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Power to the Peaceful

Social justice innovator Victor Narro, arms crossed, participates in a CreAtive Self-Care workshop at TeAda Productions in Los Angeles. (Texas Isaiah)

Google the word “crusades.” You’ll get about 17 million results in under a second. The primary links (those found on the first search page) provide information about the religious wars that were fought between European Christians and Muslims, mostly in the Middle East, between 1095 and 1291. Pope Urban II, the head of the Catholic Church at the time, commissioned the Crusades. Their main goal was to reclaim control of Jerusalem from Muslims, destroy Muslim culture and convert the world to Christianity by the sword. It was a bloody, violent, failed campaign. That is the popular historical account of the Crusades. But history has many perspectives, and some alternative sources report a different story about these holy wars.

One of the lesser-known narratives took place in 1219. St. Francis of Assisi traveled to the battlefield of Damietta, Egypt, and crossed enemy lines to meet with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, a Muslim leader. St. Francis stayed with the sultan for four days, learning about Islam and sharing his faith. The two engaged in peaceful dialogue, face to face. At the end of their meeting, St. Francis was a new man.

“It changed his whole life and his whole perception of Muslims,” Victor Narro told me during a phone conversation. “But the Catholic Church kept that hidden. They tried to quash that history. It wasn’t until the last 20 years [that] investigative reporters have uncovered evidence of this meeting that took place.”

Narro is the project director of the UCLA Labor Center. He also teaches at the university’s law school and has been fighting for immigrant and labor rights as a Los Angeles organizer for decades. A few years ago, he burned out emotionally and physically as a result of his activist work and ended up in the hospital with a health scare. The experience made him re-evaluate his life.

“I used to be a big believer in the martyr syndrome. It’s OK to be sick. That means I’m working hard, doing everything I can,” Narro, 54, explained. “It got me to thinking I need to change the way I do this kind of work. The way I approach the issues, the way I deal with the anger, the hate. It’s not healthy for me.”

So Narro went into deep reflection and rediscovered the joy of activism. He put his thoughts into a book, “Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality With Your Work for Justice,” and developed a self-care program to help activists stay strong. St. Francis and other spiritual leaders served as his guide.

There is a history in the social justice movement. Martin Luther King talked about this. He embraced this a lot in the civil rights movement. There is a spirituality aspect to it. Mahatma Gandhi and his work with nonviolence was all from a spiritual framework. We need to embrace these concepts and really use them as a way to deal with all the stress and anger and all the stuff that is going around to make us more healthy as activists.

I think there are a lot of practices from different teachings from different spirituals that have done social justice work that we can embrace. I go back 800 years with St. Francis of Assisi. Assisi dealt with a lot of injustices of the economy, the mercantile economy of the Middle Ages. All the injustices, people who were living on the street, the homeless, the lepers. Back then, people were put in leprosy colonies. So he lived amongst them, but he also worked on creating a movement to improve situations, improve conditions for a lot of people. He practiced a lot about how to do this kind of work being joyful, how to do this kind of work from the perspective of understanding and compassion, not to have hate and anger, how to do it through unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness.

I think Cesar Chavez embraced a lot of St. Francis of Assisi and his movement for nonviolence for farm workers. Gandhi was also very much influenced by St. Francis. These are folks that did the work of justice from a spiritual framework, and we should today integrate a lot of these principles because we need it more than ever. My book is about that, my book, “Living Peace.”

But I have been exploring other spiritualities. I am a strong follower of Thich Nhat Hanh and his approach to Zen Buddhism and using his methods of nonviolence to fight for peace and justice. I have also embraced Gandhi and his spirituality. I tried to mix it all up into my work for justice. But my main focus has been St. Francis of Assisi.

From these spiritual concepts, I create these workshops—like how to ground yourself when you are thrown off target, when you feel that moment of stress and anger, how to channel that into positive energy, how to avoid burnout, how to make sure you establish boundaries, so in the process of having to deal with impact issues (that are impacting everybody), how to also create boundaries so you take care of yourself in this whole process.

It’s self-care and community care, in looking out for yourself, in this process of self-care, how do you look out for each other, how we treat each other, how we help one another lift up each other, how we take care of each other in the process of being under all these attacks, and under all the hate and anger that is existing today, and how we fight back in a way that is healthier, that is not so much driven by anger and hate.

