Experiencing the Beloved Community

Where did life begin for you? My life started in the womb of my maternal grandmother, Margaret Dunnivant Owens, born in 1908 in Giles County, Tennessee, the birthplace of the KKK.

Participants in Shalem’s Heart Longings program listened to stories of my grandmother on January 9, 2021, as I honored her legacy, her struggles in the Jim Crow South, and the faith she left my family as an inheritance. The historian and scholar Dr. Vincent Harding taught students to call the name of their “mama’s mama” to access the strengths of their ancestors and elders who ushered them into the community before birth and to honor their ancestral lives as a testament to “How We Got Over.” In our Shalem program, we likewise honored our mama’s mama, each of us naming his or her grandmother and where she grew up. Thirty-nine humans listened to stories about our maternal grandmothers. We spoke of how our grandmothers’ communities of origin affected our mothers’ health, resilience, or defeat – leading them to rise to their potential, or suffer a slow decline. As we listened to each other, the holy mystery of our human connectedness emerged, and a beloved community formed that we felt powerfully in our spirits.

As they reflected on ancestors who had helped build beloved communities and basked in the experience of forming a beloved community themselves, members of the Heart Longings program named characteristics of beloved community: enthusiasm, trust, faith, giving back, joy, open-heartedness, generous collaboration, dignity, engagement, connection, involvement, optimism, curiosity, humility, availability, and listening for each person’s gifts. We explored how we can live into this experience of beloved community more fully.

What can we do to strengthen our beloved communities? One participant called us to action with his words, “I do know that the beloved community does not work to break down structural racism without direct action.” Participants then shared stories of intimate, direct action. From civil disobedience in the South to anti-Vietnam War protests, from a March for our Lives to demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, from standing up against White Nationalist groups in a Tennessee state park to walking around the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest budget cuts for the poor, from Women’s marches in California to anti-police protests in southern Texas, we saw how we had resisted the powers that would prevent the formation of a beloved community. As we had worked for justice, we had strengthened beloved communities.

What spiritual wisdom might our maternal grandmothers offer us today? Will the spiritual wisdom of a young person guide us to connect the secular and the sacred? Our National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, calls to us like our grandmothers of old:

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers
first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our
country, our people diverse
and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Excerpt from “The Hill We Climb

May we be brave enough to build our beloved communities in the holy places where we live.

February 02, 2021 by Audrey Smith
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