Spirit Alive at Standing Rock: Nathan Holst’s Experience

This is a post by Nathan Holst.  Nathan works in faith formation and does racial justice work in Duluth, MN.  Nathan an his partner Sarah have led presentations at Call to Action events.


photo credit: Matika Wilbur

Spirit come alive

Let us follow the current

Trace the sacred sighs

In the call of the earth

With seven generations

Standing before us now

May the Spirit come alive


These words from a song I wrote years ago were ringing in my ears this last weekend as I came with folks from the All Nations Indigenous Center in Duluth to join thousands of indigenous people at the incredible gathering at the Standing Rock Reservation to protect the water (and burial sites) from the Dakota Access Pipeline, slated to run just North of the reservation.   There truly was an incredible Spirit coming alive in that space where elders, children, families were all tracing the call of the earth to protect the water for future generations.

Here is a picture of what it’s like there: the front line camp is right off the main highway, situated right next to a river. When you first enter, you see signs that clearly mark “No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons”. It is a space for families (of which there were countless) and a space of nonviolence (which was made clear to us again and again in our time there). As you continue on, there are flags from every nation represented flying high, which was reported to me to be between 90 and 150. Then there is the check in tent, a tent for donations, a tent for media, and the main circle gathering space where there are constantly speakers sharing their story with anyone gathered to hear. At night, this space is filled with musicians and spoken word artists, ready to lift each other up with their songs and words. Drum ceremonies and sweat lodges run constantly. Both by day and night you can find people gathered in their small, spread out camps based on tribal affiliation, but porous as family, always intermingling with each other. There are elders telling stories and making jokes, people sharing meals together, and building family as well as a movement.

As reported (best, in my estimation, by Democracy Now), on Saturday afternoon, shortly before we arrived there was a group of peaceful protectors who stood in front of bull dozers to stop them from destroying burial sites where the people managing the Dakota Access Pipeline knew there were burial grounds and still chose to dig. In some news outlets, this has been reported as protestors attacking security guards, when the story from Indigenous folks is that they were peacefully trying to stop them from destroying their graves, only to have dogs unleashed on them, as well as pepper spray. And as the Huffington Post asked, “How would you feel if a construction company bulldozed a family plot in a local cemetery that contained the remains of your family?” These are courageous men, women, and children that know what they are willing to fight for and stand in the way of the violence being done to their ancestors, being done to our water.


Folks from Duluth’s All Nations Indigenous Center at Standing Rock.

On Sunday, we marched with 500 people on the highway to the edge of where the graves had been unearthed. We gathered in a huge circle for a ceremony for the ancestors who had been disturbed, where all the spiritual men and women leaders were called to the center. Singers began, followed by medicine men praying to the four directions, as well as dancers joining in this incredible prayer for the ancestors. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and as I was filled with awe and wonder at what was happening, I tried to imagine if I felt this way as a white person, what might all the indigenous folks who are there feel? So many of those who came with us from Duluth said at the end of the trip, speaking through their tears, “I feel home”.

So after leaving what then felt like family and returning to Duluth, I am back here wrestling with fire in my belly, which I see as the longing for justice for my relatives, and showing up in the best way I know how, trying to share what I experienced with my community. I am trying to get the word out to everyone I know, especially since many newspapers are either not picking up this incredible story or distorting the perspectives of those at the camp.

But I am also caught with a vision. I have seen, tasted the incredible culture of elders, spiritual leaders, nonviolent warriors, and families and I can’t help but wonder: where are my people? Where are my elders? What would it look like for my white community to have this kind of powerful gathering to protect our water? I heard African Americans speaking to their history, acknowledging the help they received from Indigenous people to escape slavery. Now they’re showing up to support them in this movement and putting their lives on the line in gratitude. Is there someone in my white community that can speak in this way, to share gratitude for when indigenous people welcomed them to this land, even when we repaid hospitality with brutality? Is there a path for us to regain our humanity and to have this same kind of historical clarity, to recognize our place in this great story?

