Mobilizing Hope: Engaged Spritiuality

The following is my reflection upon my Senior Capstone class and project

at Portland State University titled "Mobilizing Hope: Engaged Spirituality" 

“What does it mean to embrace a worldview influenced by the margins? “ Curtis Paul DeYoung

        My upbringing was anything close to resembling the “American Dream”.

        I grew up in Detroit, a young scared white boy trying to hide in the shadows and go unnoticed. I grew up as a young gay boy trying to suppress any feelings of shame, guilt or even the possibility of acceptance. I grew up in a family that regularly received government cheese in a plain white package printed with black ink. When I asked to donate a canned good to our school’s annual drive, my mother would comically reply “Why do you want to donate? You know it’s coming right back to us anyhow!” making a humorous connection between our food coming from the local Food Bank outreach and my wanting to give them back. I grew up in the margins and it was the only thing I knew. At age 9, my mother married a black man and they had a child, further emphasizing my unusual childhood experience that transcended the typical boundaries that I saw from families on television selling the “American Dream”. 

Young JayP at age seven.

Young JayP at age seven.

        At age 5, I decided that I was missing something deeply spiritual in my life and begged my parents to allow me to go to church. While in church, I learned about the compassion that Christ had shown to lepers, prostitutes and the poor. Although I wasn’t sure I knew what leprosy was, I still felt privileged comparatively.

Privileged to have a family.

Privileged to have a bicycle.

Privileged to have an opportunity to connect with the natural world alongside my brothers.

Privileged to have an enthusiasm for foreign cultures, languages and people.

Lisa Simpson practicing "ahimsa".

Lisa Simpson practicing "ahimsa".

        After reading a book about Ghandi in middle school, I adopted a strategy of non-violence or “ahimsa” which influenced my vegetarianism. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about ahimsa in Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, where Thich Nhat Hanh echoes my thoughts at the time: “We cannot be completely non-violent, but by being vegetarian, we are going in the direction of non-violence” (Hanh, 64). Even though I grew up with Christian ideals of servitude to those on the margins, I never had the opportunity to practice this until college.

        As I became of age, I saw attending college as being my ticket to social mobility. I moved out of my family home as far as Phoenix, Arizona, got a job as a manager for Barnes & Noble Booksellers and paid for my community college education myself. I delighted in Sociology, the study of how individuals and groups interacted with each other. I considered this a personal renaissance of informational exchange and consumed as many subjects as I could. Within an intellectual capacity, I learned what it meant to be of white privilege, of male privilege and even of the privileges of being a CIS-gendered male. 

Volunteering with No Ivy League, an invasive species clean up in Forest Park, Portland, 2006.

Volunteering with No Ivy League, an invasive species clean up in Forest Park, Portland, 2006.

        It was a sociology teacher, Dr. Kim Smith at my community college that challenged each student to become active within their communities and had assigned a community-based learning objectives to the curriculum. After this class, I saw service as an important component to my identity, a way to become useful. I volunteered with SOLV, with No Ivy League, with Cascade AIDS Project, and with SMART. I became a Store Manager for Starbucks Coffee Company after relocating to Oregon and became the Community Lead of my downtown Portland district, developing partnerships with local organizations and even a week-long volunteer position in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I also volunteered with Q-Center, eventually leaving my job to open a coffee cart inside their community center in 2008.

        I recounted this story to illustrate my upbringing within marginalized communities. My experience with compassionate service and my drive for helping others. Growing up in the U.S., access to quality healthcare was always a looming concern for my family, and my communities. I took to studying Public Health and Western Herbal Medicine in an effort to work in Health Education and Health Promotion, using Western Herbal Medicine as a backdrop to empower people and restore agency for personal health concerns and dealing with chronic complaints. Even with my Public Health education at Portland State, I was able to work with marginalized communities. I choose the Leadership for Change cluster, each class having a Community-Based Learning component which eventually lead to my being asked to fill a permanent position as a volunteer Board Member for On-the-Move-Community Integration, working with adults with disabilities. Working within these margins have taught me a few things about life, paralleling Henri Nouwen, author of Fragile Hidden with his interactions with Adam, a handicapped adult. Nouwen writes that “hope can form a very strong bond among people who are willing to go where life is fragile and hidden” (Loeb, 115). This resonated personally because I feel like I have always been an edge-dweller, living in the hidden fragments of society, even still. Being a healer and working within that community, there is a large amount of hope. Hope for the collective culture, for people we serve and for our own healing. I do not feel uncomfortable working with marginalized communities and feel good working within those realms as my upbringing, my group of friends, my education, my passions and life-path has continuously led me in that direction.

