By Matthew Townsend
I stare at the screen
I observe its technicolor dance
I listen to its siren song
And my life is gray static
A dingy white noise
When I was around 10 years old, my parents finally yielded to my persistent requests for a television of my own. It was a small unit by today’s standards – perhaps 19 inches – and it was granted with a stern warning: if my grades slipped, the TV would go.
Never shying from a challenge, I not only maintained my grades but made sure my academic accomplishments were stratospheric. I spent countless hours in my bedroom, immersed in my homework with the singular goal of staying on top. The background drone of reruns of The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation and (since I was a strange child) Quincy, M.E. never hushed. Even in distraction, my love of the glowing screen propelled me forward, a reminder that I could have my cake and eat it, too.
My grades never slipped, but it’s impossible for me to deny the horror my little television brought into my life. I grew from a chubby kid into a teenager who was exceptionally obese, tormented by my ever-distorting shape but unwilling to abandon my comfortable isolation. At the same time, my love affair with books ended unceremoniously, leading to a 20-year hiatus from recreational reading.
In a letter to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, Carl Jung remarked at the strangeness of referring to alcohol, “the most depraving poison”, as spirits. This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the addiction experience – we tend to get precisely the opposite of what we desperately seek. The alcoholic seeks lively spirits but finds spiritual death. The sex addict seeks love and belonging, whether through partners or pornography, and finds depths of shame previously unimaginable. The gambler seeks money and quickly loses it. The television addict wants to make life more interesting and fills it with a constant stream of stories – leaving her with no stories of her own.
Last March, I began thinking about my own sense of disconnection and boredom with life. I had tried to jump-start a social life after moving to Rochester a few months previously, but nothing seemed to be working. It was only after taking a very close look at my life that I realized I had no less than six devices I could use to access the Internet while at home. And I live alone. This was normal for me, but the realization left me aghast. It seemed that I had gone from one screen in my childhood bedroom to an apartment made of screens.
So, I packed my desktop machine into the garage. I started leaving my work laptop at work, and then I donated my personal laptop to Rochester Greenovation. The desktop followed. That left me with an iPad, a Netflix box/TV, and my phone. This seemed a radical change, but soon after my iPad began following me around the house like a sad puppy. I’d see it right before I went to bed and right after I awoke. I quickly brought my iPad into the office and it has remained there since.
My pleasant habit of binging on Netflix continued, however – my childhood dreams of being able to watch any show at any time realized – so after months of deliberation, I cancelled not only my Netflix account but my home internet service. I now have a smartphone (a device I soundly dislike) and a radio.
Along the way, I had a number of people praise my efforts, which I’ve called an experiment. I’ve not known how to take this praise, because I haven’t embraced these changes because I have a need to be seen or to be validated. I’ve turned my life into an experiment because I was so painfully broken. I sought community, love, self-worth and purpose through the screens that surrounded me rather than people who need me. And I found that profoundly boring.
Life is different now. In many ways, when I’m off the clock, I feel like I live in 1930. When I’m solitary, I read or cook or listen to the radio. I also spend time with friends I deeply value, and I frequent coffee shops and talk with strangers and listen to them sing. I go to the YMCA and get lost in my thoughts when I’m on the exercise bike. I pray and I do devotionals. I hike. I go to potlucks and participate in community gardening and Gandhi Institute events. My life is quiet, but it’s out in the world. And I find that so very exciting.
Matthew Townsend lives in Rochester, N.Y. He serves as the Communications Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester.
by Ben Taylor.
I watched “12 Years a Slave” this weekend. Please consider seeing this incredible movie. I’d like to relate one sequence from it.
This movie tells the story of a man called “Platt” who lived in Louisiana, working as a black slave. One day met a friendly white man while cotton-picking. After a long day of working together in the fields his new friend treated the deep scars on Platt’s back while relating how he came to working in the cotton fields, a free man among slaves. He was an alcoholic, now deeply in debt, and a former slave overseer. He confessed to Platt that participating in slavery was such a spiritually wretched condition, being expected to dominate men with violence day after day, that he had to drink away his guilt. But he hated the plantation owners even more for putting him up to this damnable position.
