Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Boston

Kwok Pui Lan

Brendan Curran, a senior M.Div Student at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), has participated in Occupy Boston since it started in late September. He is living in the tents in Dewey Square by South Station in downtown Boston, while continues to take classes and do his course assignments. Occupy Boston was inspired by Occupy Wall Street in New York.

EDS held a teach-in session on Occupy Boston on October 17, 2011, facilitated by President Katherine Hancock Ragsdale and Professor Ed Rodman, two veterans of social movements. The session followed a community Eucharist in which the Rev. Mwape Chilombo, a student from Zambia, delivered a powerful sermon on the need to take a new direction. She linked Occupy Wall Street with the struggles of Zambian people against government corruption and oppression.

About seven faculty, staff, and students have visited Occupy Boston, and participated in or witnessed the various demonstrations and marches. Sarah Monroe, who is doing field education at Ecclesia Ministries, a ministry for homeless people, said that homeless people feel welcome and supported by Occupy Boston.

Susan B. Taylor brought her family to visit Occupy Boston, together with members of The Crossing, an emergent church community in Boston. Her daughter was asked to share her experience upon her return with three different classes of her school in Western Massachusetts.

Other eye-witnesses were impressed by the toleration of diverse opinions in the general assembly, the decision-making body, and the diversity of people gathered, including students, homeless people, members of the labor unions, older people, and veterans of the civil rights movement.

Brendan Curran taught the hand gestures used in the general assembly to ask a question, to vote, to make a point, and to show disagreement. He was impressed by the collective and collaborative effort against capitalism at Dewey Square. “We do not want to become a political party or to be co-opted by a political party,” he said. The movement has been described as the “the return of the silent majority” by Time magazine. “It is exciting to see it go global,” Curran said. Occupy Wall Street has inspired protests and demonstrations in many cities worldwide on October 15, 2011.

The teach-in session provided an opportunity for President Ragsdale to share her rich experiences in organizing for social change. She said changes happened in 4 steps, which are not linear:
· Personal and spiritual transformation
· Educating others
· Lobbying and providing alternative proposals
· Civil disobedience
She said individuals and institutions can be involved in the different steps of the process and at different stages.

Some of the attendees said the Occupy movement does not have clear demands and a concrete platform and it is hard to explain to others. Professor Rodman recommended two books co-authored by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire and Multitude. In Multitude, the authors have envisaged a mass democratic global movement, mobilized by the Internet and social networking, to rise up to resist Empire. The multitude is marked by diversity rather than similarities. The challenge for the multitude in this new era is “for the social multiplicity to manage to communicate and act in common while remaining internally different.”

Professor Christopher Duraisingh provided a theological perspective. He said Occupy Boston reminds the Church of its prophetic witness. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says prophetic witness involves the articulation of alternative consciousness to demolish and debunk dominant consciousness and providing the impetus for building a different community. Professor Duraisingh asked whether the Church has responsibilities to be involved in and support movements like Occupy Boston. Since the movement is against corporate greed, he challenged the Church to rethink its identification with corporate America.

The teach-in session was closed with Professor Rodman reminiscing about his student days in the 1960s during the height of the civil rights movement. He said Southern white students were ostracized after their classmate Jonathan Daniels was killed working for the civil rights movement in Alabama. It was the black students who reached out to them. He used this example to remind us there is going to be divided opinions on emotionally charged issues and asked us to listen to and care for each other.

*Kwok Pui Lan is William F. Cole Professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

God’s Hand in Improvisation and Creativity

The Learning Walk, Community Park, Newton County, Georgia
designed by Hank Methvin and Eric Childs
By Hank Methvin
My artistic drive is my strongest life force. I value the consistent presence of art in my life.   Through most of my years I have understood the critical role of creative expression in my work and play. Art, drawing, and painting have always been my source of delight; my artistic creativity motivates me to embrace life’s journey.

Recognizing my Eros to be my artistic creativity is a Divine gift and provides me with an ongoing conversation with God that builds from longing and response. The visual arts offer me a spiritual language and support my bond with a universe of ideas. Art expresses my intuition and my instinct as I participate in the community of past creative work represented by generations of artists and designers. 

My connection to the world and community deepens with my study of art history, cultural traditions, and visual expression. My practice of architecture and environmental design bolster my visual vocabulary and enable me to comprehend our multidimensional world. Complex design problems demand comprehensive strategies.

In my own art and design work I recognize the challenges that interpreting our environment demands and I offer solutions for future ecological design practice; my artistic longing is nourished in ways that I could not anticipate. Art and design structure my voice and nourish my continuous prayer with God.  Producing an artistic vision demands my participation in the creative process but also calls for resources beyond my grasp. 

