Spiritual but Not Religious

A couple of week ends ago I advised friends that I was going off the grid.  For two and a half days I would not be getting voice mails, emails, texts, Facebook messages or tweets.  I rescinded my RSVP to a very posh costume party and disappeared.

I didn’t mean to be mysterious but I had some vague reluctance to tell people I was going to the Manresa Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills for two days of solitude.  A little background.  The Jesuits or more formally the Society of Jesus is an order of Roman Catholic priests and brothers.  They were founded 500 years ago by the soldier-turned-mystic Ignatius Loyola.  Loyola developed his “Spiritual Exercises” which are practiced to this day.

For me one of the most appealing aspects of Jesuit Spirituality is the agreement that everyone takes some time and shuts the fuck up!  Meet someone in the hallway a nod is okay, but no talking. Usually it’s easier not to make eye contact.  In the refectory (that’s Catholic speak for dining room)  the only sound is silverware scraping plates – which is a bit unnerving at first.


Many people have described themselves to me as spiritual but not religious.  I’ve wondered what that means.  It’s easy to understand why people choose not to be religious.  Three reasons immediately come to mind.  Hypocrisy: preachers living lavish lifestyles from the tithes of the congregation.   Injustice: the use of the bible to marginalize, even dehumanize people because of their gender identity or sexual preference. And Abomination: the molestation of children, and in my opinion, the more grievous evil of choosing to protect molesters instead of protecting future victims.

But what does the proclamation that one is spiritual mean? To be spiritual one has to believe in some sort of spirit that transcends us, our experience and our understanding.  Spirituality is the way of living in relationship with this spirit. A very uncomplicated spirituality is the practice of mindfulness.  A few years ago I read “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life”  by Jon Kabat-Zinn who says:

Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.

Mindful living emphasizes intentionality.  We take most things in life for granted.  Mindfulness is the use of meditation to create an intention for awareness of the present and being appreciative of how connected we are in this present to that which is transcendent and larger than us.

I had a few friends for dinner on Halloween night.  When we sat down to eat I was surprised when one guest took the hands of the person on either side of him and immediately everyone joined hands and looked expectantly at me to say grace.  I opted for a brief mindful meditation that went something like this.

As we eat this food let us be mindful of the connection it give us to greater things.  Our food contains the energy of the sun and the nutrients of the earth.  Our food connects us to farmers, farm workers, truckers, factory workers, grocery clerks and cooks.  And it connects us with each other through the fellowship we share at this meal.

How does one say grace without mentioning God? Another thing I like about Jesuit spirituality is that it recognizes that one’s spirituality matures as one progresses through life.  So many people’s beliefs are based on religious instruction that ended when they turned 14.  The Jesuit’s invite us to find God in everything.  The practice of mindfulness is a good start.

I went off of the grid to practice some intense mindfulness.  Sorry, there were no visions or voices or grand life changing “ah-ha” moments.  But I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the past couple of years and create some intentions for the future.

How much solitude do we typically experience day to day?  Not much.  That’s too bad.

I invite you to find 40 minutes in your day and shut the fuck up.

Did You Hear? Detroit’s New Mayor is White!

Detroit has a new Mayor.  The local, national and international press leads focused on the fact that Mike Duggan is the first white mayor of Detroit in 40 years.  I’m pondering the news-worthiness of this fact.

Duggan campaign

We celebrate “firsts”.  Most recently the nomination of Janet Yellen as the first woman to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  I’m thinking the title of the office is statutory so we can’t immediately change it to “Chairwoman”, “Chairperson” or the convention we used when I was a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors – merely “Chair”.  Upon her confirmation do we address her as “Madame Chairman” or “Madame Chairwoman”?  The former has a paradoxical sound to it. It was much easier with Nancy Pelosi. “Madame Speaker” is gender neutral.

