Heavy Hearts and Active Hope

            As 2021 draws to a close,  I find myself carrying a heavy heart.  Just when we thought we were coming out of COVID, the omicron variant struck.  Emergency rooms and intensive care units overflow again, deaths increase, health care workers are again stretched beyond their limits. 

            Furthermore, after the inauguration earlier this year of the first woman of color as a Vice President in the United States and a President committed to racial justice, I imagined the country would be further along in stopping police killings of black and brown people.  And I imagined more people of color would be able to vote. Instead, we got more police and vigilante killings of people of color and new restrictive laws prohibiting people of color from voting.

            And I imagined the first steps of healing the bitter political divisions in this country.  Instead, we still have people defending the January insurrection and people still questioning the validity of elections won fair and square.

            And I imagined the first steps of healing our precious planet.  Instead, legislation is being blocked right and left as our world burns.

            I find myself crying out, “How long, O Lord?”  I wanted a straight path from vaccination to re-opening. I wanted a straight path from the U.S. election to racial justice and a functional democracy.  I wanted progress toward healing our planet.  I wanted to be further along by now.

            As I search for inspiration in these times, Joanna Macy’s work speaks to me.  In the group process she uses,  The Work that Reconnects, she articulates the place of Active Hope.  Active Hope, she claims, is not a feeling but a practice.  We choose to practice Active Hope.  The three steps of this practice, 1) facing reality, 2) identifying what we hope for, and 3) identifying the steps of action that are ours to take to move toward that goal, though deceptively simple on the surface, prove powerful in practice.   As she points out, most books addressing the problems of the world focus either on analysis of the problems or on solutions to those problems.  Analysis and rational solutions get us only so far.  Active Hope, on the other hand, focuses on how to strengthen and support our intention to act.  While left-brain analysis is important, right-brain imagination, inspiration, and intention complement that analysis by providing the strength and will to take effective steps toward change. Furthermore, when right-brain imagination, inspiration, and intention are practiced in a community of like-minded souls, their power is multiplied.

            I don’t have a master plan. I don’t know the way forward on a grand scale.  My heart is still heavy.  Yet I know that I can practice Active Hope, and that doing so will make a difference in the world.  As Margaret Mead reminded us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Learning the New Song

The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit… I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind, and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody—how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies.”

(Howard Thurman)

As I have reflected on this meditation by Howard Thurman during this recent election season in the U.S., I’ve asked myself, “What is the old, tired, familiar melody in my life at this time?” I realize that it is fear, despair, obsessive worry, knee-jerk actions. What is the new song for me? Discovering it requires listening. It’s God’s invitation to something fresh and new in each moment. It requires listening, learning the melody, and then singing along. These past two weeks, since the election, have been an invitation for me to deeper prayer.

When I awoke on November 3, the day after the elections, I felt dismay and anxiety. I had wanted a landslide for the candidates I favored and watched in apprehension at what unfolded before my eyes. I felt heavy-hearted that racism had played a significant role in some major elections.

How could my dismay at what was happening be turned into productive prayer and action, rather than obsessive anxiety? As I listened for God’s prayer in me, I heard the new melody. I found myself being drawn to pray deeply that what is of God in each person in this country would be raised up and that what is not of God would fall away. I have returned to this prayer many times a day since that Wednesday morning.

As I pray, I have a sense of God working, of the good being raised up in leaders of both parties, of the good being raised up in judges to give them the courage to reject frivolous lawsuits, of the good being raised up in ordinary citizens to give them the will and the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood as they listen to the rhetoric of politicians.

I have a vision of others who are uniting in the same prayer that I am praying, holding up one another’s arms in prayer as Aaron and Hur did for Moses, so that we don’t give up when we grow weary. The vision I see includes some who are called to pray at this moment, some called to work for fair elections and protection of our democracy, some called to work for voting rights, some called to witness in the streets, some called to pray now and work tomorrow, others to work today and pray tomorrow, some to work and pray at the same time. The work and the prayer are integrated. As I listen for the new song, I continue to pray and sense how God is at work. I feel confident I will know what is mine to do when.