        My Community-Based Learning project has slightly challenged my assumptions of people in the margins by simply the nature of my volunteer project. It’s more of a beautification project called The Beech Street Project, designed to bring the Sabin and King communities in Portland, together. But from a Public Health prospective I struggle with knowing that there are deeper issues, perhaps more pressing, concerns like food security, access to healthcare, fear of losing housing and issues of race and ethnicity. I feel like I could be doing more with my experience and skill-set. I’m inspired by Malcolm X’s biography, recounted in DeYoung’s Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, after a myriad of obstacles and trials, Malcolm X came to realization that unity among all peoples “black, brown, red, yellow, white” was the way to effective change. I think this is why my heart went out to Malcolm as a young black boy in a white family and white schools which left such a strong impression on his identity. As I had grown up, I was exposed to communities of colour, to communities straddling the poverty line, to communities with issues of substance abuse, to communities of marginalized sexuality, to communities facing challenges to health access. Even now, having experience with those with disabilities and walking a spiritual path which I believe to be close to comparable to other major religions but is categorized as fringe, I am continuously ebbing and flowing with marginalized communities. The challenges of my youth and those of now have, and continue to shape my beliefs and my drive for social mobility and to first help myself so I could make a difference in those communities. I am inspired by the reading of ordinary people who were able to spark revolutions and change:

Malcolm X. Photograph from Malcolm X: In Action, NCAAA Museum Exhibition 2008.

Malcolm X. Photograph from Malcolm X: In Action, NCAAA Museum Exhibition 2008.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Malcolm X.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Mahatma Gandhi.

Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nelson Mandela. 

Václav Havel.

I am even inspired by the experiences and change that I am witnessing from my fellow students and applaud my brothers, my sisters and those in-between for creating change through Portland State University’s Capstone program.

"It is not correct to believe that the world’s situation is in the hands of the government, and if the President would only have the correct policies, there would be peace. Our daily lives have the most to do with the situation of the world. If we can change our daily lives, we can change our governments, and we can change the world.” Thich Nhat Hanh in Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change. 

        This got me thinking... 

        Recently, when reflecting upon the role of Public Health in the United States, I came upon an interesting consideration. I was thinking about how Public Health seems to be everywhere in our country and yet next-to-unseen. After I am asked what I study at PSU, it tends to be a rule that the follow-up question is then “Public Health, what exactly is that?” Public Health is such a wide river of preventive, educatory and interventive processes that weave themselves into our daily lives. And while the field has given tremendous contributions to society being life-extension, health promoting and research, I believe it comes at a unseen cost. 

        Public Health tends to rob an individual of personal agency, meaning that an individual begins to loose a sense of what is responsible health behavioring. We begin to depend on a governmental agency to tell us everything that is safe and what is potentially harmful. Everything. You see this with the FDA and the USDA with food dyes, additives and GMO foods to name a few. In the European Union, their regulatory agencies seem to have rule that goes something like “dangerous until proven harmful” but in the U.S., it is the opposite. Everything is fair game and has a fair shot at profits in our capitalist culture, therefore anything is “safe until proven harmful”. Think back to the many times items are pulled from the shelves. Think Olestra, BPA, PCBs, asbestos, lead fillers and now more currently the great GMO debate in the States. And we run the risk of not believing independent organizations, or tend to not question anything we consume until the government makes an announcement. This removes any need for critical thinking. 

        And this is a dangerous thing.  

        Consider the Portland fluoridated water debate in 2012 and 2013. As someone in Public Health, it was hard for me to witness my cohort simply accept that Portland needed fluoridated water instead of asking why, and getting to the root of the issue. 

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And what is the root of the issue? 

Is it dental coverage? 

Is it access to quality care? 