I believe we have an invitation in front of us. There is an incredible gathering of tribes from across this land (and the world) standing up and protecting our water that gives us life. What is the legacy that we want to leave? What story do we want to give those who come seven generations after us? Though life can often be complex and simple answers sometimes elude us, the choice is still right in front of us, and those who come after us are waiting to see what we will do.




Call to Standing Rock

This is a post by current Young Adult Catholics blog editor, Sarah Holst. Sarah is a Masters of Divinity student and artist living in Duluth, MN.  She plans to be ordained a Roman Catholic Women Priest and start a survivor-centric, watershed discipleship church community.  Sarah is active in racial justice work in Duluth.


Yesterday at dawn, my partner Nathan Holst left with a group from Duluth’s All Nations Indigenous Center to bring supplies and support to the Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation.  Over 5,000 indigenous people representing over 100 tribal groups have gathered at the camp in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which not only threatens Standing Rock cultural and burial sites, but could possibly affect all people, farmers and ranchers that rely on the Missouri River for clean water.  This is a historic event, the first time the Seven Fires Sioux Nations have come together since Little Bighorn.  Even historical enemies, like the Crow Nation (which I am connected to), brought gifts and joined hands in the effort to stand for Treaty Rights and protect the land and the water.  This is a gathering both created and sustained on prayer.  Many believe that it is a fulfillment of the White Buffalo Prophecy.

I could have gone along, but opted to stay in Duluth so to not to miss the first week of classes.  Thus, I found myself in the position of reading Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets and receiving notice that things at the Red Warrior Camp had escalated.


“To speak about God and remain silent on [Standing Rock] is blasphemous.”  “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” -Abraham Heschel

The company behind the pipeline, Dakota Access LLC, had skirted the protestors’ camp and started “preparatory work” on another tract of land without completing standard procedures such as Environmental Impact Statements.  The company steamrolled through sacred burial sites.  When the Water Protectors heard of this, they ran out and bravely put their bodies in front of the bulldozers.  Private security officers, hired by Dakota Access LLC, were there and intimidated protestors with pepper spray and dogs.  Several people were bitten, including a pregnant woman and a young girl.  (You can watch Democracy Now’s coverage of the event here.) Nathan and the rest of the group from Duluth were fine.  I, at home at my desk, was outraged.

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Why I don’t like working in soup kitchens

Reposted from article in Patheos of the same title, July 20, 2016. 

Last week I served at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen in Erie, PA. The next day, Sr. Mary who runs the kitchen asked me how my experience was. I hesitated before telling her the truth; I didn’t like it and actually, I don’t like soup kitchens in general.

All I did was serve fruit on the line this time. In the midst of asking guests if they would like what I’m serving and then scooping canned fruit onto plates with as much dignity as possible, I overheard quite a few conversations.

For example, one woman begged a server to help her carry her plate. She had just suffered a miscarriage, she said, and by the looks of her, it must have been recent. She appeared so weak and pale in the face, like all of her energy was drained. Regardless of how strong she was at the time she still needed to eat; and I was impressed at her ability to get herself to the kitchen to get a meal.

Another woman who appeared much younger than me (and I’m 26) came up asking for seconds. She mentioned she was pregnant so I took that as an invitation to engage in conversation. I asked when she was due and if this will be her first child. She said this will be her second but her first was stillborn. And she told me this in the same peppy way she asked for more food, like it were normal and not much more than just something that happened. After she left with her food, I wanted to go in the back of the kitchen, sit on the floor in a corner and cry. It wasn’t her peppy response that made me sad; everyone deals with pain in different ways. It was the realization that within less than two hours I had met two women who suffered through unsuccessful pregnancies and found themselves in a soup kitchen to provide for that day’s meal.

