerequisite to the emergence of life-giving morality? I suspect so. And it feels rather pressing to discern them before entropic morality (principles, to be sure, but ones “guiding” life toward chaos) wins the day … at least in this corner of the universe.

 

X is for X, X + 1. I know, it seems like I’m reaching here, but wait until you see where I’m going. This morning we looked at Proverbs 30:18-19 as a text showing the biblical declaration of wonder for creation. It’s an example of “graded numerical parallelism.” What does THAT mean? Glad you asked. Simply put, as Bill Brown, our speaker, explained, the first clause speaks of X number of things, and the next one makes the same clam regarding X + 1. J

Here’s the verses:

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:

the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of one lover with another.

And here’s the wonder. The poem declares its awe for creation by exclaiming in wonder at the mystery manifest in natures three great domains—no, four. The way a bird moves across the sky, the way a snake moves across the ground, the way a ship moves across the waters—and, most especially, the way love moves across human hearts.

A simple poem, astonishing in its exquisite reach for wonder, made clear by x, x + 1.

 

Y is for You. Yes, you. It’s the penultimate letter in the alphabet, but I’ve saved writing this reflection until the very end. In Journey to the Universe (p. 122), Mary Evelyn Tucker & Brian Swimme describe the existential restlessness that marks humanity: “Other species found their biome and settled into it, but nothing has seemed to satisfy us fully. Every place we went we felt we were at home, yet not at home.” They go on to suggest that perhaps our vocation is to so immerse ourselves in the wonder of this entire place—from Earth to space—that “we become the human form of the universe,” and that perhaps only then will we find ourselves at home on Earth.

I agree. But my mind is still pondering the phrase “other species found …”, and I hear “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but …” (Luke 9:58)—which, of course, is Jesus talking about himself. And I can’t help but wonder, Were we mistaken in thinking he was talking only about himself? We (Christians, at least!) are eager to maintain Jesus’ monopoly on messianic status … as though that’s the highest honor we can accord him. But what if that “honor” undermines his entire message? (I’m just asking.)

But I am really asking. What if Jesus was actually modeling messiah—for all of us? As our universal vocation. What if incarnation is our common calling? What if being a Cosmic Christ—someone chosen by God … by the Universe … smeared with oil (anointed) … selected by evolution … seeded by stardust … to be representative of Love—what is THIS is my destiny—and yours? Yes, you.

 

Z is for Zest. Specifically, “zest for life,” a favorite phrase of Teilhard de Chardin. But “favorite” misstates it. For de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and theological cosmologist, zest for life names the quality of the human spirit on which our survival depends. It is the perseverance to survive against all odds, the determination to get up again, and again, to press forward. But it is not Sisyphean fatalism or stoic resignation. Zest for life involves taking stark account of the situation in front of you, assuming full responsibility for the weight your choices carry for tomorrow, and drawing deeply on the subterranean spring of joy that feeds the soul … not with happiness but with something far grittier: zest for life.

Whether you conceive of this zest as fed by God or by Nature or by Human Spirit writ large, this zest—think faith in its most visceral expression—is quite likely what will determine whether tomorrow dawns on a world that includes us, or one in which our memory fades to extinction. So, here’s to Zest!

*          *          *

David R. Weiss

drw59mn@gmail.com

 

Open Letter to St. Kate’s Adjunct Faculty

Dear St. Kate’s adjunct faculty—

I write to you as co-steward of Hamline’s Adjunct Faculty Union, SEIU Local 284.

I know you recently received ballots for your union election. You may have already marked and mailed your ballot. I’m writing to those of you still contemplating your vote. I hope it’s YES.

I’ve been an adjunct instructor of religion at Hamline since 2004. I’ve also taught as an adjunct at Augsburg (2002-2005) and St. Kate’s (2003-2009). From spring 2014 to the present I’ve been involved in organizing, bargaining, and serving as a steward for Hamline’s union.

From that vantage point, the first thing that struck me in reading the information about “unionization efforts” on the university website and the President’s personal appeal to you is how frightfully scared St. Kate’s is of the prospect of a union.

They’ve given you several of the gains we had to bargain hard for (such as a significant pay increase). But that’s precisely because we unionized and bargained for them right next door. The improvements you’ve seen at St. Kate’s (pay, parking, office space, committee) are an effort to stop the union process. Having taught as an adjunct for fifteen years in the Twin Cities, I can say from experience: our pay was flat, our concerns largely ignored, our voices virtually invisible until unionization began. This is true even of Macalester and St. Thomas. The gains they experienced came because of their union rumblingsand because of our union success.