Is it access to dental hygiene tools like dental floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste? Was it dental education, did kids know how to brush their teeth? 

These are questions the field should have been asking instead of taking the standard Public Health approach “welp, people in Portland aren’t brushing their teeth so let’s fluoridate their water supply.” The masses expect fully for the government to make the first move in a majority of daily life facets. I had even observed a sign at the grocery store, warning you to remove your child from the cart seat before storing the cart back, pushed against the other carts like an accordion. Do people need to be reminded that they will crush their child if they do not follow these instructions first? Can they not arrive to that conclusion alone? It’s this type of low-trust in our own intellect that the government has created by constantly instructing us. Without it, we can’t be trusted. And with it, we loose personal agency.

        While reading Thich Nhat Hahn's Love in Action: Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, it's this unintended consequence that I arrived at with Public Health and the idea of immobilizing action. Because without action or promotion stemming from an official capacity, the population feels numb and helpless to provoke change or fail to see past the selfish instant gratification that their actions will or won’t provide. The cross-benefit result swings in favor of inaction. We tend to think that “if only...”, 

“if only the President would adopt green policies...”

“if only the city of Detroit would get it’s act together...”

“if only the we could reduce the military spending budget to fund education.”

It’s this kind of inaction and indifference that plagues the country into self-defeat before anything has even been done. There’s a projection that happens. A negating of personal responsibility that is so natural for us. People tend to blame those in power for the faults of the country and their own inability to act but the world will only change when the change comes from you. Author Curtiss Paul DeYoung in Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice backs this point by writing “It is easy to favor social change if it doesn’t require sacrifice” (pg 99).

        So then how can we act? What can we do? We need to cultivate the seeds. In Love in Action, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the absence of mindfulness in our culture leads to violence, war, suffering, unhappiness. Hanh furthers his point to suggesting that we need to water the seeds of joy, the seeds of peace and happiness within ourselves and not look for the grown plant from outside of ourselves (Hanh, 81-84). 

        In the spirit of mindfulness, cultivating my personal seeds and adopting simplicity in a world flowing over the brim in chaos, I signed up to be a Voluntary Simplicity facilitator with the Northwest Earth Institute, becoming a passive mentor to a group of participants, witness their experiences and thoughts without criticism. Unlearning complexity and relearning simplicity is not an easy task in our world. In Love in Action, Hanh writes in his chapter titled ‘On Simplicity’ “The affluent [relatively speaking between the Global North and Global South] are just as much victims of pollution and the exploitation of resources. We must look at the whole picture and ask, “Does our way of life harm nature? Does our way of life harm our fellow humans? Do we live at the expense of others, at the expense of the present, and at the expense of the future?” (Hanh, 118.)

        Being mindful helps us to cut through the crap and clutter and see what is really important to our lives: our relationships, our health, our learning, our spirituality, our happiness and the root of our dissatisfaction. Watching buds appear on the trees outside our home in Spring, the sound of children playing double-dutch on the street in Summer, the sweet smell of decaying leaves in the Fall, the feeling of dried herbs between your fingers as you make tea on a cold Winter’s morning. As the apostle James put it, “Faith without works is dead” and we need to be called to action. Even if the action is slowing down and simply being. 

Arati Von Behren from Fly Awake tea garden.

Arati Von Behren from Fly Awake tea garden.

        When attending my first meeting with the Sabin and King Neighborhood Associations while determining my Community Based Learning project, I was surprised to hear that both associations had no idea what the health-needs of the community were. They didn’t know what to focus on and had not surveyed the community to ask. Residents that had shown up to the meeting were there to give their opinions which is where my project originated. Arati Von Behren from Fly Awake Tea Garden, a local business straddling the Sabin and King Neighborhoods talked to her neighbors for six months about the needs of the community and discovered that the social fabric had been torn. People were moving into the neighborhood to only stay a couple of years in order to flip their newly renovated home. A process that adds little to the connectedness of the community, the quality of the community and the value of that place. While not intending to be a social change advocate, and not wanting to wait for the neighborhood association to act, she stepped up and asked her neighbors what they needed.

Just by existing.