As I listen for the new song, my prayer also moves to those who are marginalized. I’m aware of many who have been and still are suffering deeply, of the children at the border who were and still are separated from their parents, of the black lives lost in police killings, of those in poverty especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and more. I pray that whatever is of God in marginalized people will be raised up to give them hope and remind them of their dignity when they are tempted to despair. I pray that whatever is of God in the rest of us will be raised up to give us strength and courage to fight for the protection of those on the margins.

This prayer feels deeper than any particular election. We so need the good to be raised up in each of us as we move forward now as a country, as a world. Those of us who disagree with one another, who supported different candidates, need the good to be raised up in us so that we are not tempted, respectively, to gloat or to turn to bitterness and despair. How can I personally listen for the good? How can all of us carry out respectful dialogue and find our way forward as fellow citizens seeking to re-build a democracy together?

May we each continue to listen for the new song that is ours to sing. May we all learn to sing the new melodies. The degree to which we each faithfully sing our new song will determine the degree of harmony and healing manifested among us.

[This is a further development of the November 2020 Executive Soul blog.]

Crisis Leadership

“Don’t waste a good crisis,” admonished Winston Churchill during World War II. A crisis suspends the status quo and makes possible what wasn’t possible before. A crisis reveals ways of operating that worked in the past, but which are no longer relevant in the new circumstances. At the Shalem Institute, where I serve as executive director, we wondered what we might be able to do in the crisis of COVID-19 that we hadn’t been able to do before. We wondered which of our old ways needed to be shed in the new circumstances. We knew the Chinese character for “crisis” meant both “danger” and “opportunity.” What was the opportunity hiding in this crisis for us? What was the danger? We continued to dive deep and listen, going beneath preoccupation with our own fears and discomfort to the bedrock of God’s abiding presence and guidance. We waited and listened and watched….

In the end, the crisis of COVID-19 allowed us to break through barriers that had confined us: expanding the Group Spiritual Direction program, doing significant leadership development and expanding and diversifying our team of program leaders, manifesting the next incarnation of a program for personal spiritual growth, moving our files to the cloud, making the Shalem Society gathering of program graduates affordable and accessible, and strengthening working relationships within our administrative staff, not limited by geography.

Another second crisis, that of police killings and subsequent protests, a time of racial reckoning for our country, put the United States’ original sin of racism front and center. Again, we at Shalem were called to ask, “What is ours to do?” What was the invitation for Shalem in this crisis, both internally and externally? For years Shalem, a predominantly White organization, had been working toward more diversity on its board and staff, with limited success. The time was ripe to work more broadly toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.

We took a number of steps to begin to address this issue. We still have much work to do and we have begun to look at next steps we can take toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in our organization. The crisis of police violence and the related protests in the United States have provided Shalem with the opportunity to step up and do our work. This second crisis allowed us to break through our complacency as a White organization and name the ways that we were complicit in racism and begin to take steps to become more anti-racist. We have begun a long journey, and I pray that we will have the courage and perseverance to continue.

The admonition to “not waste a good crisis” has served us well. Crises provide important opportunities. May we all have eyes to see the invitations contained within them.

This blog is an excerpt from Crisis Leadership by Margaret Benefiel, adapted and used with permission of the publisher (Morehouse Publishing, 2021).

6 Leadership Lessons of St. Francis

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

As we approach the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct 4, I ponder what I can learn from him about leadership. Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership. And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance what approach to leadership would prove effective. As I reflect on Francis’ life, six lessons in leadership effectiveness stand out to me.

