This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar-Activist” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.
I was first introduced to Dorothy Day as an undergraduate. My professor showed up to class dressed as Day and, in full character, encouraged us to ask questions—for such an opportunity (time travel and resurrection) of a famous public activist was quite rare.
The film, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, reminds me of that day in class: the joy of a compelling narrative of a young, female radical—a political activist—embodying the work of the world with spiritual grounding. A scholar—someone dedicated to creating media unmediated by those with power at stake. What a model to live by.
It so sparked my imagination that I wanted to start my own “House of Hospitality.” My comrades and I modeled our youth center in Riverside as such a place, an open door space for the healing and engagement of young people in an oft-neglected area of our city. We chose a rental home with an open-minded landlord who welcomed our paint, spotty funding and frequent youth visitors.
Originally, I lived in our House. And I struggled. I was unfamiliar with police sirens, cockroaches and the sounds of helicopters overhead. I felt ashamed at how difficult I found it—to be confronted with basic realities faced by many in this community.
Sharing my shame with a mentor, I lamented: “I really wanted to walk my talk. And now I feel like a fraud at how difficult I find it.”
“Samantha” she replied, “Sometimes when you start walking your talk… you realize your talk needs to change.”
What was my talk? My talk was a demand that real activism was “simply” living, fully, in the work— transcending one’s individual needs and redistributing one’s resources. Just transcend, already! If drawing attention to your work meant giving your life and all your resources and relationships to it, then that was what must be done. I mean, isn’t that what Day did? Gandhi? MLK? All the go-to activist icons?
As a public activist scholar, I’d like to change the talk on this:
1) Our ministry, activism and scholarship should not pass us by.
When we worship public activists who sacrifice their bodies, their lives, for the “greater good”— the message we perpetuate is a neglect of our own bodies and our own worth, or our own families and their worth. From my own Universalist theology, I do not find sacrifice to be redemptive—I find it violent. We must identify (or come out as) those public scholar activists who are grappling with what it means to be whole people in the world and how we see our activism as part of living lives worth living. Future generations of activist scholars are looking to us as models of what it means to be alive in our own lives and in our work—to have healthy (not perfect) personal and family lives. This is about regenerative models for more justice and more healing for more people, not sacrifice for more inspirational savior stories of those few icons who measured up.
2) Our lives are the most authentic expression of our activist truth-telling.
Our activism and our scholarship is only as good as our “walk” can testify. This is not the old M. Div litmus test of “Does it preach?” as a way to disregard scholarship that doesn’t seem “relevant” to a Sunday morning. Forget Sunday morning. I am asking: does the talk, the activism dwell in you, live through you? Our Dorothy Day does this well. She writes what she lives, sees, does and was wrong about—and it not only preaches well, it informs knowledge about justice issues more powerfully. My lived grappling with the realities of West Riverside is far more powerful than not living it or acting as if it was easy—my talk that shares my shame and struggle tells a truer story.
Our capacity to attend to the worth of our own lives says a lot (loudly) about what we believe is deserved by all people—the walk of my own life for my own life will inform the walk of my activism for others, as I am also a sacred part of the interdependent web.
In other words? May our Houses of Hospitality stay open and active and generous… but may they always include a home, a hearth and a space for us as well.
Samantha Lynne Gupta is a third year Master of Divinity student at Claremont School of Theology. A life-long Unitarian Universalist, she is also the founder and former president of Child Leader Project—a youth-led non-profit organizing young people and their allies from South India to Southern California on youth-identified social and ecological justice issues. She is interested in the intersections of regenerative ecology, community organizing and the soul. She blogs on these topics at www.decentered.org and can be found on Twitter @samantha_gupta.