Discovering Engaged Spirituality

During the summer I turned 17, I made a conscious decision to become a follower of Jesus. In the language of the evangelical context in which this happened I “gave my life to Christ.” While for me, the decision was not particularly emotional, it was pivotal. I had been attending a vibrant Congregational church for several years and was involved with an evangelical youth organization called Young Life.  Young Life preached a message which stressed that making a commitment to Christ assured one of eternal salvation and forgiveness of sins because of the death of Jesus on the Cross. Moreover, as faithful followers of Jesus, we were to reach out to others and lead them to make the same commitment to Jesus we had made, sharing the “good news” of salvation available through a commitment to Christ. While those messages were certainly on my mind when I made my decision, what stood out to me then was that in committing myself to follow Jesus, I was committing to work for a more humane and just world.

While over 50 years have passed since I made that decision and while my views on Jesus and God’s work in the world have deepened, widened and changed, the thing that has stayed central to my beliefs and spiritual practices is the idea that following Jesus requires working for a more humane and just world. I believe the goal of a life focused on following the example and teachings of Jesus is not to assure one’s place on some heavenly honor roll, but rather to be a positive force for change in people’s lives. I feel led to work for peace and justice in the piece of the world which I occupy and in which I have some influence. And the role of spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, worship and reading sacred texts like the Bible is to guide and empower me to do that work over the course of my life.

For a number of years, I grappled with the fact that many of my spiritual mentors focused on “making me fit for heaven.” While I believed there was a place of final rest after death, that focus is far too limiting.  Nearly forty years ago I met a British Methodist minister named John Vincent who talked about God being as alive in bars, street corners and factories as that God was in the designated sacred places like churches and cathedrals. He challenged the idea that being a follower of Jesus was solely focused on personal salvation. He helped me see that God was at work in the world, and my challenge was to catch up and join God in whatever He/She was about. Because of John Vincent I began to look for God in the public square in the people and places I regularly frequented: riding the bus, standing in line at the grocery store, walking through the neighborhoods and playing in the parks. I looked for evidence of God’s presence while engaging in demonstrations, vigils and other efforts to work for social justice in the lives of people. While I valued my theological and Biblical education, I found that God spoke to me most clearly through the works and the lives among people who not only longed for a more just world but gave their time, money, energy and very lives for that cause.

I eventually came to call this way of following Jesus “Engaged Spirituality,’ which focused me on meeting God and following Jesus in the marketplace, in the courtroom, on the street corner and in the halls of political power. I am not the first or the only person to use the term engaged spirituality, and I have found that each thinker on this topic has slightly different definitions, but the central idea remains the same. Janet Parachin describes it this way: “ [E]ngaged spirituality involves living a dual engagement: engaging with those resources that provide spiritual nurture and engaging with the world through acts of compassion and justice” (1). Spiritual nurture and social justice, contemplation and compassion, prayer and pounding on the doors of power, worship and working for a world where people can live full and healthy lives, this is engaged spirituality.

Engaged Spirituality as Antiracism

Roger Gottlieb in his book A Spirituality of Resistance, writes, “what is most precious about our own lives is bound up with the fate of others (2). I would say this is true for engaged spirituality, particularly in its commitment to antiracism.  As I think about my efforts to weed out the racism in my own life and to resist and dismantle racism in the institutions and systems that shape our society, my focus is not simply on issues but the people I know and have learned about. Engaged spirituality brings me into relationship with people whose lives are a constant battle against a system that devalues and degrades them because of their skin color, ethnicity or immigrant status. Who I am and how I see the world has been shaped by the personal stories I have heard and the experiences I have had working toward a more racially equitable and just society. What I have learned and experienced has cycled back into my quiet times reading the Bible, meditating, journaling and praying for the world I am called to serve.

So, when I think about antiracism as spiritual formation, I am not simply reading books and praying for those who must continually contend with a society dominated by white supremacist practices and policies, I am also being equipped and guided in the ways in which I can live and work in solidarity with efforts to transform our society in ways are more equitable, respectful and accessible to all.

Antiracism as Spiritual Formation by its very design deepens my inner life while drawing me out into the confusing, messy and difficult work of concretely engaging with the racism that infects each and every person in this society whether or not they know it or acknowledge it. It challenges me to stand alongside those BIPOC folks working to challenge and change the racist status quo. At the same time, I am called to engage in ongoing dialogue with my white brothers and sisters who live in fear and confusion of those calling for that change.  As I continue in this series, I will explore what this concretely looks like.