Too Great an Honor to Carry Alone: An Invocation

The following is a transcript of the invocation delivered by Dr. Maurice L. Harris at the October 13, 2019 Commencement of Union Institute & University:

Distinguished administration and faculty, esteemed honorees, graduates, family, and friends. As I deliver this invocation, I am reminded that the word “invocation” means the act of appealing to something or somebody for help. And I don’t know about you, but I need a little help today. Around my neck I have the honor of wearing the dog tags of Ril Beatty, husband of faculty member Dr. Rosalyn Brown-Beatty, a veteran of the Army National Guard, my former classmate, and fellow member of Cohort 20. Ril passed away in December 2016 just, as it seems, our journey toward this graduation day was beginning.

Another of our colleagues from Cohort 20, Jennifer Kramer-Wine [asks Jennifer to stand and wave], had planned to honor Ril’s memory and march with his tags today. But alas, Jennifer’s dissertation defense was only recently scheduled for December, moving her graduation plans to next year. Yet determined to keep the promise she had made to honor Ril’s memory, Jennifer appealed to me for help—an invocation, if you will. But when Jennifer called, I was at first reluctant. It seemed too great an honor. Surely, someone other than I—someone with more years of military experience, someone who had spent more time with Ril outside the classroom, someone, anyone more worthy, more capable of carrying so great an honor. And so I, too, had to call out for help—an invocation, if you will.

I called on our classmate, Dr. Purcell Dye [asks Purcell to stand and wave], a veteran of the US Marines, who is also graduating today. Purcell joins me in wearing Ril’s tags, to help me carry so great an honor—a response to my invocation.

The act of wearing these tags, the honor of carrying forth the dream of someone whose perseverance has been an inspiration to me, well, it got me thinking about the honors that each of you, graduates—each of us—will be receiving on this stage today. Honors that are just too great to carry alone.

The work that it has taken to get us to this commencement day we could not have done without a little help from somebody. Likewise, the honors that we carry forth from this place, we must not carry alone. Such honors are simply too great to keep to ourselves. And so, I ask you now to rise—to stand on your feet or to rise in spirit.

United in heart and mind:

Let us invoke the people who know our stories, those whose stories have formed us, and those whose stories we’ve yet to hear, so that we might, as in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009), recognize through our stories our equal humanity.

Let us invoke those who advise us, should we ever become too analytical, too intellectual, that true knowledge is, by contrast, relational and sensual. In the words of James Baldwin (1993/1963), “To be sensual…is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread” (p. 43). He wrote, “It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again” (p. 43).

Let us invoke those who declare that knowledge is power, especially those—like Dr. Nancy Boxill, Dr. Michael Simanga, and Stewart Dr. Burns—who also instruct us in the wisdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (2010/1967), who wrote that “power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic” (p. 38). He wrote, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love” (p. 38).

Let us invoke those who are eager to know what honor feels like, to see its luster, to share its weight, lest we become greedy or overconfident and hurt ourselves trying to carry it all alone.

And finally, let us invoke the spirits of honor-bearers past, in whose example we find the perseverance to carry our portion, as long and as far as our numbered days will allow.

Let us invoke a little help. Let us pray for a little help today—with thankful hearts—to carry so great the honors we receive. And perhaps, through our invocations, honor might multiply, honor might spread out across the home, spread out across the community, spread out across the nations, and thus redeem our world.

Namaste. Peace and blessings to each of you. And amen.

About the Rill Beatty III Scholarship

Ril Beatty III (December 23, 1979 — December 24, 2016), was the husband of Dr. Rosalyn Brown Beatty, chair of Union’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. He was a proud veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard with 10 years and nine months of service. Ril passed away less than a year into his studies at Union Institute & University while pursing a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies with a major in Public Policy and Social Change. At the October 13, 2019 Commencement, Dr. Nelson Soto, provost and vice president for academic affairs, announced the creation of the Ril Beatty III Scholarship, designed to assist military veterans in achieving their goal of a doctorate degree in Public Policy and Social Change.

References

ADICHIE, C. N. (2009). The danger of a single story. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

BALDWIN, J. (1993). The fire next time (Reissue ed.) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1963)

KING, M. L. (2010). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? (King Legacy ed.) [Kindle version]. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1967).


Featured photo by MillefloreImages. Licensed from Pond5.com.

Set Us Free: A Sermon for the Celebration of the Life and Legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What a privilege to deliver the morning message at the annual celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Randolph, Vermont. And kudos to the brave students from Randolph High School on their successful effort to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at their school. This post includes a recording and transcript of my sermon for that day.

Let us pray. Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

That prayer was the collect for today, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, and I realize that today’s service is not the usual Prayer Book service, but I like this collect because it suggests for me that the theme of this second Sunday in Black History Month might be freedom, and that’s a fitting theme on a day that we’ve set aside to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. “Set us free, O God,” and more specifically, set us free from the bondage of sin, and yet even more specifically, on this second Sunday of Black History Month, set us free from the bondage of what the Reverend Jim Wallace and what the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson call America’s original sin, that being the sin of, you guessed it, racism.

Good morning.

So, as Reverend Angie said, I am Maurice Harris. I’m the Minister of Communications for The Episcopal Church in Vermont. And yes, that is an actual full-time job. That’s a question I get every now and then. So basically, anything that you think of might be communications or marketing-related in the diocese, I have some part in. That includes The Mountain, which some of you are familiar with—that’s the bi-monthly diocesan digital news magazine—the diocesan website, the Rock Point website, any social media related to the diocese, press releases and media relations. So, there’s a lot going on in the background.

I’m part of what’s known as the Diocesan Ministry Support Team, so I’m often called upon to assist parishes around the state with their local communication and marketing efforts, as well. And outside of my day job, I am a co-convener of the Diocese’s Racial Reconciliation and Healing Network. The network’s primary focus so far—it’s a relatively new inception—but their primary focus so far has been on equipping clergy for racial healing work within their congregations. And outside of all that, I’m a musician. And last but not least, I am a student. I am literally putting the finishing touches on my doctoral dissertation in ethical and creative leadership with a specialization in Martin Luther King studies and social change. My husband and I—Might—we reside in Brattleboro, Vermont, and he joins me here today.

Now, I’ve had over a month to prepare this sermon, and I promised myself every day leading up to today, that I would not get up here and use my 15 or 20 minutes at the lectern to bemoan my own face-to-face encounters with overt racism right here in Vermont—because there have been a few—nor would I attempt to make today’s sermon “special” or somehow “different” just because this month, unlike January or March or, say, November, this Black History Month, this shortest month of the year, this month is the one month that people who probably don’t know much about me or my husband or our lived experiences, or really thought about it during any other month of the year are suddenly curious about what life is like for People of Color. I said I just wasn’t going to go there…Plus, it wouldn’t really be fair to any of you because, as all of your know, I was originally invited to speak last month. I just got snowed out.

So, as I was thinking about what to say today, the spirit of an old friend spoke to me. Well, it was the spirit of someone I’ve never really met, but [congregation laughs] I like to think of him as an old friend. The author James Baldwin. Some of you might have heard of him. And the bravest among you may have even read his books. These are some deep reads.

[Maurice holds up book.] This is one of his most famous books, The Fire Next Time, and in this book Baldwin pens a letter to his nephew. And what he said to that nephew, he might as well have said to me just a few days ago. I’ll read you this exceprt. He said:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. (Baldwin, 1993/1963, p. 76)

This excerpt, taken out of its original context, may sound just a bit condescending. To think that I would come into your town and into your church to rescue you, you innocent and hopeless people from your history. But having read the entire book, and several others by Baldwin—which I highly recommend—I’m pretty confident that’s not what he means. The very real point that Baldwin appears to be making here, or at least the way I interpret it, is that folks too often can’t see the forest for the trees. It often takes someone who is not mired in the details of that specific problem to see the situation as a whole.