  1. Be true to yourself. Francis traveled a number of paths before he found the one that was right for him. The son of a successful cloth merchant in thirteenth-century Italy, Francis seemed destined for business success. From playboy to soldier to knight to cloth merchant, Francis experimented with paths he thought might suit him. It was only when he heard God’s call to rebuild the church that he discovered his true path. Yet when he abandoned his father’s business and embraced poverty and service, the townspeople called him crazy. For years he wandered through his native city following a path that no one understood. In time, as he persevered in pursuing the way that was his to pursue, a few people caught his vision and began to follow him. Eventually, his followers numbered in the thousands. By being true to himself and persevering in the face of misunderstanding and mockery, Francis forged a new way that attracted thousands.
  2. Love God passionately. Francis brought the passion of his former life to his love of God. Not one for half measures, Francis fell utterly in love with God, and loved with abandon. He roamed the countryside singing of his love, and he constantly sought ways to please God.
  3. Embrace all. Francis learned early on that rebuilding God’s church meant embracing everyone. He embraced the leper who represented the lowest caste in society. When people began to follow his way, he embraced brothers from the highest class to the lowest, inviting them to live together in simplicity and community. When Clare ran away from home in order to follow him, he embraced her and helped her establish a women’s order. Francis learned to see the gifts that each person brought and to embrace people with gratitude for their contributions.
  4. Live with joy. Francis lived with contagious joy. His delight in the beauty of nature, in the uniqueness of each person, in the gifts of God, drew people to him. Even in adversity, Francis lived with joy. For example, when a hut in which he took refuge for a night proved to be infested with mice, after an initial expression of displeasure, Francis welcomed his “brother mice” with joy and hospitality. His joy disarmed friends and detractors alike.
  5. Approach power courageously. Francis, the “little poor man of Assisi,” decided early in his ministry that he and his tiny band of brothers should approach the Pope to ask for his blessing on their way of life. Undaunted by Pope Innocent III’s wealth and power in contrast to their outcast status, the rag-tag band walked from Assisi to Rome. Rebuffed by the cardinals when they arrived, they persevered in seeking an audience with the Pope. After the Pope had a dream in which he saw a little poor man holding up a huge church, he realized he needed to talk to Francis. Francis and the brothers, fearless before the Pope, described their way of life as living the gospel as Jesus intended. The Pope, impressed by their sincerity and commitment, gave his provisional blessing.
  6. Reach across differences. The Crusades broke Francis’ heart. He hated seeing Christians fighting Muslims over the holy land. In 1219, he traveled to Egypt where the battle was raging, and crossed enemy lines, unarmed, in order to speak with the Ottoman Sultan. He hoped to find common ground, and risked his life to do so. He boldly spoke to the Sultan and the Sultan listened attentively. Though he didn’t achieve reconciliation, the two men left the encounter with mutual respect and admiration.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, discovered how to be an effective leader as he followed his calling. Much of his success in leadership was a side effect of his faithfulness.

St. Francis displayed a great deal of love and courage during his lifetime, and he influenced many people through his example. His life, teachings, and spiritual insights have attracted many followers through the years. His teachings are timeless and continue to live on today. I can’t help but wonder what Francis would say today about responding to suffering people. How would he respond, for example, to refugees from Haiti and Afghanistan or to those displaced by hurricanes or wildfires, or to those suffering from COVID-19? On Francis’ feast day, perhaps we can seek to look at the world through his eyes and seek to live, love, and lead as he did.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in May 2015.)

3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

As St. Clare of Assisi’s (1194-1253) feast day approaches on August 11, I’ve been reflecting on her soulful leadership. Best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” Clare eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond. While St. Francis took center stage with his extroverted charismatic leadership, St. Clare quietly built stronger structures behind the scenes.

As I muse on St. Clare and her contributions, three leadership lessons stand out for me. Clare teaches me about prayer, community-building, and persistence.

First, Clare knew the power of prayer. She knew that prayer provided the foundation for all of her leadership. Without prayer, without her radical trust in God, she could do nothing. She prayed for strength and guidance when she was called to lead her community of “Poor Ladies” as a young adult. Later, when an invading army swarmed her vulnerable convent of San Damiano, outside the protection of the city walls, she prayed. Upon praying, she felt led to stand at the window in front of the army, armed only with the host, the body of Christ, and her trust in God. Faced with Clare’s shining strength, the army became confused and fled. Thus, through prayer, Clare saved not only her convent but also the city of Assisi. Finally, Clare’s prayer undergirded her day-to-day leadership in the convent. When faced with lack of food, with illness, with cold, she prayed. People brought turnips, medicine, and blankets, and year after year, all the Sisters’ needs were supplied.

