The Contemplative Activist: Transforming Charity

The Contemplative Activist: Transforming Charity

by Steven Bonsey

The Great Recession taught me something about working with the poor. The surge of human need created by the financial crisis tested the limits of my model of charity and broke through it. In the process, I learned something about the nature of solidarity and the beauty of song.

The downtown church that I served had been offering Monday Lunch on a “temporary” basis for almost thirty years. The program continues today, though wonderfully transformed.

Up until the crisis broke in 2008, teams of volunteers from suburban churches served a hot, nutritious meal to about sixty guests seated at tables in the basement hall of the church. All comers were fed; no one was turned away hungry; nothing was asked in return.

With the crisis, suddenly the numbers to be fed doubled, nearly tripled. I was frightened. Week after week, we ran low on food. More than that, I felt and feared the threat of violence. We were crowded into the basement, knocking into one another unawares as the plates of food took too long in coming. The frayed nerves and psyches of people living on the street—some for the first time in their lives—were further tested by our struggle to provide adequate hospitality.

I greeted guests entering the hall. They were neighbors whose names I didn’t know, and I wondered, should I be shutting the doors? Should I be assigning numbers and limiting service? Should I be hiring off-duty police, as some of the guests urged? What if someone gets hurt? Am I being negligent in allowing this chaos to continue? 

If I was right in sensing a threat of violence, I know now that I did not then understand its source. The manipulators of a criminally corrupt financial system certainly played their part, but there was another source of violence closer at hand but hidden from me. It was the way that our church was doing its good work. 

Violence, as I understand it, flows from the divided human heart. (The following discussion of violence draws on the work of René Girard, especially as interpreted in Christian theological works such as James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong.) When we fail to see the essential unity and inherent connection among living things, the desires of our hearts create division in the world, consciously or unconsciously. These divisions are responsible for much of the suffering on the planet. Ironically, when we set about with all good intentions to alleviate that suffering without first awakening to unity and connection, our efforts only reinforce the divisions that cause suffering.

Our desires are shaped by our perceptions, and our perceptions are typically formed by the thinking mind. It is the nature of the thinking mind to draw distinctions: subject vs. object, self vs. other, like vs. unlike, and so on. For instance, my thinking mind engages with my fears to divide the material world into what belongs to me and what does not. Since I can never possess enough to allay my fears, I see a world of scarcity. In such a world, more for the other can only mean less for me.

This kind of divisive thinking forms our view of the “real world” as a place of atomized conflict, each against the other. As a result, we seek deliverance from this chaos through the creation of a collective identity—the creation of a “we.”  The thinking mind then engages with our fears to divide human society into those who belong to me (and I to them) and those who do not. Collective identity, created by drawing a social boundary like this, brings the benefits of mutual commitment and shared interest and is cemented by loyalty. The collective may be a family, a gang, a community of faith, a social class, a race, a gender, a political movement, or another identity group. 

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In every case, when we construct a shared identity by erecting a social boundary, the inclusion implies exclusion. Someone must be put outside the circle; that is what gives the identity meaning. As such, who we are becomes defined by who we are not. 

The boundary also creates an enclosure within which peace and cooperation can reign. If we lose the safety of such walls, we risk a return to the atomized chaos of each of us against all others. 

Monday Lunch had functioned well, at least on its own terms, as long as the “guests” remained in their seats and allowed the staff and volunteers to serve them. With the increase in numbers to feed, this was no longer possible, and the situation at the time made me deeply uncomfortable. Either we needed to find a way to keep the guests in their places, or Monday Lunch, as we knew it, would have to come to an end.

Conventionally, we look to private generosity and the work of charitable institutions like church feeding programs to soften the harsh edges of the “real world.”  We look to the more affluent and influential to assuage the suffering of the less fortunate.  But conventional charity rarely transgresses our collective identities and social boundaries, and, therefore, it cannot break down the walls that separate us. Charity in this traditional way springs from the identities that keep us apart. Like violence, this kind of charity is rooted in a divided heart. It creates (or re-creates) division where it fails to see connection.

Violence and charity alike assign our social identities to roles in a fixed narrative, often the narrative of romance: the knight in shining armor slays the dragon that threatens the helpless, but grateful princess. The good volunteers of our church’s feeding program, out of the best of motives, played the role of knight battling the hunger that threatened our guests. This narrative, however, required that our neighbors play the role of helpless (but surely grateful!) victims.

The enactment required a mutual seduction. Hosts and guests seduced one another into the roles of the romance in order to meet short-term needs: Hungry people got fed, and church people felt needed, generous, and good. But as long as we confined ourselves to our roles, we could never truly come to know one another or enter into relationships that reflected our full humanity and our inherent interdependence across boundaries. This was the implicit violence built into our system. The romance of our feeding program had carried on with superficial success for many years, but under the stress of a crisis, the violence in which it was rooted threatened to surface.

We church folk might have seen this more clearly if we listened more deeply to our own scriptures. Jesus tells a parable that speaks of the violence the flows from a divided heart: 

A landowner went into the marketplace in the morning and then again at noon, at three o’clock, and at five o’clock to hire day laborers for his vineyard. He promised to pay a full day’s wage to all of them. 

