She is Breathing: Listening for Another World and an End to Empire

iluminadoBy Lydia Wylie-Kellermann. Printed in Geez Magazine.

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe… Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

― Arundhati Roy, War Talk

I think of myself as a generally hopeful person. I’ve always believed in Martin Luther King’s long arc bending towards justice. But being in Detroit, the city where I was born and raised, over the last 5 years has crushed me. In a blink of an eye, a place filled with community leadership and creativity was steam rolled by an illegitimate government and the banks. We’ve gone from a city facing transformation by thousands of gardens to facing gentrification by tens of thousands of water shut offs. Black and poor folks are being pushed out fast. The stories are too painful. The work too big. The struggle for survival too real. The powers and principalities seemingly unstoppable. It’s all too much.

It’s not just in Detroit. The power looms in Syria and Ferguson, on the Mexico border and in Charleston, NC. It’s breathes on the presidential debates and reality TV. Empire creeps in to our own lives and movement spaces perpetuating patterns of hegemony and colonization. White supremacy and patriarchy continue to thrive with a whole generation (my own) believing in their own entitlement. Communities are moving out of living rooms and front porches to technological tables where opinions and arguments hold no accountability because there are no eyes to look into or hands to touch. In these spaces, it is easy to ignore the ripe strawberries in the garden or the hum of the water shut off truck down the street.

Washed over by Stories

It is in this heavy hearted place that I begin to write. So I do not seek to give an opinion or teach or even call us to action. Instead, this is simply a chance to listen, to pay attention, and to be still long enough to know what is true. Empire is cracking. Resurrection is alive. Something has given birth.

Here is a chance to be washed over by stories. To realize how much we aren’t buying what they are selling. To give thanks for those who are laying siege and to honor the communities that are creating in new ways and remembering old ways. And to know that the earth and life are more powerful than the construction of empire.

Wilderness Way, Portland, OR

Wilderness Way is a community and church at the margins of Christianity. It sits at the intersection of nature and scripture with the values of Sabbath, jubilee and shalom. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin, pastor and a founder says that the name is about the “place we are planting ourselves. Biblically, the wilderness is the place outside the walls of empire, the place where prophets are called and fed…Wilderness also signifies the wild spaces that emerge and exist without human control.”

Last year, tensions were rising at the Transgender Pride Parade, as people shouted hateful things toward the marchers. In that moment, members of Wilderness Way began to sing while they marched- “Welcome, Sacred Ones! We have been waiting for you! We are so glad to see you!” The tension broke from fear to celebration.

Wilderness Way has created a community where queer folks can find a home within a church that for so long has been a place of hate, exclusion, and dehumanization. It is changing the paradigm by removing sacrament from the high domes and marble altars to a sanctuary created by the trees and the stars. Part of their work is creating and sharing the music that sustains our lives, welcomes people in, and in the midst of hate speech gives rise to the beauty of an alternative. Through it all, they speak of hope with a rewilding perspective, arguing that it is not us resisting empire, but rather empire resisting the wild and that is a fight empire cannot win.

Spiritus Christi, Rochester, NY

“’I think I want to be a priest someday,’ my five year old daughter told my wife after carrying the gifts to the altar. I do not think that she would have felt that same feeling had there been only vested men on the altar,” said Mike Boucher, a member of Spiritus Christi.

In 1998, the Catholic Archdiocese clamped down on then named Corpus Christi Church. They fired the leadership and asked the community to “recant” their beliefs and practices of being a “bottom-up church” with strong lay leadership.

Corpus Christi Church refused to adjust to their demands and was forced out of the diocese. It continued worshipping under the name Spiritus Christi and called forth Mary Ramerman, a long-time leader in the church, and ordained her as their priest stepping into new theological and sacramental space. Later they called Deacon Myra Brown, an African American woman. This is a church that takes social justice ministry seriously and is delving into their anti-racism work.

In many ways, Spiritus Christi looks like a traditional Catholic parish, a rather unusual place to find a transformative spirit alive. But this congregation that had the liturgical and communal imagination to know that they didn’t have to live within the rules. They did what feels impossible by courageously leaving the system and in so doing moved towards justice, towards the Gospel.

The Catholic Worker, New York, NY

The New York Catholic Worker was founded in 1936 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. It was a woven tapestry of houses of hospitality, radical newspapers, endless pots of soup, war resistance and jail time, and farms as host to agronomic universities.

This community, which has spawned similar houses around the world, continues its work on the streets of New York providing meals and housing. The Catholic Worker paper still comes out seven times a year and remains a penny a copy. Today, in the age of instant news buzzing from social media, there is something odd about the slow nature of the paper which you hold in your hands and read in community. As Joanne Kennedy of the Worker says, “It’s so old it looks new.”

