East End Spiritual Leaders on Creating a Beloved Community

Shinnecock Tribal Member and historian Chenae Bullock, and Rev. Kimberley Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork and Zen Buddhist priest of Ocean Zendo Engu Michel Dobbs.
Shinnecock Tribal Member and historian Chenae Bullock, Rev. Kimberley Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork and Zen Buddhist priest of Ocean Zendo Engu Michel Dobbs.

After the tumult of last year’s presidential election, Kathryn Szoka and Maryanne Calandrille of Canio’s Cultural Café in Sag Harbor received many calls from friends and customers of their bookstore, Canio’s Books, asking for guidance on how to go about social activism.

This weekend, amongst several events planned in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day, including a Teach In/Speak OUT at Stony Brook Southampton today, Canio’s hosted three spiritual leaders Saturday evening for a talk on “The Spirituality of Resistance.”

“Spirituality is a deeper, more timeless part of our nature. It provides a seed of growth, promise and hope,” said Ms. Szoka as she introduced the three panelists for the spirited discussion.

Panalists included Shinnecock Tribal Member and historian Chenae Bullock, Rev. Kimberley Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork and Michel Dobbs, a Zen Buddhist priest of Ocean Zendo in Bridgehampton.

Ms. Johnson, a former union organizer, was raised a Baptist, but drifted toward Unitarian Universalism in her youth because she felt the Baptist view toward social change saw that change as part of the future, while UU action takes place in the present.

“If I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t have been an activist,” she said. “My understanding of god is a call to be and act in the world.”

Ms. Johnson said she also often thinks about the idea that “hurt people hurt people,” and devotes her view of activism to ensure that she and her fellow activists are “whole and fully healthy people” who work to heal the world, not to further hurt it.

Ms. Johnson, a founding member of Racial Justice East End, said she is also working to recover, and to help her community recover from “sustained trauma around race and gender.”

She said the manner in which mass media presents racial issues exposes people of color who may not personally have experienced trauma due to racism to a collective post-traumatic stress.

“It’s a trauma in your spirit,” she said, pointing out that this type of trauma goes back as far as the days of plantation slavery, when owners would hire “spirit-breakers” to keep their slaves in line. “You’re seeing, over and over again, bodies that look like yours, and like those who you love.”

“You need to build spiritual muscles, not for the exercise itself, but so that when you need it, it’s ready,” she said. “There’s a way to tap into that, even if you’re not African American. You’re from a people who survive.”

Mr. Dobbs drew much from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his discussion, leading off with the following quote from a speech Dr. King made in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1960:

“There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”

Both Mr. Dobbs and Ms. Bullock had been to the Standing Rock, North Dakota to join the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Mr. Dobbs was there briefly, in the days surrounding the Dec. 4 announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not allow the pipeline to be drilled under a dammed section of the Missouri River.

He had just joined in a prayer circle with the 3,000 people camped there when word came around about the Army Corps’ decision. While he was a bit incredulous that many prayers seemed to have been answered at that moment, he was praying for something other than the stopped pipeline.

“I was praying that the spirit of this community would continue,” he said. “I was praying that those of us present to see it would bring it out into the world, in those words echoed by Dr. King — creating the beloved community.”

He added another quote from Dr. King that resonated for him before he made the trip to North Dakota:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Before going to North Dakota, he said, he was conflicted by reports that there were too many people at the camp, and that violence was beginning to spread, in part because some people had been paid to make trouble. Eventually, he turned off the news and looked to his zen teachings for guidance.

He meditated on the ideas of Roshi Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers on the importance of not knowing, bearing witness, and taking action. Roshi Glassman has been involved in zen programs bearing witness at the sites of genocide, in Rwanda and at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“I decided to go bear witness. You go with an empty mind and an open heart,” said Mr. Dobbs.

He said that he was struck both by the enormous community spirit he found at the camp, but also by the idea that the protesters called themselves “protectors,” not protesters.

“Protectors are here for something, not against something,” he said. “You can’t create the beloved community if you are creating enemies.”

Shinnecock Tribal Member Chenae Bullock visited Standing Rock twice, and stayed for three months on her second trip, where she helped to winterize the camp.

She said that when she arrived at the camp, many elders who had been part of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s taught the newcomers what they’d learned about non-violence after violent confrontations in the 1970s.

At the height of the movement, she said the camp was a true international experience, with people from all over the world and the United States standing in support of protecting the water.

“It made me think of the march over the bridge in Selma,” she said. “When you have hope, against resistance, that’s what makes you strong.”

She said the situation had begun to deteriorate when people “paid by DAPL to be violent and cause harm” created a sense of fear within the camp. The Dec. 4 announcement by the Army Corps “felt very scripted,” she said, adding that communication with the outside world was difficult at the camp, where there was no wifi or cell phone service.

“Those who had been there a long time didn’t know what to believe,” she said. “If it feels right, it is right. You have to trust the creator, and this didn’t feel right.”

Ms. Bullock said she ultimately left because the organizers put out the spirit fire, which had been burning since the camp was formed.

“That fire was a symbol of everyone’s prayers,” she said, adding that people from China were taking home ashes and people from the East Coast were bringing cedar to burn there. 

“I felt we were being forced to be removed. It wasn’t in agreement with those who have been praying,” she said.

Ms. Bullock said she often has dreams about the damage caused by bulldozers moving artifacts on Long Island and around the world.

“It’s not a race issue,” she said. “It’s a human situation on earth. I have to plant myself so I can be strong within my spirituality.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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