On the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my pastor preached a great sermon on spiritual activism. He defined it this way: “Spiritual activism is about connecting personal spiritual growth and community works of social justice.” (From the Desk of Pastor Matt)
As I reflect on what this phrase “spiritual activism” means to me in my seventh decade, I recall how much I have learned in the political and social activism of earlier years. Doors slamming in my face when I campaigned in Atlanta for Andrew Young for Congress. Serving on N.C.’s Governor’s Commission for incarcerated women seeking access to their children. Working on the “rat patrol” in D.C.’s Adams Morgan to provide safe and adequate housing. Marching with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the first of many protests. Oh my. One thing I am clear about is that I have always been an activist. Sometimes in leadership positions. Sometimes one of many.
I find the activism much easier than the predicate word “spiritual.” The challenge for me is in Matt’s words “connecting personal spiritual growth.” How is my activism different with a sense of personal spiritual growth than it is without it? I need my spiritual activism to reflect the integration of who I currently experience myself to be. My energies are different than they were when I was younger. My interests are different. I don’t feel less committed. But the place where my passion meets the world’s needs, to paraphrase Fredrick Buechner, is not clear. Where are the helpful reference points to understand more fully what spiritual activism means for me now?
As often occurs when I’m struggling with a life issue, I turn to my illustrated children’s books. This time Ruby the Red Knight and Miss Rumphius.
“The sun never shines there and cold winds bluster all year round.” With such a description, Ruby the Red Knight learns about the evil wizard’s spell. The key to ending his enchantment’s power? That is for Ruby to discover. Using courage and a physicality as delightful as it was rare in the children’s literature of the 80’s, Ruby goes on her quest to free those who are suffering. She risks the wizard’s rage through confrontation that requires a feather, not a sword.
A second oft-read book of my daughter’s childhood was the quieter statement of Miss Alice Rumphius, who learned an important lesson sitting on her grandfather’s knee. In response to her sharing that she, like him, will travel far, and when she grows old, will live by the sea, he enjoins “but there is a third thing you must do.” And what is that? “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” “’All right,’ said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.”
Wait. Can making the world more beautiful also be spiritual activism? It doesn’t exactly meet my traditional sense of “community works of social justice.” Ruby’s actions are more familiar. I mean she goes out to confront evil and injustice. Miss Rumphius on the other hand lives to old age not knowing how she is meant to make the world a more beautiful place. Then, after a season of having to stay in bed most of the time, she discovers her gifts almost accidentally. “She planted a few flower seeds in the stony ground.” She wanted to plant more seeds, but her physical limitations prevented her from doing so. Yet the next spring, feeling much better, she went out on a walk and discovered the wind had brought the seeds from her garden to the hillside. There was “a large patch of blue and purple and rose-colored lupines.”
Only then does Miss Rumphius become intentional about making the world more beautiful. She tosses five bushels of lupine seed over every hillside she sees, and earns herself a reputation as “That Crazy Old Lady.” But her great-niece sits at her feet to hear Miss Rumphius’ stories of far-away places. And is told, “little Alice, . . . there is a third thing you must do . . . You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” “All right,” says little Alice. “But I do not know yet what that can be.”
So is Miss Rumphius a spiritual activist? What do you think? I believe I need a further reflection on this “spiritual” aspect of activism. Stay tuned for Part 2.