On June 9 and 10, 2017, the Contemplative Alliance/GPIW reconvened in Charleston, South Carolina for a community dialogue called Restoring Wholeness: Within Ourselves, with Each Other and the Vast Community of Life.  The mission of the gathering was to hold in remembrance the victims of the racially motivated shooting at the AME Mother Emanuel Church in June 2015, re-engage local partners as well as the Charleston chapter of the Contemplative Alliance.  

We went to gather local citizens in an ongoing contemplative platform to address the racial divide in America and the current impact of climate change on coastal cities like Charleston.

The diverse group of 33 participants included experts in the social justice and ecology fields, artists, practitioners of the Buddhist, Baha'i, Christian, Indigenous, Muslim, and Yogic spiritual traditions, as well as thought leaders in progressive community development.

The gathering was opened by Rev. Nelson Rivers, a pastor and renowned community advocate and leading organizer of the largest civil rights demonstration (50,000 people) in the history of South Carolina.  Rev. Nelson’s statement framed the context of the group discussion on the racial divide in America and the impact of white privilege lived out in institutionalized racism. His candid reflection opened the participants to discuss the unconscious nuances of prejudice that require action in the realm of racial equity and justice, not merely acceptance and diversity. 

The discussion addressed that inclusion does not change attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate oppression, and it does not deconstruct or confront the framework of systemic privilege still in place.  Instead, many in the group called for individuals to take individual responsibility in telling the truth about the impact of slavery as a business and industry in America.  This includes shedding light on the ways, even generations later, it continues to benefit a particular sector of society. The long term impact perpetuates economic, social and educational disparities that infringe on the human rights and civil liberties of others.

Rev. Rivers is now part of the Leadership Team of the Charleston based Social Justice, Racial Equity Collaborative.  This initiative was formed in response to the tragic act of terror targeting the AME Mother Emanuel church in June 2015.  The Charleston action group is currently developing a strategy toward policy improvement for people of color in the areas of education, policing, gun violence prevention, healthcare, housing, economic justice, and expansion of voting rights and democracy.


The Contemplative Alliance/GPIW partner in Charleston, the Sophia Institute, under the directorship of Carolyn Rivers is the co-convener of the Social Justice, Racial Equity Collaborative.  Carolyn has been a leading example of bridge building. She engages the community in the processes of personal inquiry and deep listening required for healing from historical trauma.  Uncovering hidden truths around race and actively pursuing personal transformation are the key qualities — addressed in the dialogue — that effectively uproot cycles of inner and outer violence that continue endemic injustices.

ABOVE: The visiting Contemplative Alliance group pays its respects to the AME Mother Emanuel Church. The church community warmly received the well wishes and designated a long-time member to give a tour and historical overview of the Mother Emanuel presence and civic engagement in the Charleston community.
The dialogue also identified some of the underlying problems to progress in Restoring Wholeness.  This included acknowledging that the habitual response of society is to denounce major events around violence to the earth and humanity at the inception, but then quickly losing attention. They also agreed there remains a stasis in the collective to move out of the destructive conditioning that has systematically targeted and destroyed lineages and communities throughout generations in America.  This explained the honest feelings of fatigue and non-forgiveness expressed by some in the group in response to the AME Mother Emanuel massacre.  Cookie Washington, a Charleston community leader and artist shared: “I can forgive the shooter, but I cannot forgive the society that created him.”

In light of this, Jana Long, Founder of the Power of One Yoga Center said, “I don’t know that we need to come together, but I do know we individually need to do our work.”  She went on to share that this is the foundation of her curriculum called Yoga As A Peace Practice, where students are directed to make conscious decision to start from within and look at their own violence.  She concluded saying that “It’s lifelong work.  You’re in a battle for your mind every day.”

Muhiyyidin d’baha, a Cultural Synergist and leading youth voice from Charleston offered that ending inter-human violence begins with recognizing the anger and frustration that arises in response to targeted oppression.  This includes making the invisible seen, such as finally seeing the young black male presence that societal narratives have written off as “non-existent”.  Discussion of the prison industrial complex arose as one of the prime examples of how this reality plays out.  His insights offered a way forward for contemplatives and non-contemplatives to elevate individual mindsets to begin the process of ending unconscious patterns that facilitate systems of oppression.  He shared:


“We don’t live in the same society with each other.  We might not even know how to react to one another.  There is a lack of public display of anger, but that is not the reality.  There is a lot of anger.  It is crucial to have rituals so that we don’t internalize repression.”


“Since [June 2015] we have birthed a wonderful voice among young activists.  It is a catharsis.  This is a process of reclaiming power and dignity.  For us to come into our sense of dignity we have to say ‘no more’.  We have to refute ideologies that don’t allow the common good to flourish.  It’s going to take a generation that doesn’t have a visceral trauma.

Speaking to deconstructing personal beliefs, Alex Epstein, Co-Founder of Philly Urban Creators, spoke about the process of self-inquiry that was awakened in him when he decided to stop ignoring the class divide that he saw as a youth living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  As an adult, he consciously participates in society by confronting racism he says is lived out, even among the well intentioned “non-racist”, by virtue of the white privilege paradigm.  Currently he co-organizes an urban farm and community space with two African American co-partners; together they are investing in their local community of North Philadelphia.


Crystal Forman, a Baltimore City Master Gardener and Founder of Holistic Healthy Living for All was another example of unity and healing through food justice.  She described her garden projects that use locally grown organic foods as a way to re-engage and re-spirit communities considered invisible by the broader society.  She offered that to change the current trajectory of isolation experienced by those who are marginalized we have to also consider that “Food sovereignty is important and culturally relevant food is also important.”