Why would St. Kate’s be so determined to avoid a union that they’d even start offering you union-style improvements without one? Simply put: to avoid sharing power with you, which is the sine qua none of a just relationship. They hope to take the edge off your discontent while keeping you as far as possible from becoming a collective voice that can shape your own future. Gains that come as charity are always controlled by others—and can always be withdrawn. A union makes you a full partner in the venture of creating conditions of justice for your teaching—conditions that empower you vocationally and that support the most effective teaching that you can do … ultimately, conditions that support the best learning opportunities for your students.

I don’t say this to “attack” St. Kate’s. It is, quite simply, the way power operates in most spheres, and it’s endemic in higher education today. Given the escalating power differentials between university administration and faculty of all levels, unionized faculty offer perhaps the best protection for a vital culture of education—because unions provide those doing the teaching with a measure of power to balance out the priorities of those counting the dollars and the numbers. It’s not that dollars and numbers don’t matter. It’s that increasingly they drive everything. If you unionize, you not only claim a measure of power for yourselves and your vocation, you also help protect the power of fulltime faculty because you insure that adjuncts are no longer an exploitable resource that can be played off against fulltime positions. See the AAUP’s One Faculty statement on this on depth of fulltime faculty solidarity with us.

I also want to respond to the President’s most recent direct appeal to you.

It’s no doubt true that you’ll make the best progress at St. Kate’s by working together with administrators. Absolutely. But unionizing won’t “get in the way” of that—unless the university chooses to vindictively “punish” you once you unionize. Rather, a union empowers you to pursue that progress together with the university on terms that insure your gains are preserved and your future goals are set by your collective voice, not by the administration.

I heard the claim that SEIU is not the right union for adjunct faculty often at Hamline, too. It is, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt at the “politics of division,” suggesting that we should feel “better than” the “mere” service workers that comprise most of SEIU’s members. Coming from the president of a university steeped in the Catholic tradition of deep respect for the dignity of all labor, this is an appeal to your lesser instincts. I’ll counter by noting three things.

First, the transience and relative isolation that are hallmarks of adjunct teaching have also made us easy targets to exploit over the past decades. SEIU has a vibrant successful history of organizing workers who labor under conditions that make them easy targets to exploit.

Second, SEIU’s vision statement says, “We are members united by the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and humane society.” (seiu.org) That mission aligns so closely with St. Kate’s they ought to be pleased you’re working with SEIU.

Third, later this summer, through SEIU’s Faculty Forward Congress, I’ll travel to DC to join unionized adjunct faculty and graduate instructors from across the U.S. in laying further groundwork for the labor movement in higher education. Unionization is just coming to adjunct faculty, and SEIU is among the unions leading this work. Yes, they still have plenty to learn, but they are committed to doing this work right and doing it well—and to bringing our voices into the leadership of that work. I am one of those voices.

While it’s true that any union contract expresses an “agreement” between you and your employer, so long as both St. Kate’s and the union are focused on pursuing conditions under which teaching flourishes, vocations are supported, and justice is done, then agreement will happen. In fact, the only conditions under which the president’s claim, “union representation guarantees you nothing,” is true is if the president is committed in advance to obstruct agreement with a union. And, frankly, that’s all the more reason to unionize, in order to insure that you have the power to actually fashion and choose agreement rather than merely submit to it.

As a lead organizer, negotiator, and now co-steward of the Hamline union—and with two decades of teaching religion as my primary vocation—I’m honestly weary of hearing the union portrayed as some “third party.” It’s not. The union is YOU. It’s your voice. Your energy. Your goals. Yes, there are SEIU staff to support you, but I attest personally that at Hamline adjunct faculty leaders had final say—and exercised it—in every single decision we made. Staff from the union local advised us, shared resources, and assisted us throughout the organizing and bargaining process. I hope President Roloff doesn’t view the AAUP, in which many fulltime faculty maintain membership, as a “third party” nuisance at St. Kate’s. As an organization SEIU fulfills a similar role for adjunct faculty. Be very clear: an Adjunct Faculty Union at St. Kate’s will be 100% comprised of and led by adjunct faculty from St. Kate’s. It’s simply untrue to call the union a third party; it’s YOU.

Having taught at St. Kate’s for six years and worked in campus ministry there for three years as well, I know the school has the long legacy of fostering justice. I find it disappointing that the president cannot imagine a unionized—that is, an empowered-for-partnership—adjunct faculty as an opportunity to extend that legacy into tomorrow.

Hamline shares similarly deep roots of social justice, and our administration has also found it difficult at times to meet us on terms of true collaboration. But we are in this for the long haul. We know that anytime unequal power relationships are disrupted—as unionizing does—some folks, especially those who find themselves needing to share power they’d prefer to hold unilaterally, react with anxiety and even anger. We’ve felt both at Hamline. But we’ve also seen progress; we’ve also won respect. And we remain confident that a brighter future is built by justice than by charity. It’s in our tradition as much as it’s in yours. We are reminding our respective administrations in practice of the ideals to which they are committed too often only in theory.

