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BLOOM: Homegrown Spiritual Movement

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Manju Rajendran, Isabell Moore
Date Published: 
January 01, 2008
    Ask most progressive activists and organizers to characterize this moment and you will hear about gloom (How can this man actually be president?) and doom (This war has no end. Our use of environmental resources is killing the planet). But writer, biologist, and UBUNTU activist Kriti Sharma, emphasizes this suggestion, “Even on the eve of the end of the earth, plant a tree.” (Musnad Ahmad, Hadith). Accordingly, while there is doom and gloom (or even because of these two circumstances) there must also be bloom: growth, life, celebration, and beauty sustained by deep faith and critical hope.

This is not an obvious point. Many of us working on the Left are informed by Marxist, Anarchist, and other revolutionary traditions that focus on the role religious institutions have played in distracting oppressed people from their material conditions and maintaining capitalism, patriarchy, hierarchy, and dominance. We draw cynical conclusions about the potential of spirituality or religion—or ourselves—to build a just world, and we see the role that many faiths and institutions have played in reinforcing or justifying state power.

“The religious right appropriated the name and the institution of the spirit-based movement for justice, they captured it and wrestled it to the ground in order to put a different spirit out there. They wedged, split, and promoted domination by a small minority. They are going exactly the opposite way under the rubric of religion in a way that violates the deepest meanings of spirit and faith. We can’t allow it to be done. We have to try to create an alternative because it’s so deceptively false, and because it’s the right thing to do,” says the Reverend Nelson Johnson.

This section asserts that faith does not have to be either “false consciousness” deluding us into complacency or fear-based conservatism. Faith, used intentionally, can be one essential resource that allows us to sustain our action to create a world that is radically different than the one we are now surviving. The vectors of faith that we have named in the title of this section “religion” and “spirituality” have complicated relationships to each other and to our work. They are not interchangeable, they are not opposites and they are not necessarily companion terms, nor can either stand alone. While we have not arrived at strict definitions of “religion” and “spirituality,” we use both terms to gesture towards the places that we find our sustenance and faith.

Some of us access our spirits through a particular religious tradition. Some of us engage in spiritual practice that has not been institutionalized or validated as “religion” in the US landscape, but nonetheless draws on traditions that have evolved over centuries. Some of us engage critically with established religions, seeking to transform institutional norms and access faith at the same time. Some of us are involved in particularly libratory strains of dominant religions. Some of us work with our ancestors to develop spiritual practices on our own terms. Some of us bravely inhabit and represent religious traditions that have been demonized and slandered by the Religious Right. Some of us read what Audre Lorde and Che Guevara say about love as scripture to guide our spirits through struggle.

The three of us, all organizers living and working in the South for most of our lives, and currently all living in North Carolina, find our faith and our growth planted in this southern soil. We offer this piece, based on conversations with faith-full folks in our lives, as witness to spirituality and religion as resources for (and challenges to) movement building in the South, especially North Carolina, with the hope that it resonates for organizers in other regions of the United States.

National murmurs

There are increasing murmurs nationally toward welcoming spirituality and religion into Left spaces, and a growing faith-based radical movement. In the words of Stone Circles co-directors Claudia Horwitz and Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, “We are moving toward a doing that grows more deliberately out of being; an understanding that freedom from external systems of oppression is dynamically related to liberation from our internal mechanisms of suffering.” Examples abound. At the SisterSong “Let’s Talk About Sex” May 2007 national conference in Chicago, women and trans people participated in large opening and closing spiritual ceremonies involving invocation of God(desse)s and ancestral spirits. At the first US Social Forum in June 2007, a Healing and Spiritual Practice Tent was one of the hubs of activity, hosting well-attended workshops, ceremonies, and therapeutic sessions. Kaliya Hamlin of Integrative Activism in Berkeley maintains a directory of over 300 programs and organizations connecting spiritual and religious practice with movement work.

