Are We Cells in a Mystical Body? Center Update 2018

December 24th, 2018

As many of you know, I am a social justice geek. I compulsively read and think about social movements, and have been doing this for a long time, and am now considered a specialist in the field commonly referred to as civil resistance. And one thing I especially love is statistics. We can learn a lot about the past, the present, and future possibilities by looking at social movements in this way. And one of the people I admire the most is a woman who has out-geeked me in this area. She’s a statistician and academic who specializes in civil resistance, and a professor of political science at the University of Denver. Her name is Erica Chenoweth, and she has become a friend of mine and the Center for the Working Poor over the years.

In her doctoral work, and in her book, Why Civil Resistance Works, Professor Chenoweth showed her particular geeky genius by putting together by far the largest database from across the globe of popular movements trying to overthrow dictators and colonial governments. And the data showed that, during the years she studied, 1900 to 2006, non-violent movements were twice as successful in achieving their goals — an exciting discovery. One of the great things that Professor Chenoweth has done recently is to apply a quantitative perspective to every single protest movement that’s happening in the US right now, via the Crowd Counting Consortium. Quantitatively, she has demonstrated that right now we’re in an unparalleled time of movement activity, where an unprecedented number of people are active, with an estimated 5.9 to 9 million people protesting in 2017, or 1.8 to 2.8 percent of the population. Which might not seem like a lot, but her research shows that 3.5 percent sustained engagement is what is needed for successful movement outcomes.

Following the 2016 elections there has been an upsurge in protests in this country, about more issues, that have engaged more and different and new people. From the airport protests to support Muslim refugees and immigrants in the wake of the Trump administration ban, to the #metoo movement that has dramatically changed people’s perception of sexual violence, or the movement led by the Parkland students after the massacre in Florida that has finally created grassroots power to oppose gun violence, with hundreds of thousands of people marching.

But the biggest day yet has been the Women’s March, the largest day of protest in American history, with more than 4 million participants, that arose out of grassroots protest groups like Indivisible and Women’s Huddles, to created an estimated 10,000 small groups around the country to form what is now considered the resistance movement, which we at the Center have been just a little part, one of the 10,000. And we have shown up to many of those protests.

But out of all this protest activity, the greatest part was centered around the midterm elections, with unprecedented grassroots mobilization that included historically underrepresented groups, particularly among Latinos, whose voter participation surged 174 percent from the 2014 midterms, and among voters aged 18 to 29, who saw an increase of 188 percent. And even the energy of the people in our house was directed into that. And this has led to the largest flip in the House of Representatives that has happened since Watergate, with Democrats flipping 40 seats, and the largest midterm popular vote margin in the history of the country (8.8 million votes). And this will have an enormous impact on some very practical things, for hundreds of millions of people. Further GOP attacks on the social safety net, from health care to Social Security to food stamps, will now be nearly impossible to pass.

Throughout this recent resistance movement, there has been a heated debate: what is the movement’s role in changing the world? Is it to protest and disrupt? Is it to hold politicians accountable at town hall meetings? Is it to vote them out of office and knock on doors to get people to vote? And these strategic tensions have flooded out from insider strategic discussions behind closed doors into the streets and even into our living rooms — even into our living room at the Center, where we hold our weekly centering prayer meeting for our community. And it’s gotten me reflecting not just on what we should do as a resistance movement, as Americans, but as member of the Center for the Working Poor and the work I am called to do, running this nonprofit organization, which, I may add, is a 501c3 nonprofit org that does not endorse any political candidates. And to be honest, this has been a huge tension within the Center since its conception. Some might even call it an identity crisis.

Nothing explains so well the tension and conflict about our identity as the the actual name, the Center for the Working Poor, which is what we are most commonly referred to as. When I started the Center, I traveled all around to different intentional communities, mostly Catholic Worker communities, and ecovillages, like Eco Village LA, and I asked the question, and tried to use these beautiful models that have managed to survive and grow through the difficulties of living in a radically different way, against the norm. I fasted and prayed, read and reflected on models throughout history, like the Franciscans, the New Monastics, and the United Farm Workers, and I realized that what I wanted was a house that could hold a radical journey of transformation that was spiritual, that connected people, that reflected my own journey as a Christian contemplative, but included people with different mystical journeys towards God, in what was loosely called “interfaith,” and that we were going to be both committed to that personal transformation in ourselves, and building a community of deep personal growth and investment in each other, as well as social action. I saw Gandhi and Jesus as the model. I saw the Center as a way of integrating the social justice journey that I had been on in my community organizing around living wages and rights for hotel and restaurant workers with my personal work in sustaining spiritual practice in community. To summarize, the Center was going to be a home for both contemplation and action.

Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith social justice organization in LA was our first fiscal sponsor, and served as a model for how to think both about action and contemplation. So I asked the executive director, Alexia Salvatierra, what would be a good name for this new community? And she, a Lutheran minister, who reads her bible often, suggested the symbol of the burning bush. Instantly, it rang true for me, such an amazing symbol of direct mystical contact with God, of the personal transformation that Moses went through, having a direct experience of God in the burning bush that led directly to his call to revolution, leading the Jewish people out of slavery, into liberation in the promised land. It was a symbol embraced by many faiths, the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity all embraced the revolutionary story of Moses and the symbol of the burning bush, and even Buddhists could relate to the idea of an eternal fire that is impermanent, as a symbol for God. It seemed that God had spoken. Without any testing in my own community, any feedback or discussion, Clayton and I, who at the time had no money and were eating rice and beans and sleeping on the floor, found one of Clayton’s relatives who donated thousands of dollars of time to help us create a beautiful logo representing the image of a burning bush ,which we thought was going to be the symbol of our community.

And we sent out a newspaper to hundreds and hundreds of our friends, announcing our name and presenting our logo, and instantly we realized something was very very wrong. First, our community was made up of many different people, many of who were not Bible readers. Probably most of them. Even the workers who we were serving food to did not associate the name Burning Bush with what I thought was a well-known biblical story. Rather, for most people at the time, in 2006, it viscerally evoked the idea of burning the President of the US, and the most common question we got was: Why do you believe we should burn the President? Even the artwork did not make it clear what exactly was being burned. To make matters worse, we were a new organization and when anyone would type in “burning bush” on google, they would find a plethora of porn sites instead of a nonprofit serving the poor.

Like many organizations, we had separate names for our community and the non-profit programs that we were running out of our community to support workers fired for organizing and being whistleblowers and fighting for their rights in the workplace. The latter we had called the Center for the Working Poor. And because people were so annoyed about the confusion with the community’s name, everyone started referring to it as the Center for the Working Poor. Our community’s struggle with how to incorporate contemplation and action has come up again and again between people who are invested primarily in community building and personal transformation and people who are invested in creating social change, whether in protesting or elections. This has been a central confusion and tension in our community, reflected even in our name.

This conflict has existed throughout human history, throughout the history of social movements, and all those different movements that Erica Chenoweth writes about have had those tensions. It was there in the early days of the civil rights movement, when the black church who was so committed to changing people’s lives and providing mutual aid and personal support for black people in the Jim Crow era was in tension with a movement challenging them to participate in politics, to march and protest and disrupt, and to risk even the lives of what became dozens of martyrs, and four young girls who were bombed by racist southerners in Alabama.

In our community, often the people that want to invest in prayer and meditation and personal growth are in tension with those who are primarily invested in social justice and resistance work. We have had many debates at our house about how many activist meetings we want in our living room, while some of us want to pray or just watch “Gilmore Girls” together there.

Although it’s created great confusion and tension, as Dorothy Day says, “the only solution is love.” The Christian mystics talked about the diversity of the early Christian movement as a mystical body of Christ, in which we’re all different and unique parts of the same body. But to make the body work, there needs to be a relationship, a commitment bound in love. These conflicting calls to contemplation and action can become healthy tension, can become nourishing diversity. As with all the different organs in a body.

Conversely, cancer is such an interesting metaphor for individualism. When cells turn against the body, when they stop listening to the guiding principles of the DNA that unites and coordinates them in their distinct roles within the body, they become obsessed with reproducing their own agenda, in conflict with the body. That, in the end, kills the body. And kills the cancer which needs the body to survive.

Instead, I believe our movements will flourish if we adopt an ecological perspective. The field of ecology, which we can remember only 60 years ago was seen as a revelation, teach us that, instead of species fighting against each other for survival, in a narrow concept of survival of the fittest, where the strong dominate the weak, the world we live in is a dynamic interplay, in which life and death and competition are in harmony to create a healthy ecosystem in which all species can flourish and evolve together.

But it’s sometimes confusing when you’re a cell in the body. It can be hard to see the complexity of the body that you’re swimming in. If you’re an insect, it’s hard to see the ecology that allows you to survive when being eaten by birds. It’s hard to see that the tension in our living rooms can lovingly develop us so that we can be more wholly human. That we can be a more integrated part of God’s body. You might have to change your name. You need activist meetings AND the Gilmore Girls, prayer and action. But for us at the Center, and for me especially, that tension has allowed me to survive. It’s given me new life.

And part of that ecology that’s seldom noticed or not enough is that we depend on a relationship with a diversity of people, both social justice people and spiritual people, that are our friends and supporters, and without them our body would not survive. And if you believe in the work of the Center or Burning Bush community, whatever you want to call it, please donate to us this holiday season. Thank you.

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