Overcoming the “Gap” Between Compassion and Activism

While many will not agree with me, I defiantly believe that people are mostly good. Most people feel compassion (at least in some circumstances) and are distressed at the suffering of others (at least in some circumstances). Most people would like to see injustice erased from the world. But often, there is a gap between the compassion people feel, and the actions they take to heal the world.

People can shy away from activism for a number of reasons. We don’t want the label of “activist.” We don’t relate or don’t want to relate to people we associate with activism. We don’t have the time for it. Mostly, I think that people are overwhelmed before they can even convert compassion to action: the obstacles seem too great, and there is a nagging fear that if I dip my toe in, I will be completely consumed by the work to be done.

However, I truly believe that the world will not heal until those who are capable of compassion act on it. Here are a few reasons to overcome the “gap”:

There is no one “image” of activism. The word “activist” can conjure images of protestors in Guy Fawkes masks, violent clashes with police, or 60s hippies sticking flowers into the barrels of guns. But just because you do not relate to these particular images of activism is not a reason to write activism off altogether. Similarly, these styles of activism–which work for some but not all–do not need to dominate or define our understanding of what activism is. Activism as I view it is answering the urging of your conscience in a non-violent, loving way. It is an ongoing practice of honoring the great gift of compassion within you. It is a way of living. The way in which you answer this urging will be unique to you and may take many forms.

  • M, a writer, distressed by recent limitations on voting rights, writes letters to her representatives and sends in op eds to local publications eloquently and persuasively expressing her thoughts on the matter
  • L, an extroverted person who loves talking to people, is distressed by the scourge of money in politics and makes an effort to talk about it with the people she meets, even those who do not share her general beliefs
  • W, an artist, strongly believes in raising the minimum wage to $15. He paints a mural that powerfully depicts this struggle, and donates his graphic design skills to a candidate who has vowed to take up the cause

The common thread here is that after witnessing an injustice and feeling the call of compassion, these “activists” did something to answer it. Alternately stated, they did not feel the call and proceed to do nothing.

None of us can see the whole picture. There is a common tendency among highly compassionate and intelligent people to cave to the demands of cynicism, i.e., decide that it’s all useless anyway so why bother? These folks have done their research, assessed the situation, and deduced that every single action they might take won’t make a difference. Fie! Away with this pernicious assumption! Yes, things may seem that way, but until a human gains full omniscience of all that is and all that will happen, there is no justification for suppressing compassionate action on these grounds. People capable of compassion must act as though a just outcome is possible, because it certainly will not be possible if we act otherwise. And yes, I happen to believe that even our small acts of compassion alter the balance between good and evil in a powerful, if unquantifiable, way.

Activism is a life-affirming, community-building, world-view changing exercise. I do not equivocate when I say that compassion is an incredible gift, no less than the key to the meaning and beauty in life. To be alive and yet not use this gift–is that really living? When we live with compassion (meaning feeling and acting on it), we are truly participating in life: we open the door to a goodness that we didn’t even know existed. A deep aspect of this goodness is community. Bearing witness to suffering and injustice is an incredible burden to bear, and one that no one should bear alone. When we engage in activism, we connect with others who are also bearing witness, and who have also chosen to defy cynicism for the sake of compassion. In essence, we take a small miracle that has occurred within us and join it to the similar small miracles that have occurred within others. Such an experience has the power to change what we thought we knew about the world, to our most fundamental assumptions. Maybe it is good after all.

Taken cumulatively, the continual practice of compassion by people of compassion would be absolutely staggering, but even taken individually, actions do matter and they do count. The gift of compassion is also the ability to heal. So, take heart, activists! The good world awaits you.



The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change

On Sunday, September 27th, I participated in a panel on “Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis,” hosted by 350 Brooklyn, and spoke on the moral dimensions of climate change. Also speaking were Kim Fraczek of Sane Energy Project, Mark Dunlea of Green Legal Fund and NYC Councilmember Brad Lander. After the panel, attendees (a room full of them!) broke into action groups to work on various campaigns. Below are my remarks.