Vimala Rajendran, a devout Christian from a liberation theology perspective, and one of the co-founders of community access station The People’s Channel in Chapel Hill, says she feels more religious and spiritual people are leaning to the left lately, and more progressive people are turning to spirituality. “People are realizing that spirituality goes hand in hand with works on earth. Personal stories are showing them that we don’t have to be on our own. There is a force out there greater than ourselves, which is also inside of those who seek.”

Transformative interventions

Many of the spiritually based activists, organizers, and community builders we spoke to saw spirituality as a key intervention into the often toxic culture that hurts us as individuals and invades our movement customs. They told us that their practices of faith had potential to be both personally healing and transformative of movement culture.

“The reason we are learning how to heal, by practicing on ourselves is because our movement needs healing,” says Nia Wilson, executive director of SpiritHouse. She describes the basic spirituality sustaining her work and healing as a belief in “first breath”. In Alex’s Story, an audio record of her journey of healing from sexual assault, she says, “Our first breath is divine. It is who we really are. Healing means honoring that first breath. We can always get in touch with our purpose for living.”

Purpose and spirit are central to the work of SpiritHouse, which uses art, self-expression and resource distribution to affirm the bodies, minds, and spirits of Durham’s black communities. In all their innovative programs, they use spiritual and healing practices to create a space where “our whole selves are safe and held.” Wilson and other members of the organization see this spiritual work as more and more necessary in a progressive movement characterized by burnout, exhaustion and pain.

For Afiya Carter, former director of the Weaver Street Community center in a public housing community, and current special events coordinator for W.D. Hill Community Center, both in Durham, spirituality provides a needed critique to the norms of movement culture. She remembers getting involved with local activism as a young mother and realizing “there was no place for kids to go.” Meetings that swallowed up what she calls her “hard earned time” and offered neither food, nor childcare, nor any other form of nurturing seemed to guarantee that working-class people would be excluded.

Carter, a practicing Muslim since her early childhood, was taught that the Prophet Mohammed married enslaved, disabled, and otherwise shunned women to prove that all people were worthy of respect and love. She was taught that according to Islamic law, women were never to be considered the property of men and that the education and freedom of women was the measure of a strong community. Her grandparents’ belief in religious diversity gave her a “broadened sense of who was in the world and who was valid,” and taught her that difference is a requirement for organizing. Afiya’s spirituality leads her to create community events that include centering the needs of mothers and children and embrace the complexity of communities in the making.

Spiritual practice can also transform our erotic selves and bring erotic spiritual energy into our movements. Calling her speech at the 2007 SisterSong Reproductive Justice Conference “testimony to those who have lost their bodies and lives in our communities through being commodified, criminalized, sexualized, colonized, and stigmatized,” Cara Page, creator of Deeper Waters and national director of the Committee for Population, Women and the Environment, invoked countless unknown ancestors as well as one specific ancestor, Audre Lorde. “When we are able to be sexual voluntarily and consensually we are able to have the freedom of choosing to receive touch and to give it, to receive energy and life and to give it, to possibly even receive love and transform it.” So creating community requires understanding our own relationships to life, energy, and love in the face of social and physical death.

Caitlin Breedlove, co-director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG) notes that since she and co-director Paulina Hernandez have turned the organization over to their deep faith in the queer working-class people of color communities that they are building, “things just started to go right with SONG.” Breedlove notes that working in a community committed to her whole spirit makes her less susceptible to burnout because she understands that she is valued through a long-term love relationship, not the need for immediate results. While many organizations focus on being against, “We can organize around longing,” Breedlove testifies, “We can organize around love.” Breedlove and co-director Paulina Hernandez envision their upcoming organizing schools as “revivals,” not as extended workshops or places for skill-accumulation, but rather as ways to “ignite the kindred,” to wake up our souls.