“Platt” was so impressed with his confession that he revealed to him his own truth, that he was originally Solomon Northup from Saratoga, New York, a professional musician who’d been kidnapped during a visit to Washington, DC. Solomon produced a few dollars he’d earned playing his fiddle for a wedding reception and desperately asked him to post a letter. His new friend agreed, admitting that he was putting his own life in danger, but would take Solomon’s letter once it was ready.
Two nights later, the slave owner asked “Platt” about a strange story he’d heard about a devil among his slaves, one who could read and write, who had offered money in exchange for mailing a letter. “Platt” vehemently denied the story, pointing out how difficult it would be for a slave to even have access to writing materials and how more likely it was for a drunkard to invent this implausible story to gain the landlord’s trust, to regain a profitable position as a slave overseer. The slave owner saw the logic in this defense and took no action against him. Later Solomon burned the letter he’d written with a wooden stick and improvised ink.
Consider this one crime Solomon experienced, this one dreadful betrayal, in relation to the staggering series of injustices he
received over his years living in slavery. Following his liberation he wrote a book, Twelve Years a Slave, and lectured to many northerners about his own experience of slavery. His life represents just one drop in that great sea of human violence represented by slavery in the United States. I can’t comprehend how much more suffering was the whole legacy of American slavery, but perhaps we could imagine it taking a proportional ratio (a mathematical metaphor) to that great sum of suffering Solomon received when compared to that one single betrayal. One betrayal against his kidnapping, many beatings, multiple other acts of violence he witnessed including rapes, murders and torture, such as the whipping of a woman Solomon loved that Solomon himself was made to commit, besides the thousands of days of involuntary separation from his wife and two children. From those twelve human years to the thousands of lifetimes lived in slavery, over the multiple generations of American slaves.
It feels virtually unbearable to me to contemplate so great a mass of violence as this. Can it be any wonder at all that white Americans learned to justify and marginalize this monstrous wrong? Or that so acculturation to so much evil must penetrate throughout our social consciousness, granting its users the grace of not having to empathize with so much pain?
Please bear with me if this thought exercise draws out a matter that is so well known. It is common wisdom today that American slavery was an injustice. Few people today would openly disagree with this. But if we would carry out this exercise of imagination a bit further: the violence that Solomon Northup lived did not end with the end of legalized American slavery, no more than it began with the Atlantic traffic in African slaves. Contemplating the sea of American slavery for us cannot end until we have reckoned with all lives lived in bondage, a vast ocean of violence.
Watching this movie, “12 Years a Slave” deeply affected me. Coming out of the theater I resolved to record this recollection. It was a movie, and it was a painful reminder. Thank you for reading.
By Paul Kahawatte
I arrived in Rochester in snowy mid-January. Kit, the Director of the Institute, picked me up from the train station and along with the George and Shannon, two of the staff at the Gandhi House, welcomed me warmly, showing me around and generally taking care of me as I settled in. From the very beginning of my time there I experienced the culture of the Institute as relaxed, friendly and open, and as one in which autonomy and choice were actively supported; for example Kit would always ask me if I was willing to carry out tasks, as opposed to telling me what I had to do. Another practice which worked to level out the more common models of workplace power hierarchy, allowing us to meet more as people than as roles, was that of starting the twice-weekly staff meetings with a check-in. This space invited staff to share how we were doing (anything we might have been struggling with or things we were celebrating, in our work or personal lives) offering us all the chance to connect with each other and ourselves in the middle of the busy-ness of the work day. I see the way that the Institute does what it does, as in these examples, as a committed attempt to create an organizational culture which expresses real care for people, to keep a careful awareness of how they do things and how people are doing.
I was given a lot of space from the beginning to figure out what I wanted to do in my time at the Institute; in my first couple of days, for example, I re-kindled the practice of taking a break each day to sit together in silent meditation/contemplation in the Gandhi House’s meditation room (a physical space which, like the whole of the House, I found calmly beautiful). I was also encouraged to take the risk of stepping into places that were not so comfortable for me but offered me growth and learning. This was particularly the case for me working with teenagers in the in-school suspension room of a local school, in another school for students excluded from other Rochester schools, and in the Youth Activist Program (see below). With my tendency to be quite shy and to keep quiet in groups, stepping forward to connect with groups of young people was something that I often felt uneasy in doing. It was good to step towards it, with the support of fellow staff, and learn, through the experiences in which it felt good, and also the times when it didn’t come so easily.