My thoughts immediately jumped back to my time as a graduate student when I often followed the doctors and nurses on their rounds in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). As a non-medical student, the doctors or other students would often explain to me in layman’s detail about the conditions of the babies. What I learned is that not all, but too many of the babies spending their first days, weeks or months in the NICU were suffering from symptoms linked to inadequate prenatal care. The ethics folks, with whom I was working, would later explain to me that many of the mothers of these tiny infants came from poor or impoverished families in which prenatal care was not a financial priority.

Women in poverty are suffering with the consequences of inadequate educational and health care systems that fail them in so many ways. We need better education about learning our own bodies, specifically as it relates to sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, birth, and parenting. And we need way better health care that provides every woman with prenatal care no matter who they are and how much or little they can pay.

This inequality of privilege is due to the realities of human life and, accordingly, the corruption and brokenness of our institutional systems as too many fail to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. Soup kitchens are places in which the reality of humanity is displayed more than anywhere else I have ever seen.

But it doesn’t take a conversation with a guest of the kitchen to demonstrate the realities of brokenness; rather one just need sit at a table and watch who comes through the doors and what interactions are had. But I find it difficult to get through a conversation without any of this coming up, either verbally or in the actions of another.

I understand the necessity of soup kitchens. They serve all sorts of people. The humans who arrive (to eat and to serve) in different ways exemplify struggles of mental illness, addictions, homelessness, poverty, loneliness, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, trafficking, prostitution, the inadequate health care system, lack of adequate education, lack of parent involvement, lack of positive parenting, and more. These realities take all different forms; some of the humans are the perpetrators, some are the victims, and some are just trapped in systems that don’t support their development into becoming a full human being.

This is exactly the reason why I don’t like working in soup kitchens. Because when I’m there, I can’t shield my eyes from the poverty or inequality or injustice that people struggle with on a daily basis. Nor can I ignore my own privilege of health, financial stability and community I too often take for granted. When I’m there, scooping fruit from a can onto someone’s plate with as much dignity as possible, I am forced to face the reality that humanity is broken and our systems (which ought to be healing our wounds) are corrupt. I am forced to recognize my own responsibility in doing something to stop this corruption, to heal the brokenness.

I am forced to consider what my options are for becoming involved in working toward wholeness and justice. And I am forced to question the beliefs I profess: that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of a Loving Creator and therefore deserve their innate dignity and the ability to flourish into their fullest selves. Do I really believe this? If so, why am I not working in the soup kitchen each day? Why am I not standing up to the corrupt systems, raising my voice, and begging for the dignity of all? Sister Joan Chittister says that we don’t need to try to save the world—because we can’t—rather, we all need to do what we can where we are in order to make a difference. I suppose, then, I need to move beyond my dislike for soup kitchens—for the reality of humanity that it throws in my face—in order to be a part of the change for the better, in order to act in accordance with the beliefs I profess.IMG_3017.JPG

Breanna Mekuly just finished a summer internship withSister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. Before working with Sister Joan, Breanna graduated in 2014 from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a masters in theological studies and an emphasis in biomedical ethics. She then worked as a university minister at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI. Later this summer, Mekuly will be moving to Indiana to live, pray and work with a group of sisters who raise chickens, bees and alpacas on an organic farm. Breanna is the co-creator of an online monastery for progressive young female- and Catholic- identifying adults, ” Seekers and Discerners.”

The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is the final of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Spiritual individualism and abiding grace

the_nones_are_alrightReally, the key question the Death of God theologians grapple with—“how will God be able to respond to this present crisis?”—is one plenty of Christians ask. But it’s a question that can be asked with too much urgency. The “present crisis” I often hear people of faith fretting about now is that of the “spiritual but not religious.” In my own community and time, the spiritual language among progressive folks is often framed entirely in terms of individual wellness. Many of us come to spirituality (from meditation to church to yoga) asking what belief and practice can console or enlighten us. The desire is to improve our well-being, rather than to engage personally and radically with our community or minister to the suffering Christ in our oppressed fellow-humans. For my own part, the longer my spirituality is confined to my own head, my own thoughts and feelings, the more it starts to spoil. I’m close with plenty of spiritually sensitive folks whom I want to call to vigorous and liberatory work in the world, but I believe it’s a misuse of energy to greet this (somewhat-gnostic?) spiritual individualism either as the herald of a new era or as a menace. The hype about our time is that this form of spirituality is our future; I don’t see it that way.