Narro is working hard to get people to embrace these self-care concepts. With Donald Trump’s assault on human rights, Narro has seen big demand for his work. The tools he teaches in his workshops are becoming valuable weapons to combat the exhaustion and burnout that can result from a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.

“I always tell people the Obama administration trained us for Trump,” Narro said. “Obama was real bad for immigrants. Obama had a deportation machine that was unjust … [but] we are seeing things that we have never seen before. It’s really shifted the way we are approaching the work. We are more into rapid response with our strategizing. We are more into the defensive versus the offensive. There has been a lot of panic. There is a sense of urgency, which is why I am doing this kind of work related to spirituality and self-care.

“The Obama deportation machine is something Trump just inherited, and he’s continuing to move it forward. The Trump administration is relentless. They are on the attack, day after day. They are attacking all communities, not just immigrant communities. Within the immigrant communities, they are attacking Muslims and Latinos. They are attacking all different immigrant communities. So we are feeling under the gun with these attacks. It’s now getting more awareness—this concept of spirituality, how to fight back in a way that is healthier and sustainable.”

Like soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, people fighting Trump’s war on immigration—from immigrants to activists—are feeling stress from the trauma.

“They are feeling the impact emotionally and physically from all the attacks on us,” Narro cautioned. “That’s why I have been focusing on really promoting the concept of spirituality and ways that we can implement certain practices—either meditation or other kinds of practices—where we can help deal with the anger and stress that is causing us to burn out.”

Narro is teaching a law class at UCLA called “Spirituality, Mindfulness, Self-Care and Social Justice Activism.” He has taught it the last two years, with groups of 25 social justice activist students in each class. It had been very popular. The university wants him to teach it again for a bigger group, so Narro is going to open up the class to 150 students. He plans to have them go into the community and survey the level of stress and anger in the movement. His goal is to quantify the depth of anxiety and stress and produce a report on how it is affecting today’s activists.

For Narro, every action must have a purpose. He wants his work to be practical and accessible. That’s why his approach is spiritual, not religious. He understands that religion, and its institutional overtones, can turn off some people. He doesn’t want to scare anyone away before he has a chance to help him or her.

“The workshops have been more of a practical application—how to do meditation on the spot, how to deal with triggers, how to use mindfulness practice as a way to deal with issues that come up, during a crisis or feeling a major level of stress, how to disconnect and how to apply some mindfulness principles to improve the conditions and situation you are under.

“But these practical tools have spiritual origins. Like Thich Nhat Hanh and his method of Buddhism, there is a lot of practicality in it. So you can apply the practical tools. If the opportunity comes up, I try to integrate his teachings, not just the tools but the teachings itself. I try to do the same with St. Francis and others.

“I know in the progressive movement, there’s always an anti-religion, anti-spiritual bent. I use the spirituality if it makes sense. The Franciscan spirituality is not so much connected with the Catholic Church. It’s more with St. Francis the activist and what he taught us.”

Narro urges people to use “righteous anger,” the idea of directing anger toward the injustice, not an individual. That’s a healthful anger. He discovered this “tool of justice” from reading “The Book of Joy” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Like Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Narro has learned to find joyfulness in the struggles for justice. That’s what he is teaching justice activists to do.

Other self-care techniques in Narro’s justice toolbox include mindfulness exercises, breathing, stretching and meditation. He encourages people to unplug from the digital world and connect with family, friends and nature. He also facilitates reflection circles, providing a space where people feel safe to share their histories, their stories, what they are feeling. He believes that creating strong bonds with people is an important part of self-care and sees storytelling as a key weapon in the activism movement.

Narro cites the story of Lizbeth Mateo—an undocumented immigrant who is an immigration lawyer—as an example of the power of stories:

One of the most powerful tools we have today is the opportunity for people to tell their stories. That’s the only way we’re going to win the debate on issues like immigration. There are people that are anti-immigrant because they don’t know the stories. They get stereotyped and manipulated by the right wing. Once people learn the stories and see who these immigrants really are—Lizbeth has an awesome story. Everyone in this country would want to have a daughter like Lizbeth. But people don’t know her story. We have to create the space for people like Lizbeth to be able to tell their story. And then we use social media to promote their stories.