For many of us here right now in this room, climate change is not really affecting us yet, other than being a very scary existential threat that will someday jeopardize our children and our children’s children. But climate change has arrived for millions of people on our planet.

Hurricane Sandy gave us a taste of what is to come, but especially in the way that, like Hurricane Katrina seven years before, it showed us how climate change goes easier on the rich than the poor. For the affluent of New York City, Hurricane Sandy was an annoyance, a small setback, or just an excuse to stay home from work. But for many of New York’s poor, it was a life-threatening disaster. People in low-income buildings were stranded for days without food, water or medicine, and only received assistance when Occupy volunteers went door to door to check on them. In New Orleans, people are still living in toxic FEMA trailers ten years later.

Disasters on the scale of Hurricane Sandy are happening over and over again, and, like Sandy, it is the poor who are being affected. Many of the worst humanitarian crises occurring right now have been partially caused by or are being exacerbated by climate change. Take the Syrian war and refugee crisis. Between the years of 2006 and 2011, Syria experienced the longest drought in millennia, leaving one third of the nation starving and setting the stage for unrest. Researchers have stated that the drought was most likely due to climate change.


This past Thursday I was at the National Mall at 7am in the morning. Over the next few hours thousands of people arrived, carrying signs that said Protect Our Common Home.” A stage was flanked by huge banners that read, Hear the Cry of the Earth. Hear the Cry of the Poor.” Speaker after speaker took to the stage to speak not only about climate change, but about the many social justice issues to which it is inextricably linked, such as immigration, income inequality and racism. We were there to support Pope Francis, whose moral message to the affluent of the world has given voice to the voiceless, and hope to those who thirst for justice. Pope Francis has put out an unequivocal call to act on climate change not because we fear for ourselves or our own children, but because we have compassion for the poor of the earth, including all children. Now here he was addressing Congress, speaking Truth to Power.

When the Pope started to speak, we sat down on the grass to listen. He spoke not just about the environment, but about immigration, the death penalty, and the refugee crisis. Of the refugees he said, We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories. To respond in a way which is humane, just and fraternal. Let us remember the Golden Rule.”

Do we all know the Golden Rule? Well, after mentioning the Golden Rule, there was a well-timed pause, in which Congress, which was very nervous by now, had the opportunity to stand. Some did right away, some did eventually, and some never did. In their discomfort with the overall message of justice, many would not stand for an ideal that we all nominally agree with.

Unfortunately, there are many who share that discomfort, even Democrats, even Liberals, even those who believe in climate change and think we should do something about it. There is a callous tendency for many of us in developed nations, who have a comfortable economic upper-hand, to look at climate change as though it were some economic puzzle to solve over the long-term, and to dismiss the massive portion of the world’s population which is in crisis now. They want to solve climate change, but not right now—that would be too fast, too radical. They want to solve climate change, but not if it makes them uncomfortable.

This tendency has to be called out whenever and wherever it pops up, particularly in institutions that lay any sort of claim to moral authority. I see this in the fossil fuel divestment movement—which by the way is now the fastest growing divestment movement ever with over 2.6 trillion dollars divested. Leaders of educational and religious institutions will say that divestment is too fast, too radical, but that attitude comes with the assumption that it is not yet an emergency. Really? Climate change is not an emergency for the global poor? Or do they just not matter.


Calling people out on this can be very effective. I’ve been working with Fossil Free UMC, a group that is asking the United Methodist Church to divest from fossil fuels. We won support from the General Board of Global Ministries, a huge mission branch of the UMC, because we brought it to their attention that climate change is directly and currently worsening the malaria crisis. Malaria is the General Board of Global Ministries’ single largest campaign. It makes no sense to be paying missionaries with money derived from an industry that is worsening the very problems the missionaries are trying to address. When this was pointed out to them, they had to agree.

But we need to call ourselves out too. None of us should be fighting for climate justice from a place of comfort. Does the idea of joining a protest make you uncomfortable? Maybe you should do it. Does the idea of asking your school or church to divest make you uncomfortable? Maybe you should do it. Does connecting with neighbors who don’t look like you or think like you make you uncomfortable? Maybe you should do that because fighting climate change is all about building community.