But I wouldn’t have come to this perspective without having watched Alitzer and Hamilton buy into their own era’s discourses, preoccupations, and intellectual frameworks so completely. This is not to deny the seriousness of Hamilton’s commitment to worldly service, and Alitzer’s pain at God’s perceived self-negation. In their book, Alitzer and Hamilton accept bourgeois liberalism’s claims about itself, and define their understanding of God’s “transcendence” so narrowly that it’s snuffed out of any possibility of being.

“Before God and with God, we live without God,” Bonhoeffer said. This is the unbearable paradox that Christians have to sit with after a century of organized horror, in the pervasive alienation of secular modernity, and in the countless small experiences of contingency, corruption, and death we encounter in a life. But it’s a paradox, not a death-knell: a call to make God manifest in the world through radical love, ardent faith, and spiritual self-renewal. “Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God,” as Christian Wiman says, “and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.” This equanimity isn’t always easy to summon—in rapture or in desolation—but it’s a precious gift, in that it’s a call to the faulty communities of worship, the all-too-inadequate symbols of religion, and ordinary human love, whether God feels intimate or impossibly remote. We encounter Spirit only in corporeal things, and experience God only in history; and this idea can bring us overflowing peace, not just the anxiety that grips Alitzer and Hamilton. Or, to quote R.H. Blyth, writing from a radically different tradition: “Culture is our making the will of God prevail, but the will of God always prevails anyway, and when we know both, there is Zen.” The longer I sat with Alitzer and Hamilton’s book, the more limited it felt: the authors shedding tears at the graveside of old pieties, believing they were crying for God.
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The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is part two of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Profane prosperity

As many New Things in intellectual life wind up, Radical Theology and the Death of God feels, in its anomie and consolation both, utterly of its very specific time. Their analytic philosophical language (either God is or is not, either the language of worship is factual or false) hadn’t yet been buffeted by Continental anti-foundationalism, nor anything like Derrida’s formulation of God in the language of desire rather than fact. Hamilton’s distinction between “God” and “world” bespeaks the cerebral, slightly anxious tone of Karl Barth and a discomfort with paradox. The book mentions Vatican II zero times, nor the experience of Third World Christians.

pseudo-dionysiusFor his part, Alitzer seems ready to enter a dark night of hopeless (or, literally, objectless) hope, but he doesn’t speak of the Desert Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, or any other apophatic Christians, who a thousand years earlier had found rich spiritual meaning (and consolation) in negation and the non-objectification of God. Likewise, though he began his career writing on eastern mysticism and Biblical eschatology, Alitzer’s repeated insistence in the “radically profane” nature of modern life shows no awareness of Buddhist ideas of the identity of the noumenal and the phenomenal. This is extra-surprising because he refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s idea that “a religious life which would respond to the death of God cannot direct its prayer and mediation to a transcendent or numinous realm, but instead must open itself to a divine ‘center’ that fills the whole body of the cosmos, and a ‘center’ that has no existence apart from the movement of the cosmos itself.” This inward-not-upward motion completely eludes him in his insistence on dialectics: to fully enter the world, he believes, spirit had to cease to be. His heartbroken insistence leads him to muddle very separate ideas of the forgetting of, the ignorance of, the non-existence of, and the phenomenal presence of the transcendent.

