NEW EARTH FORMS

The Unitarian Church that houses the Stone Soup Café on Saturdays in Greenfield posts the sign above. I love how the church, as an institution, builds bridges with other faiths and takes care of those who need good food (I think the Stone Soup Café serves the best food in Greenfield, and that includes the restaurants). I know some of the church members as individuals, but they’re not content just to do things as individuals, they have also built an institution to serve those same values.

It’s very fashionable nowadays to dismiss both our major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, as being the same. Both are dominated by financial interests, money’s the name of the game. To some degree that’s true, and it is a special sorrow for me that so many Democrats seem to have left the New Deal mentality behind, the one that addressed the needs of the lower middle class, the factory workers, the farmers, and the poor.

But I certainly don’t agree that there’s no difference between the two. One party has little respect for government and public service. The less of it, they say, the better. What most serve our way of life are local communities taking responsibility for their welfare, along with market capitalism, with its endless cycle of creation and destruction. The other party says that there is a role for government. It accepts that many of our issues (earth warming, immigrants, poverty, income distribution, security)—in fact most—are global in nature, requiring not just big national institutions but even global ones.

The first looks inwards and deregulates, freeing corporations to do as much as they need to earn their profits even at huge costs to everyone else and to the environment; the other tries to look at a bigger picture and join other countries in exploring new ways to nurture our planet as a whole.

Love isn’t just about individuals opening their hearts, it’s also about having rules, structures and organizations that center on love. It’s building new kinds of systems, political blocs and alliances, new “earth forms,” as Bernie likes to put its. Many of us like to talk about opening up our hearts as human beings, but when it comes to looking at systemic issues, we prefer to bury our heads in the sand.

Some 22 years ago I was on a street retreat in Zurich, Switzerland. By my side was Sr. Pia Gyger, a nun and head of the St. Katharina-Werk Order of nuns based in Basel. She had spent at least 10 years reorganizing the order, changing the rules, broadening it to include not just Catholic nuns but lay people (including men), and even non-Catholics. She added international peace camps, conferences, and social reform to the work with teens at-risk that the Order was already doing.

She was a short woman, but there was nothing small about her. Her voice was insistent almost to a point of stridency: It took me ten years of blood and sweat to change things because the order does things by consensus. We had meeting after meeting. We tried many different forms, some worked and some didn’t. It was very hard for me, but it was worth it because we had to develop a new way of living and working together. It’s not enough to just say you care about diversity, you must create the new structures, the new ways of being, that will implement that, otherwise you will not be successful.

Pia hammered away at me as we walked the streets of Zurich, while I, the great individualist, wished she’d go away and take her conversation with her. I’m a writer, for God’s sake, I thought to myself. I don’t want to hear about building organizations.

Two years later I started participating in a long, arduous process of developing the Zen Peacemaker Order. Why? How did this writer get involved in those things? Because I saw that Pia was right. We must develop the kinds of models and structures that support heart-opening, cooperation, and working for the whole. Too many of us say we’re not joiners, creating new systems is not our thing. But it’s work that urgently needs to be done.

Twenty-one years after our first meetings on the Zen Peacemaker Order, I just got off a 90-minute zoom conference call with international members of the Order. It keeps on changing, keeps on adapting even as it hews to its mission. I’m glad that I continue to be a part of it.