How Advent Actually Happens in Cold, Dark, Desperate Places: Compassion Cultivation at Angola

Angola entrance photo

“Desperate” is defined as “involving a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with.”

Synonyms for “Advent” include “arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise, development.”

Compassion warriors show up in desperate places, places where there is immense need for compassion, and there they seek Advent: the arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise, development that can mend the torn fabric of the world.

100 compassion warriors gathered on a cold, rainy, windy day yesterday at our Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary for “A Day of Compassion.” Some of them were from the outside. Some of them were from the inside. All of them were seeking Advent in a desperate place, and it had nothing to do with free people stringing tinsel and being glee.

Here are a few of the compassion warriors seeking Advent in a desperate place who I encountered yesterday.

Rev. Michaela O’Conner Bono is a Zen Buddhist Priest, a young white adult whose hair is shaved on one side. She demonstrated a fierce stance as a warrior of compassion. She came from the outside, where she leads Mid City Zen in New Orleans. She seeks Advent.

Rev. A. is an African-American minister of Islam, who is from the inside, serving as a mentor, and hospice worker, as well as a religious leader of a Muslim congregation. His demeanor was joyful. He glowed from the inside. How is that possible when living in a desperate place like Angola? Advent must be finding him, birthing in him.

Ariel Jeanjacques is a program coordinator for Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice in New Orleans. She is from the outside, an African-American young adult who has learned that victims, families, and perpetrators of violence are all suffering human beings. She seeks Advent with all of them.

Mr. S. is a giant of a man who lives on the inside. He is a mentor, and speaks with at-risk youth and a wide variety of groups who tour Angola. He spoke of the pain of meeting a group from Germany who said the maximum sentence for crimes there is ten years, because in their criminal justice system there can be reconciliation and healing in justice, not just permanent punishment without hope of parole. I spent much of the day with him, feeling immense sadness and the constant struggle with hopelessness which keeps him hovering near the desperate place. He really needs and wants Advent.

Lara Naughton lives on the outside but serves on the inside. She has created a Compassion Cultivation Training program (CCT) inside Angola, completing two eight-week trainings with inmates before birthing “A Day of Compassion.” She is a survivor of violent crime who used a fierce compassion for the desperation in her attacker to survive. The inmates know that, and respect her immensely. Lara told the story in her book, The Jaguar Man. She believes the survivor has the right to seek the healing of both victim and perpetrator, and is dedicating her energy to doing just that on the inside of Angola. Lara is helping to birth Advent in a desperate place.

Mr. D. has lived on the inside for decades, continually paying for a crime from his youth. He serves as a mentor for new inmates, and is now a teaching assistant in the CCT program. He speaks with a sense of power and truth. He is “woke” to the daily effects of racism at every level of American society, including our choice to stay blind to the way poverty, poor education, low wages, and hopelessness produce inner city crime from generation to generation. He spoke openly of the unending hurdles to birthing compassion in the criminal justice system. And yet, there he was, working each day to do his part to help birth Advent in a desperate place.

John Burkhart is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a field director in the area of criminal justice reform. He lives on the outside, but works with those on the inside. He is a white male who is not willing to stand for the myths of white supremacy or black/immigrant inferiority which pervades the culture. He, too, is part of birthing Advent in a desperate world.

Mr. K. lives and serves on the inside. He authored a program for father’s in prison which is now used in hundreds of prisons across the country. At our last visit I agreed to send him a copy of my book, Monks in the World. When I saw him I felt bad for not taking that simple step for a month now. I reminded him I owe him a book. He simply said, “I know.” Despite how white people make promises we fail to keep with black people all the time, he still works toward Advent in a place that is the definition of desperate.

Margaret Cullen is one of the architects and core faculty of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program created through Stanford University. She teaches CCT to physicians, nurses, HIV positive men, cancer patients, military spouses and now, even though she is from the outside, on the inside of a prison. She taught: “In compassion the ‘separation’ between us is gone.” She also shared some of the research showing the neuroplasticity of the brain, (meaning the brain can change), and how “compassion and altruism are trainable skills.”

