The Table: An Essay Reflecting On Justice Making

I submitted this essay as part of a scholarship application and thought it might be worth sharing as a reflection on what I've learned from my activism and studies in Divinity School.

The dining table in my parental home held as many stories as it did china. On the special occasions that we ate around it, with its long orange tablecloth and shimmering chandelier above, I would forever ask my father to share his childhood memories and old family legends. I particularly loved the story of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie eating around the table with my great-great uncle Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who had won the Nobel Prize for leaving machinery on overnight in his lab and discovering the lowest temperature possible. Growing up in England, these stories connected me to my family’s roots in the Netherlands, where both my parents and grandparents had grown up.

I come from a long line of privilege on both sides of my family – colonial administrators, oil company lawyers and investment bankers. It is perhaps no surprise that I became an activist!

Yet I suspect that my engagement with justice work wouldn’t have happened had I not experienced a small taste of the isolation and fear that come with marginalization. As a soon-to-be-married gay man today, the intense sadness and pain of my early teenage years in boarding school seem like a world away. But they made their impact. The central motivation for my ministry is informed by this experience. My work is building communities of joyful belonging, where everyone is celebrated, loved – and moved to act in the world.

What I have learned from a decade of leading non-profits and campaigns is that asking what the most pressing social justice issue is, is an impossible question with an even more impossible answer. My work leading youth climate change campaigns in the UK and at the United Nations has exposed me to the terrifying science of what our economic system is doing to our collective home, the earth. My nascent work supporting people of color by training white people to overcome our white supremacist culture has opened my eyes to the extent and depth of racism in American and British culture. My chaplaincy work at Campaign Bootcamp, an activist training organization I co-founded, gives me glimpses into the deep suffering and fear of stigma of those who struggle with mental ill health.

Our world is full of issues, and to place them in a hierarchy of suffering brings out the worst in all of us. What matters to me is not what we’re taking on – because each of us needs to be taking a stand on something – but how we do it. That’s why I chose to go to seminary, and that’s why I’ve chosen to seek fellowship with the Unitarian Universalists as a candidate for ministry.

I remember the first really big campaign win of my professional career. Three colleagues and I at 38 Degrees (the UK version of MoveOn) had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to stop the conservative government from selling off our national forests. We’d had national newspaper front-pages, big celebrity endorsements, and huge marches – all the classic signs of a winning campaign. And when the victory announcement finally came, I realized that I felt nothing. What had driven me to campaign wasn’t the issue – it was the fight itself. I wanted to beat the bad guy. I wanted to be right and make them wrong.

Having been motivated by anger for so many years – and burning out spectacularly because of that – I have learned the hard way that our justice work must be rooted in practices and communities of love. That’s what I try to teach and demonstrate in the trainings I lead with Campaign Bootcamp and that’s what I concluded in my comprehensive study of other faith-based justice organizations for the UUSC this spring. We must not only stand on the side of love, love must be the very source from which we draw our strength.

This is the gift that I hope a religiously informed minister/activist can bring – the pause of thanksgiving, the process to grieve, and the opportunity to heal. What we need is not one master plan for overcoming all injustice. We need every single person making a stand for what is just and right and beautiful. And for many people like me, taking a stand looks like following someone who knows more than me – and who has experienced the brunt of injustice much more than I have.

What really excites me is that I feel very able to accompany folks of privilege in this work. Racism, sexism, consumerism – collective liberation from these oppressions are intricately tied up with the shift that communities like the one I grew up in have to make. And having tried the angry-revenge strategy, I know we can do better. What does work are the heart-opening words of Dr. Brené Brown, the narratives of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, the creation of small groups of courage and accountability. These are the doors through which we enter into finding our inner justice-makers. When we know we are together, we can face the greatest evils – in the streets and in our own hearts. The moments when I risked arrest and had the most difficult conversations were the moments when I knew that I was not alone. With isolation, depression, and suicide rates growing amongst privileged people – this work of sacred connection is not only strategic for justice work, it is life-giving and life-saving in itself.

My ministry will continue to be about building communities that can take bolder, more strategic action because they do it together. Though I don’t expect to work in a parish setting, bringing people into relationship is central to my work. I’m currently doing this with the leaders of growing communities outside religious traditions, like CrossFit and the Dinner Party. There are such wonderful opportunities to work with thriving groups like these to engage in the work of justice and spiritual growth – and there is an enormous, if cautious, willingness to do so. I hope to continue to work at the intersection of justice making, community building and spiritual growth as the core of my ministry.

I've come to learn that it is my responsibility to work with the arrogance, the violence, and the deep, deep fear that has lodged itself among people like me. That centuries of imperialism, racism and destruction has both left its bounty of tainted riches and scars of pain, and that we, as leaders, can work to transform this into something just, redeeming and generative.

The stories told around that dinner table were certainly located in lives of privilege. Yet there were also stories of great courage and of great love. My grandparents hiding Allied airmen, shot-down over Holland, and bringing them to rowing boats on the Dutch coast, as they smuggled them under the noses of Nazi guards on their way back to Britain. My mother, leading campaigns for cycling safety in our village and protesting against the war in Iraq. My father, giving Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth lectures for local businesses and high schools. 

That table held both the pain of the past and love of tomorrow. I hope I can do the same.