That’s one thing I appreciate about the apostle Paul, as in our reading from Ephesians today. It reminds me that Paul wrote letters to the early churches as someone who wasn’t mired in their day to day affairs but, because of his physical distance, had more of a bird’s eye view and could offer advice and encouragement, tempered with his own lived experience, and, most importantly, could remind early believers about the best parts of their history and their spiritual strengths that they were prone to forget—especially when the world around them seemed to be latching onto every “way” except for the Way of Love that Jesus had shown them. And so, I feel a little like Paul today.

I am on the outside of your forest, a forest that by its very design I cannot inhabit because I am not white. And to quote Baldwin, “there is no reason for me to try to become like white people.” But the advantage is that I can see your forest. I would argue that many People of Color can see your forest. And if you want out of that forest—and I believe you do, or we wouldn’t be taking the time to honor Dr. King this morning—then listen to the voices of People of Color, like you are doing my inviting me here today, like you’ll be doing later on today with students that will be coming in to speak. So, this morning, from my outsider’s perspective, I want to offer just three exhortations that I hope will help to speed your continuing journey toward racial reconciliation and healing in the community of Randolph and in the larger State of Vermont:

  • First, keep moving.
  • Second, look for the roads less traveled.
  • Third, imagine what life is like beyond the forest and start living that life today.

Number 1: Keep moving forward.

There’s a story I like to tell sometimes about when my husband and I visit one of our favorite hiking spots in New Hampshire. There comes a point about 20 minutes into the hike when it feels like you’re right about to reach the summit. I’m usually winded, sweaty. But you turn a corner only to realize that there’s still no end in sight. And the work of racial healing can feel that way, too. But I’ve found that the key is to keep moving forward. This may be a little easier for St. John’s, Randolph, than it is for some of ther other congregations that I’ve visited. It’s my understanding that some of you have been involved in book readings where you’ve been discussing topics like systemic racism, implicit bias, white privilege. Some of you have been taking part in activities sponsored by Focus on Racial Equality with Neil and Mickie Richardson, the Rev. Angie, and the Rev. Timothy Eberhardt. And all of you are here today, inviting racial healing into your worship and a making it a part of your own spiritual journey. So, keep moving forward. Keep looking for opportunities to expand your cultural competence because they’re all around. Not just on King’s birthday. Not just during Black History Month. But as often as you can.

Keep moving forward even when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those days when you turn on the news and you hear things like “Self-described white nationalist harasses Vermont’s only female black legislator who later resigns.” Or when you hear things like “Champlain Valley Union High School defaced by two incidents of racist and anti-semitic graffiti in the last ten days.” You may begin to feel that white society as a whole has gone even deeper into the forest that you yourself have been trying to get yourself and others out of.

But don’t be afraid of the deep because I’m reminded of a story in Luke chapter 5 when Simon Peter and his fisherman weren’t catching any fish, and Jesus told them to try again, but this time “put out into the deep,” is what he said—and that was when they finally made their catch. So, don’t be afraid of the deep. When you find yourself in the deep, that’s where the catch is. That is where the work most needs to be done—in this case, the work of racial healing. And only you know what that means for you. Maybe for you it means getting more active in the Forum on Racial Equality, or Vermont Interfaith Action, or Justice For All, or the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, or Migrant Justice, and the list goes on and on. Or maybe it means writing a letter to the Vermont state legislature urging our elected officials to add ethnic studies to the normal public school curriculum, or to maybe start by removing the references to slavery that are still written into the Vermont State Constitution today—I challenge you to go and read it—references that are not just vestiges of the past, but pre-texts for current and future injustices. Don’t be afraid of the deep. Especially if you have on the whole armor of God, like in our second reading today, don’t be afraid to “put out into the deep,” and to keep moving forward.

Number 2: Look for the roads less traveled.

I don’t know how many of you saw in the national news this past week about the racial reconciliation effort going on in the Diocese of Southwest Virginia. To give you a little bit of the story: Back in 2017, the vestry of R. E. Lee Memorial Church in Lexington narrowly voted to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from the church he once attended, changing it back to its previous name, which was and is now Grace Episcopal Church. And in a recent interview, a year and a half later, the interim rector talked about how they lost a lot of people when the name was changed back to Grace. The whole story reminded me of the controversy that so often follows efforts to remove confederate monuments from public spaces, or closer to home, efforts to add ethnic studies to the Vermont public school curriculum—or virtually any effort toward racial reconciliation and healing that involves our shared history as Americans. And it goes something like this: “They, people of color, are trying to erase our, white people’s, history.” But my question is this: Is white supremacy our only history? I think not. And this where we have to look for the roads less traveled, the stories that aren’t as frequently told, the signposts that may have been overgrown or forgotten, but just might lead us out of the forest.

I’m reminded of an experience that anti-racism activist Tim Wise (2011), shares in his book. The title of the book is White Like Me, and Tim tells the story of when he did some research into his own family history and was surprised to learn about an abolitionist who had been all but written out of the story. There were plenty of stories regaling the feats of his wealthy and famous forbears who successes were built almost entirely on the exploitation of racial and economic injustice—his observation not mine. But the one who tried to make a difference, Elizabeth Angel, ironically, was nearly forgotten. He writes, “Rather than hold Elizabeth up as a role model for bravery (which would have had the effect of condemning the rest of the family by comparison), the cousin who compiled the McLean biography passed over such details…” (p. 14). Look for the roads less traveled.

And I believe that Grace Episcopal Church may have gotten that message because as part of their reconciliation effort, they decided to rename their newly-renovated community room after Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist and seminarian who was killed in Alabama in 1965 while shielding Ruby Sales, a black civil rights activist, from a shotgun blast. A road less traveled. We must all look for the roads less traveled because if there’s anything that we can learn from the examples of Johnathan Daniels, the Rev. Dr. King, Jesus Christ as illustrated in today’s Gospel reading, and from countless other stories of bravery so often understated or diluted is that true strength is a product of Love not social, economic, or racial domination. So, look for the roads less traveled.

And, finally, number 3: Imagine what life is like beyond the forest and start living that life today.

A couple of years ago, when I stepped into the role of co-convener of the Diocese’s Racial Reconciliation & Racial Healing Network, there was a great deal of debate over what we would call ourselves. A previous version of the group had named itself the Dismantling Racism Task Force, and various other dioceses around that time were hosting either “Dismantling Racism” or “Anti-racism” teams. At that time, The Episcopal Church—the national organization—had also been assembling a draft of its Anti-racism Framework. So, the ideas of “dismantling racism” and taking an “anti-racism” stance were familiar. After all, fighting against racism, resisting racism is what we were supposed to do, right? Well, right around that same time other prominent voices, like the activist Rev. Jim Wallis, author of the book America’s Original Sin, the Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson who is himself outspoken, and even our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry had begun using words like “racial healing” and “racial reconciliation.” What we discovered in our own group was that when the focus is on dismantling racism, the effort tends to be reactive. It’s a response to a racist act or racist system. But when our focus is on reconciliation and healing, our efforts tend to be more proactive. Our top priority becomes: How do we cultivate and nurture the beloved community that we wish to see? It’s about imagining what life is like beyond the forest and living that life today. Yes, we want to follow King’s example and resist oppression in the name of God’s love. But resistance was not the only example that King left us. He also left us with his dream.

