Different communities & people - different points on the circle of life
Last night I witnessed something amazing. I attended a celebration and fund-raiser for the Umoja Health, Wellness, and Justice Collective, a community in Asheville doing inspiring work to bring youth together, share their authentic selves, support each other, and chart a loving, compassionate, and creative path forward.
Watching the entire group of children from age 5 to 17 or so all yelling support for each other as they got up for their 3-5 minutes speeches was truly touching. You can't fake the kind of love they were expressing for each other. It was beautiful, energizing, and inspiring!
This community is alive, vibrant, and growing. More parents are wanting to send their kids there. Their parents are struggling to make ends meet, and much of the teaching and facilitating is being done as a labor of love. And yes, they need money!
But the need and compassion are combining to generate the courage and the faith that is animating the creation of something that is alive, exciting, attractive, and transformative!
And then this morning a friend called and told me his son has just taken his own life.
I cannot imagine...
We are all in some sort of transition, whether personally, in our smaller social circles, or in our larger world. Some of it wonderful and exciting, some of it unspeakably agonizing.
None of us knows what is going to happen. And we can do our best to plan, but we also know most plans are only a suggestion.
So we're left with moving forward in the midst of huge levels of unknown and unknowability.
What do we bring forward with us?
What do we leave behind?
The Jubilee! Community, where I led the World Beat Band for 22 years, has been going through a lot of very difficult transition since our founder, Howard Hanger, retired in August, 2019. The core questions of what is to be released and let go of and what is to be carried forward have been difficult for the community to deeply discern and come to terms with.
Originally I intended these words for the Jubilee! Community only. But I decided to post this here in case it might be helpful for more of you out there, maybe at larger scales.
At this point, we need all the help we can get, don't you think??!! So here is an
Open letter to the Jubilee! Community (and beyond)
Dear Jubilants, Jubiloids, and Jubles...
As we face the prospect of major changes in how things look going forward, it seems like part of my responsibility to share some of my perspective on this question, "What makes Jubilee! Jubilee! ??"
And since my POV is grounded in my background, here’s a bit on that:
Throughout my childhood, I was steeped in church life, personalities, and politics in a well-known Disciples of Christ congregation (South Hills CC) in Fort Worth, TX.
Many of the Brite Divinity School faculty (located at TCU – Texas Christian Univ) were members and ministers at South Hills. Each week (or series of weeks), different Brite faculty taught the adult Sunday School class.
So the level of theology and church organizational wisdom was unusually high for an otherwise typical mainstream protestant church community.
A couple of guiding concepts among Disciples are “No creed but Christ” and the idea of the “ministry of the laity.” In the DOC tradition, each of us is called to interpret scripture and other teachings for ourselves, to question everything, and share the good news of God’s love with others.
To top this off, Mom and Dad both chaired the board and many other committees over the years, and Mom was the Secretary of the Regional (Texas and Oklahoma) DOC office.
Just one of Dad's tasks over the many decades there was to chair the building committee that designed and built the beautiful and symbolically rich sanctuary pictured above (when I was around 11).
So, along with the Dallas Cowboys and the TCU Horned Frogs (football and basketball!), church life was ever-present in the family conversation throughout my childhood.
Long story short(er), this led me into social work, social systems research, video production for nonprofits, and community organizing/activism.
I spent the '80s, '90s, and early '00s working to tweak organizational, community, and societal system levers (primarily around cable access TV, campaign finance reform, and anti-death penalty organizing) to help bend the arc of history toward justice.
Soon after I started leading the WBB in 2001, my message about Jubilee! to Mom and Dad was essentially...
“It was started by a fun guy (Howard Hanger) who’s great to work with and play music for, but the brilliant part about it is the way he's got things organized.
There is a simple, clean organizational scheme that is unusual, but easily laid out and highly decentralized. The overall structure and policies encourage initiative, collaboration, flexibility, and creativity. It’s not always clear to everyone what everybody else is doing, but that’s okay.”
This resonated with the parts of me that are interested in not just doing something, but in re-inventing social structures that align more harmoniously with the way nature and life itself works.
And natural living systems are, essentially, self-organizing.
