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Civil Conversations & Social Healing

On Being episodes in The Civil Conversations Project.

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“Remember,” Bryan Doerries likes to say in both physical and virtual gatherings, “you are not alone in this room — and you are not alone across time.” With his public health project, Theater of War, he is activating an old alchemy for our young century. Ancient stories, and texts that have stood the test of time, can be portals to honest and dignified grappling with present wounds and longings and callings that we aren’t able to muster in our official places now. It’s an embodiment of the good Greek word catharsis — releasing both insight and emotions that have had no place to go, and creating an energizing relief. And it is now unfolding in the “amphitheater” of Zoom that Sophocles could not have imagined.

The glory that coexists in human life right alongside our weird propensity to choose what is not good for us; the difference between a place of sheer loss and a sacred space for mourning; grace as something muscular amidst the muck and mess of reality. These are some of the places of musing, sweeping perspective, and raw wisdom a conversation with Serene Jones takes us. And after hearing this, you’ll never think in the same way again about Woody Guthrie, or John Calvin, or what a Christian upbringing in Oklahoma might be.

Krista interviewed the wise and wonderful writer Ocean Vuong on March 8, 2020 in a joyful, crowded room full of podcasters in Brooklyn. A state of emergency had just been declared in New York around a new virus. But no one guessed that within a handful of days such an event would become unimaginable. Most stunning is how presciently, exquisitely Ocean speaks to the world we have come to inhabit— its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.

“I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night — we can live. And we will.”

Our colleague Lucas Johnson catches up with one of his mentors, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons. Now a member of the National Council of Elders, she was a teenager when she joined the Mississippi Freedom Summer. She shares what she has learned about exhaustion and self-care, spiritual practice and community, while engaging in civil rights organizing and deep social healing. Dr. Simmons was raised Christian and later converted to the Sufi tradition of Islam.

We’re in a tender spiritual moment, widely feeling our need for re-grounding both alone and together. By way of the Almighty force of Zoom, Krista engages a forward-looking conversation with two religious thinkers and spiritual leaders from very different places on the U.S. Christian and cultural spectrum: Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. Through their friendship as much as their words, they model what they preach. The Washington National Cathedral and the National Institute for Civil Discourse brought us all together.

How to embrace what’s right and corrective, redemptive and restorative — and an insistence that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done — these are gifts Bryan Stevenson offers with his life. He’s brought the language of mercy and redemption into American culture in recent years, growing out of his work as a lawyer to people unfairly on death row, people who are mentally ill and incarcerated, and children tried as adults. Krista draws out his spirit and his moral imagination.

The Cuban American civil engineer turned writer, Richard Blanco, straddles the many ways a sense of place merges with human emotion to make home and belonging — personal and communal. The most recent — and very resonant — question he’s asked by way of poetry is: how to love a country? At Chautauqua, Krista invited him to speak and read from his books. Blanco’s wit, thoughtfulness, and elegance captivated the crowd.

Rabbi Sacks was one of the world’s deepest thinkers on religion and the challenges of modern life. He died last week after a short battle with cancer. When Krista spoke with him in 2010, he modeled a life-giving, imagination-opening faithfulness to what some might see as contradictory callings: How to be true to one’s own convictions while also honoring the sacred and civilizational calling to shared life — indeed, to love the stranger?

We are called to consider who we want to be as a people and what kind of world we will build with and for our children. Karen Murphy has been gathering wisdom for this juncture, as she’s worked around the world with teachers and educators in societies moving toward repair after histories of violence. We learn from her about how to prepare ourselves in the U.S. for the civic healing that we are called to ahead.

The U.S. election will be over soon but this year has surfaced deep human challenges that remain our callings — and possibilities for growth — for the foreseeable future. So this week and next, we’re taking the long view — first with journalist John Biewen, on the stories of our families and hometowns, what it means to be human, and what it means to be white. This conversation between Krista and John starts simply — tracing the racial story of our time through the story of a single life. It’s an exercise each of us can do. And it is a step toward a more whole and humane world, starting with ourselves.

How can we keep walking forward, and even find renewal along the way, in this year of things blown apart? How can we hold to our sense of what is whole and true and undamaged, even in the face of loss? These are some of the questions Sharon Salzberg, a renowned teacher of meditation and Buddhist practices, has been taking up in virtual retreats this year, which have helped ground many — including Krista — on hard days. She teaches how to stay present to the world while learning kindness toward yourself.

An hour to sit with, and be filled. Two voices — one from the last century, one from ours — who inspire inward contemplation as an essential part of meeting the challenges in the world. Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, it was said, was carried by Martin Luther King Jr. alongside the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Thurman is remembered as a philosopher and theologian, a moral anchor, a contemplative, a prophet, and pastor to the civil rights leaders. Rev. Otis Moss III, himself the son of one of those leaders, is a bridge to Thurman’s resonance in the present day, and between the Black freedom movements then and now.

After Arlie Hochschild published her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, just before the 2016 election, it came to feel prescient. And the conversation Krista had with her in 2018 has now come to point straight to the heart of 2020 — a year in which many of us might say we feel like strangers in our own land and in our own world. Hochschild created a field within sociology looking at the social impact of emotion. She explains how our stories and truths — what we try to debate as issues in our social and political lives — are felt, not merely factual. And she shares why, as a matter of pragmatism, we have to take emotion seriously and do what feels unnatural: get curious and caring about the other side.

The poet Jericho Brown reminds us to bear witness to the complexity of the human experience, to interrogate the proximity of violence to love, and to look and listen closer so that we might uncover the small truths and surprises in life. His presence is irreverent and magnetic, as the high school students who joined us for this conversation experienced firsthand at the 2018 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. And now he’s won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Editor’s note: This interview discusses sexual violence and rape.

This prophetic conversation, which Rev. angel Kyodo williams had with Krista in 2018, is an invitation to imagine and nourish the transformative potential of this moment — toward human wholeness. Rev. angel is an esteemed Zen priest and the second Black woman recognized as a teacher in the Japanese Zen lineage. She is one of our wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing.

An extraordinary conversation with the late congressman John Lewis, taped in Montgomery, Alabama, during a pilgrimage 50 years after the March on Washington. It offers a special look inside his wisdom, the civil rights leaders’ spiritual confrontation within themselves, and the intricate art of nonviolence as “love in action.”

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