My time at the Gandhi Institute, from mid-January to early April, coincided with the Season for Nonviolence, the 64 days between the anniversaries of the deaths of Gandhi and Dr King. In this time the Gandhi Institute held many talks, workshops and events, including the Youth Activist Program, offering Rochester teenagers a range of workshops over several weeks, looking at different aspects of Nonviolence from personal to social levels. I was lucky to participate in these trainings and events as well as supporting with the logistical aspects of making it all happen.
The Gandhi Institute seemed to me to exist in a web of many connections, within Rochester and stretching far beyond, and these relationships I think are a powerful resource that the Institute draws on to do what it does. This network consists of many organisations and groups as well as many individuals who are engaged in related work. It seemed to me that the Institute has many friends. For me this meant getting many opportunities that I was very grateful for; I had many different and new experiences and met so many people that I felt inspired by and remember with great warmth. I see the Institute as a powerful resource for the city of Rochester.
My many highlights for which I am thankful (this is only a partial list) included: spending time with and learning from Kit, getting to connect with many young people in several contexts and feeling touched and inspired seeing the potential, wisdom and heart that they bring, learning more about Nonviolence in the history of the US and the on-going struggles for justice and peace, getting to know and learn from the Gandhi staff, sitting in and co-facilitating a peace circle with members of staff at a local school, and giving workshops in Nonviolent Communication and Nonviolent Direct Action for activists confronting fracking.
My time was not perfect, I sometimes struggled to find a way to contribute in a way that I could really trust was meaningful, and I continued to struggle with stepping out of my shyness in some group situations. Though this would be one of my favourite offices in the world to work in, I found sitting at a computer for hours a day difficult. And if I come to Rochester again, I would like to experience warmth of the summer there.
Two things that I valued about the Gandhi Institute that I would like to mention here, relate to responses to conflict. One thing was that when a painful conflict arose between me and another member of the Gandhi staff, Kit offered her support (that she offered was supportive for me) to sit with us and help us hear the underlying meaning of the ways in which we were bumping up against each other. Secondly, a few days before I left Rochester in early April, a painful incident in the local community lead to a partial unravelling of the support networks of that community, of which I was part. A restorative process of reconnecting, understanding and healing together was initiated, a process which I was moved by. And to me this possibility, of coming together after the pain of separation, was a sign of what the work of the Gandhi Institute is making possible, and also a sign of the deep commitment to the values of truth and compassion that energise the network of people who surround and are the Institute.
I am deeply grateful for the gift of this time with the Institute, and all the experiences, support, friendship, trust and learning that I received there. Thank you so much.
written by Kit Miller.
“Let’s presume there was an earlier age when people had easier and natural access to their souls…I am not sure if this age ever existed…but if it did it consisted of people who were either loved very well at their center or who suffered very much around their edges-probably both. The path of prayer and love and the path of suffering seem to be the two great roads of transformation.” (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, p. 14)
Large quantities of water rushing across surfaces do not penetrate to nourish soil beneath. Erosions, floods and landslides occur instead. Without structures to contain the water, enormous damage can be done by what is otherwise a vital, life giving force.
Similarly, our own suffering and the suffering of others often barely penetrates the surface of our loves. We are baked dry by busyness and overwhelm and fear of grief itself. The pace of life and the ability to spend most waking moments with screens of every sort enables us to avoid our own company and especially our own grief. Please think a moment. When is the last time you cried? Did it feel like a natural release or did you judge it as pointless or as weakness?
I wonder if the increased speed of life compounds cultural myths about emotional pain as something to hide or refuse to acknowledge. If one attends the burial service of a loved one and does not cry they are said to have “done well,” at least in my family of origin. From speaking with hundreds of people about this topic in recent years, I understand that my family isn’t the only one who passed this message on. Increasingly I wonder: since our organisms are designed to release grief and stress through tears, what are the costs of not crying? Can you imagine judging and then refusing to utilize other bodily systems? If we refused to urinate, what would happen?