When people start imagining what life is like beyond the forest, they stop asking questions like: Why should Black Lives Matter in a state that is only 1.2% African American? And they instead start asking questions like: How does a state that is 94.7% white with an aging population, negligible growth, and declining birth rate, attract the expanding diversity from other parts of the nation—and other parts of the globe—in order to revitalize itself, while at the same time becoming a place that people of color who weren’t born and raised here might want to call home? Imagine what life is like beyond the forest and start living it.

But who am I to say these things? I’m just an outsider looking at the forest.

I think I have to say these things because as my old buddy James Baldwin reminds me:

Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. (Baldwin, 1996/1963, p. 105)

And I say to you: If you feel like you’re lost in the forest this morning, like your best efforts to end this racial nightmare aren’t getting very far, just keep moving. Look for the roads less traveled. Imagine what life is like beyond the forest, and start living that life today.

In Jesus name. Amen.


References

Baldwin, J. (1993). The fire next time (Reissue edition) [Kindle version]. New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Originally published in 1963.)

Wise, T. (2011). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son [Kindle version]. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull.

Featured image: By agsandrew | Licensed from Pond5.com.

What the Billboard Hot 100 Has to Say About the State of King’s Legacy

Abstract

This paper, which was presented at Union Institute & University’s MLK Capstone event, explores the relationship between popular music and Dr. King’s legacy by reviewing and reflecting critically on the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as of September 14, 2018. The purpose of this research is to inspire scholarly debate around what popular music has to say about the trajectories of racial reconciliation, economic justice, multiculturalism, and human dignity in the U.S. The research suggests that popular music displays an expanding multiculturalism that contradicts the narrative of generalized deepening social and cultural divides in the U.S. although there is yet much work to be done toward King’s legacy in the popular sense. And the research concludes with a call to future research on the relationship between consumerism and popular music.

Keywords: King’s legacy, master narratives, popular music

Click here to download the full text PDF.

Photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

That a Greater Creative Tension Might Emerge: A Reflection on the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Grace Initiative Global and The Episcopal Church in Vermont hosted “The Burlington Forum on Coexistence” at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Burlington, Vermont, on Friday, December 7, 2018. The purpose of the event was to promote dignity, respect and coexistence, and to offer a roadmap for addressing hatred, anger and exclusion. The Forum featured brief remarks from 13 faith leaders and community members working to combat economic injustice and violence, and those defending migrants, refugees, and people marginalized by gender, race or religion. I had the privilege of offering one of the reflections, which is provided on this page in video and transcript. Also, as the official event videographer, I filmed the other speakers’ presentations on behalf of the Episcopal Church in Vermont. The complete series can be viewed here: https://vimeopro.com/diovermont/the-burlington-forum-on-coexistence


That a Greater Creative Tension Might Emerge: A Reflection on the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Maurice L. Harris

[Transcript]

You know, if I’m being completely honest, I have to say that I was at first a bit reluctant to accept the invitation to speak at today’s event. Unbeknownst to the event organizers, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I have, let’s say, a complicated relationship. But I ultimately agreed to do this because I suspect, or at least I hope, that my tensions will resonate with all of you, and that as a result of my brief address a greater creative tension might emerge—a “tension,” for lack of a better word, that urges each of us to reflect on how differently we interpret words like dignity, respect, and human rights, although we may all agree with these concepts abstractly.

Differences of interpretation have driven some well-meaning people in recent years to actually speak out against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’m reminded of Mexican activist Gustavo Esteva and the author Madhu Suri Prakash who both caution that the universality of human rights is the moral justification behind “global thinking.” And in this context, global thinking is not such a good thing. Essentially, what they’re warning against is the myth that anyone who is deprived of his or her human rights might find salvation in a global solution that is supposedly non-religious, supposedly trans-cultural, or possibly worse, culturally neutral.

Esteva and Prakash call out western attempts to “recolonize” indigenous peoples around the world and dissolve their cultures. It matters who controls the interpretation of words like dignity, respect, and human rights and what factors might be influencing their definitions. For example, Marcos Sandoval of the Triqui people of Oaxaca, says “Westerners represent justice with a blindfolded woman. We want her with her eyes well open, to fully appreciate what is happening. Instead of neutrality or impartiality, we want compassion.”

So, how do you and I reconcile the impartiality required of us in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration with the compassion so often needed in our own justice system? How do we reconcile Article 4, the prohibition of slavery in all its forms, with the 13th Amendment of our US Constitution that to this day permits slavery as a form of punishment? How do we reconcile the fact the US, even after joining the Universal Declaration in 1948, resisted it in the 50s and 60s when it called into question Jim Crow laws and Cold War policies.

I have come to think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sincere and worthwhile aspiration, a tangible symbol of people’s hunger for interdependence, and a bittersweet reminder that one of humanity’s noblest efforts to articulate the terms of coexistence—and live into that covenant—was, and still is, imperfect.

For me, I guess I’m trying to find a “middle” way. Perhaps it has to do with my Episcopal orientation—Protestant, yet Catholic—as some like to say, always seeking balance. I am inclined neither to celebrate the Universal Declaration as a global formula for human dignity, nor am I inclined to denigrate it as the orthodoxy of western recolonization. Instead I have come to think of it as a sincere and worthwhile aspiration, a tangible symbol of people’s hunger for interdependence, and a bittersweet reminder that one of humanity’s noblest efforts to articulate the terms of coexistence—and live into that covenant—was, and still is, imperfect.

The signing of the Universal Declaration may have happened some 70 years ago, but as the inheritors of that great work, we can choose to keep passing the pen around the table, adding seats to the table, and honoring the spirit of human dignity that inspired the Universal Declaration yet transcends any words on a page. Thank you.

Where Do We Go from Here? Season 1

By Maurice L. Harris

You are invited to view the Where Do We Go from Here? video series, which can be accessed online here: https://vimeopro.com/diovermont/where-do-we-go-from-here

Where do we go from here? I sat down to write this introduction to Season 1 of Where Do We Go from Here? just after reading the news that NLF owners had decided unanimously to levy fines against players who choose to kneel during the national anthem. This was disappointing news but not at all surprising, considering that neither the NFL commissioner nor any of the 32 team owners are African-American. The gesture, as you may recall, began with Colin Kaepernick in 2016, as a statement against police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. Since then, other players, black and non-black have joined in. As reporter Khadrice Rollins (2018) explained in a recent Sports Illustrated article:

Kaepernick initially sat during the anthem when he first started the protest, but switched to kneeling after speaking with former Army Green Beret and NFL long snapper Nate Boyer. Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick after learning of his protest, and the two agreed that kneeling would be a way to present Kaepernick’s message without disrespecting the armed forces or the flag. (Rollins, 2018)

But today, as players who choose to kneel in allegiance to our flag—while calling attention to our nation’s deeply terrifying faults—are branded as disrespectful and unpatriotic by a wealthy and decidedly non-black minority, it reminds me of a time when black people were publicly lashed or lynched for resisting injustice and the non-black allies who stood with them often shared their fate.

“Among the moral imperatives of our time, we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism” (King, 2010, Kindle Locations 2542-2543). The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote these words some fifty years ago in his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? So, where do we go from here when it appears that neither racism nor the violence that comes with it have dissipated over time but instead have metamorphosed from blatantly overt expressions to more covert depredations? If you had asked me this question just 15 weeks ago, I might have focused on how far we’ve come as a nation. It is common to think that the US is moving in a largely positive direction as far as racial equality is concerned. King recognized this, too. But, in the words of comedian Hari Kondabolu (Kondabolu in Goldthwait, 2018), the problem with such thinking is that people of color have to put up with the indignities of racism just a little while longer, while some other privileged class enjoys a life of relative ease (or thinks they do). And, like Hari, when I consider the current rate of change, I’m just not willing to wait. Everyone deserves to experience an abundant life here and now.