In her first study right there at Angola this summer, the inmates who participated in the first CCT with Lara showed more than a 100% increase in their awareness of our common humanity. This awareness is foundational to growing in compassion for others’ suffering. Do you imagine Margaret is helping to birth Advent?

Another Mr. S. lives on the inside. He is a pastor and teaching assistant to Lara. In an increasingly soft voice, he led us through a compassion meditation. He called us down into the center of being where the heart guides our decisions and actions. There he invited us to direct compassion toward ourselves, “May I be happy, know peace, and find healing.” Then he led us to focus the compassion toward a person we care about, “May you be happy….” Then he led us to send the compassion toward everyone in the room. Those from the outside and those on the inside became one. Isn’t that Advent?

Sister Alison McCrary, SFCC, is a social justice attorney who has been leaving her home on the outside to visit death row inmates on the inside for twelve years. Despite the depressive atmosphere that pervades the places where she serves, Alison somehow stays near the Source of joy, and radiates that to all who meet her. She too is a young adult who serves from a heart of compassion, who seeks to be Advent in a desperate corner of the globe.

That is the thing really. Advent can be such a happy little moment for comfortable people like me to put evergreens and red bows around churches, to sing happy little songs about that sweet little baby Jesus coming to earth to save our eternal souls. But now I see how Advent actually happens in cold, dark, desperate places like Compassion Cultivation at Angola.

We from the outside, and our friends on the inside, closed “A Day of Compassion” by facing the camera which was filming the whole day, and directed the compassion to the 5678 incarcerated people, and the 1000+ staff members, who will all eventually see the video. We said to them all, “May you be happy, free of suffering, anger, and fear, and may you know peace and joy.” Perhaps others will soon see and know how Advent actually happens in cold, dark, desperate places like Compassion Cultivation at Angola.

*For more information about CCT, visit the website for The Compassion Institute or email the staff at For more information about the work of Lara Naughton, contact her at To learn more about our School for Contemplative Living and our plans to incorporate CCT as part of our primary curriculum, contact William Thiele through

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We radiate what is inside us. That is a simple principle of human existence.

If I plant the seeds for pumpkins, and cultivate pumpkins, pumpkins will grow. The same is true for whatever I plant and cultivate in my life.

If I plant and cultivate the seeds of cynicism, cynicism will grow. If I plant and cultivate the seeds of loving-kindness, loving-kindness will grow.

If I am filled with cynicism, those around me will experience my cynicism radiating out from me. If I am filled with loving-kindness, those around me will experience my loving-kindness radiating out from me. And I am filled with either cynicism or loving-kindness according to what I plant and cultivate each day. This principle seems so simple.

What seeds shall I plant and cultivate today? Consequently, what shall I radiate today?


My decision about planting. cultivating, and radiating will determine how I choose to live today. This is why I must begin my day planting seeds of loving-kindness into my own being.

As I go through the curriculum of classes, readings, discussions with the global community of the Compassion Institute, and daily guided meditations, I am in the week where we focus on loving-kindness for ourselves. The first three times I listened through this week’s guided meditation I noticed that my mind tuned out for the closing intentions. Mind-wandering once or twice is no surprise, but three times in a row? I sensed something was up.

So I stopped trying to be led through the loving-kindness for self meditation and went back to simply listen and record what my mind was resisting. I had to know what was triggering my unconscious resistance. If we do not know our own resistance, how can we work with it? What I found really surprised me, and was something I needed to know.

The phrases I kept missing, intended to help me set my daily intention for loving-kindness of self, were these: “I take joy in who I am. I shall be a friend to myself. I rejoice in the celebration of my life.”

Why did my mind resist letting these simple phrases in? After reflecting on the question for several days, new light emerged. My basic orientation in life is toward others. I am very comfortable focusing attention toward the needs of others, and remarkably unaware of the needs of William. (This made my roles as a psychotherapist and spiritual director for decades easy, because the focus was always on the other).

I can just look at another being and see their innate goodness, sense their struggles, and feel compassion and loving-kindness for them. But ask me to focus positive thoughts on myself, to “take joy in who I am,” this is amazingly uncomfortable territory.