History and tradition

While spiritual and religious based movements may look “new” to some, many of the organizers who blessed us with stories draw on spiritual teachings that they recognize as historically rooted strategies for the survival of oppressed people. When asked whether he sees a major “increase” in spiritual and religious organizing in the South, Russell Herman—who coaches organizations and organizers to strengthen movement-building across North Carolina—says, “I’m not prepared to say there’s a big increase, if you take a 50-100 year span. I do see more religious language being used in contexts where I didn’t see it, oh, 20 years ago maybe—but I wouldn’t call that faith-based movement work. One factor is an unconscious adoption of the religious tone of the current mainstream society. And then sometimes there’s a deliberate attempt to use the mainstream language to communicate with people who are most used to that language. For some organizers, that is their language.”

Many organizers also told us that they purposefully both draw on and update traditional practices to strengthen their organizing. Omisade Burney of Anansi Productions, a consulting organization based in Durham, explains, “I believe in the interconnectedness of spirituality and activism and the mighty and righteous work of indigenous leaders tethered to ancestral imperatives in local communities and small organizations.” Burney tells us this intersection of spiritual grounding and movement has a long history in communities of color, from Yoruba, an African-based spiritual practice based on the belief that ancestors communicate and look after those of us living in the present, to the theology of elders from the civil rights era.

Black christian churches are perhaps the best known—though not the only—originators of spirit-based movements in the Southeastern United States. Many organizations drawing on African-American and working-class traditions of struggle in the South are currently involved with challenging the mainstream appropriation of religious spaces as havens for conservative, anti-worker, homophobic, and anti-feminist values through a faith in the present potential of Southern communities.

In Greensboro, the Beloved Community Center (BCC), draws on Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of beloved community and “works towards social and economic relations that affirm and realize the equality, dignity, worth, and potential of every person.” Reverend Nelson Johnson, one of the founders of the group, started his activism as a student liberal integrationist, then was a Black power advocate, next a pan-Africanist, then a labor organizer and student of Marxism, and is now a is a pastor of Faith Community Church. “We are all spiritual and everything is spiritual. Spirit is inherent in being. Through all my different periods as an organizer, I was driven by a sense of spirit.”

Johnson and the BCC work closely with Word and World, a Greensboro-based national organization that draws the theological work of Black civil rights leaders into the present. Word and World, a popular education school committed to reinventing theological practice for social justice, practices biography as theology, literally reading the lives of activist leaders as the work of God, and therefore as scripture to build faith for movement in the present. As they plan their next school to focus on the life of Audre Lorde, Word and World refuses to translate theological work into nostalgia for the past, or a conservative view of the present. They exemplify a tradition-based but future-oriented theological practice of community embrace that resonates with the work of the Washington, DC-based Al-Fatiha Foundation (see organizational profiles).

At their most recent school in July of 2007, Word and World partnered with the Beloved Community Center and the Southern Faith Labor and Community Alliance (SFLCA) in a focus on economic justice and issues effecting North Carolina workers. Founded in 2005 in Greensboro, the SFLCA framing document, authored by the Reverends Nelson Johnson and J. Herbert Nelson, states, “We believe that Dr. King’s theological understanding that ‘unearned suffering is redemptive’ speaks to the rich treasure of suffering born out of slavery and Jim-Crowism. This treasure can flow into a transformative movement with work and labor at its center.”

They make it clear from the beginning, “From the perspective of faith, the South has reflected the dual trend of progressive, relevant theology on the one hand and backward, negative theology on the other hand. Since the Reconstruction period, the South has exerted a disproportionate negative impact on national priorities, including the refusal to uphold the dignity of work and value of those who carry it out on a day to day basis.”

The religious right and even some liberal Christians have traditionally interpreted all faith journeys as striving towards the afterlife, trying to earn a place in an always future heaven. But Beloved Community Center, SFLCA, and Word and World all are organizations that challenge this notion. Johnson asks, “How can we continue on the vocation of becoming more human? It’s different than just trying to get to heaven. Most people think you have to suffer on this earth, then leave to get to heaven, but Jesus is trying to help you make heaven here.” Faith-based movements are thoughtfully drawing on deep tradition while bravely shaping that tradition in new ways to aid in liberation as they forge a path forward.