Each of us has the power to speed the world’s trajectory toward a just society, perhaps even to realize the beloved community in our lifetime. However, we have some work to do. And we can only do “the work” when we’ve correctly identified “the work” that needs to get done. It was in this spirit that I produced a video series, duly titled, Where Do We Go from Here? I wanted to understand what work needs to get done specifically within the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, where I serve as communications minister. Libraries today carry an overwhelming array of anti-racism training resources. Many of these resources emanate from racially-diverse urban communities and focus on social change nationally, but the people of the Vermont Diocese have expressed a desire for change within their local churches and rural towns, which are composed almost entirely of white people who do not identify with the wealth and privilege portrayed in much of the literature. The main objective of the Where Do We Go from Here? video series was to tease out some priorities by Vermonters for Vermonters. You are invited to view the Where Do We Go from Here? video series, which can be accessed online here: https://vimeopro.com/diovermont/where-do-we-go-from-here

References

Goldthwait, B. (2018). Hari Kondabolu: Warn your relatives [Netflix video]. Netflix.

King, M. L. (2010). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? (King Legacy). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Rollins, K. (2018, May 23). Why do NFL players kneel during the national anthem? [News]. Retrieved May 26, 2018, from https://www.si.com/nfl/2018/05/23/why-do-players-kneel-during-national-anthem

 

A Vision for Our Lives: The [Design] Thinking Behind the Song

Transcript

My husband and I had just relocated from Ohio to Vermont for my job, and we had been here only about two months before my mother-in-law from Thailand came to visit. She had come at the perfect time of year. The leaves were turning the most amazing colors on the trees. We took ma to a popular outdoor destination but in order for us to tour the property, we needed to purchase passes at the gift shop. I walk into the shop, and it doesn’t escape my notice that I’m the only person of color there. But that’s not so unusual. After all, Vermont’s racial makeup is about 95% white. So, the clerk served all the customers in line ahead of me, but when I stepped up to the counter, she closed the till, walked to the opposite end of the shop, and started folding a pile of t-shirts as if I didn’t even exist. Now hold that thought, and let’s fast forward to earlier this year. My husband and I went to our favorite movie theater in New Hampshire and a very similar incident occurred. The white man at the counter served all the white customers but when my husband and I walked up to buy our tickets, he stepped back and simply ignored us. His co-worker at the snack station, asked him – “Don’t you see you have customers in front of you?” He shrugged it off and just stood there, as if eventually we’d just disappear. So, she stepped over and sold us the tickets.

EMPATHY

And I know what some of you may be thinking, because a few brave souls have actually said it aloud: You’re not even that black. And I have a couple of responses to that. The first one is this: Black comes in many shades, and I’ve worked hard to succeed in systems that were originally designed to hold back my family, my friends, and me. The second response, and the most important one is this. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Period.

As I started to talking to other people of color in rural, New England towns, I was hearing a lot of the same hidden stories of indignity that I had heard or experienced locally and when I’d lived in urban settings throughout the United States. [Light up US Map]. So, it’s easy for me to empathize with Black people across the spectrum who are making their voices heard. The Movement for Black Lives Platform really is a Vision for Our Lives.

This semester, when I was asked to develop a design thinking project, this was weighing heavily on my heart, and I wanted to do something grounded in scholarship, with a real-world application that was connected to the Movement for Black Lives. I selected the five-stage design process used by the Stanford d.school and the Interaction Design Foundation because its such a well-studied and widely-accepted model.

It should come no surprise the model starts with empathy. It has been shown time and time again, and in multiple contexts, that innovation is inextricably linked to empathy (Brown, 2009; Kelley, 2012; Liedtka, King & Bennett, 2013). Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, once wrote that “the three mutually reinforcing elements of any successful design program” are “insight, observation, and empathy” (p. 40).

So, before I explain what I did for my design thinking project, it’s important to know a least a little of my background. Racial healing is an integral part of both my research and practice. I’m a doctoral student at the Union Institute & University majoring in ethical and creative leadership and working toward a specialization in Martin Luther King Studies and Social Change. I’m also a non-traditional student, which means I work…a lot (ha ha)…while I’m in school. Presently, I serve as the communications minister for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, and I co-facilitate their Racial Reconciliation Team. Additionally, I own a small creative agency that serves a handful of non-profits and women and minority-owned businesses. And behind the scenes, I’m also a musician. My career actually started in the recording industry, and as part of my full-time job I used to produce remixes for major labels and write music for film and television. And I still do quite a bit of recording and producing today.

From an academic perspective, I’m interested in exploring how pop music can be a leadership tool, specifically for leading social change.

When we talk about the act of leadership, “Empathy,” again is a recurring theme. It’s one of the five components of Emotional Intelligence, which research has shown weighs even more heavily than IQ and technical skills on a leader’s effectiveness (Goleman, 1998; Ovans 2015) And in the context of social movements, solidarity – defined as love and empathy – is what moves people to act (Ganz, 2010).

So, empathy, more than anything, was the impetus behind this design thinking project.

Now let’s talk about the project.

DEFINE

The next challenge a design thinker faces is defining a problem. “The goal of the Define mode is to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement” (Hasso Plattner, 2010). I was sifting through several key insights at this point.

For a start, I had observed at rallies and marches in support of Black Lives that the majority of the songs and chants were being adopted from earlier movements, in particular the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. These songs work well because they’re traditional songs. Most people are already familiar with them. And they can easily be learned during a march or at a rally. So, traditional songs, made popular in the 50s and 60s, had essentially become the status quo of protest music.

On a wider scale, I was also gathering insights from various other sources. For example, in January MIT published a video entitled “Building a Toolbox for Nonviolent Resistance”, in which Jamila Raqib explains how technology enables activists to recruit thousands of individuals to public protests relatively quickly but, as Raqib says, “Just because you’ve managed to get people in the streets to demand change doesn’t mean necessarily they understand the objectives of the movement…” (Thomas, 2017, 17:45).

And I was finding this to be very true. As I casually asked participants and spectators alike what the Movement for Black Lives was all about, I was hearing a variety of answers, usually related to a specific injustice that precipitated the march or rally on that day. I was finding that the only people who ever mentioned the Movement for Black Lives Platform by name were people who worked in social justice fields.

This has tremendous leadership implications. When Simon Sinek talks about his model for inspirational leadership, the Golden Circle, he gives historic examples of organizations and people that have led revolutionary changes – from Apple Computers, to the Wright Brothers, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and what has separated these iconic leaders from their counterparts throughout history is how well they communicated their purpose, their cause, or their beliefs (Sinek, 2009). Sinek says that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” So when we talk in terms of nonviolent resistance, people don’t buy the protest or the rally, which is our response to a precipitating event, they buy why we do it – a shared vision for dignity and humanity. And the Movement for Black Lives Platform does a really great job of communicating this shared vision for more than 50 national organizations and the many individuals that support the platform.

So it occurred to me that maybe what we have here is an unarticulated need that music is uniquely equipped to fill. Why not compose a song that communicates the Movement for Black Lives Platform? Simple right?

Now here’s one area where traditional design differs from design thinking. In traditional design, I would go off and write a song at this point. It may even be a good song. By contrast, design thinking assumes that problem may be more complex, more nuanced than it appears on the surface. Additionally, design thinking suggests that we can expand our insights beyond a single story by involving an interdisciplinary team.

In this case, I was curious what I might learn, and what of my own assumptions I would change, if I spent some time talking with racial justice activists across a broad range of professional, social, and academic backgrounds. These activists would, in essence, be like that interdisciplinary design team. What we would share in common, the Movement for Black Lives, would be our point of empathy. But beyond that would be limitless space for divergent insights. This is how I would avoid the myopia of writing the song from a single point of view.