I know the easy stuff, like my favorite chocolate candy and coffee drink and brand of cinnamon rolls for breakfast. And I know how to judge the hell out of myself by seeing my faults with ease. But taking joy in my being, and befriending myself, seems altogether different. And hard!

And I don’t mean to say, “Hey, everybody look at how great I am. I care about everyone.” I struggle with judgments of others like everyone. (Wonder if that could be connected to how easily I listen to judgments of myself? I mean the voice of the Inner Critic is like my best friend at times).

Do you think I have some work ahead if I am going to plant and cultivate and radiate the seeds of loving-kindness for myself and others? Apparently! Perhaps I better give myself the next year to work with this process, continue my daily guided meditations, and see how this is coming in a year.

And just to be clear, I may not be the only person who struggles with this gap between wishing my own well-being and wishing the well-being of others. The whole sequence of the eight-week coursework of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) through Stanford University’s Compassion Institute had to be redesigned because this issue was so common in North America.

To see if I was the only one who struggles with this locally, I asked the question at one of the most loving places I know around New Orleans, Project Lazarus, (the residential AIDS treatment community). In the morning meeting with staff, residents, and volunteers I shared this story, shared the intentions, and asked if anyone there is just like me. Immediately, several residents and staff members affirmed the truth for themselves. Many of us, despite caring for others, seem to suck at self-love and to excel at self-judgment.

One resident/friend said he believes it is part of the training in many Christian churches: “Put God first, others second, and yourself last.” (I heard the same thing growing up). Where did that craziness come from, when Jesus said, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”? Who decided it is Christian to put ourselves down? And with all that constant focus on sin every single week at Christian churches across the nation, you would think the good news Jesus came to bring was: “You are very bad. You were born in badness. God cannot bear to look on your badness.” (Just to put a stamp of approval on this twisting of the “good news,” Christianity gave a title to this story: “original sin.”)

At Project Lazarus we agreed there could be another way. Even if it is hard, we agreed we all need some practice in taking joy in who we are and befriending ourselves. One staff member, Karen, even shared a beautiful way to conceive of this work, this loving-kindness for self, with a quote from poet/philosopher/author Mark Nepo: “I marry my self: to have and to hold from this day forward, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, to love and to cherish, ’till death do us part.” Wow!


Today I aspire to love myself. That means I will plant and cultivate the seeds of loving-kindness for myself, and hope to radiate the same to others. In fact, in principle, I know that if I “take joy in who I am” and “befriend myself,” I will radiate that.

We will see where I am with this in a year. Transformation takes time. And I will not get there on my own.

I will need a community who also practices the presence of the Source of loving-kindness, a contemplative community, a place to take refuge. I will need to gather with others who are non-judgmental, compassionate, and willing to engage with this journey of transformation. We will plant and cultivate seeds of loving-kindness together.

We will gather in places like the Friends Meeting for Quaker worship, the Ignatius Chapel at Loyola University, and Rayne’s Epiphany House, (see photos), as well as the Advent House, Mercy Endeavors senior center, Ochsner hospital’s chapel, the homes of friends, and Mt. Zion’s Open Table ministry with street friends. We will become radiance together.

May you too, in your way, plant and cultivate these seeds: take joy in who you are, befriend yourself, and become radiance.



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Putting our fears in the cradle of Loving-Kindness

CCT in meditation 3

I am inviting you to join me in a beautiful and terribly needed practice in these days of constant fear/anxiety/worry/heartache. Isn’t it time for putting our fears in the cradle of Loving-Kindness?

The global community feels the shockwave every time another person goes crazy and takes others’ lives, or another storm/earthquake/fire/tidal wave crushes nations, or another group displays their hatred out in the open. We see it all now because there are TV stations dedicated to showing us the most terrible parts of our humanity, the most awful events anywhere across the globe, 24 hours a day. And we feed on the terrible as though we are starving, as though we have not tasted nearly enough disaster.

