Practicing Community as Spiritual Discipline

This is a sermon that I delivered at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (where I keep my day job as Membership and Communications Coordinator) on Sunday, September 18. Following the transcript are the readings referenced throughout the sermon.

When Chris asked me to give today’s sermon, it didn’t take me long to decide what I should talk about. Recently, I moved into a collective house where we deliberately share the work of living and seek to strengthen our community at large and my day-to-day thoughts and conversations are largely consumed with how to make community work in a society that almost prevents the possibility. On review, community has been the unifying theme for most of the work I’ve done in my life so far – in Montessori classrooms (explicitly named “communities” by Maria Montessori herself), my work as an activist and here in this church, as an artist with an interest in collaboration – in fact, the first time I was in this pulpit talking to you all I was in the Youth Group giving a homily on community building through collaborative mural project.

We know that community, and more broadly, human connection, is necessary to our survival – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. We know that a human baby cannot live if she is not held, even if all her bodily needs are otherwise met. Brene Brown, the researcher/author famous for her work on vulnerability and connection, says “Connection, along with love and belonging, is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” I came to community building naturally and selfishly early on in my life, because conscious of it or not, I need community and it has not always come easily to me. Growing up in this church, beloved community has always been a value and an aspiration, but with the birth of my son, the need for community has been transformed from the purely emotional-spiritual, to a very concrete reality. It’s become a practical lifeline and also my most constant and important spiritual practice. At this point, there is practically no sector of Joseph and I’s life that doesn’t rely on a strong and supportive community – our housing, our food security, Joseph’s care while I am at work, and on and on. I see this as a great blessing.

We know that we need connection and yet when I look around at the world we live in, I see everywhere structures that create and maintain disconnection and isolation. It is in the external – the single-family house with a yard and a fence, the single-person vehicle as primary means of transportation, the commute to work outside of our neighborhoods, but these structures also exist in ways we cannot as easily see – it’s the way we as a culture prioritize independence and privacy, self-sufficiency, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality “I got where I am through my own hard work, I don’t need anybody and I don’t owe anybody anything.” We associate self-sufficiency with strength, and needing or accepting help is seen as weakness.

I grew up here in Bearden, and sometime around age 11 shortly after a visit to New York City I proclaimed definitively to my parents that I planned to move there as soon as possible. The main reasoning behind this decision was that NYC has art museums, and more importantly, sidewalks. The neighborhoods where I grew up (while I understand their other values as a place to raise a family) had no sidewalks. I never did move to New York City, but when I eventually moved into my first rental house with four friends in Old North Knoxville, I discovered with great joy that there are sidewalks here too. This was revelatory for me. I told my parents “You can walk places, and you see people that you know. Like, when they’re also walking, or sitting on their porches, or at the coffee shop. You don’t even have to plan to meet up, you just run into each other. Isn’t that cool?” I thought I had stumbled upon an anomaly; the experience of living there was so different from that of growing up in the suburbs. This ability to see and be seen, to know and be known, was so exciting to me and I would later understand it as the first step towards community.

One of my most powerful experiences of community was on a three-week long bike tour six years ago. Me and three of my friends packed our camping gear and food stash onto our bicycles and rode them all the way down to Savannah, Georgia, and back. Previous to this I’d never ridden a bicycle further than my daily commute across town. Setting out on our first 50-mile day, I wasn’t even sure I could actually ride a bike 50 miles in one day, but I set out anyways. We are often more able than we know especially when we have the constant presence and support of people that we love, and this proved true in this case as well. This was such a powerful community experience because in this situation we were forced to rely on one another for our basic material survival. The tent, our food, everything was split between bicycles. If someone got a flat, we all worked together to fix it. One of us making it relied on all of us making it.

One morning we packed up our camp site and had been riding for about 30 minutes when Bob suddenly announced y’all, I think I left the tent poles. There was nothing to be gained from any of us getting upset or frustrated – we just sat in the shade with his stuff while he rode his unloaded bike back to retrieve the poles, and when he returned we just kept going.

For these two-and-a-half weeks we were incredibly connected. I was valued and necessary, we were in this together, and no one was going to walk away if the situation became inconvenient or unpleasant (and trust me, it did). These were very grounded and safe-feeling days. Anytime I felt tired, there was at least one other person who was feeling excited, and I could soak up a little of their energy. When I wanted to stop, I found the energy to keep going because that’s what the group needed me to do. I always felt safe, because no matter what I had this community to rely on, who would stand behind me. I had a purpose, I had meaning, and I had acceptance without conditions.

Several years later, I took a trip to England to visit my good friend and past TVUUC Religious Education Intern Lizzie Roper. I stayed for 5 weeks, and during one of those weeks I planned another bike tour along the coast at the southern tip of the island. Lizzie was still working, so this time I would ride alone.

