by David A. Leslie
EDITORS NOTE: When The Commons learned about the Rothko Chapel’s project relating spirituality and social justice, we were excited to find ways to connect. After all, our organizations share a number of related interests in interreligious work, the arts and education, and the ongoing work for justice. We are delighted to share here several works by the cohort at the Rothko Chapel. Below, the Chapel’s director, David Leslie offers and introduction to the work that contributors did. In other pages (links below), cohort members contributed their own work.
Shortly before we observed the Rothko Chapel’s 50th anniversary in 2021, we launched a multi-year project that we hoped would help us better understand what it means to be spiritual these days, in both religious and non-religious contexts. In discussions across various sectors, we sought to explore how spirituality, however defined, influences contemporary social-change movements and how the Chapel can best engage an expanding environment of spiritual, political, religious and social expectations. Our deeper understanding, we hoped, would influence the Chapel’s future public programming, educational offerings and training initiatives.
For an institution that affirms the relationship between spiritual grounding and the unwavering commitment to social justice, the questions we sought to answer and the issues we engaged were vital in the long-haul struggle for civil and human rights. In our 50-plus years of existence, we have come to understand that spirituality is the bond between the vexing social issues that confront us in our daily lives and the transcendent questions that define us as human beings.
Through the generous support of The Henry Luce Foundation Theology and Religion Program, we were able to organize a cohort of activists, artists, religious leaders and academics to help us grapple with issues that are vital to the ongoing work of the Chapel. Each member brings to the ongoing discussion unique approaches and a diversity of awareness and understanding about how spirituality and social change intersect.
Members of the cohort are:
* Elia Arce, Costa Rican conceptual/performance artist
* Ash-Lee Woodard-Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research Camp and Education Center
* John H. Vaughn, executive pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.
Is it possible to create a space where people whose perceptions of spirituality differ — religious, spiritual but not religious, non-religious but spiritual — can deliberate and work together on critical social justice issues? Do Black Lives Matter, LGBTQI+, climate equity, criminal justice reform efforts and other contemporary social movements consider spirituality an integral part of their work? (If the answer is yes, how does spirituality manifest itself?) How do individuals or groups of individuals working in concert discover and foster the spiritual, interpersonal, existential and inter-community resources needed to sustain effective social-change efforts? How can religiosity and secularity within the context of social justice organizing be held in creative and productive tension?
Those are a few of the knotty questions that have emerged during our ongoing dialogue sessions. Although the cohort’s work won’t be finished until June 2023, answers are beginning to emerge, both through our sessions and community outreach. We have come to understand, for example, that “justice” and “spirituality” are not readily defined. Real differences exist in our understanding and awareness of the concepts. In light of that fact, we must create an environment that nurtures a deeper understanding of differences, rather than rushing in the name of comity to reduce everything to the “lowest common denominator” or “uncritical common ground.”
We have become more aware of the need to create places and opportunities to come together and to learn from each other. Whether they represent different academic disciplines, different communities or regions of the country or different religious and secular viewpoints, the differences represent opportunities for social justice movements to learn, to expand, to understand. “Mediating institutions” such as the Chapel have a vital role to play in creating such opportunities.
We’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the role of art in its diverse mediums as an expression of ultimate meaning. It sustains the spirit, even as it conveys key messages and information within social movements.
We’ve also reached consensus on the need for organizations committed to the “art of social change” to regularly assess and analyze their efforts to encourage inclusion and community engagement, keys to their effectiveness. The organization’s infrastructure, its leadership style and its community approaches might need periodic adjustment. Times change; so do circumstances. Just because standard practice was effective yesterday is no guarantee of continued success.
Finally, we’ve come to appreciate more than ever the need to listen to one another’s experiences and to foster understanding. With angry, divisive rhetoric the rule rather than the exception these days, nothing could be more vital.
In this spirit of listening and creating mutual dialogue, we offer this issue of “The Commons,” edited by columnist and author Joe Holley. In this issue we hear from cohort members who generously share their insights and engagement with life at the intersection of “spirituality and social justice.” Through visual art, poetry, interviews and essays, they share their personal journeys, their commitment to social change and their personal “engagement with the transcendent questions and issues that confront one as a human being.” Our hope is that these offerings will strengthen and heighten your spirit and commitment to social transformation and long-haul activism.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
David Leslie is the Executive Director of the Rothko Chapel—an interfaith sacred space dedicated to human rights, art and spirituality located in Houston, Texas. Under his leadership, the Chapel has undertaken a $30 million capital campaign to support the Opening Spaces masterplan, which includes a once-in-a-generation restoration of the Chapel, as well as the expansion of the campus to support the organization’s mission. In this role, Leslie has also focused on furthering community partnerships and diversifying the Chapel’s programming.
Leslie has devoted his career to religious and inter-community engagement centered on issues related to peace, justice, social equity, interfaith relations and human rights. He has created and been actively involved in numerous programs, policies and initiatives focused on the rights of refugees and immigrants, environmental sustainability, poverty reduction and economic justice, workers’ rights and Tribal sovereignty. Prior to joining the Rothko Chapel, Leslie served as Executive Director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) from 1997 to 2015 and Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston from 1993 to 1997. He has also worked in leadership positions at Ohio Council of Churches, World Council of Churches and Austin Habitat for Humanity.
Leslie received his Bachelor of Arts from The University of Texas at Austin and his Master of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.