SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING COLUMN, EDEN PRAIRIE NEWS, JANUARY 16, 2019
The Legacy (and Ongoing Imperatives) of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, home of an important chapter in the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I entered the sanctuary, a few students milled about. Then they left, and I was alone in that sanctified and historic space as a recording of Dr. King giving one of his stirring, prophetic sermons played.
I closed my eyes. I thought about the thousands of moments that someone else sat in the pew I occupied.
I thought of the joy of the Ebenezer community as Dr. King preached the gospels’ promises. I thought of the suffering they endured as innocent citizens, including children, were murdered in the fight for justice. I thought of the mountain of grief that flowed over and through them as they brought Dr. King’s body home and laid him to rest.
In Christianity, we believe that those who go before us, all people who live lives of love, peace, justice and goodwill, join a great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. In Celtic spirituality, which has influenced me greatly, we hold that this fabulous mob — what in Catholicism we call the communion of saints — is spiritually as close as our breath. We believe that our separation is an illusion.
I thought of all the holy mothers and fathers, the youth and children, the adults and elders, that had prayed in Ebenezer Baptist Church as I listed to Dr. King speak for the better part of a half hour. He was not a man inclined, to use the phrasing of my mentor Fr. Tim, to “throw softballs.” His words comforted at times, yes, but they also challenged me. They evoked visions. They asked that his listeners, in the words of the prophet Joel, “dream dreams.”
While he lived, Dr. King demanded that of all of us.
He impacted two 30-somethings in Hackensack, New Jersey, with this message. Irish Catholics and children of immigrants, they were electrified by his vision. Shortly after moving to that integrated city from an almost entirely white town, they moved their children out of the homogenous Catholic schools and into the local public schools, which were far more diverse in every measure. They taught their children the songs of the Civil Rights movement. They instilled in them the belief that “we shall overcome someday.” They affirmed, over and over, to their young daughters that their friends with ancestry from Africa rather than Europe were their equals, all while being honest that this was not yet fully recognized in the culture.
They were my parents.
Catholicism has a long history of the practice of pilgrimage and procession. We embrace holy walking. As early as the second century, Roman elites, predominantly women, began making journeys to visit the hermits of the deserts of Egypt.
As I sat in Ebeneezer Baptist, I thought about that day and other ways in which I was marked by being a child during the life of Dr. King. As I stood quietly at his grave (which is shared with his courageous wife, Corretta Scott King), I really was humbled what they stood for and what they accomplished. Even more, I was awed by what they had burned in our hearts, including the heart of a little girl who had just turned 9.
In the following decades, I’ve had to awaken even more critically to the disparity between Dr. King’s vision and our culture. When I talk about the importance of continuing this work of undoing racism and interrogating white advantage, which I believe must be done by those of us who identify as white, people often respond with a heartfelt, “But we’ve come so far.” As we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy this weekend, we can honor the ground gained, but let’s do more.
Let’s continue to labor to achieve his compelling vision. Let’s challenge and dismantle the racism and white supremacy that have been emboldened, normalized, and tolerated in recent years. Let’s keep learning and working. So that one day, our great-grandchildren can unequivocally say, in the words of Dr. King’s unforgettable 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, “Free at last! Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” All of us.
Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.
SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING COLUMN, EDEN PRAIRIE NEWS, March 27, 2019
Time to Find Our Voices
If you were to ask your best friend what your voice sounds like, what would they say? No, I don’t mean the resonance or timbre, but the quality of your self-expression and your ability to bring yourself forward in important conversations. Are you hesitant? Forthright? Protective? Harsh? Compassionate?
I ask this for a few reasons. First, we are at a seriously fractured moment in our national discourse, including in our religious institutions – which are pretty fraught settings at time in that so much “right,” “wrong,” “we believe,” “we don’t believe,” is in the picture. Whether its on facebook, the telephone, the family dinner table, many of us are having a hard time speaking up, never mind speaking out.
Particularly when issues matter to us, it can be hard to find the right words, the clear words, the prudent words in which our ideas and passions can be expressed. Without frying the friendship, that is.
I’ve been blessed to be part of the Interfaith Circle for the past 14 years. In that time, we’ve worked together, around tables, to plan events for the community, including our annual Thanksgiving celebration. Sometimes, the international news pressed us to ask each other uncomfortable questions. Sometimes, we had to sit with dissonance and keep exploring to come to a new place of mutuality and understanding.
This past weekend, I was privileged to represent Interfaith Circle at a gathering at the Islamic Center of Minnesota. Three hundred or so people had gathered to stand in solidarity with our Muslim friends and neighbors, and commit to speaking out against religious bigotry and hatred. At last year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving gathering, Bet Shalom’s Rabbi Jill Crimmings shared with us the outpouring to her community in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. Now, friends are reaching out to Catholics in solidarity about the bombing of the Jolo Cathedral in Mindanao, the Philippines—just as we reached out to our African American Christian friends after the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in Charleston.
All murders are horrifying. All massacres are an assault against the Creator. But for me, as a pastoral leader, the image of people facing death in their house of worship, be it mosque, synagogue, or church, is particularly devastating.
In Minnesota, it seems there’s a particular premium placed on not upsetting people. It’s part of the multi-faceted phenomenon of “Minnesota Nice.” But recent events have found me centering myself even more deeply in my religious tradition, which gave me a teacher who is not particularly hesitant about speaking truth to power, particularly when people are marginalized, threatened, or oppressed.
