On Friday night May 12th, in the midst of typical Boston spring weather (read: rainy and cold), I gathered with the Greater Boston Zen Center’s newly created Racial & Social Justice working group in Cambridge. We were, organizationally, babies: it was our third-ever meeting. And yet, we were already humming. The hospitality team had provided pizza; I had a butcher-paper agenda on the wall; we checked in; someone volunteered to be time-keeper; a member of the group shared her public narrative, and others responded with words of resonance; we went through a draft of the shared purpose; we silently journaled; we shared in groups of 3, then reported out; we reviewed roles; we had an evaluation at the end, complete with pluses, deltas and shout-outs.
For those who aren’t familiar, all of these activities are classic Life Together. Life Together alumni, reading this list, are nodding their heads (and perhaps fondly rolling their eyes) - yes, these are the technologies that Life Together, in close partnership with the Leadership Development Initiative, teaches to bridge the gap between good intentions and effective action in the world. They are collaborative, relationship-based technologies that translate the language of a broken heart into concrete and compassionate action. And they are spreading.
The creation of a Racial and Social Justice working group may seem old hat for those immersed in the social justice convictions of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts or progressive churches more generally. But for budding American convert Buddhism, of which the Greater Boston Zen Center is a part, outward-facing action isn’t common. It took the election of Trump to sufficiently freak everyone out. And it took the tools and processes taught by Life Together to give us a relationship-based, democratic model of organizing for social change. In this, the Zen Buddhists are indebted to the Episcopalians….I doubt y’all saw that one coming! Impact is always hard to anticipate, and the Spirit surprises. Equipped with the tools that Life Together offers, I was able to step into leadership at Greater Boston Zen Center to begin to facilitate our community’s response to injustice. How fortunate to have something to offer to a community that has given me so much.
Having something to offer is still a surprise for me. For a long time I thought my task was to become someone else, someone sturdier and more impervious, and only through toughening up would I be able to act for justice in the world. I remember that when I was little, it was dangerous for me to watch a movie or the local news. If there was any cruelty or even the suggestion thereof, I was known to wail, “But I feel sorry for them,” and start to cry. My family found this distressing, and perhaps maladaptive. You’ll have enough pains of your own; you can’t go around taking on everyone else’s.
When I began working at Life Together, I encountered a community which took very seriously the power of a soft and broken heart. Life Together has a vision of the world where all the sensitive souls who are told not to feel too much, who are told to say nice prayers and keep out of the way, are armed with methodologies for change - where they know how to ask for money, pray audaciously, build a coalition, and organize teams to fight for justice. We were supposed to be too squishy, too weak! We were supposed to harden, or else blubberingly beg for mercy from the corners into which we’d been kicked, as toxic masculinity and white supremacy bartered our values and lives. But instead, our hearts fully crucified, we demand justice, accountability, truth and love in the name of the resurrected Christ. I could have never known this was possible without a community who lived it out with incredible integrity, and welcomed me in.
As I leave Life Together in my role of Director of Recruitment and Development after almost 4 years, I feel humbled by the gifts of apprenticing with such a powerful community. I want to thank Arrington Chambliss and Jason Long for their incredible mentorship and vision, and the Life Together community for their support, leadership and friendship throughout the years and during my transition – especially the current staff: Kelsey, Lindsey, Yuris, Libby, Eliza, Adiel and Betsy. When I bear these gifts to other communities, I watch with amazement the empowerment spreading in ways small and large. Speaking with other Life Together alumni who work in diverse fields and contexts throughout the world, I realize I am not alone. The gifts of Life Together, like milkweed seeds, drift and disperse into unlikely places, scattered by the Spirit. May they continue to take root and bloom.