And Arati is a living example of the quote by Tony Kushner in 'Despair Is a Lie We Tell Ourselves' in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear “Being politically active is for the citizens of a democracy maybe the best way of speaking to God and hearing Her answer: You exist. If we are active, we are activist, She replies to us: You specifically exist. Mazel tov. Now get busy, She replies. Maintain the world by changing the world.”

September 2007 Anti-Iraq War Protest, organized by the Veterans for Peace and the Answer Coalition

September 2007 Anti-Iraq War Protest, organized by the Veterans for Peace and the Answer Coalition

        Action taken by one is powerful in of itself but what about action by the collective? The collective represents a group with the same social change goal or action taken that demonstrates that solidarity behind an issue and the impact, whether seen or unseen should not be discounted. The collective has power. The collective sends a message. The collective has a stronger energy together with a wider impact in the world. The collective can bring national attention to an issue, the collective can lead corrupt leaders to resign or march in cities around the world to make a powerful point echoed to all corners of the earth. Consider the march against the U.S.-Iraq war. While protests still continue today, an estimated 36 million people stormed the streets in over 3,000 organized events around the world in the first four months of 2003 alone! This anti-war movement was a enormous amount of international folks. And influencing a collective can be a very powerful thing, much like Bonhoeffer, Malcolm X and Aung San Suu Kyi, seemingly unintentional, were able to lead a movement and influence the world for generations to come.

        I want to end on a note of hope, because hope is all we have to spark change. While the key to hope according to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, is “realizing that even in distant corners of the world, there are things we can do to curb suffering and end atrocities” (Loeb, 251), I prefer the words of social activist and former Czech president Václav Havel. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere”. It is also this hope, above all which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now” (Loeb, 82-83). Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is nice, but hope is action and optimism is not. Times can get tough and you can loose optimism but not hope. Hope will spark the change that will create a world of which we all want to be a part. 

“If the millions of people of faith who desire peace and social justice actually take the time to develop relationships with people of other faiths, seek experiences in other faith communities, and acquire the skills needed for peacemaking, they will overwhelm the political and cultural milieu.  We who are mystic-activists must commit ourselves to embody the blueprint for transformation, serve as the relational glue for reconciliation, and pray without ceasing that our world will encounter and embrace God’s peace.” DeYoung.

        I suppose I am a bit unconventional. 

        It is in my essential nature to have critical discernment and to question. I suppose that it’s a quality that can be both liberating and annoying. While these qualities typically are attributed to an atheist or non-believer, I am neither of those things. A juxtaposition to the stereotype because I am a believer but it’s this inscrutable view that allows me to practice my mystic activist nature. To question systems and institutions that no longer work or aren’t useful any longer. Evolving my consciousness and spirituality from a Christian-influence background into an earth-based daily practice has allowed me to work on levels of civic engagement and change-oriented service more so than the former. Through this work and my way of thinking, I’ve been able to open an astrology school called the Portland School of Astrology, in hopes to empower people with the tools, the map of understanding and integrating the human condition, to work with the highest evolved pieces of ourself and excavate our shadow-qualities through active participation, to work on our individual low-side tendencies. To do as Bishop John Shelby Spong calls ‘solar ethics’, “to live like the Sun itself. To do what we are created to do, to shine...to love and simply be for the sake of loving and living and being” (Loeb, 184).

And I do this because I want to change the world. 

        Cornell West writes “people are experiencing spiritual malnutrition and existential emptiness are rampant” (Loeb, 293), I believe Astrology to be an excellent modality for self-discovery, understanding of our own psyches, discovering our wounds and gifts at a soul-level and soul knowing. And it is my opinion that we as humans need to operate on a more soulful, higher-consciousness vibration if we are ever going to move forward as a species. In DeYoung, Cornell West calls for “psychic conversion” a call to action for people to look at themselves through lens of their experience rather than the experience of the dominate culture and it’s my personal belief that with Astrology, a tool older than agriculture, is an incredibly validating way to help people to look at themselves through their own experiences instead of subscribing to a standard of valuation that devalues them, as West writes (DeYoung, 96). To recognize their gifts and goals that they are yearning to authenticate and diagnosticate in their own lives. 

Portland School of Astrology in Portland, Oregon.

Portland School of Astrology in Portland, Oregon.