It just so happens that Brattleboro, Vermont, is home to the Root Social Justice Center. And that’s where I met Shela Linton and the Root Collective, a team that focuses on POC-led racial justice organizing. And when I pitched my idea about writing a song to communication the Movement for Black Lives Platform, the Root Collective was remarkable. They assembled this highly diverse focus group of activists all connected to the Movement for Black Lives and gave me one evening to just sit and talk with them.

IDEATE

Design thinking is portrayed as a five neatly packaged stage, but it’s really a non-linear process. Those loops and leaps are show in Interaction Design illustration. To that end, by the time I sat down with the focus group, I was already knee-deep in the ideation process. I had two sets of lyrics, five possible melodies, none of which I liked, and I was torn between two or three different genres of music. Now I was adding another layer of complexity by involving a team. Design researcher Nigel Cross (2011) studied similar phenomena in product designers where three aspects of the design process tend to overlap: (1) Clarifying the task, (2) Searching for concepts, and (3) Fixing the concept.

When I considered Cross’s findings and my own experience and compare this to the 5-stage design thinking process, what I realized was an interplay between the define and ideate stages that was really understated in the academic literature about design thinking. It could be argued that Define and Ideate go hand-in-hand.

In any case, I knew I would only have one evening with this team, so as I was drafting my discussion points I structured the conversation to achieve three things. First of all, I needed to take a step back to the define stage and sort out whether the participants even agreed that there was a communication gap with Movement for Black Lives Platform that music could help to fill, or was this assumption was based entirely on my own bias? Second of all, if they agreed with the definition of the problem, I wanted any ideas they could offer me in terms of genre and stylistic devices that might resonate with an audience of current and potential supporters. And third, although I didn’t a full-fledged composition, I did have an early draft of lyrics, just a concept really. If the first two thirds of our meeting were successful, I was hoping the team might play around with the lyrics and share their impressions. This would tell me whether my nascent idea was worth developing, with additional insights of course, or whether I should scrap it and start over.

The focus group was really supportive of the early draft…mostly. Two points were raised that I didn’t expect. One was the constant reference to standing: Reparation’s what we stand for. Investment’s what we stand for. One member of the focus group was sensitive to inclusive language. The concern was that the lyrics might alienate those who were physically unable to stand. What that told me was at some point, I would want to test the song with people with disabilities, which I later did. This note about inclusivity also influenced my decision to make the subtitles an interactive part of the music video, not just a closed caption that could be toggled on and off. Another comment, and this was a big one, was about the hook of the song. You see, “A Vision for Our Lives” the line that became the title of the song, was never even in the original draft. It was an “a-ha” moments inspired a comment made in that focus group discussion. By the time I left, I not only had a very clearly stated problem, I also had a sense of the genre, style, and tone I was aiming for.

PROTOTYE

At this point, I had to go back the studio and create something, and there was a lot of back and forth between Ideate and Prototype. In the recording world, your prototype is a demo, a rough recording, of the song. With every demo of the song that I produced, I had new ideas about the song that I wanted to demo. The good news is thanks to my work with the focus group, I had a clear creative brief from which to work, which gave me some parameters in terms of genre, style, tempo. As the lead designer, for lack of a better term, I got to decide how far to stretch the parameters of that creative brief.  Here’s the thing, though, in order to truly benefit from the five-stage design thinking process, in a perfect world, I would be presenting those prototypes back to my design team – in this case, the original focus group.

But this was a problem. We don’t live in a perfect world. I knew going into the project that the same individuals who participated in that original focus group wouldn’t be available again prior to my November 20th deadline.

But that turned out to be more of an opportunity than a problem. Let me explain:

Dr. Shekhar Mitra (2017), design thinker and president of the innovation firm InnoPreneur, talks about the difference between clients and end users. Both need to be engaged in the design thinking process. For example, when a pharmaceutical company is developing a new drug, not only does that drug have to meet the needs and expectations of the patient, who is the end user of the product, but it also has to meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration, which serves as client in the process.

Similarly, my focus group, made up of activists, was essentially my client. They had given me their requirements for the song. So, the prototyping phase was where I decided to demonstrate my work for potential end users. Starting with my most trusted critic, my husband…

Dramatization: Hey, so what did you think of the track?

Husband: No. There’s something missing.

Dramatization [On the phone]: Hey so what did you think of the track?…Yeah, so what I thinking was that I’d have a gospel choir sing the chorus in unison, pretty much like it is in the demo. Four part harmony. Honestly, I hadn’t even considered it. But, yeah, I could give it atry.

Dramatization: Hey, so what did you think of the track?

Husband: [Dismayed look] [Groan]

Dramatization: Hey Jennifer, so what did you think of the track? Great. Cause I was hoping you might be interested in maybe singing the lead vocal. That’s awesome. You have notes, ok. You want to sing the whole verses a full octave below the demo. Jennifer, that’s almost too low for me. Look I trust you. But if we’re gonna do this, I’d have to drive to New York this Friday. You think you could learn it by then. Alright, I’ll book the studio.

Dramatization: I’m outta time. What do you think.

Husband: [Smile] It’s better.

Great. Finally, with a decent demo I headed off to New York City to lay down the lead vocals. And everything from here on was just a blur. But during and after this time, the demo process never actually stopped. I kept dripping out versions of the track, intentionally, and just listening, listening to the comments and adding them to the insights that I’d been collecting and documenting throughout the process.

In fact — and this is a fundamental difference between design and design thinking – in traditional design, the designer stops when the product is built. But the design thinker is holistic, they tend to press ahead (Brown, 2009).

At some point during the prototyping of the song, I realized that all of the insights I had gathered along the way had told me not only how the song should sound, but perhaps even how it should look. Believe me, I could do a separate documentary just on the making of the video, but the point here is that the cycle of ideation and prototyping had a snowball effect.

Now it’s two to days to deadline. It’s time to officially close out the prototype and move on to the final test. But since the beginning of this project a couple of issues have been just gnawing at my brain, and I think they’re worth addressing. Here’s the first issue: Conventional wisdom has it that design thinking must be a formalized team-based activity. The problem with this thinking is that in real-life practice formalized teams are sometimes not feasible. However, there are plenty of case studies, beyond my own, that support the idea of stakeholder engagement – involving both the customer and the client substantively in the design process, and creating interdisciplinarity by seeking insights from disciplines other than your own.

My second issue is the notion that design thinking is reserved for solving radical problems in science and technology — like fixing climate change, redesigning government, or perfecting artificial intelligence. But, again both my experience and other case studies have shown that problems of all magnitudes can be worthy prospects for design thinking. Speaking both as an artist and as a leadership scholar, I find that design thinking makes me effective at defining real, unarticulated problems, holistic in my approach to solutions, and intentional about the result, all without sacrificing creativity.

This was a lot of work for one little song.

How did I do? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

TEST

[Music Video]

 

[End]


References

Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation [Kindle edition]. HarperCollins e-books.

Cross, N. (2011). Design thinking: Understanding how designers think and work [Kindle edition]. New York: Berg.

Ganz, M. (2010). Leading change: Leadership, organization, and social movements. Handbook of leadership theory and practice19.

Goleman, D. (1998). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, 76(6), 93–102.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. (2010). An introduction to design thinking process guide. Retrieved from https://dschool-old.stanford.edu/sandbox/groups/designresources/wiki/36873/attachments/74b3d/ModeGuideBOOTCAMP2010L.pdf

Kelley, D. (2012). How to build your creative confidence [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/david_kelley_how_to_build_your_creative_confidence

Liedtka, J., King, A., & Bennett, K. (2013). Solving problems with design thinking: Ten stories of what works. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mitra, S. (July 2017). Design thinking lecture. Union Institute & University. Cincinnati, OH.