Second, Clare knew how to build community. Though she lived in an enclosed community at San Damiano her entire life as a Sister, she built community both at home and from afar, much as we have had to do during the pandemic. She showed her 50 fellow Sisters how to live together in compassionate service in cramped quarters and difficult conditions. Beyond San Damiano, she instructed Agnes of Prague, a princess who left behind wealth and status to found a religious community like Clare’s, in building a convent. While Francis’ communities faced divisive conflicts, Clare taught her communities to work through conflicts in ways that built stronger relationships. And she also built relationships near and far, with St. Francis and his brothers, with priests, with bishops, and with Popes.

Third, Clare lived perseverance. Her entire life, she fought for a way of life like Francis’ in which she could be true to the gospel as she understood it. For her, this meant living in poverty, in total reliance upon God. She appealed to every Pope in her lifetime to approve the rule she had written to regulate life in her community. When Pope after Pope said no, she didn’t give up. Finally, on her deathbed, the Pope sent word that he had heard she was dying and he wondered if there was anything he could do for her. When she said, “Approve my rule,” he relented, and she received papal approval two days before she died.

Leading with soul is never easy, whether one lives in thirteenth-century Europe or modern times. The way is often fraught with stresses, discouragements, and obstacles, whether they be a pandemic, injustice, or political instability, that challenge our commitment to walk our path with faith. However, we can turn to those who have come before us, those like St. Clare who embody the qualities of a good leader. They show us not only that it is possible to lead with soul but also that we are not alone in the journey.

(An earlier version of this blog appeared in April 2016.)

3 Leadership Lessons St. Francis Taught me from his Failures

Last month, as I “walked” on a virtual pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, I reflected on six leadership lessons I learned from his success. Like all of us, Francis scored some wins and some losses when it came to leadership. And like all of us, Francis didn’t always know in advance which approach to leadership would prove effective.

Francis’ failures can prove just as instructive as his successes. As I reflect on Francis’ life, three lessons in leadership effectiveness that I can learn from his failures stand out to me.

  1. Clarity of mission. When Francis returned home to Italy from his journey to Egypt in 1220, he found his brothers divided and in conflict. Brother John had decided to organize the lepers the brothers were serving into a religious order and requested approval for the order from the Holy See. Brother Phillip had sought special protections from the Pope for the Poor Clares (defying Francis’ instructions not to seek favors in high places). Brothers Matthew and Gregory had imposed stricter fasting guidelines on the brothers, more appropriate for monks than for active friars. All of these measures had stirred up turmoil in the order and revealed a lack of clarity about the purpose of the life of the brothers. Conflict-averse himself, Francis had avoided clarifying the mission of the order, either personally or in concert with his brothers. Without clarity of mission, brothers had different understandings of what direction their lives and ministries should go. As the order had grown and with Francis away, the situation had spiraled out of control.

Clarity of mission can help a group stay focused through the stresses of growth and the temporary absence of the leader.

  1. Preparation for leadership. In 1217, Francis had sent several groups of brothers out in ministry beyond Italy, to Germany, Hungary, England, and the Holy Land. While the impulse was one of generous service, the missions failed. Lacking preparation, the brothers couldn’t speak the language of the country they visited, didn’t understand the culture, and didn’t know how to translate their mendicant ways into a new setting. Furthermore, many of these brothers had recently joined the order themselves and had no experience of leadership in their home context.

Adequate preparation can help lessen the shock of a new environment. And gradual introduction to leadership responsibilities in one’s own setting can prepare the way for greater responsibility in a new setting.

  1. Leadership succession. Francis decided to go off on mission himself when other brothers left on mission in 1217. He only got as far as Florence, where Cardinal Hugolino dissuaded him and he returned to Assisi, convinced by Hugolino of the order’s need for his leadership at home. But the urge to travel in ministry returned, and he left for Egypt in 1219. Though Francis did appoint leaders to be in charge in his absence, he hadn’t carefully considered what was required to lead a religious order, much less groomed others to take on those responsibilities. The result, combined with the lack of clarity in mission mentioned above, was disastrous. This episode served as a precursor to what happened when Francis died, when the fault lines in the order revealed themselves and caused more serious division and an eventual split in the order.

Careful attention to raising up leaders can help a group through the difficulties of transition and keep a group moving together toward its goal when a leader is away for an extended absence or when the leader retires or dies.