I've always been drawn to seeking ways to align with and "resonate" with natural processes as much as possible, figuring that must be the easiest way to consciously "nudge" things in the directions we most want them to go.
For me, that includes healing, peaceful conflict resolution (i.e. creativity), justice, and long-term sustainability.
It seems to me Howard found many of the keys to the magic kingdom in his approach. My view is we lost sight of many of these things when Howard retired, leaving us in the same boat as most other typical churches who are struggling to survive these apocalyptic times.
Who are we at Jubilee! ??
More specifically, what was it that made Jubilee work so well for so long?
Our answers to these questions have often boiled down to a combination of Howard’s humor and charisma, the music, the openness to other faiths and general inclusiveness, and our emphasis on outreach and service.
I agree with those responses. But I think the essence of Jubilee runs much deeper than those descriptions.
In many ways, those things can be said of lots of spiritual communities, so they don’t really isolate what it was that animated Jubilee! uniquely and specifically.
In the big picture, I’ve always thought of Jubilee as uniquely positioned to offer something precious in the world for these reasons.
1) Creation Spirituality is a reframing of Christianity rooted in the spiritualities Jesus learned and taught. It can be deeply reassuring and inspiring for disaffected Christians (as well as those who have never identified as Christian).
(Matthew Fox has spent the past 40 years articulating this approach to spirituality. It turns out this morning's meditation is right in alignment with the ultimate point I'm hoping to make here...)
2) Howard didn’t TALK much about Creation Spirituality. He just DID it. The practices, the community response to the ancient words, the irreverence and disregard for unquestioned church traditions, the recognition of the Holy in everything, is all C.S. all the time.
The fact that he didn't -talk- about C.S. more and articulate the framework more explicitly was often a source of frustration for me, personally, because of my stubbornly intellectual bent.
Fortunately my position in the band forced me to get out of my head more and focus on celebrating life and having a good time!
3) Essentially… 1) + 2). We have a remarkably unique legacy at Jubilee! Not only are we a Creation Spirituality community (often described as the "flagship" or "mother ship" congregation in the Creation Spirituality movement), which is pretty rare and wonderful in itself.
But we also have a shared experience of a LOT of Creation Spirituality wisdom that we experienced, felt, sang, laughed about, and celebrated.
This combo was extremely attractive for a huge range of people over a very long period of time!
So here are some examples of the things I observed as I worked with Howard that I've thought contributed naturally to the magic of Jubilee!
- hearty greetings early on Sunday morning, opening up the energy in the room as people arrive
- talking across the Celebration Center to each other
- opens the energy… message: permissive - it’s okay to be here and to be your natural self here. Nobody’s requiring or expecting you to be quiet, prayerful, meditative, although you’re welcome to be if you want. But others may do something else!
- Grace – the one word that has always come to mind about Jubilee!
- the 2 “gifts” (of a song, poem, dance, etc.) came from anyone, anytime. All that was needed was to get something in the schedule with a title for the bulletin. Howard always refused to hear anything about what it was going to be. He wanted to be surprised. The implicit message… each of us has something worth sharing without being vetted by an intercessor. Just share it! Because of this one piece, a lot of real magic happened!
- In all the time I worked with Howard, I was never reprimanded for making a mistake, screwing something up (which I did ALL the time), or doing something different than he had in mind. The only time he ever came down on me was once when he saw I was being unloving. This overall attitude made it possible for me to grow as a musician and band leader and person in ways that -I- was responsible for.
- The Jubilee! salute (a shrug) i.e. We Don’t Know. It’s a good reminder not only because it’s always at least partly true and it liberates us into being more open to Spirit moment to moment.
- Look for the goodness (godness?) in everything!
Community / Organization
- Anything that sounded like “church” or “organized religion" was explicitly steered clear of. This included language, procedures, even capital letters in the bulletin! It was part of the Jubilee! brand that it didn't "feel" like church. This created a more open, liberating environment for people who are done with churches. It created a feeling of fun irreverence. And it reminded us that there’s a different relationship (or even oneness) between the sacred and the secular than we may have considered.
- Howard didn’t do committee/team meetings
- Teams formed and folded based on peoples’ own initiative and energy. A team dying was not seen as a problem or failure, just the way of life.