Ovans, A. (2015, April 28). How Emotional Intelligence became a key leadership skill. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2015/04/how-emotional-intelligence-became-a-key-leadership-skill

Sinek, S. (2009). How great leaders inspire action [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action

Greene, T. (2017, January 25). MLTalks: Building a toolbox for nonviolent resistance [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.media.mit.edu/videos/ml-talks-2017-01-25-1/

Looking for Revival: Using Imagery to Improve Online Evangelism

Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the book 2017 Perspectives on Communications: A Reference for Communicators in the Episcopal Church in Vermont, an anthology that I recently had the honor of compiling and editing. While this chapter was originally constructed for Episcopal parish communicators within the limited geographic scope of Vermont, it is my hope that readers in other dioceses and perhaps even denominations might find the insights useful in their own practices of organizational leadership and online evangelism.

Introduction

The Episcopal Church is changing. That’s a fact. There has been a 19-percent dip in active membership from 2005-2015 and a 26.6-percent drop in average Sunday attendance (ASA) over the same period (Episcopal Church Office of Research, 2017a). At year-end 2015, the New England Province reported the sharpest decline in ASA among domestic regions, down some 5.4-percent from the preceding year (Episcopal Church Office of Research, 2017b). Some say that the Church is dying, that it is only a shell of what it was just 10 years ago. Other say that the Church is distilling, that it is more authentic now than it has ever been. Call me an optimist, but I think it’s the latter.

Another study published in 2015 says that “more than 81 percent of Americans say they identify with a specific religion or denomination; 78 percent say religion is a very or fairly important part of their lives; 57 percent believe that religion is able to solve today’s problems” (McCauley, 2015). While those numbers may be demonstrably lower in Vermont, they indicate that the Church is hardly irrelevant nationwide. People just need something different from God/church/religion than they did a decade ago.

Conventional wisdom has it that if we become better evangelists—an historically scary proposition for Episcopalians—then people will come (back). After all, it seems to be working for the Megachurches, a class of Protestant congregations that each attract at least 2,000 worshipers— some as many as 30,000—per service. Over a five-year span, the Megachurches have grown by more than 26-percent on a platform of “evangelism, personal spiritual practices and living out their faith in everyday life,” according to a 2015 report published by Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The report goes on to say, “The membership of megachurches is significantly younger and more racially diverse than smaller congregations as well” (Thumma & Bird, 2015, p. 3). Contrary to popular belief, the Episcopal Church is also quite adept at evangelism, spiritual practices, and living out our faith. These are, after all, ingrained our baptismal covenant.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “You know, I don’t think evangelism has a direct impact on either increasing the membership of a church or decreasing it…But I do believe that when we really do what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of evangelism, other people might be interested” (Dallas, 2017).

Narrowing the scope to our Diocese, this begs the question: What should Vermont communicators be doing differently or better in terms of evangelism? First let’s take an inventory of our assets. Our Diocese is about local mission. It’s about going out into the world to demonstrate love and reconciliation. Our congregations advocate for a variety of social, economic, and environmental justice issues, in addition to providing worship, outreach, and pastoral care. As a result, we have many beautiful stories to share.

Our challenge in the digital age is to tell our stories effectively online. Most of our congregations have an online presence—either a website or Facebook page—which means we have viable communications vehicles. That’s a great start. As communicators, we are skilled wordsmiths. That’s half the battle. Now we must become equally as adept at using imagery to convey the Good News. Consider these research findings:

  • An estimated 84 percent of communications will be visual by 2018.
  • An estimated 79 percent of internet traffic will be video content by 2018.
  • Posts [in social media] that include images produce 650 percent higher engagement than text-only posts. (Kim, 2015)

There are many things in life we cannot control. Whether people fill the pews on Sundays is one of them. What we can influence, however, is how we visualize the Church internally, and how we frame it externally. In this chapter, we’ll discuss the roles of framing, visualization, and priming in online evangelism, and we’ll explore how the practice of intentional looking can equip Vermont communicators to spark a revival.

Framing

In classical oratory, the term rhetoric is used to describe persuasive language. When it comes to dealing with online imagery, the term visual rhetoric seems appropriate here. In the world of advertising, to construe images as a form of rhetoric is to imbue them with certain qualities, chiefly the ability to represent “concepts, abstractions, actions, metaphors, and modifiers” (Scott, 1994, p. 253). This means we must take care not to limit our critique of imagery to its utility or aesthetics. Put another way, when we manage our online content we must avoid settling on images simply because of their attractiveness or ability to fill an empty space. We must consider how images can be used to manage meaning. This is where the idea of framing comes into play.

Regardless of our functional title—communications minister, administrator, newsletter editor—communicators play an essential leadership role in that we “determine the meaning of a subject,” “judge its character and significance,” and share that viewpoint with others, a process known as framing (Fairhurst, 1996, p.3). In the same way that a photographer frames a picture, “when we choose to highlight some aspect of our subject over others, we make it more noticeable, more meaningful, and more memorable to others” (p. 4).

In order to harness the power of framing, we must first have a clear sense of our congregation’s vision, ministries, values, and goals. This typically comes through our ongoing engagement in church affairs. Additionally, we must develop a sense for selecting images that communicate effectively. This is typically not a natural gift, but rather the product of training in the cognitive effects of imagery and the interpretation of their hidden messages.

Visualization

There’s a well-known aphorism that says, “You are what you think.” Those familiar with the Book of Proverbs may recognize the saying from this bible passage:

Do not eat the bread of a selfish man,
Or desire his delicacies;
For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
He says to you, “Eat and drink!”
But his heart is not with you.
(Proverbs 23:7 NASB, emphasis mine)

In its original context, this scripture is a warning against desiring for oneself the spoils of an unjust person in power. Nothing good ever comes of it. The part that transfixes us, however, is the source of the miser’s sad estate: His own thoughts.

The idea that humankind can control its destiny by thinking it into being has intrigued us for millennia. If such a power can be wielded for evil, then why not for good? Entire books have been written on this topic by those attesting to the benefits of mental imagery. Some claim that visualization can improve health, wealth, relationships, and overall quality of life (Allen, 1992; Byrne, 2006; Haanel, 2011). Visualization is also serious business in professional sports and has been integrated into Olympic training for many years (Clarey, 2014).

“Among other things, imagery has been used to alter immune and cardiovascular function and enhance relaxation,” writes leading creativity researcher Ruth Richards (2007). And, as it turns out, there is empirical evidence that mental imagery affects us regardless whether we are consciously engaged in the practice of visualization.

When we look at something in our visual field, photons excite the optic nerve and the image neurologically enters our brain. Because of this, we see the “real world” and a work of art in the same physiological way. The same neurons and optic nerve respond inside our brains. This internal response accounts for the success of visualization, a process whereby images are called up internally “in the mind’s eye” to influence our life in the external world. (Zausner, 2007, p.85)

With this in mind, we might take more seriously Paul’s advice to the Philippians:

…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8 NASB)

And his guidance to the Romans:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NASB)

The moral of this story is to mind our thoughts. As communicators, the images we publish not only reflect us, they become us, which is why we must take care not to limit our real or mental imagery to the Church we have been (past) and the Church we are (present). We must also project the Church we aspire to be (future).   

Although much of the popular literature on visualization waxes a bit metaphysical, the concept has tremendous, practical merit in the context of visual rhetoric. Because of the neurological link between imagery and the real world, we tend to adjust our everyday living—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—to manifest our imaginations. For example, the bachelor who visualizes a future spouse may make conscious changes to his hairstyle and wardrobe to appear more attractive, and he may make unconscious changes to his personality and demeanor that a particular man or woman finds alluring.