St. Francis, not always knowing what he was doing, succeeded in a number of ways as a leader and also failed in a number of ways. Both his successes and his failures can prove instructive. By reflecting on both his successes and his failures, leaders today can learn how to become more effective.

(This is a slightly revised version of the post that appeared in the June 2015 Executive Soul blog.)


Having recently “returned” from a virtual pilgrimage to Italy, where images of sacrifice surrounded me, I find myself contemplating sacrifice and suffering. In the midst of co-leading a pilgrimage, I saw everywhere biblical images of sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jesus), as well as images of saints who sacrificed wealth, health, and life itself.

“What do these images have to do with me?” I asked. Coming from a culture in which the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, I find the medieval preoccupation with sacrifice distant, strange, and even repulsive. Yet, precisely because of their strangeness, these images, I sense, have something to teach me.

Back home in the U. S. now, it’s almost Memorial Day weekend, the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their country. In the midst of a “me”-centered culture, soldiers understand sacrifice in a way that most of us don’t. Soldiers sacrifice the comforts of home, risk life and limb, and ask their families to sacrifice their presence. If they are lucky enough to return home, they return with the physical and emotional scars of battle, facing the often insurmountable challenges of adjusting to re-entry into family and work.

What can we learn from these men and women in our midst who understand sacrifice so much better than most of us do? How can we begin to practice sacrifice in small ways, to contribute to the betterment of those around us? How does sacrifice relate to our day-to-day work lives?

Possibilities for small sacrifices abound. An employer might hire a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide him or her with the support needed to heal. Such an act is a small sacrifice compared to what the veteran has given. Or, in these tough pandemic economic times when layoffs have become necessary, executives might give up part of their profit by investing in retraining workers and assisting them in finding new employment, as CoreStates Bank in Philadelphia did. Or, when layoffs occur and employees are asked to do more with less, someone might step in to go the extra mile and support a stressed co-worker.

What am I being invited to sacrifice? Perhaps it is something as simple as sacrificing an evening out in order to prepare well and offer my best work to participants in a program in which I am teaching. Or to sacrifice my carefully planned schedule to support my husband when he’s facing a work deadline. Or to sacrifice sleep to sit with a friend in the emergency room of a hospital.

Medieval saints and modern soldiers all have something to teach me. Inspired by them and with gratitude to them, I want to learn to practice appropriate sacrifice in my daily life.

(This post is a revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2016.)

Soulful Leadership in Public Safety, Part II: Defund the Police

Photo Credit: “File:Defund the police.jpg” by Taymaz Valley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Defund the police,” one of the rallying cries of protests a year ago after the police killing of George Floyd and other black men and women, has gained traction. Currently, over 20 U.S. cities have reduced their police budgets by some amount.

While last week’s conviction in Minneapolis of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd has given some hope of justice, six police killings occurred within 24 hours after the verdict. Since Chauvin’s trial started on March 29, more than 64 people have died at the hands of police nationwide, including an unarmed Latino 13-year-old, Adam Toledo, in Chicago. Blacks and Latinos represent more than half of those killed.

Furthermore, Daunte Wright, an unarmed black man, had been killed by police in Minneapolis amid the trial.

Clearly, the police system is still badly broken.

What might “defund the police” look like? Who has shown wise, soulful leadership in this arena?

In many cases, moving funding from police forces to addressing needs in the community has been tried as a tactic to reduce crime. Money formerly used to fund the police has now been reinvested into ways that support the community, such as housing for the homeless, workforce development initiatives, and programs helping people to deal with substance abuse. In addition, some cities are handling crimes and emergencies in a new way –for instance, by calling on mental health professionals to respond to certain emergencies or by expanding the forensics labs necessary to properly investigate sexual assault cases.

In addition, restorative justice, an alternative to the dominant punitive justice system, has proven effective in reducing recidivism and increasing public safety.

While it is too soon to tell how effective some of the newer experiments will be, it is heartening that a number of cities are willing to try new approaches to public safety. It is clear that much work is still needed to re-envision the American justice system. From fighting for racial justice, eliminating police brutality, and ensuring police accountability to reducing the need for policing by improving methods of rehabilitation, we need to deeply reflect on and restructure our responses to public safety. The changes needed to re-create the structures that have been in place for so long are complex and daunting. They require new visions. They require strong leadership. Let us listen to the voices of those who call us to bold experimentation and together let us discern a way through the challenges we face to create a society where all members can feel safe.