Unacknowledged, unfelt pain creates problems for humans because, according to author Richard Rohr’s quote above, love and suffering are the two paths to learning and spiritual growth. What vital learning for human development remains untapped through our individual and collective reluctance to grieve?
A few years ago I met a man who teaches college students about environmental devastation and climate change, semester after semester. He had also aided the Onondaga Nation in central New York in their land claim efforts, a long time commitment. Despite the emotionally heavy content of his life for years, I experienced him as clear, relaxed and present–not someone who was walking with suppressed pain. When I asked him how he did it, he said “I make sure I cry every day.”
I find inspiration in the nonviolent design system called permaculture. It’s principles include ideas of harnessing natural energies like water and wind to thoughtfully design landscapes. The focus is to uncover and amplify what already naturally occurs instead of requiring costly supports such as irrigation. In the earth’s driest places like Jordan, contouring the land and planting trees and other plants to retain scarce rainfall have created some amazingly regenerative landscapes in what otherwise was considered to be dead soil. (To learn more about this check out this great video: http://vimeo.com/7658282)
I am hunting for ways to contour my personal and community life to hold the life-giving information from my grief and the grief of others. Last month we held our first grief circle at the Gandhi Institute, utilizing a process developed by Joanna Macy called the Truth Mandala. Though we had invited dozens of people, just five showed up. That was enough.
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
by George Payne, Peace & Justice Educator.
It is clear that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not support military involvement in Syria. Among the President’s adversaries who denounce military action are those who argue that Syria’s civil war does not threaten America’s national interests. Other opponents contend that two dreadful attempts at nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans war weary. Still other rivals decry the use of force based on its limited effectiveness in deterring Assad’s regime. This last group is typically pro-military as long as it can be used persuasively. In their view, bombing strategic sites is not a counterproductive option but it must be done in such a way that it makes dictators everywhere think twice about using chemical or biological weapons in the future. Other detractors include libertarians who base their opposition on economic and political philosophies. Following a foreign policy agenda that dates back to President Washington, this group asserts that a war in Syria will not promote the mandates of the Constitution, nor will it prevent a foreign dictator from encroaching on the livelihood of the American citizenry.
President Obama must also answer critics who prefer hard diplomacy to military action. People within his own administration believe that diplomacy backed up my military force may entice Syria’s allies to think not only geopolitically but also economically. They claim that the only way to bring peaceful order to this crisis is to work collaboratively with China, Russia, and Iran to make Assad’s “governance” unaffordable. Furthermore, these allies must be convinced that an open ended conflict in Syria will not highjack the remainder of Obama’s term.
But the one reason for not going to war that gets routinely omitted from public discourse is the only reason that deserves our attention. War is an abomination that God forbids to justify. The aforementioned arguments may ultimately succeed in keeping the President from authorizing military force in Syria, but they do not clarify why warring against our fellow brothers and sisters is wrong. Gandhi said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Whenever we authorize war against people-and it is always against people- the good we hope to achieve is corrupted by the act of killing. If we realized that peace is the goal, and that all other objectives derail us from moving in this direction, war would become humankind’s last and most unpardonable option. Sadly, the goals of national security, economic prosperity, political power, and personal ambition have become the goals by which war can manufacture its appropriate means.
The force needed to resist war is called ahimsa. Ahimsa is a 2,500 year old term that means non-injury or harm. What it really signifies is the total lack of desire to commit harm towards any sentient being. Once the destructive passions of fear, anger, lust, jealously, greed, and laziness begin to disappear from the human heart, the active presence of courage, compassion, and self- control can begin to take effect. Gandhi believed that ahimsa is the most powerful force in the universe. Ahimsa necessitates that means are ends in the making. Gandhi compared the means to the tools a surgeon uses and the ends with the recovery of a patient. To use dirtied equipment is to guarantee that the patient will suffer unnecessarily. If President Obama uses weapons to denounce the use of weapons, he will destroy not just the lives of human beings, but also the intention to see chemical and biological weapons banished from the earth. Striking Assad’s regime with brutal force only affirms his addiction and commitment to violence. Furthermore, the decision to use war as a means of securing the world peacefully only perpetuates human misery in ways that are both invisible and indeterminable. Most importantly Gandhi observed that it makes no difference to women and children if a missile is launched from a jet representing the ideals of democracy and freedom or a jet representing totalitarianism and oppression. The end result is the same. For whom among us has the right to make someone else’s mother or child collateral damage?