The artists guiding art history during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century often followed prescribed methods in the pursuit of their work. Modern design approaches were often guided by the norms and traditions shaped by new advances in technology. In contrast, postmodern design principles incorporate the dynamics of our changing world and favor creative process over the fulfillment of artistic standards.  This postmodern inclusive process replaces modern scripted practice. Improvisation is a critical tool in the pursuit of such a postmodern creative process.

As a postmodern design tool, improvisation embraces chaos in the search for order; instinctive choices complement rational procedures. Improvisational thinking explores the rich alternatives inherent in our chaotic world; new patterns and new relationships surface under the gaze of the improviser. The process of discovery is etched in the artistic product; process and new vision are fused and revealed in the improvised artifact. New ideas and traditional cultural practices collide in the hope of forming new visions and alternative perspectives. The artist participates in the fullness of history and in the breadth of possibility. 

Improvisational thinking is open-ended but the artist finds a resting point, a provisional artistic statement that motivates ongoing creative inquiry.  There is a profound dedication to the creative process; improvisation values unknowns and unknowing.  Improvisational thinking embraces the fullness of community in all its guises and the Spirit is offered room to participate in the process. 

A wide-range of contemporary artists and designers have incorporated improvisation into their creative work and process. Community participation in architectural design and urban planning is now strongly influenced by public input and improvised methodology. Public art projects are often assembled from the work of many participating parties without a fixed notion of the final outcome. 

Improvisational thinking is a creative approach that invites possibility. The source of the artistic inspiration is not predetermined. New ideas grow from the relationships and confrontations that occur during the creative process, often coming from unexpected sources.  God and the Spirit are invited to enter into the process.

Improvisation encourages us all to apply new techniques and approaches into our own work, play and devotion. In the mist of our creative journeys, the Holy Spirit can participate in the openness of our process. New turns in our work and new directions in our thinking demand full participation. We are reaching into the world of unknowns and God is always in that place, whether we are aware or just open to the fullness of creative possibility.

*Hank Methvin is an architect and environmental artist, and directs the Metropolitan Design Studio in Covington, Georgia, a program of the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. Methvin is also pursuing a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at the Episcopal Divinity School, concentrating his studies on religion and ecology.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs, Theologian and Prophet

By Winfred Vergara

The globalized world mourns today the passing of Steve Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple. He is considered an exceptional high tech guru, entrepreneur, inventor, innovator, visionary and probably the newest richest man in the cemetery.

Aside from being a father to at least four human beings, Jobs is also the father of iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. While I have only iNap, iSnore and iOwe to my credits, I quite resonate with his life, particularly his disadvantaged family origin; and although he was reportedly a Zen Buddhist, I consider him my new Christian theologian and prophet. I think his one Commencement Speech to Stanford University students in 2005 must have inspired more people (thanks to his high tech, high speed inventions) than any of my 1726 miserable sermons delivered during my 33 years of priesthood.

And so at the risk of making him my idol, I share three points why his life is worthy of emulation:

1. He Learned from Adversity
Given for adoption and learning that his adopted parents were not as rich and educated as his biological mother had expected, he made the most of what he had. “At Reed College, I did not have a dorm room so I slept on the floor of friends’ rooms. I returned coke bottle for 5 cents deposits to buy food and would walk seven miles across town on Sundays to get one good meal at a Hare Krishna temple.” He would later drop out of college, to save money for a self-directed learning, including a course on calligraphy, which he would later use in his design of Macintosh computer.

2. He Considered Love as Antidote for Failure
A positive thinking pastor, Robert Schuler once said, “success is never-ending and failure is never-final.” Jobs is a prime exemplar of this philosophy. He and Wozniak started Apple on his parents’ garage in Silicon Valley which grew into a 2 billion company with over 4,000 employees. But when it was settling down, they hired a new leadership who disagreed with him and he was fired from the very company he founded. He came back later after proving himself agile in founding NeXT and Pixar, two celebrated successes. He would later say “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love...Don’t settle.”*

3. He Believed Death Has a Renewing Purpose
I share with Steve Jobs the trait of being secretive about disease, a thing that most frustrate my own family. As a child, I endured a whole night suffering from food poisoning, because I did not want to wake my mother up. Jobs’ battle with pancreatic cancer, which ultimately claimed his life at age 56, was kept secret for a long time. St. Francis of Assisi called it “Sister Death” but for Jobs, death is life’s ultimate destiny. In his monologue on death, he said, “Death is the destination we all share…it is the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”*

It would be great to share with Jobs’ audience that his philosophy of life’s journey resembles that of our forefather Abraham who did not settle in villas and palaces but lived in tents because he was looking for a city with a strong foundation, “whose builder and maker is God.” It is also comforting to share that the Christian faith offers a view that death is not the final statement for we believe that God will raise us up on the last day.