If a billion people worship safely on a Sunday, we will be shown the one place in the world where worship was not safe. If a trillion acts of loving-kindness happen face-to-face on every continent, we will be shown the one tweet where someone was immensely unkind. The worse the event is somewhere, the more likely it will be put in our faces, over and over, until the next worst thing arises.

In the face of our own hunger for disaster, our own tendency to feed on the very things that stress us out and raise our daily fears to unprecedented heights, I know there is a better way. I know there is a wiser lifestyle. I know we need to learn the practice of putting our fears in the cradle of Loving-Kindness.

This Saturday, I am gathering friends who want to spend six hours creating this kind of contemplative community on our property in Slidell, Louisiana. I am inviting you and your friends to join me in eight contemplative practices to save our lives. I need you to help form this kind of community – because I cannot live this lifestyle alone.

Would you like to spend six hours this Saturday, 9 am – 3 pm, silently putting our fears in the cradle of Loving-Kindness? Would you come into a community to experience a body scan for relaxation, sacred yoga, centering prayer, walking meditation in a cypress swamp on a clear-cool day, eating meditation (with whatever you bring to delight your belly), a mountain meditation, and a loving-kindness meditation?

We have room for you, and we could use your intention to support our own as we practice what we all need to save our lives: putting our fears in the cradle of Loving-Kindness together.

Suggested cost: $50

Location: 435 Nighthawk Drive, Slidell, LA 70461


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I was back in prison today…

Praises at Mt. Zion

…and I watched a tear drop onto his chocolate cheek, as Mr. A told the story of his transformation from who he was, decades ago when he took a life as a teenager, to who he is now, and to who he is becoming. The tear dropped when he said he was becoming a writer, and by God’s grace he has written a curriculum for incarcerated fathers which has spread to 246 prisons and five countries. Astounding!

Mr. A’s story unfolded through an exercise of looking each other in the face, one-on-one, for an extended period of time, (not exactly the usual way of men, especially in a prison), and taking turns asking the other person, “Who are you?” about ten times. Then we asked, “Who were you?” about ten times.” And finally we asked, “Who are you becoming?” about ten times. After each answer we said, “Thank you,” and asked again. So the answers tended to go deeper and deeper.

The whole thing is part of week five in the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course which Lara Naughton is leading there at Angola State prison. This is the week of exploring our common humanity, so men like me from outside the prison join the exploration with men inside the prison. There is no doubt the program is helping to change lives. When I am there it is helping to change mine.

How, you might ask, does talking with men in a state prison change my life?

First, I have listened to people’s life stories for my whole career. But this year is the first time I have listened to men in prison, men who have changed so radically from who they were. In listening, I can palpably feel the character which has grown up inside the men. There is no pretending, no advantage to creating false personas. “Lifers” do not get brownie points for participating in this program. They enter for a chance to continue their transformation from hopeless drop-outs of society to hopeful men on a mission.

So when Mr. A asked me those same questions over and over, it seemed only right that I speak truth about myself too. I looked him in the eye and told him many slivers of who I am, was, and am becoming. We could have gone on for hours. And when he heard that I am a writer too, he asked me about my book, and asked me to mail him a copy of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture. I will do that. It is the least I can do for a man who had the courage to look me in the eye and tell me who he was, is, and is becoming. Today we became friends, across all the imagined boundaries between our lives.

That is part of what compassion cultivation does. Imagined boundaries, fences, separations, and walls fall away. Connections, caring, and experiencing our oneness are ignited. Our common humanity becomes clear. And in a mind-blowing way, both our projections about “those people” dissolve into realizing a “stranger’s” life matters to me!

One other story of many I could tell from today is wanting to be shared.

Mr. B talked with me during lunch as he finished off a cheeseburger and I tackled a large plate of baked chicken. He said he is a poet and he likes to learn about people’s experiences which are not like his own. After fifteen years inside the state prison, he is hungry for contact with the outside world.