Crucially—and this was the lesson for me the reader—Alitzer and Hamilton also share a very early-60s assurance that capitalist liberalism would keep its promises, and was in the process of creating a “grownup” society of generalized human thriving. This consoles Hamilton—at last, outgrowing our primitive need for a God who’ll fix things!—and depresses Alitzer, but they both accept it. They believe the hype about their own time, and frame their spiritual questions solely in the language of their own time. They even share the same bland assurance that the “Negro movement” will renew the church’s tradition of engagement with the world. Radical Theology is thus an odd mixture of liberal optimism and classic paranoia—in the sense of externalizing one’s anxiety onto outside objects. Instead, as history as shown, liberalism failed to keep its promises, and the social contract that once suggested universal well-being (or even American well-being) has been frayed to virtually nothing. Perhaps we “need” transcendence—and a radical vision of the present—after all.

Final reflections—on “the death of God” and our present era—in Part 3.

The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Theology and “the assumption that man needs God”


christian_wiman_abyssThe risk, of course, is that we might believe the hype about our own intellectual era. Attached as I am to Simone Weil, Christian Wiman, and other intensely atheistic Christian writers, I imagined I’d have fun reading the Death of God theologians—the school of ecumenical 60’s Protestant theology that claimed that God was no longer accessible in human life, was absent. But I found that what this absence means, and how it is to be understood, is very different for different Death-of-Godders. I spent this last winter reading Thomas J.J. Alitzer and William Hamilton’s 1966 essay collection, Radical Theology and the Death of God, expecting to be braced, spooked, and shaken up; instead I learned to relate to my own time differently in how watching how Alitzer and Hamilton related to theirs.

As different as hot and cold, prophet and community man, Alitzer and Hamilton nonetheless share touchstones: Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Kierkegaard’s assault on the placid, reasonable, bourgeois social construction of Western European Christendom.

william_hamiltonFor Hamilton, the “death of God” means the exhaustion of old ideas of transcendence—the eclipse of their explanatory necessity or intellectual plausibility—and the subsequent withering of the old forms of church. Hamilton defines religion not as its rites, nor as a site and source of symbolic vocabulary for spiritual experience; religion, instead, is “any system of thought or action in which God or the gods serve as fulfiller of needs or solver of problems” or “the assumption that man needs God.” But, Hamilton writes, in a dawning world of scientific knowledge, political comity, and material plenty, we Christians no longer need God-the-transcendent-problem-solver. Therefore, we no longer need religion as he has defined it. Instead, he celebrates that our society has (citing his interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s letters) “come of age.” In our era, “it is to the world and not God,” he writes, “that we repair for our needs and problems.” With the transcendent being no longer housed in the forms of Christian worship, we Christians are called instead to find Christ in the world: to build a pluralist and religionless Christianity, centered in Jesus’s love ethic. And now that we no longer need God, he adds, we can perhaps now “delight in him.”

thomas_altizerFor Alitzer, the death of God is more immediate and painfully felt. He agrees with Hamilton that God is no longer necessary in our culture of human thriving and technological progress. He draws on Hegel’s theory of dialectics to suggest that Spirit had to empty some of itself to make any appearance in the Flesh, in tangible forms such as revelation. The final, ultimate negation of Spirit was Christ’s Incarnation and the Cross. In becoming Flesh, Spirit is no longer accessible to us. And—though this idea anguishes him—he writes that a Christian God who can’t be found in every moment is dead, since Christians enjoy no eternal covenant but the presence of the Spirit, which it’s no longer possible to feel. Further, the explanatory power of science, which cheers Hamilton, breaks Alitzer’s heart. The discovery of the autonomy of nature and the infinity of space have destroyed the intellectual confines of Christendom, because “the world is [now] no longer meaningful by means of anything which might lie beyond it.” Alitzer yearns for a new inbreaking of the Spirit into the world, a future Hegelian “synthesis.” But, until then, we must enter a spiritual “dark night” and accept the “radically profane” nature of our current world. Until then, Alitzer believes that “the Word that is silent in our time is a Word that has been negated by the Word itself.”

More in the next post on how believers often see their own era, for better and for worse.