There is a famous passage in the New Testament of the Bible—I’m fresh of my first three weeks of seminary now, so bear with me—in which Jesus explains who will gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

            Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, but forget about Heaven. If we do not care for the ‘least of these’ – the poor, those suffering from the effects of climate change right now—will we even have a home on earth? I don’t think so. A solution to climate change does not happen outside of the framework of social justice.

That is why I am calling for action that takes us outside of our comfort zones. But this is also action that brings with it great joy. I am continually heartened and strengthened to work along others who have heard the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor, and who are answering it for real. This is a great time to join the climate justice movement—there is momentum and much of the groundwork has been laid. This is the first time in a while that many are feeling hopeful. This isn’t the time to be passive or apathetic, but to channel our respond to compassion and get to work.

I’ll leave you with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”


How Much Time Do You Spend in the Human World? Finding “Thin Places” Amid the Hustle & Bustle.

I recently spent an entire weekend indoors. I was outside for a total of maybe two hours, but the rest of the time I was in the house cleaning, unpacking, and dealing with all manner of computer-related tasks: budgeting, financial aid, scheduling, and the important business of following what smart people have to say on twitter. By Sunday evening I was in an irrationally foul mood (I nearly had a tantrum when I lost a game of Magic: The Gathering to my partner, for one thing). I took to my journal to reflect upon my various discontents. No fresh air, no exercise, no creativity, and entirely too much internet.

In short, for two days I had resided solely in the human world.

Wait, but isn’t the human world just…the world?

I used to think that, and it took me a long time to wise up the fact that my assessment of reality at any given point in time is not the whole of reality. Aspects of my understanding may be true, but it is not the whole truth, and is often flawed. Society’s assessment of reality – from which most of us take our cues – is likewise partial and flawed. The judgements we collectively and individually bring to our experiences are just that: judgements. We have no choice but to participate in the world of human thought – this is where we grow together – but that world is not all that exists. There is a world beyond the last human thought and the last human judgement that is available to us too (the palm at the end of the mind?), and which is essential to our happiness as spiritual beings.

This other, hidden world is beyond the knowable. It is a world of mystery, of wisdom, of divine creativity that is acknowledged by most faith traditions and is readily available to us in nature, in music, in prayer and many other forms as well. It requires us to assume the awe and openness of children, and to leave our judgements at the door.

For the past several hundred years, this “other” world has not been very popular. Western thought has adopted a mechanical, anthropocentric outlook in which human thought is the ultimate indicator of reality (I think therefore I am), and even forays into spirituality quickly devolve into dry how-to’s. We go outside not as childlike witnesses to the beauty of nature, but because the doctor says we need to get our vitamin D. We exercise not to experience the joys of a body in motion, but because a study came out indicating that metabolism slows after twenty minutes of sitting.

Many of our most brilliant scientists are starting to move away from this model and towards a more holistic, cosmic framework, but the human-centered mold is hard to break, and too often spiritual practices are seen as just another means to material ends. In Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, which I am reading for a seminary class and which therefore frames spiritual practice in Christian terms, the author writes:

“It is hard to overstate how saturated we are with the mentality of popular science. Meditation, for example, if allowed at all, is not thought of as an encounter between a person and God, but as a psychological manipulation. Usually people will tolerate a brief dabbling in the ‘inward journey,’ but then it is time to get on with real business in the real world. We need to move beyond the prejudice of our age and affirm with our best scientists that more than the material world exists.”

Perhaps I am late to the party, but I just recently heard of “thin places,” which is a Celtic-Christian term for places where the veil between the visible and invisible worlds is lifted. Traditionally the term alludes to physical places, but I also like to think of it as a state of being, a state in which our preconceived judgements are lesser (thinner) than usual, and we are thus freed to interact with the divine. This interaction may take place in a wood, it may come in watching a spider weaving a web; it may be in singing or writing a poem, when the outer edges of the mind suddenly seem to mingle with divine inspiration; it may come looking fully into the face of another human being and seeing something of magic there.

I don’t want to tell you what particular form your encounter may take, but I do want to tell you that existing there, in that thin place, is nourishment for the spirit. More than that, it will make you wiser and fitter for the time that you necessarily must spend in the human world.