This class has fired me up to assist in the world as a builder and as a manifestor.

As a bringer of this knowledge and someone who is trying to separate the negative correlations that have been perpetrated by the Church for hundreds of years.

To educate and normalize and offer a tool for self-authentication.

To assist in creating a culture of hope, creativity, love and mutual respect, encouraging people to take residence in their hearts instead of continuing to live in a place of fear.

This is my form of unconventional service.        

        In my spiritual practice, I have felt that being actively involved and playing a role of civic engagement has been important to me but I haven’t been able to articulate that idea until now. With this Capstone, I had access to stories, to the truths of individuals that are or were spiritual and engaged in a service-oriented capacity. Stories that have served as examples and served as a reminder of what is capable. Not only from these great individuals, but what is capable from the impact I have had and can have moving forward. I see that no act is too small or too great and that being a mystic activist is living a life by example. Some of these great leaders have been revealed to be human and perhaps waiver slightly from their message such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he refused to perform the funreal service of a Jewish man. Or even that these leaders may not necessarily be a “moral giant” like Václav Havel’s as Loeb points out in The Impossible Will Take a Little While (Loeb, 61). This gives me permission to make mistakes and understand my human nature in reference to these great characters. It’s very important as observers and students that we don’t immortalize or glorify these figures either.

        In my Community-Based Learning project, I’ve learned the importance of not embodying this attitude of self-importance. With my CBL project, which ran parallel to another Public Health project I was involved with in a class titled ‘Program Planning Evaluation’, I learned about active listening in relationship to service, to approach from a humble heart and from a place of “not-knowing”. It’s easy to act like an authority on an issue when you’ve been in school learning about it for three and a half years, but a community is going to know what is best for them rather than an outsider with an education. Leaders lead by following, a classic tenant of leadership skills. In Loeb's book, this was also highlighted that we tend to put leaders on a petal stool, and then we can never measure up to them (Loeb, 290). I’ve ben reminded that I don’t know everything, and I am not here to save anyone.

Christ's love.

        To be honest, I feel a tightness in my chest when I hear other student’s in class talking about Jesus. I come from a place of fear with the Christian-culture, even though I once identified as a Christian and still today I have a relationship with Jesus in a different form.  But I’ve witnessed first-hand, many participating in the shadow-side of Christianity, or having a very shallow understanding of Christ’s teachings and it’s with this ignorance that much grief, much horror, much hate and much fear has been spread in the world in the name of Jesus. An ignorance used to justify anything: Dominance. Capitalism. War. Illness. Bigotry. Classism. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Anti-Semitism. Able-bodiedism. We disregard the human family, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Love in Action, “we tolerate excess, injustice and war, while remaining unaware that the human race as a family is suffering” (Hanh, 120). And it’s in this place, the place of unawareness and the place of historical oppression that arises fear in me. I nervously wonder if the Christian people I come in contact are in a place to practice critical discernment, to ask questions and disregard non-truth, condemning fear and hate and living in their hearts. To reflect Christ’s love in extremism. As Martin Luther King writes “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” (Loeb, 284). However, I stand contradicted as I am unable to live in my heart, when holding fear provoked from other student’s conversations about Christ. Fear that others are not exercising Christ’s love appropriately, and I suppose that it’s fear I should dissolve. Fear is not productive. This what I’ve learned to face and recognize from listening to other students in this Capstone.

        While visiting the ashram recently here in Portland, Oregon, their guru said “work is love in action” and I’ve been milling that phrase in my mind for the past few weeks as I am working with my business The Portland School of Astrology, with my Community-Based Learning and even in small actions like doing the dishes. I think it’s important to come at work with an attitude of love, transformation and an intention of healing through small acts so that you don’t become resentful, angry or hold or perpetuate fear.  I pair this phrase with the Bible, Book of James 2:14-26 “Faith without works is dead.” It is imperative to put your faith in action in order to strive for a better world.

        It is through this Capstone, I’ve learned to be still and honour nature.

To engage in mindfulness and heart-centered knowing.

To listen to others and bare witness to their personal truth.

To recognize that the small good you do ripples out in tiny and silent ways.

To give yourself permission to fail, and permission to get angry.

And to understand that the impossible will take a little while.