On Bearing Witness at the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion

This is a post by Emilie Bouvier: a community organizer and artist living in St. Paul, MN. Emilie serves the Minneapolis area ELCA synod as Congregational Organizer for Environmental Justice. Her art website is www.emiliebouvier.com. These are a few words that Emilie shared with us in a spirit of ecumenism about her experiences last week/weekend holding vigil for Philando Castile at the Minnesota Governor’s residence.


For the first few days I felt kind of numb. Gathering for prayer, for worship, for lament was what I needed, but I could hardly even start speaking about things. It all felt like a jumbled pit in my stomach… disgust at the state of racial injustice in our nation, heartbroken that yet another black body was broken in the street, 1.8 miles from my apartment, overwhelmed by the horror of the particular glimpse we got into the last few moments of Philando’s life, bitterly angry at the constant resistance on behalf of white folks to the radical re-orienting of our selves and the structures of a society built on oppression.

Spending some long hours at the Governor’s Mansion yesterday afternoon and evening didn’t change those things, but it was such a powerful place of community, story, compassion, and truth-telling that I suddenly could feel my feet on the ground again — re-grounded and recommitted by the love and voices of those who showed up in that space to process the events, tell their own stories, give hugs, and even just dance.

I watched a beautiful healing dance performed by two Native American teenagers who made powerful statements about standing in solidarity with the black community – dancing as a way to show support, offer healing, and inviting all of us who were gathered around to join in.

I heard a young African American man start a story with “you know, when it’s hot out and you just really want an icy?” and end with describing how an officer demanded he confess what he was hiding, sure that the empty icy cup was a drug stash. It was nothing other than a soggy paper cup. (Can I just say, never in my life has anyone interrogated me about and then actually gone into the trash can to examine something that I’ve thrown away.)

I listened and teared up as an eleven year old African American girl stand up and speak through tears about how adults say that if you’re in trouble you should call the police, but now she’s sacred to. Even in her nervousness and occasional pauses to wipe tears, she had the most courageous strength and composure of anyone I heard come to the mic. And she kept talking. She talked about how things need to change. She talked about how she wasn’t going to stop speaking. Someone in the crowd asked for her name again, then shouted “Ellen for President!” We all started cheering her name and she smiled and cried as the leaders at the mic came around her and held her in a group hug. I hope she now knows that her community sees her as a leader and that she will in fact run for office. I vow to work on her campaign.

I heard a mom talk about how her daughter is 18, got straight As in school, was involved in her community, and went on to serve in the military. She’s proud her daughter is serving. But then her daughter calls her up and says “Mom, I feel “conflicted,” I feel like I’m serving a country that hates me.”

I also listened to people processing the events of Saturday night’s protest. Some talked about their own experiences being held in handcuffs that weren’t cuffs but ties that were drawn so tight they still had wounds on their wrists. Others talked about how moved they were by the white allies who helped act as a buffer in the midst of the 94 shutdown. Another talked about how someone in the neighborhood offered her a warm shower and lent her clothes. She said “I’m still angry, but I understand love now. I understand humanity now.” And many talked about how they saw and participated in peaceful demonstration – how violence was not present and not what we’re about here. How those white anarchists who were throwing bricks were not with us, and how infuriating it is that the media and those we’ve elected as officials don’t see the difference. There is a huge difference. The movement of people standing up for racial justice, taking the streets, disrupting business as usual, is not violent. We need our cities’ leaders to be held accountable, not let a few unaffiliated protesters be political grounds to write off the movement.

If you’re like me, you might be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and like you’re just floating, or in a slog, or paralyzed, especially when reading about this stuff online or trying to process by yourself or even just trying to process with people who look like you. Go out to the Governor’s mansion (or join the Black Lives Matter folks near you). This community space to gather and hear stories is not going away. Is a place of love and story and openness. Go and sit for awhile. For a few hours, actually. Just listen. Just do it.