When you unionize, you’ll join Augsburg and Hamline in establishing unions at three of the five historic ACTC schools. At that point, we achieve a critical mass that allows us not only to pursue goals that strengthen our teaching on our respective campuses, we gain the leverage to partner across campuses, strengthening the position of our adjunct peers and our fulltime colleagues throughout the Twin Cities. Quite beyond simply improving our own working and teaching conditions (which are also our students’ learning conditions!), with critical mass we have the opportunity to help reset the priorities in higher education so that education rather than economics is the animating factor in our vision.

Ironically, you could read all of St. Kate’s “official” information on unionization on the website and learn that Macalester and St. Thomas (both mentioned by name) made the “right” choice in the administration’s eyes. But you won’t see Augsburg and Hamline—whose adjunct faculty have unionized—mentioned anywhere. There’s acknowledgement of certain “higher education systems” that did unionize, but we’re left un-named because we made the “wrong” choice. It’s a dismissive, almost insulting rhetorical move by a university dedicated to educating women, who’ve often been similarly strategically erased and unnamed by those who found their pursuit of dignity inconvenient. It’s a very telling move on the part of your administration.

No, I don’t think unions are perfect (neither are universities). Indeed, I’ve challenged some of SEIU’s ideas when I felt they were the wrong fit for Hamline or for higher education. But amid the forces at play in higher education today, being unionized is your best chance to become a full partner in shaping the campus ecology at St. Kate’s. Yes, a union will preserve and strengthen your own economic position and benefits, but more importantly it does so for the generations of adjuncts who will come after you, and most importantly it positions you to model active engaged social justice at Kate’s. And that strengthen the entire university, both academically and culturally.

I hope you vote YES. There is exciting work to do in higher education in the Twin Cities, and I’ll be glad to be a partner in doing that work with you.

Collegially yours,

David Weiss

Steward, Hamline University Adjunct Faculty union

 

Eight Minutes of Friendship

Eight Minutes of Friendship

David R. Weiss – May 9, 2017

I met Sue in 2014 when she was already 80 years old. The first time I delivered groceries to her in her apartment in a subsidized senior hi-rise she commented about an article in the latest issue of The Nation. I was hooked.

Over the next two years I delivered her groceries once or twice a month. We soon discovered we both followed politics, both supported unions (in fact, we’d both worked to organize unions although in quite different eras), both felt passion for social justice, both had idiosyncratic but deep spiritual leanings. We both wrote poetry and essays, and eventually we traded a few of our pieces back and forth.

That’s how came to know each other … about eight minutes at a time. Which was about how long it took me to unload her groceries, help her put the cold items away, and settle up the bill. I suspect we did that thirty-some times over the next two years, until last July when my route was changed.

The last time I saw Sue was at an adult forum I presented at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Sexual Ethics in September 2016. She lived in the Trinity apartments right next to the church and so had made Holy Trinity her church home as well. She was moving slowly but beaming from the back of the room that day.

Afterwards she sent me a handwritten thank you for my presentation and a copy of her latest writing: an essay in which she argued against using third-person plural pronouns (they/them) as gender-neutral singular pronouns (either for God or for individual persons). Such a move violated her profound sense of language, where aesthetics and grammar blend seamlessly. Instead, she posed her own set of gender-neutral pronouns.

Motivated in part by the memory of a high school friend who committed suicide some six decades earlier because of anguish over a mismatch in gender, here was Sue at 82 still stretching her mind to stretch the English language to stretch our world in the direction of justice. Her mind was as exacting as her heart was generous as her spirit was deep.

She died Friday morning following complications from a cancer surgery. Roberta, a close friend of Sue who happened to know me as well, notified me of Sue’s death. When she was helping the family sort through Sue’s apartment she found an envelope where Sue had collected all the various writings I had shared with her. And the list of relatives and longtime friends scattered far and wide who should be notified on her death. My name was on that list.

I wept as I read Roberta’s message. Less for grief at Sue’s passing than for grace. Mostly, we have NO IDEA the lives we touch. Sure, sometimes we sense it indistinctly, but truly we don’t fully reckon the grace that escapes us when we’re not looking. When we’re simply being. Present. And somehow God settles into those gaps of real presence between us and weaves silken threads strong enough to anchor the cosmos.

Tomorrow I expect I’ll have just enough time after I clock out from my Tuesday deliveries to make it to Sue’s memorial service. I’ll still be wearing my work uniform, making one last delivery: this time bringing my final respects.

I understand we’ll be singing one of Sue’s poems set to a familiar hymn tune. I’ll do my best to sing along, but—even though we only ever shared eight minutes of friendship—I expect I’ll be bawling with emotion. I wouldn’t want it any other way.