That’s why I’m a big fan of folks like Truthdig and other networks. What we have today is a powerful way to get those stories out. I think that is the only way we are going to win this. Legally, there are all sorts of legal battles. There are legal battles to fight deportation, there are legal battles to dismantle executive orders. We have lawyers to have the courtroom battles. The legal battles can only take you so far. If you are going to win over the hearts and minds of people in this country who are really lacking knowledge of the issue, it is going to be through storytelling. It cannot be me because I am not the person to tell somebody’s story. What I need to do is create the space for that person to be able to tell their stories.

To help create that space, Narro partnered with Chaumtoli Huq, a lawyer and social justice innovator in New York. Huq created a social justice blog in 2013 called Law at the Margins. The blog focuses on the ways legal institutions and laws expand or limit the rights and social justice aspirations of people and communities.

After Narro released his book in 2014, he approached Huq and asked: Would it be appropriate to write a piece about how spirituality is important to immigrant rights work?

“You have to make it concrete,” Huq said she told Narro. “The audience of Law at the Margins is hardcore activists. Many of them are secular, anti-faith. Not in a bad way; it’s just not part of their identity. Or they think it’s sort of New Age meditation. It’s too soft.

“Knowing this audience, we have to make the case why spirituality should be discussed on a law-related site. At the end of the day, Law at the Margins is still a law-related site.”

Narro wrote a couple of pieces for the site (see here, here and here). Then he did a webinar/chat with Huq, and she began to see that other people, like them, were thinking about the same issues.

After Huq and Narro saw the success of his initial work on Law at the Margins, they decided to create a Faith Justice section on the site to look at the relationship between law, justice and spirituality—how they are connected and where they take separate paths—and to encourage people to write from that point of view. The Faith Justice blog launched earlier this year, and Narro has started interacting with Muslim activists and activists from other spiritualties and communities around the country.

“It’s allowed me to broaden my horizons,” said Narro, who’s been learning a lot about Islam, Muslims, Muslim activists and their spirituality. “Since it’s not just focused on Catholicism and St. Francis, it’s really allowed me to look at the common threads of how we are all connected.”

Based on the early success of this collaboration, Huq is excited about the potential for Law at the Margins to grow and humanize the immigration issue. The site already is connected to on-the-ground, grass-roots activism and movement-building efforts, and it features guest posts to enable perspectives not often in the public discourse to be heard and elevated.

At the end of 2016, Law at the Margins did a series called Dilley Dispatches, about the immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas, the largest immigration detention center in the United States. A group of lawyers and social workers went to the detention center and shared their stories.

Huq plans to do more of this kind of work:

Law at the [Margins’] mission is to use the power of journalism, the advocacy of law and the community building of organizing. That’s our pitch. First, lifting up stories through dispatches, front-line experiences. Then, talking about it in an advocacy manner, like these detention centers should be shut down. Women and children should not be in detention—they’re fleeing violence in Central America. That’s the legal advocacy piece. Then, the organizing is working with community-based organizations. That’s the way in which Law at the Margins thinks about the work. So it straddles these different disciplines. … Are you a lawyer? Are you a media outfit? What are you? We are all of above. These are all strategies in our toolbox.

In the same way, America is a “multidisciplinary” place. Our country is not just one thing. It’s many things. Many people. Many cultures. Many ideas. Collaboration is vital to tell the American story. This isn’t a one-person job. This isn’t a one-organization job. This is a job for millions of people.

“We need to bring different disciplines together,” Huq said. “Listen to each other. Get ourselves outside our professional silos. Then center the story.”

Stories have the power to heal. That’s what America needs right now, and that’s what Shruti Purkayastha, a cultural worker, facilitates with Narro in the CreAtive Self-Care workshop at TeAda Productions, a performance arts theater led by and for people of color. The workshop uses creative exercises and games to build a community of care and healing.