He peppered me with questions about why I now teach meditation practices, what they do for me, how they work, etc. He wanted to know about dealing with the flood of thoughts which always come and if that was really normal. When I mentioned that my practices have helped me through decades of health problems with my wife, he wanted to know specifics. Part of the story was how my wife’s sister donated a kidney to my wife 23 years ago. He couldn’t understand how someone could be that “selfless.”

When I told him my wife and I were both raised in families that would do anything they could for us, from the time we were born through today, he was dumbfounded. By his quizzical face it was clear he really couldn’t imagine being cared for with unconditional love.

Mr. B said all he ever knew was having to fend for himself. Sharing was out of the question when he never knew if there would be food the next day. (When I had offered him half of my baked chicken meal because there was too much there, he had the weirdest expression, as though it was some kind of trick). Life had been all about survival and being on his own. That was heartbreaking to me, to realize how completely different our early lives had been and to know that each of our lives would have been so different if we were born into the other’s family.

I went on to say a bit more about family love, in response to his questions, including how I still loved my wife in our 40th year of marriage. That barely computed to Mr. B. But then he said something amazing.

Mr. B. said hearing my stories of family love, of unconditional love, and of finding a place of wholeness beneath all my life’s brokenness through the meditation practices, was giving him a feeling of hope. He said it was almost like he was feeling what I had felt, and it was astounding. He thanked me repeatedly for telling him what I had experienced. Some of that life-long family love seemed to be transmitted from my story into him.

How unbelievable is that? Instead of demoralizing him, or making him feel like we were totally different people who couldn’t relate to each other, he somehow used my story to fill himself with a bit of what I had received. Until today, I never knew that loving-kindness and compassion can flow from one family into a “stranger” through the simple act of hearing. I didn’t know the Great Love can go that far, can reach a man in a state prison through a simple story of another man’s life.

In a way I can’t explain, Mr. B became part of our family today, became my brother. The Great Love somehow let him know that he can experience real love too.

It’s like the Great Love will go to any lengths to get the message to Her/His children, wherever they are, no matter what! Even inside a state prison.

Tonight I really pray that Mr. A and Mr. B will be filled with the Great Love in a way that only Spirit can perform: on their bunks, inside a prison, through their memories of today and dreams in the night. I pray they will both know in the deepest places, where spirit and bone meet, that they are children of God and beloved children at that.

May we all be so blessed again this night and into tomorrow.

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When visions come…

CCT Jinpa leading meditation

We had come from around the world, from every continent, as a global community seeking to cultivate compassion and learning to teach the same. We were beginners all, no matter our fields of service, which is how things work for contemplatives. We always begin again, sourcing our lives in the Source of compassion, as though we had never practiced compassion before.

Dr. Thupten Jinpa, translator for the Dalai Lama for the past 30 years, was leading us in an extended tonglen practice at the close of our first week of Compassion Cultivation Teacher Training in California. Tonglen is a way to imagine freeing others from suffering. But to me it is not very different from sincere prayer. The practice is a matter of the heart: wishing for a person or group to be free of suffering and becoming willing to act for that freedom.

Dr. Jinpa led us to close our eyes, still the mind, relax the body, and focus our intention. He guided us through a process of filling up with compassion and directing it to ourselves, and someone we love, by silently saying, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”

I have engaged in this practice for over a year on a regular basis and prayed for people my whole life. But my rational mind often kicks in and wonders things like, “Is this really accomplishing anything?” My mind has always done the same in the act of praying for others. My mind has a hard time believing in what it can’t see.

Then Dr. Jinpa added a new twist to the practice. As sixty of us sat in a giant circle, five teachers and fifty-five students, he had us briefly open our eyes, smile at the person on our right and left, and close our eyes again. I smiled at Wendy from New York on my right and Ravi from India on my left. Then he led us to pray, (my word, not his), for freedom from suffering for those two people by silently saying, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”

My mind wondered again, for a moment, if that wish was accomplishing anything. Then it happened.

A vision came, a fascinating image of the suffering in each of them breaking up into dark little fragments and flying off of their bodies and up into the air. The tiny bits of suffering were streaming away from them, like a scene from a Sci-fi movie. I felt I was actually seeing freedom from suffering happen in real time.