Sometimes it is the old places that we need to look for to see the new. It is the places that keep on keeping on after decades of tireless work. For almost a hundred years and still today, this community lives in relationship to people living on the street, honors the work of manual labor through chopping vegetables and scrubbing bathrooms, engages in critical thinking with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and keeps finding themselves on the streets and in jail. It is a place where the tables tell a story of thousands of hungry people, actions imagined, and Eucharist shared again and again.

SpiritHouse, Washington DC

On a sunny day in November 2014, a crowd gathered in Freedom Plaza in Washington DC to read aloud the 1000 names of unarmed black men killed by police since 2007. Gathered were grieving family members, activists, teachers, preachers, white allies, ordinary citizens, and a “mighty cloud of gray-haired witnesses.”

This powerful moment of grief and action was organized by Spirit House. Since 2007, SpiritHouse has been revealing state sanctioned murders, lifting up the role of black women in movement, and supporting a new generation taking the call of nonviolence and social justice work.

Ruby Sales is one of the founders of SpiritHouse. At age sixteen, she was a student and a leader with Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee working in Lowndes County. The summer after the Selma to Montgomery March, a white shop owner aimed and fired at Sales. In that second, a friend and co-worker, Jonathan Daniels pushed her out of the way and took to bullet dying instantly.

Watching carefully today, Sales says “even if we don’t recognize empire cracking, it is. With Black Lives Matter and brown folks responding to the bigotry of immigration, suddenly we are seeing what has always been there. We are putting words to it again. The more we put it in words, the more empire loses its grip. Which has its downside because the more it loses its grip, the more repressive the empire gets.”

Here are the places that we look to for clarity and leadership, especially for us white folks. For these communities know the under belly of empire while we still reap so many benefits from its existence. It is places like SpiritHouse, Black Lives Matter, the Beloved Community Center, and Moral Mondays that the truth is named at great cost. It is a struggle our souls are calling us all into and it is ripping a giant hole in those seemingly unstoppable powers.

And It Isn’t Just These Communities

It’s Prairie Wolf Collective leading “A People’s History Tours of Elkhart, IN” and doing monthly bible studies on housing in the midst of the foreclosure crisis.

It’s First Mennonite Church in San Francisco engaging in a year-long process around recognizing and transforming structural sin.

It’s Open Door Community in Atlanta, GA visiting folks on Death Row, writing letters and vigiling at the Capital during executions for the past thirty years.

It’s Salal and Cedar Watershed Discipleship Community in Vancouver which is a forest church experiment doing a weekly Eucharist on a large rock in the woods rain or shine

It is the Peace House, Simone Weil House, Simple Way, Rubta House, Bartimaeus Cooperative, the Alternative Seminary, Abundant Table Farm, Possibility Alliance, Carnival de Resistance, Jubilee Partners, Proctor Institute, KAIROS Canada, Jubilee Partners, Witness Against Torture, No More Deaths, and TransFaith.

And the hundreds of thousands of experiments in creativity, resistance, and community that I have never heard of. So often, these are the very communities that have little social media presence, for their feet are on the ground and their lives are wrapped up with the people around them. It is happening. Again and again, people are turning off computers, engaging imagination, putting their feet in the water, doing their anti-racism work, and creating local/alternative economies.

The Birthing Pains and Promise in my Watershed

For me, the hope is in the stories and people that walk this patch of earth in Detroit. It is the moments of light that if I am paying attention are so much stronger than the dark.

Last summer, a friend’s mother was shot and killed on her front lawn by her ex-husband one block from our house. Within a month, a friend two houses down was mugged and raped between the houses. I don’t know if I have ever experienced a season so scary or hopeless. After the rape, in a time when all instincts forced us into our private homes for fear of the night and the neighborhood- we came outside. Forty neighbors stood on the dark lawn and vocalizing the grief, fear, and outrage we screamed at the top of our lungs in communion. We cried, we sang, we cleansed, and we reclaimed that land for community.