While I have avoided describing the other/invisible/thin world in overtly religious or Christian terms (chiefly because that would double the length of this essay), I absolutely see encountering it as a Christian (though not uniquely Christian) experience. The precepts I have been mentioning – of approaching the divine as children, of setting aside judgement, of praising and abiding in God who made and is in creation – comprise much of the work entrusted to Christians by Christ.

Whether you identify as Christian or not, or as secular or not, doesn’t really matter, because your status as a human being grants you access to not only the human world, but the other world too. Consider the following excerpt by Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town:

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

Saints and poets stand apart from other human beings not because they have ditched the human world entirely, but because they have taken the mystery of the other world into the center of their being, and have oriented themselves around it. They live in a thin place. The “real” world does not suffer their loss, but benefits from the otherworldly wisdom that now lives through them.

We are all potential saints and poets. The divine has extended that offer – it’s up to us to take it. It’s not the sort of transition that happens at once, or which takes firm root at our first awareness. I have been awake to the existence of “thin places,” even if I didn’t identify them as such, for years, and yet I still sink most of my time and energy into the human world alone. I am at the point where I can start to regularly check in and ask myself if I am exercising my duel-citizenship as often as I should. It takes practice, but that practice is self-reinforcing: the more time I spend away from the human world, the calmer and abler I am when I come back. Compassion comes more easily. The call to justice is clearer. I can only envision a future wherein the beauty of the divine, other realm defines my experience of the human world, and wherein the same is true of everyone else as well. What a kingdom that would be!

Coming Full Circle: Farewell to SP&SA!

My family started going to SP&SA some twenty years ago because of a particularly magical children’s message. We were church-shopping chiefly because Caroline and I hadn’t connected with our previous church’s children’s ministry (my sole memory is of having been put in “time out” for failing to remember to put away my juice and graham crackers, then hysterically crying as a nicer lady carried me around the cavernous building, trying to find my parents). SP&SA wasn’t as big or well-known, but we felt included in the intimate setting, especially once the children were called up to the front of the sanctuary for the children’s message. From what I remember, a net had somehow been affixed above our heads, filled with bread, and toward the end of the message, it let loose, raining little chunks of bread on us: manna from heaven. This was a wholly (holy?) different experience. We stayed.

This spring, the New York Times published an article and graph charting the steeply declining rates of people who call themselves Christian. At the New York Annual Conference this year, we learned that membership in the United Methodist Church has dropped 5% in the past 5 years. I believe that a major reason membership rates are falling is because churches often fail to meet the spiritual needs of their children and young people. They resist the challenging questions posed by young people, and resist being transformed by the new generation.

This was not the case for me at SP&SA, which never fell into the usual pitfalls of adultism: I was never talked down to. Adults didn’t pretend to have all the answers. My questions were treated as valid and important. I was treated as a valued member of the community with something to contribute. Because I was treated this way, I wanted to contribute, and my faith was able to grow in its own time, in its own way. When I started to feel my own call toward ministry, I was supported at every stage. I was given the opportunity to preach. I was given the opportunity to travel to conferences. I was given the space and support to establish green ministries in the church.

Now, as I enter on the path to ordained ministry, I not only feel the full love and support of the community, but I know I have an outstanding example of what a church should be. The church should be a model of love, and a means of love, for the rest of the community. SP&SA is exactly that, a place where love is embodied every day through service and action. A place where courage and activism are not just spoken of, but lived. SP&SA is known in the community for how much we love each other and how much we love all the members of God’s family, even those who are rejected and judged by the rest of society.

As Jesus said: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And as the new SP&SA motto says: Just Love.

It is the spirit of this message that I carry with me to seminary in Washington, DC, and beyond. The world needs churches now more than ever. It needs churches that can be a model of loving relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth.

In May, Michelle Obama spoke at the commencement ceremony of my Alma Mater, Oberlin College. 50 years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had addressed the graduating class of 1965, and First Lady Obama echoed his appeal to not sleep through the revolutions of one’s time, saying:

“…Climate change, economic inequality, human rights, criminal justice -– these are the revolutions of your time. And you have as much responsibility and just as much power to wake up and play your part in our great American story. Because it is absolutely still possible to make a difference. The great moments of our history are not decades in our past; they’re happening right now, today, in our lifetimes.”