I started crying. I was so moved to experience that strange sense that something is really happening when I seek to free others of suffering, even if for only this moment. My crying was the kind that you stuff down and choke on when you are trying not to disturb a group. (Silly ego, worrying about being embarrassed when something big is happening like your heart breaking open!)

From there I started directing the same wish for freedom from suffering toward the many people around the room whom I had met during our week together. One by one I pictured them, the global community, and envisioned the same streaming of their suffering away from them. And I kept crying, and I kind of liked the feel of letting the tears cover my face. And I decided not to wipe them away.

Then I started directing the “May you be free of suffering” wish toward my loved ones, and the people in our School for Contemplative Living back home. Then, as Dr. Jinpa led us, I directed that wish for freedom from suffering toward a stranger, a difficult person, and finally toward all beings. In that part I included me: “May I be free of suffering. May I know peace and joy.” (Yes, in compassion cultivation we get to include ourselves, as though we matter too).

As he concluded the tonglen meditation experience, which expresses our wish to free all beings from suffering, and had us open our eyes, I felt the warm tears across my face and treasured them. I think I really got it, that this whole journey of compassion cultivation is about letting my heart break open, not holding back, and learning a skillful means of directing that broken-hearted compassion toward everyone: no exceptions!

When visions come we best pay attention. Our souls are awakening. Our hearts are stepping up to lead us. The ego is shrinking and falling off the throne of our lives. A new Master is taking over. She is the Great Love. He has always belonged on the throne. A new sheriff is in town and it is time to honor Her authority. A new president and CEO has stepped into leadership and it is time to follow His lead.

That’s how I want to spend my last thirty years on this planet: head bowed in reverence, heart broken open, soul united with the Great Love, and mind under the guidance of the Higher Wisdom. I choose compassion cultivation as my path and am, as ever, “called to a life of prayer for the world.”

Join me, won’t you, before it’s too late.



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Fighting compulsions on a Sabbath

Swamp worship photo

Cypress swamp worship is a great way to worship on a Sabbath, out here with the birds and locusts singing the hymns, the wind in the trees speaking of Spirit, and me doing my job: standing in awe. Worship at churches is good, and worship with other people is good. But something kept calling me away from all that today so that I could let go of all responsibilities and experience a true Sabbath.


Fighting compulsions on a Sabbath is no fun. The urge to accomplish something returns every hour. Something powerful in me believes I must always get to work, be productive, maybe even find another way to grow our income as we prepare for eventual retirement. That compulsive force does not remember, or care, that this is a Sabbath. It even pushes me to do little things, like sweeping away more spider webs from the old gazebo at the end of our pier – instead of remaining in awe and stillness, or clipping more vines from our property next door – instead of feeling the breeze and hearing it sing through the treetops.

My compulsions would even settle for turning on the television to watch more hurricane images, so I can “keep up with the latest news,” instead of simply holding all beings in my prayerful heart, especially those in harm’s way.

Here’s the thing: my compulsions do not believe in God. They believe in me and my ultimate power to “do something” about things, to “make things better,” to “fix problems.” My compulsions think there is no one here but me. So they keep calling me to action – which seems more like activity just for the sake of doing something. They say, “Don’t just sit there, do something, anything!”

But I already do things six, or sometimes seven, days a week. I already act, and produce, and accomplish. I want to introduce my compulsions to the concept of another way – a day for Sabbath. I want them to ease up a bit so we can practice turning the universe back over to the Creator, who is not me, for at least a little while. I want to know in my bones that Someone spent billions of years imagining and making the cosmos, without my help. And I want to live like someone who aligns my life with that Creator Spirit, not like someone trying to be the Creator.

Twenty years of daily contemplative practice have not freed me of my compulsions. One starts to wonder if they will ever go away. If they will not, if they are my partners forever, maybe I can help them release their control over me by telling them a short story again and again.

The old-timer from AA responded to the newcomer’s question: “What does AA believe about God?” The Old-timer kept it simple. He said, “We believe two things about God: there is one, and you’re not it!”

