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Rosales’ worldwide spiritual journey intersects with Nebraska


Rosales’ worldwide spiritual journey intersects with Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga, Origially appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Victoria Rosales is a seeker.  At 27, the Houston, Texas native is well-traveled in search of self-improvement and greater meaning. She’s dedicating her life to sharing what she knows about healthy living practices. Her journey’s already taken her to Ireland, England, Kosovo, Vietnam, Alaska, Mexico and Costa Rica.

From her Salt Lake City home, she handles communications for Omaha-based Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism. Its husband-wife team, Chris and Phileena Heuretz, lead workshops and retreats and author books. Rosales met them at the 2012 Urbana student missions conference in St. Louis. She took their contemplative activism workshop and participated in retreats at the Benedictine Center in Schuyler, Nebraska. The experiences enhanced her spiritual quest.

“I remember writing in my journal, ‘I love their message and mission and I would really love to do the work these people do.’ And now – here I am,” Rosales said.

Meditation came into her life at a crucial juncture.

“I was in a season where the idea of resting in the presence of God was all that I longed for.”

A few years earlier she’d left her east Texas family to chart a new path.

“I am a first-generation high school and college graduate. I’m carving my own path, but for the better – by doing things a little bit differently. In that way, I definitely see myself as a trailblazer for family to come.”

She grew up an Evangelical Christian and attended a small private Christian college in Michigan, where she studied literature, rhetoric and storytelling.

“The idea of telling a story and telling it well and of being careful in the articulation of the story really began to come alive for me. I began to pursue avenues of self-expression in terms of word choice and dialect.”

As a child enamored with words, the tales told by her charismatic grandmother made an impression.

“I was heavily influenced by my grandmother. She captivated an audience with her storytelling. I was raised on stories of her childhood coming out of Mexico. It was very much instilled in me. I see it as a huge gift in my life.”

But Rosales didn’t always see it that way.

“Growing up, it was like, ‘Here goes grandma again in Spanish. Okay, grandma, we’re in America’ – shutting her down. When she passed away, reconciling those prejudices became a huge part of my journey. I moved to Mexico for that very purpose and spent time living with my distant relatives, mostly in Monterey, to truly embrace what it means to be this beautiful, powerful, sensual Latina and honor that part of who I am.

“Part of creating a safe place for others to show up as who they are is feeling safe in my own skin and appreciating the richness of my Hispanic heritage.”

Self-awareness led her to find a niche for her passion.

“It started with me being really honest about telling my story with all of the hurts and traumas. I could then invite in light and life, healing and redemption.”

Her work today involves assisting folks “sift through the overarching stories of their life and to reframe those narratives in ways more conducive to personal well-being.” She added, “It’s moving from victim mentalities into stances of empowerment through how different life experiences are articulated. I developed my own practice to help people journey through that.”

She calls her practice Holistic Narrative Therapy. It marries well with meditation and yoga. She’s learned the value of “silence, solitude and stillness” through meditation and centering prayer.

“In silence you take time to sit and listen to find the still small voice within, the rhyme and reason in all the chaos and loud noise. In stillness you learn to sit through discomfort. In solitude you learn to remove yourself from the influences of culture, society, family and expectation and to be comfortable with who you show up as when no one else is watching. Those are the roots and fruits of the contemplative life.”

Doing yoga, she believes, “is the embodied expression of dance with the divine.” After attending a yoga resort-health spa in Costa Rica, the owners hired her to conduct Holistic Narrative Therapy sessions. She said everything about the setting invited restoration – “the lush jungles, the pristine beaches, the blue waters, the food that grows there, the music, the vibe.”

After that idyll. she roughed it by working as a wilderness therapy guide in Utah with youth struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation.

“Being one with the elements provides a lot of space for growth. I was just naturally attracted to that. That was a great experience.”

En route to starting that job she was driving through Zion National Park when she took her eyes off the road and her SUV tumbled down a cliff. She escaped unharmed but chastened. This heady, strong, independent woman needed bringing down a notch.

“I was falling into a trap of playing God in my own life. You don’t want to take rolling over a cliff to learn a lesson, but I guess I needed to be knocked off my center to re-land on something fortified and true.”

She now works for a Salt Lake youth therapy program.

“My dream is to open a community center for people to come and experience restoration and what it means to be fully alive, fully human.”

She rarely makes it back to Neb., but she did come for Gravity’s March Deepening Retreat in Schuyler.

“I am a firm believer we can only extend the love to the world we have for ourselves. That’s truly what these retreats are for me – to fill my own tank so that I can go out and serve the world to the best of my abilities.”

Visit http://www.facebook.com/public/Victoria-Rosales.