But Detroit has had white mayors before.  Lots of them.  Seventy out of seventy five to be exact. That’s a whopping 93%.  In the historical context a white mayor is no big deal.  So what makes Mr. Duggan’s race significant today?  Is it really that shocking that a city whose population is 81.3% African American would give 55% of its votes to the white guy?  If so, it’s based on the troubling assumption that in the normal course of business black voters will only vote for black candidates.  That is simply racist nonsense.  Detroit’s voters have been both subtle and sophisticated in casting votes in the past.  I’m not the least bit surprised that appeals to race largely fell on deaf ears.  Mayor elect Duggan bristles at the topic.

“I resent it. I’ve resented it from the beginning,” Duggan said. “People in this city got past it almost a year ago, as people got to know me and we started to relate as individuals.”

I’m not suggesting we are living in an Obama induced post racial society.  One comment I heard on election night at the Duggan rally was “I never thought I’d live long enough to see a black President of the United States and a white Mayor of Detroit”.

The continuing significance of race was brought home in other news this week.  19 year old Renisha McBride died of a shotgun blast to the head in the largely white suburban community of Dearborn Heights.

Little has been publicly released about the circumstances of Renisha McBride’s death Saturday. The 19-year-old from Detroit died of a shotgun blast to the head outside the home in the 16800 block of Outer Drive near Warren Avenue. Dearborn Heights police said they have “identified the person who fired the shot and killed the woman.”

Her cellphone dead, her family said, she made her way to the house for help after the early morning accident.

“She probably wanted to ask him to make a call for her or if she could use the phone,” said McBride’s maternal aunt, Bernita Spinks.

The law gives us an absolute right to protect our homes.  But claiming self defense in the shooting of an unarmed teenage girl on one’s porch is absurd.

And yes, it’s significant that Renisha is black.

After the death of Trayvon Martin I read a number of stories about “the talk” that happens with teens in African American families.  Washington Post columnist  summarized it nicely.

“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.

“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.

“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse

There was also being mindful that you are being watched in stores. Watched turned to followed as I got older. To this day, if a sales person is overly attentive to what I might be looking for I leave the store. Never to return. And then there was keeping a distance of deniability from white women when walking on the street. Lest you be accused of any number of offenses, from trying to snatch her purse to sexual assault.

In the early 1990s, I saw a T-shirt for sale on Canal Street in New York that neatly and bluntly summed up my frustration with this situation: “No white lady I don’t want your purse.”

Last fall I was pulled over while driving in a Detroit suburb with a young African American friend.  When the officer came to the window I took control of the conversation.  “I know my tail light is out.  I just noticed it and have an appointment to get it fixed tomorrow.  Here’s my license and proof of insurance, but I seem to have misplaced my vehicle registration”.  His response; “That’s okay, I can look it up on the computer”.  Then he went back to his scout car.  My friend was pissed.  “I could never get away with talking to a police officer like that and not having a registration”.

Even Oprah is not immune. 

Now we have to add “Don’t knock on the door of a white person at night if you need help.”

Still, we move forward on civil rights.  My friend Joe Posch had a nice Op Ed in the Detroit Free Press noting Mike’s victory night’s comments of inclusiveness.

At the end of his acceptance speech, mayor-elect Mike Duggan stated, “The way we are going to rebuild this city is to value every single person in our community. It will no longer matter if you are black, brown or white. It will no longer matter if you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim. It will not matter if you are gay or straight. We want all of your talents. You’re all going to be equally valued and welcomed, because only in that way will we rebuild the kind of Detroit everyone in this city deserves.”

It seems like a little thing, in 2013, to include the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in a statement of acceptance and unity, but politics and the power of the pulpit have kept gay people out of the discussion in Detroit for years.

And what’s up with the United States Senate?  They vote 64 – 32 to provide legal protection for employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation?

Quite a week.

Is it a new day in Detroit?  Naw. I’ve head that one too many times before.  But one significant item of Tuesday election is that Mike’s opponent’s use of the old circa 1974 playbook that pandered to “we/they” lost; and lost badly.

Now the real work begins for Mike Duggan and the rest of us.  Let’s all wish him well.