Calm in the Chaos

Find inner peace, then take it outside

| January / February 2006

This article is part of a package on inner peace. For more, read  A Conversation with Robert Gass & Nina Utne ,  The Power of Purpose ,  Spirited Dissent and  Tell Me More .

Bernice Johnson Reagon, the author and civil rights leader who founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, sat down in October with progressive pundit Tom Hayden to talk about spirituality, religion, and keeping the faith.

The panel discussion, convened as the California sun set on the last day of the 16th annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, began -- as did many of the sessions at the three-day event for solution-oriented environmental activists -- with a laundry list of discouraging, daunting trends. A powerful new alliance is forming between the Vatican and American neoconservatives, Hayden said; fundamentalists are dragging local public school boards into a border skirmish between church and state; and 'faith,' the very thing that fueled the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s, is once again being brandished to stifle dissent.

Just when it sounded like we'd already rounded a corner with no return, though, the conversation moved to a higher, more hopeful ground, a shift in tone that also seems to come naturally at this annual celebration of community and practical change. Johnson Reagon stood, strolled to the edge of the stage, and led some 100 scientists, scholars, policy wonks, and hippies in song: a spiritual from the old school originally conceived to rattle the rafters and jump-start the soul.

There had been no talk about how to take back organized religion. There was no discussion of doctrine, no calls for a nondenominational revolution. There would be plenty of time for that during the Q&A. Johnson Reagon's exercise was more primal. She just wanted to stoke the crowd's collective fire. And in just a verse, by simply getting the crowd to momentarily access its guts, she transformed a group of embattled individuals, many of them sitting by themselves and feeling very alone, into an empowered community, ready to join hands and stand up for what was right, no matter the odds or consequences.

For Johnson Reagon, organized religion, like party politics, is a rigged game where winning is often more important than being right (or left). Whereas spirituality and activism, no less than truth and justice, are all about faith. 'The only thing you know is that you're standing here,' she told the crowd, after someone asked her about the meaning of that loaded word. 'I will either be free or be dead. But I will not stay here. I will be somewhere else. I will not stay standing here. And then you start.'

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