Likewise, a congregation that visualizes a vibrant social justice ministry might make conscious changes, like participating in gatherings of Vermont Interfaith Action, and unconscious changes, like increasing their empathy for marginalized communities. Individually as well as organizationally, it’s the unconscious changes that have the most impact because they give impetus to an authentic, enduring transformation from the inside out.

The secret to visualization is time and repetition. The more frequently an individual is exposed to an image, the more efficacious that image becomes. For this reason, professional athletes and others who engage in intentional visualization set aside occasions to meditate on real or mental imagery. Similarly, communicators, staffers, and congregants who routinely access the parish website and social media channels become beneficiaries (or victims) of repeated exposure.

Priming

While casual visitors to the parish website might not be subject to the accumulative effects of visualization, imagery can still have a profound impact after just a single visit, as a result of a psychological phenomenon known as priming.

Priming is a nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects. It refers to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. For example, a person who sees the word “yellow” will be slightly faster to recognize the word “banana.” This happens because yellow and banana are closely associated in memory. Additionally, priming can also refer to a technique in psychology used to train a person’s memory in both positive and negative ways. (Psychology Today, 2017)

If you’ve ever played a word association game at a party, you have some experience with priming. A game facilitator holds up a flashcard containing a word or image, and a player blurts out the first word that comes to his or her mind. Here’s the key: Priming does not just describe the activation of associations in memory, it also describes the formation of associations.

Author Malcolm Gladwell (2007) discusses several experimental and practical applications of priming in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In one such example, researchers showed that when African Americans were asked to identify their race on a graduate school entrance exam questionnaire, “that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement— and the number of items they got right was cut in half” (Kindle Locations 648-649). While that anecdote could easily divert us into discussions of implicit bias, institutional racism, and violations of dignity, the takeaway here is that priming is remarkably powerful. And we experience priming effects during everyday activities like watching television, reading books, and surfing the Web.

In a 2002 study of websites, researchers revealed that using visual imagery as a means of priming consumers can measurably affect their product choices (Mandel & Johnson, 2002). Marketers use this kind of information to their advantage. Church communicators should, too. Ask yourself: What memories, experiences, feelings do you want seekers and newcomers to associate with your parish brand? Factor that into your image selection process.

Looking

The Internet is full of images. It’s virtually impossible not to see them. However, it is possible not to look. That is because seeing and looking are not the same. As visual culture scholars Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright (2001) explain:

Seeing is something that we do somewhat arbitrarily as we go about our daily lives. Looking is an activity that involves a greater sense of purpose and direction…We engage in practices of looking to communicate, to influence and be influenced. (p. 10)

There is a tried-and-true method for learning how to look at imagery that has been taught to medical students, marketing professionals, and doctors of philosophy in the context of making sense out of chaotic situations. With a little finessing, it can work for church communicators in the context of developing a visual rhetoric. Essentially, looking with intentionality involves creating an artificial separation between inductive, deductive, and abductive logic, the mental processes that tend to occur simultaneously when we encounter an image superficially (Mitra, Hsieh, & Buswick, 2010). We can use a hypothetical issue to demonstrate how this process works:

Problem. Sammie Jenkins is redesigning the St. Swithun’s website and is seeking a featured image for the homepage. She has narrowed it down to three choices that she finds aesthetically pleasing and has begun the harder work of looking with intentionality. See Appendix A.

Inductive Logic. In this first step, Sammie jots down the absolute characteristics of each image—only what she can see. She refrains from any editorial commentary or attempts to draw conclusions. See Appendix B.

Deductive Logic. In this second step, Sammie freely makes inferences about what each image could possibly mean based on its absolute characteristics. She also writes down the thoughts and feelings the images evoke. See Appendix C.

Abductive Logic. In this final step, Sammie asks herself several questions. Firstly, who is the audience for her homepage? Secondly, what purpose(s) does the website serve? Thirdly, what are the mission, vision, and values of her congregation? Having answered these questions, which of the three images (if any) is best suited for the homepage? See Appendix D.

In our example, Sammie comes to realize that although she has fabulous photographs of the building exterior and Sunday service—two typical choices for a church website—an image of congregants marching in the Palm Sunday parade conveys the message of “sent community” that is central to St. Swithun’s approach to local mission. She reserves the building photo for the “Directions” page and the service photo for the “Service Schedule” page. See Appendix E.

Some may argue that the parade photo presents its own set of problems. For a start, the fact that the some of the marchers are looking into the camera breaks what theatre directors call “the fourth wall”—the conceptual barrier between the viewer and the scene. As a result, the photo may appear planned or somewhat contrived. In the spirit of looking with intentionality, such an argument certainly merits consideration. With this in mind, Sammie shared her draft website with a focus group of parishioners and community partners to gain a fuller sense of the photo’s effect on the local audience.

Visual communications are dynamic, contextual, and culturally defined. Simply put, what works in Burlington does not necessary work in Brattleboro. Looking with intentionality helps us to clarify the breadth of “audience”—civic, regional, or statewide—and determine which desired outcomes and aspects of culture should most influence our messaging.

Conclusion

Thelma Golden (2009), director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says that visual art is “not always just simply about aesthetic innovation,” it represents how “we define and redefine culture.” In Vermont, there was a time when images of candlelit sanctuaries and stained glass windows filled most people with a sense of awe and legacy. Images of vested clergy were generally associated with ethics and divinity. In certain contexts, they still do…but culture has changed, and so must our representations. As more of our congregations strive to meet the demand for online communications, we must pay careful attention to our visual rhetoric lest we miss valuable opportunities to connect with a new generation of seekers.

Even if we can’t convince people to go to church, we can at least prime them to share in God’s loving, liberating, life-giving mission, while visualizing it more clearly for ourselves. And I think Jesus would agree that sharing the Good News is a much bigger priority for communicators than filling the pews.

References

Allen, J. (1992). As a man thinketh. New York, NY: Fall River Press.

Byrne, R. (2006). The secret. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing.

Clarey, C. (2014, February 22). Olympians use imagery as mental training. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Dallas, K. (2017, April 1). Q&A: Why evangelism shouldn’t just be about increasing church attendance. Retrieved April 1, 2017, from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865676894/QA-Why-evangelism-shouldnt-just-be-about-increasing-church-attendance.html?pg=all

Haanel, C. F. (2011). The master key system. Wilkes-Barre, PA: Kallisti Publishing.

Harris, M. L. (2016). Building exterior [Photograph].

Harris, M. L. (2017). Palm Sunday parade [Photograph].

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Appendix A

Website Photo Options for St. Swithun’s Episcopal Church

A1

Option A: Building Exterior
Harris, M. L. (2016). Original photography.

A2

Option B: Palm Sunday Parade
Harris, M. L. (2017). Original photography.

A3

Option C: Sunday Service
Keenan, T. (n.d.) Child performers in front of a congregation.
Royalty free license from Lightstock.com.


Appendix B

Inductive Logic Worksheet

Appendix B


Appendix C

Deductive Logic Summaries

Option A

This image could be interpreted either as serenity or loneliness. If I were a first-time visitor viewing it on the homepage of the website, I would get a sense that the building is particularly significant, and that the traditional white structure with a steeple is how our congregation defines church. But I might want to know what goes on inside. What makes the people of St. Swithun’s tick? What’s our connection with the rest of the town? The photo also connotes a sense of environmental stewardship (with the carefully manicured grounds). The setting is an idyllic representation of Vermont that testifies to a tradition of simplistic beauty.