The group discussion expanded to include the consistently under-represented struggles of Native Americans.  There was a session dedicated specifically to the unifying messages that arose during the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  A youth voice from the Cherokee Nation, Cierra Lynn Fields, and organizer of the Native Youth Summit in Oklahoma shared that “Standing Rock, rooted in tribal sovereignty, was a Renaissance of Native Culture in response to the systemic trauma faced in boarding school of past generations where you were forced to change your language, name and look.” 


Eva Blake, Senior Director at Youth Build Green Initiative and Teacher in the Wôpanâak Reclaimation Project grounded the conversation by speaking to the cultural context.  She reminded the group that “The diverse convergence of Native people in Standing Rock was not new, but it was unique because it got the world’s attention. It also brought to light for many that water is inalienable – a concept inherent to Native in culture in which something is universal.  There is no ownership.”


Sharing observations from a recent meeting with representatives of 14 Native American nations in Moab, Utah, Bob Toth, Former Executive Director of the Merton Institute said, “The Western mind is anthropocentric, the Native mindset is Earth based.  When you try to understand the Native perspective with a Western mind, it doesn’t work.”  His comment helped to re-emphasize the personal responsibility one needs to take in analyzing habitual thinking that reinforce patterns that lead to disharmony and thwart progress toward societal wholeness.


The discussion of Standing Rock raised the widespread issues around indigenous injustice as well as Earth injustice, and much like the Native worldview, illustrated that you cannot separate man and nature.  The violence inflicted on man in society is also a direct manifestation of the conditions that create the violence acted out on nature by man.


Speaking to the importance of ritual and contemplative traditions in changing societal attitudes, Adam Bucko, a seminarian in training and Founder of the Reciprocity Foundation serving homeless youth in NYC said that Standing Rock was a sacred arising where people discovered again ritual, prayer, and tradition.  Reflecting on his friends on the ground during the protests in the Dakotas, he said “Everything that was happening was related to and shared in ancient practices.  There was leadership in Standing Rock that came from Native elders.  The specificity of the activities reoriented their activism.” 


The deepening discussion of Standing Rock offered a profound example of contemplative processes that support collective healing and transformation.  It inspired the group to consider how the unique gifts of spirituality could be available to a wider whole in future uprisings to help support intentions toward progress in the right way.  It also reinforced that transformation work has to address the micro and macro conditions.  The group suggested that activists and non-activists first take personal responsibility to confront oneself and then engage in the broader dialogue.  This type of healthy confrontation enables thinking to go deeper and gives birth to a new way of living, being and producing together.

Looking at examples of new ways forward, the program included thriving examples of actions in Charleston that promote greater human unity and balance with the earth.  One such effort is the Enough Pie organization addressing the displacement of a long-standing unified community presence in the Upper Peninsula.  Co-Founded by Cathryn Zommer, Enough Pie’s work uses creative art outlets, diversity inclusion, and raising the presence and profiles of local businesses original to the area to connect and empower an already thriving community from the pressures of gentrification. 


Another initiative was by Heather Lynn Mann, a contemplative ecologist and a new resident of Charleston.  She is raising awareness of the impact of rising tides, due to global warming, on the entire city.  Statistics state that 25% of the city could be under water all the time, based on the carbon already in the atmosphere.  If Charleston stops putting carbon into the atmosphere immediately, there is chance to save 50% of the city from flooding.  Her presentation echoed the reality that climate change will affect the most vulnerable first, but ultimately it will affect everyone.  Addressing the Restoring Wholeness program theme, Heather emphasized the importance of unification among those engaged in the process of combating environmental challenges.  She said, “We cannot fool ourselves that the fight for climate change is peaceful work because those who are opposed aren’t peaceful.  We have to be strategic.”

Reflecting on her work with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Earth Holder Sangha, she reminded us that if humanity adopted a plant based diet we would stop climate change in its tracks.  Few want to acknowledge that industrial farming of animals is one of the leading causes of climate change.  

The two day conversation also examined the purpose of interconnection in Restoring Wholeness. The analogy used to explain interconnection was that the body would not work if it were to look out only for the individual parts. The collective is constructed according to the same principles.  It doesn’t work if all parts are not considered, and thus the breakdown ecologically and societally that we see recurrently today. 


Lama Palden Drolma, Dharma teacher and the founder of the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, explained interconnection through the lens of spirituality.  She said that the aim of going inward is to work toward ego annihilation, where you do not see yourself separate from another or the greater Earth whole.  If individuals are successful in this process then ego desires, such as the subjugation, domination and power over the other has a greater chance of subsiding.  Ultimately, she offered, “Our only chance for happiness is to realize equality for all beings.” A reflection by Velma Union, a California pastor and community change agent highlighted that there is a palpable energy of love holding together the frequency of interconnection within the Earth community:

“Everything created is related.  Everything that exists is made up of the same chemicals.  Humanity has separated us.  Love works. We think we own things but we are stewards, even of each other.  There is a system and formula for everything.  It works when we are in it.  Let go and trust that that which is greater and better will do what it does.”


Interconnection at its core is best expressed by the South African wisdom of UBUNTU: I Am Because You Are.  Monique Schubert, a long time yogic practitioner and founder of OM Society articulated this when she described her vocational work as “Giving people skills to help heal themselves is what I feel I can do.” 

The gathering in its entirety surmised — be it confronting racial divides or stemming ecological degradation — that the key for the next stage of evolution is about stepping outside oneself and connecting to the greater whole in order to manifest the unity and harmony we seek, personally or collectively, in order to truly Restore Wholeness.


GPIW / The Contemplative Alliance will continue this conversation in New York in September.

If you are interested to join please contact us.

Global Peace Initiative of Women| 301 East 57th St., 4th Floor|  info@gpiw.org | www.gpiw.org