The experience was no less beautiful and no less powerful, but I found I had a complete lack of the emotional groundedness that was so present when I was traveling in community. When I wanted to stop, it was hard to find a really good reason to keep going instead. When I was tired, I was just tired. When I felt unsafe, I just felt unsafe. I was plagued by thoughts like Whose idea was this, anyways? Oh, right, it was my idea. Needless to say, I covered a lot less ground, and I slept restlessly.

While there is a different and equally powerful kind of connection resulting from being alone and very small in the wildness of the natural world, the moments of this trip that brought me the most joy were the moments of human connection, the random kindness of strangers which occasionally reminded me that we’re never alone, after all, we’re always a part of everything.

There was a train employee who stopped his work to draw me a map by hand on a scrap of paper, there was a woman who ran a coffee shop in a small town where I stayed for a few days and whom, after scolding me properly for applying my jam and clotted cream to my scone in the improper order, eventually divulged to me stories of growing up in Liverpool, her concerns about her adult daughter’s boyfriend, and her dreams of being a watercolor artist.

These are all moments in which I could viscerally feel the existence of our seventh principle: The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As Unitarian Universalists, we have plenty of different ideas about what spirituality is and means, but to me, this 7th principle is at the core. To me a spiritual practice is anything that helps you feel part-of that interconnected web of existence, to feel the sense of wonder at our connectedness to everything. We could name an endless list of potential spiritual practices: Meditation, hiking, roller derby, running, music, but also – choosing to deliberately practice loving community.

Through my experiences bike touring, I managed to stumble upon a profound manifestation of inter-reliant community quite by accident, and since then I have continued to ask: how can we build loving inter-reliant deliberate communities in a world where all the forces at hand are working to drive us apart? Bike touring was a great experience, but I’m not dying to take it up as a lifestyle.

Love is the force that moves us from isolation to connection, from individual to community, but to choose love, means going against the prevailing values of [our] culture. We live in a capitalist society which we see time and time again prioritizing economic gain above human life: I am thinking of the Native People who right now are fighting to protect their water and their sacred places, I am thinking of the recent price hike for the lifesaving EpiPen, I am thinking we could sit in this room for the rest of the day and not run out of things to put on this list. And no matter how consciously we reject these profits-before-people ethics, we often show up to community carrying an internalized version of the commodity based exchange-economy.

Most of us want this to be a fair trade. We want the good that we know community can give us, but we don’t want to give up too much for it, and we certainly don’t want to give any more than we’ll be getting back. But if we want true community, we have to make a conscious choice to make the radical shift to a love ethic.

Before the sermon we heard words from bell hooks on love ethics. She reminds us, “Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.” Sometimes a love ethic means moving to a town you don’t love to be close to your family. Sometimes a love ethic means not taking the better paying job that also means more time away from your loved ones. Sometimes a love ethic means spending a whole weekend helping a friend move or going to a two year old’s birthday party even though you’d really rather not.

The first time I encountered this idea of love ethics was in reading bell hooks’ book All About Love several years ago and in the time since this book has become my Love Textbook. It has been an important book for me precisely for the reasons that bell hooks testifies: we are not born inherently gifted at the skill of loving well, and our culture so often fails to teach us, therefore we must consciously make ourselves students.

Coming to loving community, we may be able to imagine what we are seeking, but have no idea where to begin to create it. I certainly find myself in this position often. Earlier, we also heard bell hooks’ argument for a common definition of love, and the definition she proposes from M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Perhaps the most important part of this definition is the word will. Will implies choice. Love is a choice we make, so is community, and it is not a one-time choice. In racial justice work, you might hear the phrase “you can’t be passive on a moving train,” used to explain the idea that in a society with such profound structural inequality, it is not enough to think simply well, I believe in equality and justice, and sit still. We’re all on a moving train, and if we’re passive then we are perpetuating injustice. We must deliberately and daily choose to fight against the forces that perpetuate violence in injustice in our world.

The same is true of love, and of community: it’s not a one-time choice. We can’t simply say “Well I believe in community,” or “Wow, I found this great community,” and then sit still on a train that’s driving us away from each other. We must make a practice of choosing community, and of choosing love. We must do it deliberately and every day.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a friend say “I’m looking for community and I just can’t seem to find it,” as though a community were some sort of lovely treasure that we’re going to stumble upon one day while we’re out walking the dog. I have often myself wished that community was something more like this, something permanent and solid, like a silver pocket watch or a stone that fits in the palm of your hand. We like to talk about love and community as a noun, I propose that we must consider community as a verb. Community is something that we do. If running is our spiritual practice, we know that we have to put on our running shoes and go to the trail and run not just once, but every day. Likewise, we have to continue to show up and practice community if we are going experience this interconnectedness that we all desire.

I’m not blind to the fact that being in community is sometimes unpleasant and often inconvenient: In the time since I chose this topic for this sermon, the collective house where I live experienced a week so difficult that I questioned whether I am even qualified to be talking about community at all. But if we look at any other spiritual practice – running, meditation, hiking – we know that the good part only comes if you stick through the part that’s terrible. Meditation doesn’t work if you get up the first time you feel bored, and any runner can tell you that you get the runner’s high until you’ve slogged for just a little bit longer than you thought you could bear.