Option B

This image feels like a celebration. A first-time viewer with a curiosity about religion might interpret this as a joyful, unified gathering that is unashamed of its faith. However, a first-time viewer who is skeptical of organized religion might see this as the church imposing its beliefs on the wider community. Although everyone is looking at the camera, there is an air of spontaneity to the image that makes it feel authentic, as if this is how the people of St. Swithun’s always are. The fact that the church building is not visible, but houses are, suggests that St. Swithun’s to some degree represents the community and its values.

Option C

This image is a visual counterargument to the claims that church membership is declining. Although our attendance has dropped somewhat in the past five years, it is clear from this image that our congregation is vibrant, diverse, involved. Placing children in the forefront of the image—although they are not facing the camera—implies that we value grooming future Episcopalians. While this could be a positive message for parents who want their children to have a religious upbringing, it could be construed negatively for parents who are new to the Church and may be concerned with indoctrination. There is a certain sense of “gathered community” here, which may not mesh with St. Swithun’s “sent community” message.


Appendix D

Abductive Logic Questionnaire

Who is the audience for the St. Swithun’s homepage?

The primary audience for the St. Swithun’s homepage includes men and women ages 18+ in the immediate town, as well as those within a 30-mile radius. Our audience is a rural population in a predominately white community of roughly 13,000 inhabitants. We recently received a small population of Syrian refugees. Most local residents are outspoken advocates for social justice although they seem ambivalent toward the Church in general.

What purpose(s) does the website serve?

The purpose of the St. Swithun’s website is to provide a professional-looking online portal that gives visitors a sense of our mission, vision, and values and extends a sense of welcome. Since most local resident are ambivalent toward church, it will be necessary to convey that the church is not only a congregation that gathers within a building, but it is also a collection of individuals in the community who share a common faith.

What are the mission, vision, and values of the St. Swithun’s congregation?

Our mission is “to share in God’s loving, liberating, life-giving mission in the world.” Our vision is “A Love That Knows No Bounds.”

Our core values are:

Sent Community:  We gather to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament each week, and we are sent into the day-to-day living of our lives as His followers.

Local Mission: We are called to join in God’s mission, which is already underway in the world and works through people of all faith traditions.

Justice: We strive for social, economic, and environmental justice through prayer and non-violent resistance of unjust systems.

Inclusion: All are welcome. We celebrate the diversity of God’s creation.

Which of the three images (if any) is best suited for the homepage?

Image B seems to do the best job of hitting our mission, vision, and most of our values. The street parade exemplifies “A Love That Knows No Bounds,” and the makeup of the marchers is an authentic representation of age and gender diversity in our community. Marching peacefully also sends a message that we are not afraid to engage in non-violent resistance, which may resonate with non-church goers.


Appendix E

St. Swithun’s Website (Selected Pages)

E1

Homepage

E2

Service Schedule

E3

Directions

Strategic Civil Resistance as a Lenten Discipline

Fifteen years ago, I was an officer at a conservative, Midwestern bank. At that time, the company was refusing to provide benefits for same-gender domestic partners. In response, a couple of us implemented a strategy of civil resistance. We started an employee movement that grew in number, as well as influence, until executive management finally delivered a new benefits plan. However, victory came with a cost. Some were ostracized for their association with “out” co-workers, and all of us were at risk of losing our jobs.

I reflected on this experience recently when asked to teach a Lenten study on strategic civil resistance. During Lent, we focus on the life, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. It could be argued that sacrifice and resurrection are also the primary stations of strategic civil resistance.

There are many ways one could define strategic civil resistance. I started by visiting the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (2017), which defines civil resistance as a nonviolent way for people to fight for their rights, freedom, justice, and self-determination. That’s a good start. Nonviolence is crucial. But there is more to it.

In forming my own working definition, I sought a Christian context. In Mark chapter 3, for example, Jesus resisted injustice by performing a miracle on a day that it was forbidden to labor. In John chapter 9, Jesus healed a blind man and used the ensuing controversy to lecture the Pharisees on the true nature of blindness and sin—demonstrating, again, a kind of resistance. And, when Jesus commissioned his disciples in Matthew chapter 10, he delivered essentially a treatise on civil resistance.

There is an inherent element of not just resistance but also purposeful disobedience. Jesus doesn’t just resist authority, he breaks the rules at times, yet with a spirit of non-violence and compassion. Resistance also comes with an expectation of sacrifice. In Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples that “they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me…” But, it is through this sacrifice that the Spirit of God can speak through us. In keeping with our Lenten theme, some might say that in order to experience the resurrection, one must first make a sacrifice.

Thus, my working definition of strategic civil resistance is “withdrawing cooperation from—and purposefully disobeying—unjust, oppressive systems, with a spirit of non-violence and sacrifice, in the pursuit of God’s loving, liberating, life-giving mission.”

This is so important because of the often-overlooked requirement of sacrifice. I was reminded this week that “sacrifice” simply means “to make sacred,” as if to alleviate the pain so often associated with it. But I must add to that view, whenever we encounter sacrifice in the scriptures, it demands the giving up of something valuable in the sacred-making process. Sacrifice can be a painful thing.

Unfortunately, throughout the history of social movements, there has been a mistaken belief among some activists that oppressive systems can be changed without sacrifice. For example, in his book Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins (1864), the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, argued that slavery, was “authorized by the Almighty” (p. 8) although he considered the practice morally wrong and no longer useful to society. Rather than supporting abolitionists, however, he condemned them for resisting the law, proffering instead a plan for gradual, voluntary change by the States. The flawed notion that oppressive systems will surrender to justice on their own terms is what we today call gradualism. Think of this as seeking resurrection without sacrifice.

Likewise, on April 12, 1963, eight Alabama Clergymen—including two Episcopal bishops—released a media statement (Carpenter et al., 1963) decrying the actions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists. They blamed the nonviolent protesters for inciting hatred and violence, rather than acknowledging the reason for the nonviolent protests. They felt it better to comply with oppression and injustice rather than stir the pot.

As an aside, I’m picking on Episcopal bishops because this reflection was originally prepared for an Episcopalian audience. Just like parents pass along genes to their children, forbears of organizations pass along cultural DNA to subsequent generations. So, it’s helpful to know what disorders might be lurking in our genetic makeup.

In King’s famous response, a letter from Birmingham jail, he explained, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (King, 1963). Essentially, King rebuts gradualism. The clergymen wanted peace, they may have even wanted racial equality. But they ultimately desired a resurrection without a sacrifice.

So, what does this mean to us today? As we meditate on present systems of injustice and oppression, we might ask ourselves these questions:

  • In what unjust, oppressive systems are we actively or passively involved?
  • What are we prepared to sacrifice in the name of Love?
  • What does resurrection, the desired end, look like?

To aid us on our journey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1999) offers these rich phrases in his poem “Stages on the Way to Freedom”:

Choose to do what is right, not what fancy takes,
not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,
not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,
carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.

May it always be so. Amen.

References

Bonhoeffer, D. (1999). Stationen auf dem Wege zur Freiheit—Stages on the way to freedom. In E. Robertson (Ed. & Trans.), Voices in the night: The prison poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Carpenter, C. C. J., Durick, J. A., Grafman, H. L., Hardin, P., Harmon, N. B., Murray, G. M., … Stallings, E. (1963). Public Statement by eight Alabama clergymen. The Birmingham News, 12.

Hopkins, J. H. (1864). Scriptural, ecclesiastical, and historical view of slavery. New York, NY: W. I. Pooley.

International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. (2017). What is Civil Resistance? Retrieved from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/what-is-civil-resistance/

King, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham jail. In M. L. King (Ed.), Why we can’t wait (pp. 77–100). Retrieved from http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/