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The Protest Chaplains: A new paradigm in chaplaincy during a time of social transformation (Part 1)

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I’ve been absent for a while from the Jizo Chronicles… my focus over the past two months has been on completing the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program (that’s been my journey over the past two years). Two weeks ago, I presented my thesis and then graduated and received lay ordination as a chaplain on March 11th.

I thought you might enjoy learning about what I’ve been spending my time on over the past few months, so over the next several posts I am publishing my thesis–which I believe is very relevant to socially engaged dharma.

At the end of October, I traveled to Boston to interview four of the Protest Chaplains who were present on the first day of OWS in New York City (September 17, 2011). All four were from Harvard Divinity School. I also spent time at the Occupy Boston campsite as a participant-observer (that’s my anthropology background coming out!). All this material informed my thesis.

Part 1, posted here, offers background on the concept of “Protest Chaplain” as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. If any of you would like the entire thesis as a Word document, let me know and I’m happy to share it with you. May it be of benefit.

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Part 2: EcoChaplaincy and the Occupy Movement [guest post]

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Sarah Vekasi

Note: This is the second part of the letter that I received from Sarah Vekasi a couple of weeks ago. Part 1 appears here on the Jizo Chronicles. To learn more about Sarah’s work, please visit her website: You can support what she’s doing by making a gift here:

EcoChaplaincy and the Occupy Movement

by Sarah Vekasi

I know that there is a great amount of anger out there, and for good reason. Despair, apathy, fear and cynicism too. Some say that captivating and cultivating “righteous anger” is the moving force for change, but I disagree. I know that it is a spark, a symbol of our need for justice, but not a spark that can sustain itself. Anger has an opposite, an enemy, and for many real and justified reasons. However, in order to truly sustain oneself, it is vital to find your vision and place your intention in something far greater than yourself and the specific injustices of the moment. In Buddhism, this often comes down to a great vow – for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering; in Christianity we hear about the greatest commandment of all –to love thy neighbor as oneself.

This is the key work of the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative: to help activists, organizers and people in all forms of environmental and social justice work synchronize our intentions with our actions.

There is a lot of writing about it online at  Eco-Chaplaincy comes out of the professionalism of chaplaincy, and offers support within movements, organizations, affinity groups, for individuals, etc.  There is an art to chaplaincy, like the specific training for psychologists or the medical professions, and that training can be applied in the streets, hollows and meeting halls, as well as in a hospital, prison, hospice, the military or anywhere else there are chaplains.

Last night at the general assembly in Asheville, a man spoke from the “Spirituality and Support Group,” and then another man voiced his discontent with that group saying that, “this is political, not spiritual, there is no room for religion here.”

My heart opened to him in my guess that the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ probably carry all sorts of negativity for him with people not accepting him for who he is, or loving him as who he is. I am an eco-chaplain and not a minister or a dharma teacher for a reason – so that I can offer support for groups and individuals in the religious or secular language that makes them tic, not me. But I still have my own opinions about religion and work as a “religious leader,” so let me ask yall: “What is real religion honestly if not the practice of trying to work for our collective liberation, trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, forgive the best we can, keep trying, and working for the liberation of all beings?”

Tell me truly. I know that I write these letters to people on all sides of every political spectrum, so tell me – what could be more political than loving our neighbors as ourselves and working towards our collective liberation?

Here is what I know for sure. A movement based on anger cannot sustain itself. A movement based on fear cannot mobilize itself. A movement void of spirituality, or intention, is not a movement, just a cause or campaign. Only when there is a vision and an intention large enough to sustain many victories and many losses will it surpass the passion of the moment and carry forward lasting change.

This is the goal of eco-chaplaincy. To help activists, organizers, friends, neighbors, all of us to connect with a vision large enough it can sustain us through the ups and downs of our times so we can stay engaged in the world and not drown in anger, despair, fear, apathy, numbness, etc.

How? Eco-Chaplaincy is just like all chaplaincy: being present as best one can, offering active listening, mediation, conflict transformation, and spiritual and religious support. I love working as an eco-chaplain and love creating the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, and what I love even more is the thought that there are many thousands of people tonight who will sleep outside in cities throughout this country after participating in an ongoing dialogue about what needs are not being met in our country and the world at the moment, before jumping into “demands” with specific strategies of how to “fix”it.