- Outreach budget prioritized (% increase each year for many years)
- Avoided marketing, evangelizing – being an attractive energy by just being ourselves and celebrating life, not by trying to pull people in
Philosophy / Theology / Guiding principles
- Love is more central than fealty to any leaders, theologies, philosophies (including Creation Spirituality!).
- In conversation with Howard once, we were talking about our preferences for good questions than their answers when he said “When I think I’m getting close to an answer, I start getting worried!” The more I've thought about that, I can see that's a great way of putting it.
- The figures held up in scripture were a bunch of bumbling bozos, screw-ups, and sinners. This theme seems vital to Jubilee’s appeal. i.e. Forgive yourself! Again! You’re loved!
- Be like a PVC pipe that’s open on both ends.
- It’s not about “knowing it” or “saying it” it’s about “doing it.” (i.e. love, kindness, celebrating life). Howard often said “I don’t care what you believe. What do you do?”
- I say, I say, I say, how you gonna learn anything if you don’t pay attention!?!!??!! (Thank you, Sir Foghorn Leghorn)
- Relationships are more important than being right.
- Keep the main thing the main thing.
- We’re not sure what the main thing is, but it’s not the building or the institution. (My personal take is that the main thing is that we can’t know what we wish we knew. We can’t control life. It’s all a mystery so we might as well get over it (and ourselves), do our best, and enjoy and love ourselves, and each other, anyway.)
- Howard would always say as we began to run through the songs for the day, “let’s see if we know the same song” – always framing things in an egalitarian ways – even though he was obviously my supervisor, it always felt like “we’re in this together,” rarely felt hierarchical.
- In the regular staff email with the weekly bulletin, he always called it the “bull” and always accompanied it with “maybe this’ll confuse ‘em” – I always thought it was just a goofy joke, but eventually came to appreciate that that’s how Howard thinks. How could he knock someone off-base, surprise them, get them out of their mental rut --- impllicit msg: confusion is the beginning of learning, creation, growth.
- Let the mystery begin (title of a beautiful song of Howard's we did for Easter this year - 2022)
Attraction / Celebrations / Gatherings
- Secular music – The implicit message in this is that God / Goddess / Oneness / Holiness / Divinity has been on your radio, jukebox, record/cassette/8-track/CD player, i.e all your millions of experiences throughout your whole life!
- Music is better than words. Experience is better than knowledge. Feeling is better than thinking. Celebrating, singing, dancing is better than being impressive, or right. Though this may not be obvious, Howard didn’t actually talk all that much during the service. The opening greeting was usually 20-30 seconds. No intro at the ringing of the bells other than tell people about the prayer wall. A ~2 min short story at the end of singing bowls while holding hands, quick intros to other things, a ~14min med and ~1 benediction.
- Ritual is about getting from Point A to Point B – everything is oriented around that. And it’s not about telling people or trying to convince people of anything, but creating an experience that will invite them in, whether they know what happened or not. they just end up feeling better at the end.
- Meditations never felt “preachy.” I never felt like I was being “taught” or “told” or even advised. There was no “holier than thou” attitude. It felt like a common exploration, all in this thing together, nobody knows it all, but what an amazing ride we’re on!
- People often saying things like “I don’t remember what Howard said, but it was just what I needed today.” -or- it felt like he was talking right to me. -or- I found myself crying and didn’t know why.
- They didn’t remember much of what Howard said. They just wanted to go back. It just felt good.
- And if you throw all the rest of this in the trash, let’s remember this one:
Don’t take ourselves too seriously!!
You can probably think of more things about Jubilee! that made YOU want to come back again and again… why you came to Jubilee! instead of another progressive spiritual community, or instead of going nowhere at all.
I hope and pray that whatever becomes of 46 Wall St and whatever becomes of the group of people who have gathered there for 33 years, that the spirit of Jubilee! will find ways to survive and feed others in this world that is so much in need of love, compassion, and grace.
Here’s a toast to Howard, a prayer for this community, and a dream that somehow or other, each and all of us can find ways to continue to know that we are beloved children of a living divine presence, and that we can continue to go on, play on, and somehow, by the grace of who or whatever the heck came up with all of this, make this old world a better place.
Have any thoughts and reflections on this? Please leave them below! 🙂