 

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Breaking the chains and being set free

December 28, 2016 Leave a comment

A dear friend asked me to share this personal witness for those of you afflicted with addiction or who have a friend or loved one caught in the struggle. The hope is to cast some light in the darkness. Addiction can be an isolating thing and with the ice storm shutting us in and everything down, the loneliness, the temptation, the internal conflict can be overwhelming, So, for those needing it, please heed these words and let go of all that fear and anger, of all that hopelessness and despair, to know, receive and accept the love that is in you and that is inherently you. There is no lack in you, except maybe surrender and faith. Anyone fighting the good fight will understand what the title of this message “Breaking the chains and being set free” refers to, but it is in fact applicable to so much of our human condition. The thing to know is that once the shackles are shed, all you need do is follow the light and let your spirit fly free. That’s when you can soar to the sun. The freedom starts by acknowledging you have a problem, that you can’t lick it alone and that you accept the healing gift of a higher power to break the chains holding you down. It’s all in how you think and what you do. But true freedom only comes from getting out of your head and getting in touch with your heart. And, so, with no further ado, I present my friend’s call to the heart on this cold winter’s night. May it warm you and light the way out of the dark.

 

 

Breaking the chains and being set free

The time has come to part ways.

A long time ago, you saw the gaps in me and made me believe you filled the void when nothing else could.

That was a lie, of course, but I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know it for a very long time.

Like a lost child, I sought comfort wherever I could find it.

Even when I discovered the truth, I found it hard to say goodbye.

You are such a bedeviling creature and I am such a slave to your seductive charms. You go right for my weaknesses and unless I am careful I succumb every time.

You are the ultimate illusionist. Even though I know better by now, if I find myself tired. angry, afraid, depressed or lonely, you will still appear to be the answer, the relief, the escape I desire – unless I am honest with myself and willing to see through the mask.

I know now what I seek is love of God and love of self, not lust. I seek wholeness and unity of mind, body, spirit, not betraying oaths for momentary pleasures that only splinter me. What you offer is a mirage, not even a temporary fix, but merely a distraction to numb the pain. In the end, you don’t fill me or complete me, you empty me and keep me shattered in pieces.

Like a fool, I sought to purchase love, solace, oneness. These things cannot be bought or sold. They can only be claimed as rightful, divine-endowed parts of me.

But I would not believe that I was God-worthy. I would not accept that I was created from love, by love, for love.

Feeling loveless is no way to live. Nothing good comes from the desperation and despair that follows.

In spurning God, I let a hole in my heart fester. Like the seducer you are, you are always eager to fill that void, though in reality you can’t.

You are the Pandora of the fabled box. Once I open that chest of alluring pleasures, your stream of temptress guises are too many and enticing to avoid. One or more is sure to envelop me if I let things go that far.

You are the mythic siren calling me and your bewitching powers cast a spell that pulls a veil over reality, obscuring moral bounds. so that I fall back into your wiles again, suddenly grown blind to the truth, willing to risk all, to cross boundaries, to betray myself and others.

In the haze of your intoxicating pull, it’s as if all sound judgment is rendered powerless.

You make it seem as if I have no will to resist and in fact by the time I do entertain your delights, I am in your control.

With some perspective, that we call sobriety, I now know that I always have a choice.

It begins by admitting that I have a problem but also by believing that it need not define me. It is a part of my nature. It is a chronic affliction that thrives under certain conditions. If I am in a vulnerable state of mind, heart and soul, then I am at risk. It doesn’t mean I will act out, it just means that is when I am most susceptible, therefore that’s when I need to be most vigilant.

Those of us who identify as afflicted this way find that recovery, even in our darkest, lowest times, is always freely offered and within our grasp. The solution is surrender to a Higher Power of our choice. Whatever name you give it, healing flows from this wellspring of love that is the source of all life.

This disease feeds on negative energy. Recovery springs from positive energy.

Recovery is the conscious, intentional act of walking out of the darkness and into the light. It is a choice that must be made over and over again. It means bravely facing life one day, one action, one decision, one thought, one feeling at a time. It requires basking in the glow of life, with all its intensity or boredom, its anxiety and discomfort, its pain and pleasure, rather than hiding in the gloom of shadow and looking for some artificial high.

Man in despair

I am not cured. There is no such thing as a cure where this is concerned. I am, however, informed, armed with tools, working a program, taking steps and slowly making progress. There are stumbles along the way. I sometimes take wrong turns. I sometimes relapse. Been there, done that.

I am getting too old for this shit.

The longer it is with me, the more rewiring my brain requires. A lifetime of bad habits and patterns in my thinking and reacting must be unlearned and new, healthier ones put in their place. It’s like an old dog learning new tricks.

Starting over at 58 is not a good picture or prospect, but it’s a lot better than dying alone or being a sullen mess feeding on chaos and misery. That’s where this leads if left unchecked. Ruined relationships, losing your spouse, your family, your home, your livelihood, your name, your health, even your freedom.