Let’s all make ourselves more open to seeing one another and truly hearing one another. I am not so interested in hearing all the divergent and often polarizing strategies for how to fix things until there is a real conversation about what needs are not being met first. To do this, we have to listen, and we have to connect, and that is why I love that the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Your Street mobilizations are not based on a demand or demands, do not have a specific agenda or leaders – because it is a time for people to begin to connect, to listen, and see what needs we all share and what needs are not being met. From there, we can co-create solutions that will satisfy a real majority through consensus.

Maybe the process of connecting is itself the solution. The process is the product. Imagine!

Here are some more ways that I know how to participate in a Great Turning:

• Begin by exploring ourselves. Our anger. Our fear. Our apathy. Our grief. Normalize it, express it, release it, be in it, don’t just deny it. Ask, what is my story? What is your story? Go through it. We don’t have to stay there, and we won’t, we just cycle through. The way through is exactly that – through. Be willing to make mistakes, to forgive others for mistakes, and hold tight to integrity, honesty, traditional values like not killing or lying or stealing, etc. Let the personal be political, our unique spiritual practices reveal themself through our actions of body, speech and mind, our unique religious practices show through our love and care for one another.

• If you feel up to it, try this exercise out. Next time you find that you have the time, ask someone you don’t know, or maybe even someone you do know questions like:

  • “What do you think about the condition of our world?”
  •  “How has the recession and financial meltdown affected you or your family?”
  • “What concerns do you have about the world these days?”
  • And then don’t let the conversation just dwell in what is wrong, ask also:
  • “What is your favorite part about being alive during these uncertain times?
  • “Tell me about a place you love.”

There is a power in making yourself available for listening. There is so much need to be heard out there. I know because I listen for a living!

• If you really feel up for it, check out whatever general assembly is happening near you, or start one, or watch a live stream online.

As you all know, the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative runs through your donations. Thank you to those of you who have donated recently. If you are willing to chip in, please sign up to be a monthly donor or for a one time donation online at or through the mail at PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778.

I would love to listen more to you too. Truly. Call me for a listening session if you want, or call anyways because it is always great to connect.

Love and Solidarity,


Chaplains Speak Out on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal

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I am heartened whenever I hear about an individual or a group of people who use their credibility and voice to speak up for something, to put their necks out for a cause bigger than themselves.

Sometimes this is called “being an ally,” sometimes it’s called advocacy, sometimes it’s just simply doing what’s right. It’s easier to not speak up, and most of the time people don’t look much beyond their own interests.

But when it does happen, I think it’s a modern manifestation of the bodhisattva ideal.

Last week, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Professional Chaplains in Dallas, TX. I was there on behalf of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. I don’t consider myself a chaplain, at least not in the traditional sense, so this was not my “tribe,” so to speak. Even so, I enjoyed meeting people and learning more about this profession.

Earlier in the week, I had mentioned to a student in our program that I had been following a couple of news stories this past year that involved chaplains and I was surprised and disappointed that the APC didn’t seem to have expressed an opinion on them. One was the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the other was the growing presence of Muslim chaplains on college campuses and other settings.

In both cases, fear-based fundamentalists grabbed on to these events and turned them into an opportunity to spread their distorted points of view. [Distorted in my opinion, anyway.] In the case of gays serving openly in the military, the position was that chaplains were having their rights violated. In the case of Muslim chaplains, well, there wasn’t anything remotely close to a rational objection… the responses were racist, pure and simple.

Here was the perfect opportunity for a professional body of chaplains to refute these destructive beliefs. And yet I hadn’t seen anything in the media. Well, it turns out I was wrong. The APC actually did make a statement on DADT, and I was told that APC president David Johnson also spoke out in strong support of Muslim chaplains.

It may be that the APC needs some more savvy media help to get these statements better press coverage, but I am gratified to know that at least they put this out.

So in the interest of helping to spread the word, I’ll share the statement on DADT with you here:

November 4, 2010

The largest organization of professional chaplains in the United States, in a statement issued today, says that the beliefs of a faith group about homosexuality do not preclude a chaplain from serving “both God and the U.S. armed forces,” as claimed by some retired military chaplains who do not want the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy revoked.

Association of Professional Chaplains President, Rev. Dr. David Johnson, D.Min. BCC, says, “All board certified chaplains (BCC) must abide by our Code of Ethics, which requires serving people without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Our Code further prohibits chaplains from imposing doctrinal positions or spiritual practices on those they serve.”

Chaplain Valerie Storms, M.Div. BCC, president-elect, says, “Chaplaincy is grounded in the common belief in the dignity of every person and the ability of each person to experience the presence of a loving Creator in a time of crisis, hardship or circumstances that bring them into the presence of a chaplain. We do not work as promoters of a particular faith tradition but as ministers of hope to all in need.”

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