Challenges forward

Stories of transformative faith and rooted spiritual traditions were not all we heard. We also received words of caution by many connected to this burgeoning movement. Growth is a complex process, embattled and facilitated by environmental factors at every turn. Johnson explains, “A theologian once said the best place for God to hide is in a church. I sometimes think the best place for God to hide is in religion. Religion is both a place to trap the spirit, and a potential place to release it. We must recognize that it has potential to trap the spirit if we want to be able to use religion to release spirit.”

Rishi Awatramani, recent transplant to North Carolina and participant in the Buddhist Sanctuary program for activists and organizers (see organizational profiles) also points out that spiritual practice is not above commodification, noting that “The commodification of Eastern religion as Western spirituality has given rise to a Spiritual Wellness Industry, and movement activists and organizers in the US consume spiritual widgets, much like the rest of society. The conversation of spirit and self-care is not in itself wholly organic to the movement, and reflects movement-building deficiencies as much as it reflects the echo of capitalism reverberating throughout civil society.” Awatramani practices a focused spiritual love within his community while maintaining a larger systemic analysis that applies to the dynamics of movement building.

When asked why people he knows organize in religious spaces, Russell Herman answers, “The main strands of that thinking seems to be that religion—and here [in North Carolina], mostly Christianity—is a main influence on the thinking of the public, therefore it’s useful to have your ideas be available in that venue, and if possible, promoted in that venue.” Herman warns about the danger of elevating religion and spirituality to the point that they seem to be the only contexts for human connection. This could not only leave people with out explicit spiritual practice out of the conversation but also limit our awareness of tools we can use to transform movements.

Herman also notes, however, that churches are also strategic resources for movement building. “People are there. You go where the people are. And some people share the belief—since they are there anyway, they organize there. Some people’s analysis tells them that it’s a key element of society that needs to be organized...In certain sectors of society churches are one of the few economically autonomous institutions that are somewhat democratic.”

Awatramani challenges, “Where do we remember that it is people’s (real and perceived) relationship to ownership that more often than not determines their compulsion to rise up, how much of their heart they give of themselves? The time has come, I believe, to understand the true class character of the non-profit sector and of the spiritual activism networks in order to best understand why old limitations persist and new trends have emerged within our movement-to-be.” While spirituality, religion and faith may provide strength to movements, we must not see them as a catch-all, fix-all that will suddenly make everything work.

While Awatramani’s spiritual practice has strengthened his movement work and relationships, he warns us not to allow faith in spiritual practice to make every challenge of struggle a measure of our failure to approach divinity, “Let’s not forget...that our movement suffers not just because we’re not spiritual enough in our work, but also because we toil in the belly of the beast, with few successes, and no movement...yet.”

It is these challenges that inspire us to make the work of spiritual and religious organizations and organizers visible in this special section, to spark a conversation within the Left about how we can critically love religious and spiritual traditions, plant deeper faith, and produce creative energy in our movement. And bloom.

About the Authors

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a member of SONG, UBUNTU, and SpiritHouse and is the founder of Broken-Beautiful Press ( Feel free to contact Alexis at alexispauline(at)

Manju Rajendran is a 27-year old Desi based in Durham, North Carolina. Her mama is Christian, her papa is Hindu, and she’s just saucy. She is a proud member of UBUNTU, SONG, and the Not Your Soldier advisory board. Holla: manju.rajendran(at)

Isabell Moore is a 27-year old white chick based in Greensboro, where she is proud to be involved with Cakalak Drum Corps, Southerners On New Ground, the Fund for Democratic Communities and the Leadership and Empowerment Institute. She is currently an MA student in Women and Gender Studies at UNC-Greensboro. Contact her at zed(at)

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