So, dear compulsions, whether you know this or not: “There is a God and you’re not it.” And that means I can ease up a little longer on this Sabbath day, and turn the universe over to that God, (at least until sundown). And that includes the meeting I will attend later, where people are gathering in a house to consider how to serve the world through that house.

Maybe I will stroll into that gathering with no agenda, no plan for what “should” happen, and with an open heart, a heart of compassion for a hurting world, and a confident hope that God, not me, can guide the group into wise action when the time is right. Maybe I will keep my Sabbath frame of mind as people share their ideas, and treat the whole experience as another act of worship. My job? Stand in awe, just like I did this morning in cypress swamp worship.

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A Prayer Leveled Us

Open Table volunteers 

Contemplative communities want to stay aware of the invisible web of divinity as we serve. Here is an example of how that happened unexpectedly.

A wonderful group of volunteers came with a meal from Munholland United Methodist Church to join the rest of us in serving our street friends inside Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. They came from a church in a wealthy part of town to a church surrounded by destroyed roads and great poverty. Some of their new cars were made by Mercedes and Lexus. Some of the volunteers were just beginning to have contact with our street friends for the first time in their lives.

For people who spend the day outside, August in New Orleans means bearing the heat until they smell of the street. The mix of aromas from the hot meals and the hot people was, well, a bit like a teen boys’ school locker room. It wasn’t sweet or pretty.

When the food was ready to be served, and the Salvation Army shelter vouchers were ready to be shared, we all gathered to take a moment to be present, to really “be with” each other. The volunteers were invited to stand in a giant circle with our street friends. We all held hands. We looked at each other. I invited everyone to take a few deep breaths of the same cool air, and to notice that the Love of God was there among us and between us. I called on everyone to be aware that “we are the ones who can help each other by creating a loving space right here and now.”

Then we had a brief prayer. Sometimes I lead that prayer. Sometimes the pastor of Mt. Zion leads the prayer. And sometimes one of our street friends agrees to lead the prayer. Something shifted when Patricia , one of our street friends, led us. She who has the darkest skin tone possible, who never says a word from week to week, spontaneously led us in the Lord’s Prayer. It was the first time in ten years of serving with this ministry that someone had led in a prayer that everyone knows.

She started with, “Our Father.” And then a prayer leveled us. Everyone there followed with the words we learned since childhood, “who art in heaven.” And I felt the transformation as we continued. We were no longer separated according to those who have nothing and those who have everything. Suddenly we were one, a room of people who all have a need for the One Who Loves Us So.

Of course, our specific needs were spread across a wide range of our humanity and situations. Maybe some needed God’s help to receive a crust of “daily bread,” while others were more focused on needing God to forgive “our trespasses.” Some might have needed help in forgiving “those who trespass against us,” while others were seeking to want God’s will to “be done.” But in that moment of transformative leveling we were all the one people of God, voicing our needs in one chorus, every voice coming from a cherished child of God.

When oneness happens among all the diverse people of God, I say “a gate of heaven opened.” It’s a modern-day miracle really. People who might usually avoid street people at all costs were somehow drawn to be in one circle, holding sweaty and dirty hands, and saying a common prayer. And street people who would usually fear the disdain or disgust of rich people were somehow willing to hold perfumed hands, and be in prayer together.

Carol is one of the regular meal volunteers from the rich church who has a delicious smile and an obviously warm heart. She edged up to me later and said, “Some of us are beginning to move way out of our comfort zones to talk with people.” I affirmed that. Even those of us who have received every privilege in life can still experience God’s ongoing conversion of our hearts over time. We learn ever so slowly that everybody has suffering of one form or another, so we are not as different as we seem.

Robin Roberts, television anchor for Good Morning America, titled her recent book Everybody’s Got Something. That really says what we experienced. When a prayer leveled us, the truth of that book title became a living reality. We all became the people who have “got something,” some need drawing us into prayer, some tug pulling us down below our outward appearances and smells, into the place where we are all one with the One.

Perhaps you will pause right now and reflect on a time when a need, a prayer, or some experience leveled you. Remember so a gate of heaven can open once again.

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