Then we threw a light festival! For weeks, we gathered in preparation creating incredible tissue paper and wire sculptures. We hung them on sticks and filled them with strands of battery powered lights- lions and dandelions, hawks and stars, butterflies and foxes. On a spring night, we carried them through the neighborhood celebrating the light. We returned dancing in the street lit up by the work of our hands, the glimmer of our imaginations, and the love of this neighborhood as the mariachi band played. Indeed “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Last summer, I sat at our weekly neighborhood farmer’s market stand with fruit, vegetables, queso, tamales, and soaps. Josue, eleven years old, sat next to me selling honey. This kid has had a heartbreaking childhood with the constant presence of ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement). But now he is learning the bees. The honey bees live next door as sort of a security measure behind an empty city abandoned house. Despite the stings, Josue goes every week to the hives and can spot the queen and check for signs of thieving wasps. What child in public school in Detroit can say they are a beekeeper? Or perhaps even more hopeful than that is that he probably isn’t alone as this city of vacant land returns to wild. Even in the heart of urban poverty and racism, kids are being pulled away from military and factory as the only job options and instead are learning the work of their hands, tending to the earth, and finding an education that is place based.

This past summer in Detroit, we hosted a gathering called Detroit Spirit and Roots that brought together indigenous land warriors, truth-speaking hip hop artists, and radical theologians to talk about land and water. We asked the question, what does spirit have to do with movement work? It was an amazing moment to talk across cultures about the power and necessity of spirit in our work. Yet it was also a long and painful planning process, as we brought together multiple cultures and spiritualties that forced us to confront again and again the hegemony and power in Christianity and whiteness. It was for me a time of listening, seeing the ways my own organizing came filled with white supremacy, and to learn to shift and move and give thanks for the leaders in my community.

On top of all that, folks continue to resist the water shut offs and the privatization of the Great Lakes. For over a weary year, this movement rises led by powerful African American women as us white folks continue to learn how to do ally work in a black majority city. People are bringing water to one another, marching in the streets, sitting on shut off valves, videotaping everything, blocking the shut off trucks, tagging buildings and water towers, and fasting during Pope Francis’ visit who calls the access to water an issue of our time.

With all of this, and so much more, how can I not know that the world is shifting beneath my feet and live in anything but delight?

It’s Happening

It is the theologies that breathe out of our watersheds and cry out for liberation. It is movement cultures developing an understanding of trauma, healing, and the importance of art. It is keeping money in the pockets of our neighbors, turning off our technology, and learning the forgotten skills of our hands. It is feeling a vocation of place, building grey water systems, planting gardens and knowing the sacred intimacy with our food cycle. It is uncovering our ancestry, rebooking our privilege, and calling out white supremacy. It is in welcoming the stranger, raising children, and breaking bread.

The stream is long and we are just a small part of it. But the water is about to crash, the pressure is building drop by drop and it is about to bring down the damn. In part because the earth cannot sustain our destructive lives any longer. And because the work of generations past. And you and me and them and us in this moment. It is gentle and fierce with healing breaths and hip breaking contractions. It is slow and fast, new and old bringing both fear and delight. It is historically long and as quick as an instant. The wild returns. The empire falls. The Beloved Community is being created in this neighborhood and that. We are alive. And justice is rolling down like a mighty stream.

Quotes: Testaments of Hope from around Turtle Island

“Guys on North Carolina’s death row have been writing their wisdom to young people in neighborhoods like those where they grew up, talking about what they’ve learned and how to hold onto your humanity in the face of powers that would destroy you.” – Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Rubta House in North Carolina

“I love food justice, and I think I’m called to work on the “backside” of it. What I mean is, I think it is the epitome of western hubris to crap in our most precious resource, potable water. Finding ways to help people deal with their own shit (both literally and metaphorically) is a liberating process. What we have learned to call “waste” can actually be returned to the ecosystem where the nutrients came from. ” –Sarah Thompson, Christian Peacemaker Teams Executive Director

“If you want to see where hope is manifested, it’s in African Americans. We have been getting up and doing the work even with no evidence of making a difference- that is hope. We have to ask the question, “Why would the police would shoot someone 137 times? Saying that black people have rights in a society that says only white people have rights threatens the security of empire.” –Ruby Sales, SpiritHouse

“We are very near or at the peak of every exponential growth curve you can possibly imagine. The planet simply cannot sustain the combination of stressors we are creating. So, I can’t imagine a time before now when we literally needed people all over the entire planet to participate in the empire-deconstruction, transition and transformation process…Empires and systems of domination ALWAYS fail and fall eventually because they are trying to tame the untamable, to control the uncontrollable.” -Solveig Nilsen-Goodin, Wilderness Way

“Hospitality and resistance are what cracks the empire! The very act of extending ourselves in service to another is to reject the fears and suspicions that uphold the system and transforms it into something entirely different. To place one’s body as a cog in the wheels of injustice is to dismantle the idea that we have nothing to offer; that nothing can change.” –Amanda Daloisio, NY Catholic Worker




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