The question then is how do we fight forces of evil without going after people doing evil? In other words, how do we prevent chemical weapons from being used to torture and kill innocent people without dismantling Assad’s capacity to use them? The options appear to be neutrality or assault. However, there is a third option that challenges people to become more courageous than they ever thought possible. In the words of Dr. King “Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.”
Dr. King is talking about ahimsa. Ahimsa does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Gandhi and King both believed that working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust system. Gandhi wrote with maximum confidence that “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of humankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. Destruction is not the law of humans. Humans live freely by their readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him. Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity.”
So long as humans are willing to kill rather than die for a sacred cause, war will continue to paralyze our species in a miserable vice grip of anguish. The only way to abolish war is to reject it at all costs, even at the cost of losing one’s life. Put differently, every human being has the freedom to obey their conscience, and by doing so, they have the power to impact the conscience of the whole world. No one can strip a human being of the right to refuse war absolutely. Every war is a voluntary war. Every battle is a chosen battle. Every missile launched did not have a victim before a human being made the choice to create a victim. No bloodshed is preordained. Warfare is not just. Justice is a word that we use to cover up the mistake of war. When someone talks about “just war” they are actually attempting to war against true justice; for if justice has any spiritual value whatsoever, it is to exorcise this planet from the demonic scourge of war.
Therefore, the courage nonviolence demands from people will far outweigh the courage required to attack or remain neutral. Nonviolence demands that people use their creativity to grab Assad’s attention, their tenacity to maintain it, and their willingness to die as a way of converting it. Gandhi put it more starkly than most people are able or willing to accept. “I do believe that, when there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor. But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more courageous than punishment…Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. “
The Gandhian call is to risk everything by uniting under the one divine commandment that will ultimately save us from mutual annihilation. Any person who has the necessary courage must step forward. What can be done for peace without taking a first step?
By Nyiaesha Colon
Colon is a student at Frederick Douglas and worked with the Gandhi Institute for the months of July and August. She was referred to us by “Citizen U”, a program which helps students find community projects and summer jobs. Nyiaesha has been a pleasure to know and a strong addition to the Gandhi Institute community.
On Monday, July 29, 2013: I watched a short 35 minute film called “ The Children’s March.” I was not pleased with what I saw. I felt anger and thought to myself that if I was there, I would be just like Martin Luther King. I don’t like that people were judged based on what skin color they have. Each and every person is the same, everyone was born on the same planet, and if God didn’t want them to be together then they wouldn’t actually be together. During the film, I saw violence, I saw colored people get brutally beaten just because they were sitting at a restaurant, and supposedly they looked as if they “wanted trouble.”
This was the nonviolent meeting the violent! In my opinion, this means that the nonviolent (colored people) didn’t want any trouble, they just wanted to eat. The violent also known as Caucasian, felt as if the colored wanted problems , which in this case they didn’t , so the Caucasian brought violence to nonviolent. Now this is just the beginning of the short film, during the middle of the film there was an event called “D Day. What this means is that hundreds of young boys and girls came together at a church and talked about freedom, but what they had to do was leave during school time and protest. The first day of D Day, 973 Children were arrested and the second day 1,922 children were arrested, this lasted for seven days. These kids where fighting for freedom and equal rights, they were proud to fight for what is right to them. President Kennedy heard about the issue and decided to end segregation on June 11, 1963. Five months later he was assassinated but, yet his landmark civil rights act was passed in 1964.