The church must be fully awake and engaged in the age of climate change that has now unequivocally arrived. It must be a gate and a tool through which God can do her radical, healing, transformative work, and see humanity through to a more peaceful and just era of equally shared abundance.

Three weekends ago I bid farewell to the congregation of SP&SA. It is by no means a permanent farewell, as I will be (relatively) close by in Charlottesville, Va, but the congregation still poured its love out over me, hearing my thoughts (a more informal version of the above), and drawing close to me, laying their hands on me and praying for me. In that moment I felt twenty years of love and support washing over me, and opening the door to the future.

To bring things even more full-circle, one of the scriptures for the service was that of the manna falling from heaven: the same scripture as was read the day I arrived as a child and experienced the warmth of the community for the first time. It’s moments like this that make me aware of, and humbled by, God’s presence in the world, and which give me the spirit to press on with the reckless hope that love and justice will prevail.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you SP&SA!


An Exercise in Befriending (Tuscan) Yellow Jackets

Even as an avowed nature lover, the city gal in me is often unduly squeamish when coming face-to-face with fauna. Case in point, on a (very) recent trip to Italy with my sister Caroline and boyfriend Ryan, I was startled by the unexpected visitation of several yellow jackets at an otherwise perfect dinner at Salvadonica Vineyard, which was walking distance from our airbnb.

The perfect setting for a perfect meal (and the yellow jackets concur).

The perfect setting for a perfect meal, with or without yellow jackets.

The waitress assured me that they were “not aggressive,” and yet I attracted curious stares from our fellow diners as I yelped and fled the table where three of the yellow, stinger-donning insects had suddenly descended. Ryan likewise advised that I remain calm, and that my flailing gestures would only serve to enrage them, but I had a hard time letting go the visceral assumption that I would get stung, so long as they were around. Certainly they would, like dogs, smell my fear and go in for the attack.

Giorgio the cat.

Giorgio the cat.

I wanted to go inside, but Caroline and Ryan were reasonably unwilling to sacrifice the gorgeous views and caressing warmth of the outdoors, so I consigned myself to the situation. With a little wine and a little time, I started to realize that the yellow jackets really were not interested in me. Similar to Giorgio the cat, who planted himself at my feet to successfully beg for cheese rinds, they were allured by the food. They were persistent, yes, but could be shooed away and were certainly not intent on waging war.

Once I’d had my fill of cheese, I sat back to see what the yellow jackets would do without interference. I had really started to grow fond of them, in a way. Predictably, they went straight for the honey, two or three at a time.IMG_8524 Ryan had the brilliant idea of trapping them with a wine glass, to keep them out of our way. When they had had enough and were trying to get out, he moved the wine glass and they zoomed away, perhaps traumatized by having been trapped. At one point, a yellow jacket that got too greedy fell into the honey, unable to drag itself out. I took pity on it and fished it out with a knife, then laid it on the grass where it could clean off its wings.

They yellow jackets were fond of the wine as well.

The yellow jackets were fond of the wine as well.

Over the course of an evening—and a bottle of excellent wine—I evolved from an attitude of frantic fear to one of benevolent affection. I guess I can say that those laid-back, handsome little bugs taught me a lesson or two: try to understand, rather than fear, the “Other”; drink when uneasy, etc. But mostly I just feel grateful for the untamed essence of nature, which contains the ability to challenge us, teach us, and invite us into the web so eloquently described by Chief Seattle:

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

Aside from conferring life lessons, yellow jackets are a helpful presence in the garden, where they eat pests (although too large a colony near the home can be dangerous as they will aggressively defend their nests). Other fear-triggering insects, such as bees, are crucial pollinators. By engaging with nature and its creatures, rather than fearing and distancing ourselves from it, we stand to improve our collective lot!

In that spirit, here are some resources for encouraging pollinators:

Info on native pollinators

Attracting Native Pollinators (I have this book, it’s great!)

Project Native’s Seed Catalog