(This blog first appeared in http://travelinasian.blogspot.com/)

*These quotations are taken from Steve Jobs’ Commencement address at Stanford University, California, October 10, 2005.

**The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara is missioner for Asiamerica Ministry in the Episcopal Church Center based in New York City. Ordained in the Philippine Independent Church, he served as missionary priest in the Anglican Church in Singapore (1980-86) and Canon Missioner of the Diocese of El Camino Real (1990-2004). Among his books are Milkfish in Brackish Water: Filipino-American Ministry (1990); Mainstreaming Asian Americans in the Episcopal Church (2006); Catholicity and Brief History of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (2010). He can be contacted at wvergara@episcopalchurch.org.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What If My Cat Were the Blogger

By Susan Spilecki

I don’t always talk like everyone else, even though I am a writer and an English teacher. Most people expect English teachers to use correct grammar all the time, and for the most part I do. But over the last three years, I have come to see my language as a potentially powerful site of resistance in the battle against the oppression of nonhuman nature. The pen and the tongue are more powerful than the bulldozer and the smokestack.

I did not change my language on purpose, not at first. It started in December 2008, four months after I adopted my cat, Musashi. As he grew from a five-pound, six-month-old black ball of fluff with a huge plumy black tail to a ten-pound near adult, it became very clear to me that he had his own likes and dislikes, his own habits and routines—in short, his own personality.

When I watched him hunt his catnip mice with such seriousness and then jump up to the window in awe at the first snowfall, it seemed to me that he had a very clear voice. So I started a blog for him, The Musashi Guide: One Kitten’s Opinions on Life, the World, Cat Toys, and Everything. I had been a creative writer all my life, so I did not think I was doing anything more than telling stories. I certainly didn’t think that I was doing anything remotely political.

It has only since I have been a Master of Arts in Theological Studies student at Episcopal Divinity School that I have begun to realize the potential political power of engaging in creative acts. And Musashi has been one of my teachers.

It started simple enough. I would write about his favorite cat toys and movie stars, and his preferences about the different hand lotions I used. Then came Christmas. Have you ever tried to explain Jesus to a person of another species using their language?

I didn’t think so. Let me tell you, it’s not easy.

From the start, I had been using the Internet phenomenon of LOLcats and the LOLcat “language” as Musashi’s style of writing. LOLcat, from the text-speak abbreviation for Laughing Out Loud, began in 2007 with the website Icanhascheezburger.com, which allows users to put captions on funny pictures of cats. The “language” is a combination of text-speak abbreviations, typing errors, baby-talk and kindergarten misspellings. Basically the assumption is that cats, if they could write, would write at the level of a five-year-old human child.

So far, so good. What I had not anticipated was the effect of trying to write from the point of view of a person (an individual with a unique personality) of a different species. In particular, since Musashi is almost fifteen inches tall, one-fifth of my height, he is quite literally going to experience the world from a different perspective. And because he is an indoor cat, the reality of the outdoor world probably does not mean much to him (chirping, tasty-looking birds notwithstanding).

Gradually I started realizing that he would have to describe the world much differently. Humans no longer would equal people. Suddenly, there are kittee people, doggee people, birdee people, etc.

“God” would equal “Ceiling Cat,” the Internet meme of a cat looking down from a hole in the ceiling. And why would Ceiling Cat have a human son? Could any nonhuman animal, aware of the cruelty of the human practice of factory farming, accept a human Savior?

And if Ceiling Cat’s son were a cat rather than a human, what would that mean?

I am not saying that this exercise changed my fairly orthodox faith. I am merely saying that my anthropomorphic exercise in seeing the world and my faith through the eyes of a person of another species changed how I will now forever after see my world.

First, I am seeing the earth as a subject; therefore, I must always now write it as “the Earth,” a proper noun referring to a particular planet. Now I say “he or she” and “who” of nonhuman animals, because from their point of view, they are males and females and individual subjects of their own lives. Now I refer to humans as humans, not as “people,” because I have seen how the possession of a personality is not limited to our species.

Now, I no longer speak like everyone else. I do it intentionally, and I think my cat, if he could understand these concepts, would quite likely approve. After all, he’s a cat, the center of the (his) universe. Just like humans.

*Susan Spilecki is a student at Episcopal Divinity School. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Musashi Guide can be found at http://musashiguide.blogspot.com.