Later that day George Payne (Peace and Justice Educator at the Institute) and I went to number 19 school on Seward and went into a classroom, where there were kids around my age who were waiting patiently for George and I. George then explained that they would be watching a short film called “The Children’s March.” After the short film, I asked the kids questions about the film. Two of these questions were: “Is there an issue today that is similar to what you saw in this film?” and “If you were alive during that time would you have been somebody who chooses nonviolence or to fight back?” Some told stories about their childhood memories, and how racism continues in Rochester. I was surprised at how many kids did raise their hand, and trust me when I say this; these kids really had a lot to say and what they said was shocking. No kid their age should have to experience what they told me. But overall I can say asking them questions and hearing another kid’s opinions was excellent. I feel as if everyone has a voice and can speak for a reason, why not use it? Especially if you are young, it is important to express your opinion to others. I honestly enjoyed hearing them answer questions that some kids that age wouldn’t know how to. I most definitely would continue to do what I did that day.
By George Payne
o Every question is necessary
o Try to make students feel accepted, honored, and appreciated when they share personal reflections
o Speak only for yourself
· The Circle
o Try to make students intellectually and emotionally accountable to one another
o Promote egalitarian participation
o Create a learning environment that fosters mutual awareness
· Abandon Letter Grades
o Rewards are a form of power over rather than power with
o The purpose of education is to appreciate the process of learning more than the consequence of someone else’s assessment about learning
o Letter grades intimidate struggling students and distract successful ones
o Putting grades on assignments takes attention away from hearing actual feedback
o Well masked insecurities can be mistaken for self-confidence and self-loathing alike
· Small Group Work
o Students learn best when they work with partners
· Avoid Lecturing
o Organic learning comes from peer interaction, self-introspection, and experiential group based discussions
o Model pedagogical virtues such as respect and trust
o Students are most inspired when they listen to multiple perspectives, hone public speaking skills, and learn how to interact responsibly in a group setting
· Real Feedback
o Accolades breed false notions of success and failure
o Use language that empowers
o Do not assume that you know the difference between “good” and “bad”
· First Names
o First names build communal identity
· Prepare to Change
o As soon as class is over begin planning the next one
o Never ask a question that has no answer
o Keep class structured according to time and theme but allow for spontaneous sharing
o Sometimes you must be a friend first and a teacher second
o Choose to empathize rather than advise
o Create a learning environment that is affirming, healing and regenerative
o Never intimidate your students with your own policies
o Avoid technical terms unless you can explain how they are relevant to the discussion
· Avoid Ambiguous Praise
o Specify what worked well
o Share what could have worked better
o Share openly what you enjoyed or disliked
o Avoid vague phrases like “good job!”
· Use the Sign- in Sheet Effectively
o Students thrive when they express their own individuality
o Showing up matters
· Encourage Diverse Voices
o Give everyone the opportunity to share at least one time during the session
o Place value on choice
· Teaching is Beautiful
o Be grateful
o Remind students why you appreciate them
o Fall in love with the pursuit of wisdom!
By Andrew Plisner
Late last summer, I had a wonderful conversation with a friend of mine visiting from Oakland, CA. He, like myself, is deeply committed to food justice/food sovereignty movement building, connecting the dots between food justice and human justice. While out bike riding, he explained a concept he and his organization had been defining: compost the empire. Quite simply, it refers to the unnatural concept of “waste,” that in so-called “developed,” especially Westernized places, the practice of discarding what is no longer useful has become a way of life. In fact, on this Mother Earth, “waste” does not exist. Everything that in the ecological system is used, recycled, and used again. It is a process of mutual support, where everything has its needs met, no more and no less. It is not greedy, it is not corrupt, it is not expendable. It is valued as a sacred part of natural cycle. The term compost the empire refers to the return of what has been discarded to the natural process of environmental cycle. This can refer to the actual process of turning organic material back into soil, but it can also refer to lovingly embracing ex-offenders who have been treated as social waste. It can refer to the reclaiming of land that was stolen to be turned into profit. It can refer to the healing process of traumas that have been dismissed as unnecessary surplus.
