First, I must tell you that I am not a scholar. My language and technical terms are more from the street than from academia. I do not serve a traditional church and view my ministry as an interfaith, public, and hopefully prophetic one. I live and move and have my being in a little community of people called BeLoved Asheville in a small town in North Carolina. Three of us live together in intentional community, with a shared residence and in voluntary poverty with our neighbors in Asheville. The larger BeLoved community is a wonderful array of people from all walks of life who are building community with one another and sharing our skills, voices, and unique gifts to transform our city and world. We are working to cultivate a way of life rooted in creativity, community, and equity. Together, we are doing what Dorothy Day called “building a new world in the shell of the old.”
In my community at BeLoved Asheville, we are people directly affected by issues coming together and creating innovative solutions to our toughest challenges. We offer free healthcare anywhere via our first-in-the-nation Street Medic team, where homeless people are trained to medic those who often are the sickest and lack access to healthcare. We have a community art studio called Rise Up Studio where street and starving artists, as well as cultural artists and practitioners, can make art that reflects who we are. We are building our own deeply affordable microhomes that create equity so that local people will stop being pushed out. We do policy work on policing, homelessness, poverty, and racism. We are the first declared sanctuary in Western North Carolina. We teach youth their indigenous culture that is being stolen. We are people from the street helping with the free farmers’ market for elders. We are elders who knit hats and scarves for people on the street. We are undocumented people standing up for African Americans beaten by the police. We are Latinx people who cook traditional tamales to be shared for our Decolonize Thanksgiving celebration on Thanksgiving Day. We are people on the street who pack boxes of food, diapers, and Know Your Rights information for people trapped in their homes during ICE raids. And we are transgender people who speak out against the racist monument at the center of our city.
These little “experiments in truth” as Gandhi would call them, are where powerful change is already happening. At BeLoved, we would not call ourselves the religious left (though we are). We would call each other family because we know each other deeply and have each other’s backs. Seeing each other from every intersection as family and working together for change means we are creating a new possibility for the world.
Perhaps for this essay we might call ourselves the “religious left left.”
Recently, I attended a church gathering to talk about justice. A leader in my denomination had been brought in as an expert and led a group of us through a discussion of the struggles in Asheville. We easily completed his first task of defining the problems in our city. Everyone made the very long and accurate list. But when the second question came there was silence. How do we start to solve these issues? No one knew. I understood what that meant: the room had not made that second left. They cared. They knew injustice existed but they did not know the ground. They did not know people suffering from these problems. At BeLoved we know that people suffering through injustice know what they need but lack the tools and resources and the political will from the larger community to make the change. When we have not made that second left turn, when we have not gone to the ground to build community, we fail to be agents of change.
Many in the religious left have not made that second left turn. We talk a good game when it comes to justice, and yet our lives look almost synonymous with the dominant, consumerist culture. For too many of us, we live segregated lives of economic and/or white privilege. We do not know the ground or the people on the ground. Those suffering the injustices we talk so much about do not know us. And so the religious left is left impotent. We do not have what it takes to transform these death-dealing systems. But when we take the second left, and we build life together grounded, we become as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named a “new and unsettling force” for liberation.
In Spring 2019, we marched on the White House—clergy, leaders of conscience, and people hurt by oppression, united in love and issuing a prophetic moral indictment under the banner of Jeremiah 22: “Go to the royal palace and deliver this Message: Attend to matters of justice. Rescue victims from their exploiters” (Jeremiah 22:1-5). That day, Secret Service blocked us from the park where we had a permit and we were blocked from the White House by a fence that was erected. As we were leaving the park, two fighter jets flew over in “closed” air space. When people affected by poverty, anti-migrant policies, environmental injustice, and racism link arms with faith leaders who have deep relationships with the people on the ground; and when they together march and speak truth to power; and when they mean what they say (backed up by the way they live their lives), it shakes the system. This is deeply sacred/religious work.
I helped to lead a sit-in at our police station when an African American man, Jerry Jai Williams (#SayHisName), was shot and killed by the police in our city. We ended up being in the station for thirty hours and were eventually arrested. As we sat for all those hours, a young anarchist asked if they could talk to me. I said, “Of course, what would you like to talk about?” They said, “Something strange is happening to me and I don’t know what it is.” “Can you describe it?” I asked. And they did in vivid detail. “Oh,” I said, “you are having an experience of the divine. I have deeply felt that here too. We are on holy ground because of our actions here.”
Even as many US mainline churches are closing their doors, an awakening is happening on the ground. There is an unmistakable experience of the divine on the ground with the people doing the sacred work of justice.
The “religious left left” is rising. It is bubbling up from small communities on the ground like BeLoved and thousands of others. It threatens the hollow claims of the religious right who bless nationalism, racism, militarism, and the epidemics of poverty, homelessness, and environmental destruction. The religious left left tears off the mask America has been wearing since its inception and offers a different way, a way that is true democracy. If we are going to have a real transformative movement, it must be grounded and spring from deep intersectional community located there. It must involve the ground of our beings, sacred and holy. The religious left left is a powerful hope for an America that we have never seen. An America that we can, on this sacred ground, build together.