Building a cohesive spiritual community with college students is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. There are many valid, competing priorities in the lives of college students: studying for difficult classes, pursuing career-related internships, taking on leadership opportunities in student government. In the midst of all these priorities, why have spiritual roots? If you have a solid self-care routine and a good friend circle, then what is the relevance of church?
Christian groups with a more black and white view of Christian theology and human nature don’t have to ask these questions, because it’s clearly a matter of eternal destiny. Those of us who have a more nuanced understanding of things like heaven and hell struggle to articulate why it matters to participate regularly in an actual church if we already have access to friends who love us and a couple of good yoga classes.
I’ve been mulling over these matters as I’ve thought about how to pitch our fall retreat about spiritual roots to students who are still undecided. Last night, I went to a vigil for immigrant workers who live in constant danger of exploitation and deportation. One after another, they shared their testimony and every single one talked about how they wouldn’t have made it without their faith in God and their church behind them. Not only that, but they consistently described their political convictions in terms of Christian theology. Though they were some of the most vulnerable members of our society, they clearly had immense spiritual power as a community rooted in faith and justice.
Last week, I also had a conversation with my friend Dan who is passionate about helping homeless people. Dan has started a shoe company that exclusively employs homeless people. The reason he’s able to do this is because he’s living rent-free at his church in mid-city which has also started two other homeless worker-led businesses. Without a committed Christian community behind him, Dan never would have gotten his business off the ground.
I could share many other stories about how spiritual roots give people the power and stamina to change the world. Without roots, when things get too hard or too busy, we stop showing up. For those of us with privilege, this won’t feel like much of a problem. It’s people who live in more desperate conditions who know they need a body of Christ behind them. But I would contend that the rest of us need it also. We just don’t recognize our spiritual health problems as being related to our lack of rootedness.
The lie of modern Western thought is that we can take on the world as autonomous individuals. Rootlessness is not the same thing as freedom. Without roots, we get swallowed up by a raging ocean of social scripts and market forces that never allow us to discover who we really are. It’s when we make commitments and root ourselves in authentic communities that we are able to live with freedom and intentionality rather than inertia.
So we have choices we can make. We can pretend like roots are irrelevant and simply get knocked around the pinball machine of our social landscape or we can root ourselves in traditions and communities that give us some kind of footing. One of the best songs of the Civil Rights era that I love singing at protests is “We shall not be moved.” It expresses the truth of the resilience that spiritual roots provide for us.
We shall not, we shall not be moved.We shall not, we shall not be moved.Just like a tree that’s planted by the water,we shall not be moved.
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