During this same bike ride, we were approached by a wonderful man, L, while waiting at a red light on the corner of Vernor and Mt. Elliott. L was very tall, largely built, and perhaps in his 50s. He might’ve been treated as unnecessary surplus anywhere else or by anyone else. Instead, he opened up his conversation about our bikes. He explained that he was too heavy to ride bikes, but when he sees “skinny people” out riding, he always pinches the tires to check the air pressure. While he was poking fun at himself, he also admitted a jealousy that he was unable to ride a bike, and instead had to navigate a horrible, deflated bus system that in no way met his needs. He spoke to the root of self-defeat, all the while expressing physical affection, sharing hugs as well as bumping our fists, all of us sharing support with one another.
L further acknowledged that he used to weigh 380 pounds, now weighing substantially less at 330. Attempting to congratulate his effort, he explained that his weight loss was a result of loss of appetite after his wife of 34 years passed away. From what he expressed, they shared a deep emotional bond, not to mention two children. He then shared that he had had very little time to grieve. His community, he said, did not recognize his need to mourn. Instead, he felt the need to mask his grief, his deepest pain from losing a life-long partner, a deep love that will unlikely be replaceable. Despite feeling trapped in his emotions due to the pressure to make them invisible, for whatever reason L took a risk to share his inner-most vulnerabilities with me and my friend, two men who very well might have returned his admission with apathy rather than compassion.
It was an amazing and gratifying experience, being able to share composting the empire with L. While this may seem like an insignificant act, in reality, it is an act of defiance. In a time where we are defined by someone else’s value/s, where we must hide our deepest emotions and vulnerabilities, where we must constantly guard ourselves against our neighbors’ apathy, where being honest means taking a risk, everything L expressed was a revolutionary act: it was an act of courage and risk, of love, of reaching out for support, of emotional honesty. He took what has been defined as waste, and returned it to the natural cycle so that it could be reborn into life.
Andrew is a community organizer from Detroit who recently moved to Rochester. When he is not working full time at Hillside Children Center, he assists us with our community garden and prisoner outreach work at Attica Correctional Facility.
By Andrew Harrison
The first time I learned of the Gandhi Institute was only a few months ago. On April 6, 2013, I was invited to attend an Interfaith Banquet presented by the Gandhi Institute and the University of Rochester’s Interfaith Chapel. The facilitator/MC of the banquet was Fatima Bawany, Gandhi Fellow. I could not have been more impressed with her poise and eloquence. As the night progressed, Kit Miller and George Payne also spoke to the audience. I had always heard of Mahatma Gandhi, but had never researched his life, message and quotes. That changed after attending the Interfaith Banquet and hearing Fatima, Kit and George speak.
I am writing today to share a recap of the Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference at Nazareth College that was put on by Dr. Muhammad Shafiq of The Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue as well as Peace Islands Institute. The conference ran from June 23 thru June 25, 2013 and brought together 120 religious academics and scholars from all over the world to discuss the topics of interfaith and religious texts from three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity). Geographically there were people from Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, England, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Newfoundland and all over the United States.
I should clarify that I was attending the conference neither as a religious expert or an academic. I am a writer, business person and while I was raised Catholic, I am now a Seeker looking for my proper religious fit. My current writing focus is learning about different religions and gathering the stories of people living their faith in ways that promote peace and unity.
After the conference, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper wrote an article with the title, “Interfaith conference promotes peace.” It explained that, “the essence of the interfaith movement is focusing on what unites people of various religions rather than what divides them.”
After attending the conference and reading the newspaper article, it made me think of a quote from Gandhi, “We must respect other religions, even as we respect our own. Mere tolerance thereof is not enough.”
I cannot agree more. That quote is what the conference was all about. We were there not to tolerate, but to better understand and appreciate. We were there with our own ideas and religions, but also with positivity, openness and respect.
I’d like to provide a glimpse into some of the events that took place at the conference. There were 45 presentations on different papers covering a wide range of topics that involve sacred texts and interfaith. Time and space does not allow me to recap those here. What I will do is provide some insights from the plenary panel discussions as well as the different keynotes. Note that as I refer to speakers and their quotes, I am going off of my written notes and my Twitter feed, not their exact words.