“There is so much trauma now everywhere,” said Purkayastha, a project director and community organizer at TeAda. “With folks getting deported, there is trauma not just for the person getting deported, but for the family, for the communities. Communities have to mobilize in a way that is very stressful, that is very tragic. That kind of environment of trauma impacts our bodies, impacts our health, impacts the way that our brains work, impacts the way our hearts can be open to relationships or human connection. So there is a way we are really healing our bodies and creating the space for storytelling and witnessing [that] allows for really spiritual healing.”

Leadership development is a big component of Narro’s practice. Like any enlightened sage, he wants to give activists the tools to lead, not lead them himself. In June, Narro participated in a community empowerment workshop at East Los Angeles College. The event brought together social justice advocates, immigration rights lawyers, journalists and community members. The goal was to show how communities can build mobile newsrooms to reinvent local news through multidisciplinary collaboration. This approach could be used with any disciplines.

America is at a crossroads. Anger, bitterness and hate have reached absurd levels.

This story by Huq shows the absurdity of our repression. (Keep in mind that Huq was born in Bangladesh in 1971, came to the United States as an infant with her parents in 1972 and became a citizen in 1980.)

I was traveling during the month of Ramadan. You are supposed to read from the holy Koran while you fast. But I did not want to put my Koran in my carry-on. I was very conscious of having something that would draw suspicion. Should I put the Koran in my suitcase? I wanted to have it in my carry-on because I wanted to read it during my travels. This is the absurdity of this repression. This is the way it seeps into your brain. I was like, “Oh, my God, if I’m searched, and they open my suitcase, they could say, ‘Why do I have a Koran?’ ” Something so benign becomes something suspicious.

So I put it in my suitcase and didn’t have it in my carry-on. I was very conscious of having anything that identifies myself in that way. …

My point is that something so simple, like this is a holy month of fasting, so I should be reading. But even if it wasn’t a holy month. So what? This is a book I’m reading. … Most people that are engaged with their faith will have it.

That’s an example of how something so simple becomes suspicious. We put people through so much scrutiny. Imagine if at this moment because of your immigration status or some other undesirable status, your whole life is under scrutiny. No one can hold up to that level of scrutiny the way that we are scrutinizing marginalized communities.

All of this division is being driven by fear. Where we go from here is up to us. We can keep being afraid, or we can turn that fear into power and figure out how to transform America into a place of acceptance and tolerance, a place where we can co-exist with each other—and the rest of the world—in peace. That transformation won’t be easy. The journey begins with self-love (what Narro teaches and what psychologist Erich Fromm calls the foundation of a sane society) in order to find ourselves and have any shot at finding democracy.

If you don’t know what to do, Martin Luther King Jr.’s six pillars of nonviolent resistance are a good place to start.

1. Do not mistake nonviolence for passivity or cowardice.

2. Do not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.

3. Remember that those who perpetrate violence are often victims themselves.

4. Accept suffering, if necessary, without retaliation, because unearned suffering is redemptive and can educate and transform.

5. Meet hate with love—not the sentimental kind, but an active love, of understanding and kindness, what the Greeks called agape—that restores community.

6. Know that the universe is on the side of justice.

If this doesn’t work, remember these words from King: Love your enemies.

Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.

Again, some people may not be ready to love the enemy just yet.

“We don’t need to complicate things,” Huq acknowledged. “Social change doesn’t need to be complicated. The DNA or the structure of social change is the human connection and human communication. That’s the foundation of social change work. We’re all going back to the basics.”

So let’s start at the beginning with a mindfulness exercise from Thich Nhat Hanh: Slow down your body. Become aware of your surroundings.

This is where we can experience truth in some way. This is where we can be more open to ourselves and to each other. This is where we can find some kind of peace.

Now it’s time for a meditative walk.

You are walking slowly. You feel your feet connect to the ground. You feel the energy between your feet and the ground. That energy is the gravity that is the connection we have to the earth.

By walking on the earth, we are massaging the earth. We are reclaiming this relationship to the earth that has been abused or destroyed in so many ways.

Take time to slow down. Recognize the people in your life and what stories they are holding, and learn how to reconnect to the earth and each other.

Make peace every step.

Eric Ortiz
Managing Editor
Eric Ortiz is the managing editor of Truthdig. A journalist and innovator with two decades in digital media, Ortiz founded the mobile app startup Evrybit, a live storytelling and reporting tool, as a 2014 John…
Eric Ortiz

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