One of the major historical conflicts of human communities worldwide is nicely summed up by a sign that hung for a time above the sink in the kitchen of the Birdhouse Community Center in 4th and Gill. It read: Are you leaving your dirty dish here? That’s fine! Just write the name of the person whose job it is to wash it for you in this blank. I am very familiar to the experience of walking into a community kitchen and thinking I will not continue to live if I have to wash one more dish.

This is when our capitalist ethic is quick to provide a convenient alternative: You’d be better off without those other people. You should purchase a house with a dishwasher, and then you won’t even have to wash your own dishes. Your life will be so convenient and you will finally be happy. It is a very tempting sales pitch, especially when you are looking at a sink full of dirty dishes for the 52nd time this month. It can be very tempting to throw in the towel, and walk away.

These are the moments when our practice becomes meaningful, when we are frustrated and fed up and we want to quit. This is when the responsibility is ours to create the lived reality of the values we aspire to. And while I have nothing against convenience, it is important to notice what we give up in exchange for it. We have to recognize that like any practice, a practice of loving community does not become meaningful until we have stuck with it when it got hard, which in some cases is every day.

Tomorrow night we welcome Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost on their #ReviveLove tour, a collaboration with the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, Black Lives Matter, and Showing Up for Racial Justice. The concert promises a powerful musical experience as well as political and spiritual sustenance for Movement. Caitlin Breedlove, the campaign director at Standing on the Side of Love, recently wrote an article called “Why Movements need to Revive Love” in which she speaks to the hard work of loving in community: “In my own life, loving has not been a set of syrupy experiences. Loving has been the hardest work of my life […] Love has asked me to stay in it with someone or something: to do things that are scary or boring. It has asked me to intervene or interrupt broken patterns in personal and movement relationships. It has made me come back after making humiliating mistakes. Love has made me more faithful to what I believe in word and deed […] Sometimes when I talk to groups about Movement Building and Love I ask: ‘Who here has ever really loved someone? Changed a million diapers or spent long nights by a hospital bed in the name of that love? Who here is a better person because of loving another that way? What if we loved our movements that way?”

This community that is TVUUC knows a lot about love. Many of us have loved this church through some of the hardest times a community can face. When I was most of the way through with this sermon, it occurred to me I ought to re-read our church covenant, which is if you ask me the cornerstone of deliberate community, and my thesis was right there in the last line: we covenant […] to understand that building our beloved community requires ongoing learning and practice of courageous acts of love and reconciliation.

I’m not saying you have to wash the dishes. I’m just saying we have to keep practicing. As uncomfortable as our conflicts can be, as frustrated and fed up and burnt out and tired as we get, I know that the best moments, the moments when I feel most loved and connected to my community and Creation, are the moments when we wanted to give up but we didn’t. When all we had to offer was showing up, and we showed up hungry, but we showed up anyways.

Readings:

From All About Love, bell hooks

Our confusion about what we mean when we use the word “love” is the source of our difficulty in loving. If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving would not be so mystifying. […] The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb. I spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word love, and was deeply relieved when I found one in the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Traveled […] he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

TVUUC  Congregational Covenant  

We covenant with each other, promising our goodwill and honest effort, pledging our care and support to one another and to our church community, challenging one another to live in accord with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

With this common purpose as our source, we covenant:

to welcome all who come to us with acceptance and respect for the differences among us, and to remain open to the richness and discomforts of diversity;

 to listen with sincerity and love;

to foster trust, practice patience and speak one’s truth directly and with compassion;

to reflect carefully about the potential results of our words and actions before we speak or act;

to assume the positive intent of others and keep our discussions to topics and issues rather than personalities;

 to acknowledge that we may not always agree with the group decisions, but we will support and participate in decision-making processes that are collaborative and democratic; and be open to compromise;

to pursue mutually satisfying resolution when there is disagreement, and seek help when needed;

to speak directly to those with whom we have disagreements and encourage others to do the same;

to speak out with loving kindness when we witness disrespectful interactions, acknowledging our fallibility and practicing forgiveness;

to act with loving kindness, seeking to promote justice, equity, and compassion;

to understand that building our beloved community requires ongoing learning and practice of courageous acts of love and reconciliation.

From All About Love, bell hooks (on love ethics)

Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions. I chose to move to a small city so I could live in the same area as family even though it was not as culturally desirable as the place I left. […] Living by a love ethic we learn to value loyalty and a commitment to sustained bonds over material advancement. While careers and making money remain important agendas, they never take precedence over valuing and nurturing human life and well-being.

I know no one who has embraced a love ethic whose life has not become joyous and more fulfilling. The wide-spread assumption that ethical behavior takes the fun out of life is false, in actuality; living ethically ensures that relationships in our lives, including encounters with strangers, nurture our spiritual growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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