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.'
Now, perhaps more than ever, people are in need of Johnson Reagon's dignified defiance -- her stubborn insistence on forward motion. Not only because there's a need to speak out against the violence, injustice, and ineptitude that continue to spread across the globe with the heartless efficiency of an epidemic flu. But also because it's getting harder and harder to just get up and face our harried days and media-saturated nights with a smile, not to mention a sense of purpose.
On the following pages, we're hoping you'll find a person, an idea, or a cause that makes it just a little easier to find some calm in this chaotic world, a way to refuel for whatever journey awaits. And while the words that follow lack for musical accompaniment, we hope they will lift your spirit and fill your heart with song.