On Thursday November 18, 2021 I traveled to Brunswick, GA along with eleven other Jewish clergy to bear witness and offer support to the Black pastors, the community and family members gathering at the Glynn County courthouse during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, 25, was shot while going for a run in a suburban neighborhood. The chase and shooting were caught on video footage. Local rabbi and IJS Hevraya (alumni) member Rachael Bregman invited Jewish clergy to join her in Brunswick to bring spiritual comfort, solidarity, and to support the local community.
When I heard the call, my immediate response was YES. I don’t live there now, but I grew up in Georgia. While there are many parts of my upbringing in the South that I appreciate, I also find that when I walk on Georgia earth, I feel horror that any large tree I see might have borne “strange fruit”, a phrase referring to the 1937 song likening the many Black people lynched in the south to fruits hanging from trees. When I learned of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, I became nauseous. The same nausea I feel when the stirrings of “strange fruit” move through my body when I am on Georgia soil.
Reflecting now, I ask myself: what motivated my discernment to participate in this action? What enabled me to stand with others for the long hot hours, awaiting Reverend Sharpton’s arrival for the prayers and calls for justice? And what inspires me now, looking ahead? I noted several things.
First, years of regular spiritual practice have shaped my heart, mind, and my nervous system so that my soul and my body could move in sync throughout this journey after my initial response was to participate.
Additionally, years of contemplative daily prayer have forged in me the language for feeling myself part of something larger than my individual body and ego mind. The injustice around me is an affront to the God Who lives in me and in all of us. There is no difference between me and another human soul. This clarity strengthened my conviction to study and learn about the history and prevalence of racism in the USA, and further forged in me the clarity that I cannot stand idly by and look away from the suffering around me.
Likewise, regular mindfulness meditation practice helps me pay attention to emotions, thoughts, sensations, be they pleasant or unpleasant, and bear witness to them with less reactivity. No doubt, the years sitting in meditation helped me stand steady and more open, as strong emotions such as grief, rage, and the physical discomforts of thirst and heat were blazing all around on the courthouse lawn and steps.
Years of yoga and somatic practices enabled me to stay grounded in my body, and to center my attention on the bodies around me. When I noticed that many Black pastors and others crowding together in the hot sun, were sweating and seemed to be suffering in the heat, I registered that in my consciousness–rather than pass over that recognition as I focused on “important” matters. Because I noticed, I could enlist colleagues and together we located cartons of water bottles (that would have been discarded), and carried them to the courthouse steps where we distributed the hydration to Arbery family members, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others. Had I not been transformed through years of body-centered spiritual practice, I would not likely have paid attention and been able to help serve those I prayed to be of support to on that day.
Lastly, twenty years of practice in spiritual direction have formed in me the desire to look for God’s presence in whatever is unfolding around and inside me. Pausing to listen for the sacred in the chants or see the sacred in the signage or in the faces of those I looked upon, and to listen to the stirrings in my own spirit as I moved through the day, I could better sustain an intention of remembrance: remember I am bearing witness to God’s presence here today, in every human being I encounter. Seeking the face of the divine, my heart remained more open and less at the mercy of my own preferences, judgments and opinions in that volatile and fractured situation.
Looking ahead, though I am wary about the implications of this and other trials, I believe even more strongly that spiritual practices can help bring clarity, insight, and strength as well as the capacity to remain soft and open, willing, more hopeful, and to bear witness from loving intention. The practices also cultivate the potential to stand our ground, and to notice where suffering might be attended to. Perhaps you, too, might take stock of how your spiritual practices equip you to meet the present moments in your life when you might feel called to respond and engage.
May we each be empowered through our practices to meet what is ours to meet, so that together we might bring blessing and love, advocacy and change, right where, when, and how it is needed most.