The Feedback Loop: Social Justice and Spirituality

April 12, 2013

When I was in seminary, I spent some time doing street ministry with drug-addicted teenagers. We brought them sandwiches, clean socks, sterile sharps, and hot chocolate. In return, they offered their stories.

One young man in particular has haunted me ever since. Beautiful, intelligent, and articulate, he shared that he had a typical upper-middle class upbringing. He’d done well in school, and had gone on to get a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture. It was while he was working on his Master’s degree that someone slipped him some Heroin. Unfortunately, it only took once for him. Now, his good looks made him popular with the men who looked to hire him for sex. He had enough cash to keep himself in drugs, but he no longer had any hopes of making it out of his life. “I expect I’ll die fairly soon,” he said, with very little affect. “I’ve got to be HIV positive by now.” As I prayed with him and then later for him, I noticed that in the midst of the grief and sadness, I felt a healthy dose of fear. It hit me hard: there was really very little difference between his story and mine, right up to that pivotal moment where he became addicted. It gave the phrase, “There but for the Grace of God go I” a whole new resonance.

This experience became the seed of a key realization for me. When we hesitate to interact with the homeless, the disenfranchised, the suffering, it’s not necessarily because we are afraid of ‘the other.’ Rather, we’re afraid we’ll realize that ‘they’ are just like ‘us.’ We cling to an artificial sense of safety that depends on our ability to blame people for their misfortune. “I would never behave that way, and so what happened to them would never happen to me.” When we get to actually know the stories of the people who are suffering, that sense of safety falls apart, and we who are ‘successful’ realize that we were, in so many ways, simply lucky.

I offer this as an example of the way we are transformed and enriched by our experiences out in the ‘real world.’ As we allow ourselves to come into contact with suffering and loss, misfortune and injustice, our intellectual defenses are shattered, and we must embrace a more complex and realistic world view. Our hearts are broken, and we become more compassionate and empathetic. Our spiritual understandings are challenged, and in response, we reformulate them to be wider and deeper.

Meanwhile, people who spend all their time out in the world can easily burn out, or become overwhelmed by their feelings of grief and impotence. Spiritual practices that enable us to process our experiences are essential to our survival. We need the clarity and focus that can only come out of slowing down and breathing deeply. Our spiritual practices empower us to serve the world in the right way, and for the right reasons.

I believe there is a feedback loop that happens when we embrace both service in the world and a spiritual practice. Our experiences in the world give us fodder for growth in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives provide us with sustenance and focus for our continued efforts out in the world. Meanwhile, spirituality without service is shallow and brittle, while service without spiritual grounding leads to burnout and cynicism.

I’ll be preaching on this topic on May 19th. Please share your thoughts, feelings and reactions!

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2 Responses to “The Feedback Loop: Social Justice and Spirituality”

  1. Lisa Ashley Says:

    I agree with your concept of the loop–experiences open our hearts and foster our growth in our spiritual lives, in our growth to a closer connection to other humans and to what we each might define as the Divine. Our spiritual lives and practices provide us with sustenance, and I would add, respite and comfort, so that we can continue our efforts of service to others. Our efforts to connect with the Divine in quiet times, worship, prayer, meditations, being in Nature, however we open our hearts to It, can counteract the despair and hopelessness that can come when we encounter the suffering in the stories of those we are listening to and walking with. As I listen to youth who are in detention and young adults who are in prison, I notice that I feel as if I am gifted by their presence in my life. It is not I who is helping them, but they who are opening my heart and teaching me many things. Here the ideas of service and spirituality seem to mesh into one sense of gratitude, awe, reverence, respect–in fact, love. The loop is all of a piece in those moments and in those times when I have the presence of mind to notice the deep connection I am privileged to feel in my meetings with the youth. Can this be what it feels like to be “blessed”? I want to say, when others ask me if or when I feel God’s presence, that it is in these moments, of connection and acknowledgement that a gift has been given, and it is my place to accept it, that something we can call grace has occurred. Thank you so much for your reflection on how we flow between, in and through justice and Spirit.


  2. Teaching allows me to bump up against the real world every day, but in a place that is controlled and predictable. Since I work with young children, it’s easy to imagine there’s time for everything to turn out okay, and my energy and wise effort it s a step in that direction. Surely, I think, this 8-year-old will figure out how to manage life by the time he’s 18.
    So I was a bit taken aback when our school counselor said, “I think we can rescue this one” in regards to one of my students. “If he can gain control of his emotions,” she added. Suddenly, I was looking at the future, where trouble producing predictable responses becomes trouble keeping a job, staying away from violence, etc. It’s not going to turn out okay for some of my students.
    And that’s as far as I can think. Today.


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