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  Matthew 20: 8-15

We can easily understand why the laborers are offended. The payment scheme hardly seems fair. In our world of perceived scarcity, economic relationships are based on quid pro quo: we give value (of labor or goods) only in exchange for value. In our world of perceived rivalry, better terms of exchange for others feel like a loss for us. 

In sympathy with the laborers, we feel scandalized by the landowner who transgresses the bounds that should govern relations between employer and employee. Something within us grumbles at his generosity, and we are confronted by the envy in our divided hearts. In the typical jiu-jitsu of Jesus’s parables, our own violence upends and throws us.

Putting ourselves in the place of the laborers, can we imagine, in a spirit of abundance and connection, the story unfolding differently? Could we be grateful that the five o’clock crew (some of “us”!) received adequate provision for the day? Could we shout hurrah for the landowner (one of “us”!), who managed to include so many in the satisfaction of work and the security of a day’s pay? 

From the perspective of faith, the parable calls us to repent of our violence. It calls us to re-imagine the world and ourselves. It calls us to release the identities and narratives that divide us in order to act from the more sacred desire for unity, justice, and peace.

We cannot undo injustice from divided hearts. We cannot tear down the walls that hem “us” in and shut “them” out while we maintain inner violence and separation. The social identities that we cling to and the boundaries that enforce them inevitably prescribe limits to greater cooperation and create barriers to human development. Only the willingness to release ourselves from the prisons of our social identities and to find connection across boundaries can yield a world of greater belonging and abundance. And this willingness can only proceed from an undivided heart.

Our repentance is this movement from a divided to an undivided heart. This movement, in turn, requires a shift from the thinking mind to a higher mind. The desires of our divided hearts are conditioned by the fears and the perceptions of our thinking mind. Only the desires that spring from a higher mind of love and unitive consciousness can create the ground for nurturing an undivided heart. The nonviolent desires of an undivided heart are what will bear fruit in the form of unbounded solidarity and heartfelt generosity. 

As I faced the choice of what would be done for the future of Monday Lunch, I knew that I could not shut the doors, but I knew as well that we needed a new vision for our work. I had no sight of the new vision, but I felt in my gut that it would call us into deep and difficult changes for our own good. I knew that it would call us to repentance.

A skilled new colleague gave us the vision that we needed. She invited the guests to gather with staff for a Leadership Circle each week in the two hours before lunch was served. We learned one another’s names and shared news of what was happening on the streets of our neighborhood. We grieved our shared losses and celebrated our shared joys, and, over time, across the boundaries of “staff” and “guest,” we began to belong together.

We discussed how we would like to run the lunch program. All guests were invited, week after week, to have their say. With patience, we came to our decisions by consensus. We defined new practical roles such as “greeter,” “server,” and “pillar of peace.” All of the roles were open to anyone in the Leadership Circle. 

The changes did not come about smoothly. Loyal parish volunteers, for the best of reasons, found that the Leadership Circle meetings did not fit their schedules. Former guests, coming into the kitchen to help, were too ready to overrule the wisdom of longtime volunteers. Some functions fell between the cracks; others were oversubscribed. Most guests chose not to volunteer, and some volunteers stopped coming, assuming that their services were no longer needed. 

Changes did not come smoothly, but they came. In this way, the church began to share with its neighbors something even more valuable than food. As someone explained to me, if you are homeless in our city and need food, you can find it. If you need a blanket or clothes or healthcare, you can find them. But if you want an opportunity to serve others or to develop your leadership, well, that is hard to find.

The changes have borne fruit for us well beyond the transformation of the Monday Lunch program. The community created in the Leadership Circle gathers also on Tuesdays in an upper room to sit for an hour of silent meditation. Here, I believe, our work together is infused with the higher consciousness that nourishes undivided hearts and inspires work for solidarity and peace.

The community also gathers after lunch each Monday for sacramental worship. We clear the plates and forks and serving pans, sweep the floors, and spread one tablecloth. We gather chairs around and set the table with a cross, sacred vessels, and a consecrated collection of stuffed animals, trinkets, and souvenirs. We say prayers together, recite the 23rd Psalm, and read from the scriptures. One of the community members offers a homily, and all are invited to respond. We then share the bread and cup.

We also sing a bit, mostly “Amen” and “This Little Light of Mine.” I lead simple sacred chants with accessible tunes and repeated refrains. I close my eyes and listen to the other voices more than my own. Like fragrances, many voices can occupy the same space at the same time without cancelling each other out. If we sing gently, all voices can be heard. If we sing in unison, our voices become one. If we sing in harmony, all are welcome to choose their part.

Sacred chant guides me and our community of leaders faithfully on pilgrimage from our thinking mind into our opening hearts. In it, I sense the beauty of voices reconciled and the power of solidarity rooted in repentance. §


Steven Bonsey has worked as a parish priest and campus minister for the Episcopal Church. He studies with Cynthia Bourgeault and serves as Chaplain for the Leadership Development Initiative (diomassleads.org).