Ephesians reminds me, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” That means that I have to find my voice and make it heard. Against white supremacy. Against gun violence. Against religious bigotry of all kinds. Against every one of the “phobias” plaguing us.
There will be people who pull back from me. There will be people who think I’m too direct. But I live in times, and you live in times, where there is very little space left for the faint of heart. Dive into your scriptures and spiritual teaching. Find the place from which your voice can spring, and root it there.
And speak your truth in love, to borrow from St. Paul. You are part of the spiritual solution. In my mind, that’s the ultimate Minnesota nice.
SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING COLUMN, EDEN PRAIRIE NEWS, JANUARY 2019
Ohana and “Who’s Your Family?”
According to the U.S. Census bureau, “A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.”
I’m sure that makes sense when you’re the government counting heads, but at this time of year, when connecting and giving is so in the foreground, that definition seems a little too narrow for me.
That definition wouldn’t, for example, include Steven, Alex and Jasmine. Those are the three young adults for whom I am “the other mother” that they had, for better or worse, growing up in EP. That definition wouldn’t count Nancy, Karen, Megan and about a dozen other women who have been sisters to me over the years. Not to mention Therese and Karen, who are my sister Sheila’s best friends. Because as she and I like to tell them, “The sisters of my sister are my sisters, too!”
If I had stuck with that Census Bureau definition, I’d never have recognized my second set of parents, Dodie and Bill. I wouldn’t have been an aunt to Tom, Sarah and Jane. Or counted Rick, Saleem and Tom as the brothers that I had always wished for when I was a kid.
I have a cluster of people that I love and count as family who are Hawaiian by birth and culture. Through them, I learned a beautiful word that describes this expansive experience of family: Ohana.
Ohana means family, but in a much wider sense than blood relations. It’s your close relatives, but also your cousins, in-laws, neighbors, friends and anyone else you collect along the way.
I’m so glad that Makana, my little brother from Nanakuli, gave me this wonderful descriptive word to honor the fact that “family” is so much broader than any family of origin. Having a name for my experience wonderfully affirmed a lifelong practice of accumulating and spiritually adopting people around me!
I’ve also learned that the spirit of aloha should always inform how you relate to your ohana. You share everything, from land to food to raising children. You should gladly nurture and care for people in your ohana, especially those who are young and those who are aged.
I have many people I count as part of my Eden Prairie ohana. I raised my children with some of them. With others, I got active in service to the community. My EP ohana, which stretches across multiple Christian faith communities and a few mosques, uplifted me and helped me expand and strengthen the spiritual ties I feel to the God of my understanding.
Every time we are at a “starting” point, something different seems more possible to me. So as we bring in the New Year, I’d like to invite you, my Eden Prairie readers, to try on the idea of ohana and all that it offers.
Our city is evolving in wonderful and diverse ways. This year is bound to bring us new people, including people grounded in cultures or religions that differ from our own. Let’s meet them and greet them with aloha, with the excitement, even expectation, that our ohana is about to expand.
Because as Lilo and Stitch reminded us, “Ohana means family. And family means no one gets left behind or forgotten!” What a great place from which to start the new year!
SPIRITUALLY SPEAKING COLUMN, EDEN PRAIRIE NEWS, NOVEMBER 2018
The Power of Gratitude
“What’s the magic word?” our mother would ask whenever my sisters or I were clamo
ring for something or other. It was important to say “please” when making a request, and equally important to say “thank you.”
It’s Thanksgiving time, our national tribute to gratitude. It’s a time that beyond boundaries of culture, religious expression and geographical location we all stand together in solidarity as we give thanks. Thanks for family, for friends, for this country and its freedoms. Thanks for the turkey and stuffing. Or the lasagna. Or the ham. Or the masala.
The spiritual writer and mystic David Stendl-Rast asserts that gratitude is the doorway to the divine. To be grateful is to shift our focus from distress or scarcity to where life is full and rich. It moves us out of negativity into a place of appreciation. For many of us, it involves turning our hearts and minds to the God of our understanding.
I have friends who are doing a practice of acknowledging one thing they are grateful for each day in this month of November. I know others who are using a gratitude journal, and every day jotting down something that strikes them as noteworthy, no matter how small.
Both those practices remind me that gratitude is not just random moments of saying “thanks,” but almost an art form. It’s an outlook, a way of viewing the world with openness to seeing the good and acknowledging its source.
What am I thankful for this week?
My amazing spouse and my remarkable children, two aging cats and a neurotic dog. Without them, my inner circle would not be so rich.
Our comfortable home, with its full cupboards and running water, which shelters us from steamy summers and frosty Minnesota winters.
My restored health after a distressing concussion and years of recuperation.
My family and friends, particularly my Interfaith Circle companions, who every year give months of their lives to bring our community together in understanding and peace.
My faith community, in which I get to love, and laugh, and draw closer to the divine life.
My state and nation, where no matter how fractious it gets, there’s hope that, eventually, we’ll find a path to common ground.
Our beautiful planet, with all its natural wonders and glory, and the increasing numbers of people awakening to its care.
Gratitude also helps me to look beyond the “easy to be grateful for” items. When I’m distressed about social issues such as racism, homophobia, and more, it pushes me to be grateful for the amazing allies in the battle for justice, and for the privilege of participating myself in working for change.
Even when things are bleak, there’s something to grab onto. Even if that’s something I take for granted, such as my heart beating without my instruction, or each breath that I draw automatically.
At our house, we often start Thanksgiving dinner by naming something for which we are each grateful. As we do, I’ll once again be reminded of the generosity of so many people I know and love, and of the God who I have come to believe is source of all.