You’ve probably heard the adage “There’s unity in diversity.” I’d like to share my perspective on this reality, and what better time than now! February, designated as the month to celebrate Black History, a history I celebrate 365 days a year — is a good time to talk about diversity and my affiliation with Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. My personal belief is that one’s spiritual formation is dynamic and lifelong. For me, this began when I was eight and will continue beyond the age I am now (no disclosure). As an African American Baptist engaged in a thriving relationship with Shalem, I learned and embraced contemplative spiritual practices that are now part of my daily routine. I was introduced to these practices as a participant in the Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Spiritual Groups and Retreats Program (TCP). I have to admit, the term “contemplative” was new, especially as it related to spiritual practices. The definition came from a required reading for the TCP written by Shalem’s founder, Tilden Edwards. He writes, “By ‘contemplative,’ I mean attention to our direct, loving, receptive, trusting presence for God.”1 This brought me to my “aha” moment: There is unity in diversity! As I journeyed through the TCP, I realized that there are different contemplative spiritual paths that enable us to arrive at the same place of “the direct awareness of God.”2 One path could be extended periods of silence; another may be moments of joyous verbal praise! The beauty is, whatever my circumstances, I can access either path. As I realized this, I began to feel a growing concern about the dearth of readings, seminars, and experiences that acknowledge contemplative spiritual practices in the African American tradition in which I was raised.

For 50 years, Shalem has been a beacon, nurturing and guiding thousands of seekers throughout the world in many and varied spiritual formation programs grounded in contemplative life and leadership. I am happy to be one of those thousands and I laud Shalem’s commitment to genuine diversity, inclusion, and equity in its programs. This commitment, delineated in Shalem’s “Vision 2025: Our Ongoing Hope”, propels us toward a bright future. This vision has fostered a revamping of the TCP by program director Lorie Conway, and staff members Trish Stefanik, Kevin Omi, and me! I am ecstatic to be part of the team. Through the Spirit’s leading, we desire to increase the number of people of color as program participants and seminar leaders. In addition, we are identifying new readings by African American contemplative authors to add to the highly embraced, worldwide beloved writings of theologian and mystic Howard Thurman. Here are a few:

We are delving into the works of Cole Arthur Riley, an activist, writer, and the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for healing, truth telling, and rest. In her book This Here Flesh, she informs us that “activism is the body of justice.”3 She affirms that her unique way of being an activist for justice is through her powerful words. Hopefully this will inspire TCP participants to discern their unique way of activism. Riley also says, “It can only make our journey toward justice more robust, more beautiful, when we offer a diversity of paths, a more expansive vision of action.”4

We are probing the writings of Michael Battle, who is a moral theologian, writer, and retreat leader ordained as a priest in 1993 by his mentor Bishop Tutu. Battle, a former Shalem Gerald May Seminar speaker, highlights the strengthening gift of unity in diversity through his discussion on interdependence in his book Ubuntu. Christian spirituality practices need to expand beyond a focus on individualistic and personal relationships with God to embrace the reality that “community is the very image of God.”5 Community is a gift experienced in every TCP, where participants become a Beloved Community.

Last but not least, we are taking a deep dive into the writings of Barbara Holmes: researcher, theologian, spiritual teacher, and a recipient of Shalem’s Contemplative Voices Award. Her book, Joy Unspeakable, is a wonderful resource that stimulates discussions about diverse paths that enable participants to open to the Divine Presence. I share a quote that is a great discussion starter: “In Eurocentric contexts, contemplation and silence were presumed to be synonymous. Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of this presumption helps to shroud the emergence of contemplative practices within the vibrant and ecstatic Africana traditions.”6

I am an African American Contemplative steeped in Black Church tradition and baptized in spiritual practices embraced through my Shalem experience. If you choose to join the Transforming Community program that begins in March or to attend a different Shalem offering, and if we are blessed to be in a communal setting together that opens us to a direct awareness of God, you may hear from me a gently breathed, yet ecstatic, “Amen!”

Notes
1 Tilden Edwards, Living in the Presence: Spiritual Exercises to Open Our Lives to the Awareness of God (New York: HarperCollins, 1971), 2.
2 “The direct awareness of God” is the phrase used in The TCP brochure “Program Overview” as the simplest definition of “contemplative.”
3 Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us (New York: Convergent Books, 2022), 125, 127.
4 Ibid 127.
5 Michael Battle, Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me (New York: Seabury Books, 2009), 108.
6 Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 18.

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Mission

Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.

Vision

Grounded in our understanding of God’s desire for peace, wholeness and well-being, we envision a world transformed by contemplative living and leadership in which all people honor one another and creation, recognize their unity and interconnectedness, and courageously seek to live out of this reality.

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