Ten Essential Ingredients For Engaged Spirituality

by Rev. Shirley Strong, M.Ed.

February 2008

Rev. Shirley Strong

Several years ago I was one of a small group of people who began an engaged spirituality class on Sundays at the Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. This class grew out of my interest in understanding more about the intersection of spirituality and activism, and about the people who have successfully integrated these two seemingly disparate aspects of their lives.

We decided to start by reading a book by Janet Parachin entitled Engaged Spirituality: Ten Lives of Contemplation and Action. The term engaged spirituality is borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh, who refers to his own religious commitment as “engaged Buddhism.”

Engaged Spirituality discusses the lives of ten individuals from diverse backgrounds—some well known like Martin Luther King Jr., and others, like Native American Vine Deloria Jr., whom few people have heard about. However, all of these people have one thing in common: the practice of “engaged spirituality,” which Parachin says is exemplified by persons who find within their spiritual tradition the resources that nurture their being, enabling them to “engage in activities that move the world … toward love, justice, compassion, responsibility and respect. (…Beloved Community…) It is not an either/or prospect but a conscious, intentional commitment to engage both… challenging us to grow… by leading us to expand beyond our comfortable boundaries.”

These ten people’s stories are inspiring. Reading about them led me to develop the following list.


Ten Ingredients for Living a Life of Engaged Spirituality

1. A Vision that inspires us.

Create a desire to be a part of something that allows you to connect to your Higher Self.

Examples: World Peace, Ending Hunger

Personal Example: Building Beloved Community

2. A Compelling Experience (personal story) that motivates us.

Allow your personal story to generate a passion that provides purpose and direction for your life.

Examples: Freedom Riders, Movement Activists, Peace Corps Volunteers

Personal Example: My story (at 17) watching the March on Washington and the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech.

3. A Spiritual Practice that sustains us.

Cultivate a mindfulness that sometimes places you in an altered state (without using drugs), and is a way of ordering your life, and providing deep connection to the Universal.

This type of encounter often involves ritual. Make time for it to occur on a regular basis (3-5 x a week) at a specific time, place and in a certain way.

Example: prayer, yoga, mediation, running, cycling, walking, hiking, spending time in nature, 12 step programs, playing an instrument.

Personal Example: My father kneeling in prayer by his bedside at age 90 having done it for almost fifty years (50) and my son, a devout Muslim, praying 5 x a day or my efforts at playing gospel music on my keyboard for hours on end.

4. A Spiritual Community that buoys and keeps us afloat.

Develop a relationship with a community of like-minded people that can provide support and comfort through the various stages and changes of life.

Examples: AA groups, Churches, mosques, synagogues, martial arts dojos, Buddhist sanghas, choirs, organizations that see themselves as serving a larger purpose—protecting the innocent, combating injustice. National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) founded by Mary McLeod Bethune whose motto is “Lifting as we climb”; Anti Defamation League founded to fight anti-Semitism, bigotry and intolerance; Catholic Worker Organization founded by Dorothy Day to address poverty, child labor and worker rights; Greenpeace; Christian Children’s Fund.

Personal Example: The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, my home church. Co-founded by Howard Thurman as the first interracial, interfaith church in the United States.

5. A Commitment to Others that reinforces and strengthens us.

Stay connected to family, and friends. Demonstrate a mutual concern for the well-being of self and others by following through on commitments and maintaining generosity of spirit.

Examples: Caring for the vulnerable, sharing our abundance with others, not using more (space, clothes, food, energy, etc.) than we need

Personal Example: I consider my job my calling and my ministry is helping others in my role as Dean of Students (at California Institute of Integral Studies).

6. A Theology/Philosophy/Belief that guides us.

Preferably one that is inclusive rather than exclusive and encourages deep ecumenism – a way of viewing religion as many rivers (Matthew Fox) all leading to a deep well flowing from one source.

Examples: Understanding that all religions at their core metaphysically hold to the same basic principles e.g. interconnection of all things, sowing and reaping, as above so below.

Personal Example: My involvement with Christianity, the religion of my birth, and my affinity for the Tao Te Ching.

7. A Connection to Elders/Ancestors who teach us.

Remember that you stand on the shoulders of the many (famous and ordinary) who have come before and sacrificed on your behalf.

Examples: Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and other that serve as examples to many worldwide.

Personal Example: Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety (90) year old social activist still going strong after 60 years of work in the movement.

8. An Art Form that nourishes us.

Find an Artistic Expression that enhances your creativity.

Examples: Photography, painting, poetry, literature, music

Personal Example: Collage-making focused on a collective history and story that support my journey toward wholeness.

9. A Gratitude/Thankfulness that renews us.

Appreciate what you have been given—especially the unearned portion.

Examples: The Earth, including clean water for drinking and bathing

Personal Example: The college education that my mother insisted I get in spite of my lack of awareness of what it would mean for my life.

10. A Sustainability that replenishes us.

Give to where you receive spiritual nourishment, inspiration and courage for the journey.

Example: Giving to CHI and other spiritual communities, charities and non-profits working for change.

Personal Example: Supporting my church.


For Reflection: What are your experiences and examples in Engaged Spirituality—both personal and global?