The opening plenary panel began with Rachel Mikva from Chicago Theological Seminary. She explained that sacred texts can be divisive, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The goal of the conference was to be a celebration of difference, which decreases division.
Leonard Swidler from Temple University was next and posed an important question, “Religion. What’s the purpose?” I love his answer. The purpose of religion is to help human beings become good human beings. Religion and their sacred texts provide an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, a code of behavior, and a community structure.
Last to speak was Muzammil H. Siddiqi from Fiqh Council of North America. He described that no texts contain all the words of God, but each contains some words of God. God revealed to human beings at a culture and a time for them and for the future. We need to understand each text in its own context. He called for peace and tolerance in our global village.
The opening address was given by Thomas Michel of Georgetown University. He said that interfaith dialogue is the pilgrimage of the 21st century. He described that in the material world, we can see and touch, but not everything; that there is a deeper reality and that religion should not be a divider. Importantly, for peace, there are two pillars: justice and forgiveness. His final point is a powerful one; religious conviction gives us hope.
Monday’s dinner keynote by Katherine Rhodes Henderson of Auburn Theological Seminary included a sentence that resonated with me, “What you’re doing here is countercultural.” I would say that statement can also be applied to what is taking place at the Gandhi Institute. She also shared an intriguing statistic. The “Nones,” those with spirituality but not a religion, is the world’s 3rd largest religion and the fastest growing in the United States. In addition, Henderson shared a quote from Hillary Clinton that to me, applies to what took place at the conference as well as to what is taking place at the Gandhi Institute, “Creating a new architecture for a new world.”
As I close, I think another quote from Gandhi can be applied to the conference and to a peaceful, nonviolent future. “I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu … But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”
To me, what Gandhi is saying here is that whatever religion you believe in, and even if you are a None, we should work at being better people. I think if we are working at becoming better people, we will be better towards and for others, and thus, have a more positive impact on the world. If we pray for people to be better and more positive in whatever their faith walk is, this would act as a unifier, not a divider.
In thinking about the conference, I truly believe that interfaith is an important, emerging tool for peace and nonviolence. As the world grows in population, yet closer in connectivity, it is vital for us to understand and appreciate the passions of others, while at the same time living our own. The many differences that are present in our diverse society can be a divider and a cause of conflict, or they can be remarkable gifts, helping us unify and accomplish amazing things.
I have confidence that what took place at the conference and what is taking place at the Gandhi Institute are key resources on the road to a more peaceful world.
written by Gandhi Institute Director, Kit Miller.
“We have to make truth and nonviolence not matters for mere individual practice but for practice by groups and communities and nations.”
My colleague and I looked at each other in chagrin last month as we read the disclosures in The Guardian regarding NSA collection of information in Brazil. As I am from the US and he lives in Rio, I apologized once again for the actions of my government and then said “You know, the NSA could make Gandhi’s of us all.”
I was referring to Gandhi’s adherence to speaking truth to his political opponents, including notifying them of impending actions and protests.
“A satyagrahi bids goodbye to fear. He is therefore never afraid of trusting his opponent. Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the satyagrahi is ready to trust him the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed.”
Before you dismiss this thinking as naive and idealistic remember, in Gandhi’s day, that his political opponents dismissed him also.
What is the consequence of living in a world where every one of your words is being heard? As someone who has studied permaculture – a nonviolent design system- I feel intrigued by the possibility that has organizational as well as ecological implications. One permaculture design principle is to creatively use and respond to change. Maybe the NSA is inadvertently doing world-wide activism a big favor. Perhaps like Gandhi we will increasingly choose silence, contemplative practices and the cultivation of humility to help ensure that we do not utter a word we do not mean.
- December 12, 2013 7:00 pmBringing Conscious Back: Millennium Slave
- December 14, 2013 10:00 amMorning Meditation
- December 21, 2013 10:00 amMorning Meditation
- December 28, 2013 10:00 amMorning Meditation
- January 12, 2014 6:00 pmGoing Beyond the Headlines
- Ditching my screens: finding excitement in a quiet, changed life November 18, 2013
- Review of “Twelve Years a Slave” November 13, 2013
- My time at the Gandhi Institute November 5, 2013