Three Leadership Lessons from Good Friday

This coming Friday is Good Friday, a day of hopes dashed, a day of deep grief.  Jesus and the disciples went from Palm Sunday, with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” to betrayal, denial, arrest, and crucifixion in five short days.  The disciples had thought the crowds had at last recognized Jesus as king, only to find them turning against him a few days later.  In shock and disbelief, they watched as the Romans crucified their beloved. 

Everything had looked so good, only to be overturned in such short order. Jesus had taught the disciples to be leaders, to help him invite people to encounter God in fresh ways.  They saw people healed.  They saw hearts opened. They witnessed their ministry expanding. They thought they knew what being a leader following in Jesus’ footsteps meant.  Now what? Brokenhearted, they responded in different ways.  Peter denied Jesus. Others ran away.  The disciples were not at their best. They hid in the upper room, afraid.  They didn’t know the resurrection was coming.  They had no idea what the future held.  For all they knew, they would be crucified like Jesus. 

I find myself empathizing with the disciples on this Good Friday.  The future looked bright for the organization I lead, the Shalem Institute, just a year ago.  With programs filling, a visionary strategic plan, and a prospering major fundraising initiative, the future held promise.  A staff and board who loved Shalem and worked well together held it all together.  I felt like the most fortunate person in the world, to be able to work at this place with these people at this time. 

Then COVID-19 hit. We had to cancel our pilgrimage to Assisi.  Then our Iona pilgrimage.  Then another major program down.  Then our annual staff/board retreat homeless, as the retreat center hosting it closed.  Then, our staff working from home. Suddenly, we had let down many eager pilgrimage and program participants and lost about 10% of our annual income, with more looming losses on the horizon.

We found ourselves facing great loss.  So much of what we do involves gathering in community, staying in beautiful, nurturing, prayerful retreat centers, sharing meals together. Staff share walks and lunch together in the middle of the work day. We celebrate birthdays and accomplishments together.  We experience embodied love, laughter, and prayer.  All of that had vanished in the blink of an eye. 

Even as we began to re-envision our upcoming programs, we knew they wouldn’t be the same.  A virtual staff/board retreat on Zoom can’t hold a candle, for example, to the in-person hugs and meals and walks at a retreat center nestled in a wooded area in Maryland in the first blush of spring.  The losses were real.   

Now, a year later, while we look back in gratitude to the ways that we have encountered God in our re-envisioned programs, experiencing the power of contemplative community even through Zoom, we also continue to experience grief and loss.  As spring begins, we face another cycle of our spring and summer residencies on Zoom.  A year ago, we had thought that, by now, we could meet in person again. Yet with only 15.5% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, we know we need to wait.

What can we learn from Good Friday? First, we can acknowledge that we, like the disciples on Good Friday, will not always be our best selves as we feel shock and loss.  This is a time for loving and tenderly forgiving one another. Second, like the disciples, we must grieve.  Acknowledging the magnitude of the losses and allowing ourselves to feel grief is an important step.  Third, as we ask, “What now?” there will be messiness. We don’t know what the future holds or how we will be called to step into it.  We must live in the not-knowing for a time before the next steps become clear.

Loving and forgiving one another when we are not at our best, acknowledging the magnitude of the losses and allowing ourselves to grieve, and accepting the messiness and not-knowing of this time of loss will all serve us well as we seek to muddle through to the unknown future. May we allow the lessons of Good Friday to lodge deep within our souls. 

(This is a further development of the Executive Soul blog of April 2020).

Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Photo credit: Fourandsixty via Wikimedia Commons. Howard University chapel – detail of stained glass window – Howard Thurman
At this time of bitter political division, in this time of racial reckoning, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us? Who will bring us together?” As we celebrate Black History month in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength? Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”

Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King. Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice. King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.

Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement. He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste. He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith. After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi. The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S. Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice. He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation. He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.

If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God. He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times. Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation. The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding. King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation. May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.

[This blog is a further development of the January 2017 blog.]

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