Did I mention losing your mind? You see, this affliction is a form of insanity. Despite my best intentions and full recognition of right and wrong, I am liable to turn a blind eye and throw everything away I say I cherish for a fix. I’m liable to lie and cheat, to break promises, vows, oaths. I’m liable to sabotage goals and plans.

I have been lucky so far. Nothing lost. Except peace of mind. Except causing various people in my life untold pain. Making amends is a lifetime project.

The past can hold me hostage if I let it. This problem can enslave me if I empower it.

Revealing my truth in this forum feels awkward but right. It is a public testimony. It is a declaration. It is a prayer. This disease is all about secrets and rituals, about holding onto old wounds and hurts and getting stuck in the muck and mire. Recovery is all about honesty and transparency, about housecleaning, about moving forward and freely. Telling my story, my truth, symbolizes my saying goodbye to something I don’t need anymore. I therefore let go of the crutch and the anesthetic of addiction. I let go of the fear, resentment and self-pity that lead me to seek these false supports and cause me to become dependent on them.

Mark this as my release – release from the bonds and chains that held me captive. I hereby claim that release for myself. I hereby resolve to choose freedom, sobriety, serenity.

I am scarred but not broken. I am healing. I am free.

 

Interfaith Journey: Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

November 16, 2016 1 comment

Two of Omaha’s best – Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru and Sharif Zakir Liwaru – share the interfaith journey they make every day as a couple in my new Reader cover story. He’s Muslim. She’s a Follower of Christ. They make their blended union work in this fractious era by being intentional, open and honest about where their beliefs and practices converge and diverge. There is more sameness than difference and where there are differences, they treat each other and their tenets with respect. We all have something to learn from them.

 

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©photo by Debra Kaplan

 

Interfaith Journey

Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of The Reader (http://.thereader.com)

 

When it comes to religious diversity, Omaha has churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and temples. The metro’s immigrant, migrant and refugee settlers planted deep roots of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy that still flourish today. The imprint Mormon pioneers made during the 19th century lives on in Florence and Council Bluffs.

Today’s local religious landscape also includes Bahá’í, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, New Religion, Pagan, Atheist and Unitarian centers.  Throughout the metro, interfaith efforts abound: Inclusive Communities, Together Inc., Omaha Together One Community, Neighbors United and the Tri-Faith Initiative. Countryside Community Church programs sometimes feature interfaith dialogues. There are also serious religious studies offerings at local institutions of higher learning that invite cross-current explorations.

Omaha’s not immune from religious bigotry. Hate crimes have defaced area mosques amidst rising anti-Islamic fervor. As recent and still waging wars demonstrate, religion, like race and nationality, can be a wedge for conflict or a bridge for understanding. Schisms happen within and between countries, denominations, congregations, tribes, sects, even individuals. As a house divided starts at home, interfaith couples carry loaded religious commerce. One such couple is Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru of Omaha. He’s a Muslim by birth and choice. She’s a self-professed “follower of Jesus” after growing up Lutheran and Assembly of God.

The 40-something-year-old parents of three are professionals and community activists. He directs the Office of Equity and Diversity at Omaha Public Schools and is president-CEO of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. She’s a teaching artist. They’re both active in the African Culture Connection, the Empowerment Network and the Black Lives Matter movement.

They shared with The Reader how they make their blended union work in this fractious era when contrasting persuasions can be deal-breakers. Not surprisingly for two people who advocate engagement, they go to great lengths to ensure they remain connected despite their differences. It starts with respecting each other and their sometimes opposite beliefs.

Gabrielle said, “As a follower of Jesus in an interfaith marriage

what I admire is that Sharif is not every Muslim. – Sharif is his own Muslim. He’s unique. Each person and their set of beliefs does not have to be exactly like the rest in their group and it goes for me as well. I’m happy that in our relationship we explore ideas and spiritual matters together.”

Though born Muslim to convert parents, Sharif examined the religion and recommitted to it as a young man.

“This settles easy on my heart and on my mind. It makes sense for me,” he said of his practice. His disciplines include fasting, praying five times a day and weekly congregational prayer.

When the couple met 23 years ago, Gabrielle’s religious traditions demonized Muslims. The more time she spent with Sharif and other Muslims, she came to see those ideas as false.

“In a lot of ways, shapes and forms the attitudes-beliefs of Christians towards Muslims are wrong,” she said.

Marriage only confirmed her new-found outlook. “I have a husband who has a golden heart and he is Muslim. I’m extremely in love with how he depicts himself within black American culture and with how he’s chosen to be Muslim, too.”

The couple married despite each being warned against if not forbidden from mating with someone of another faith.

“Both of us we’re breaking rules against our religion to be together,” she said.

They met at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She was a single mom and aspiring artist and art educator. He was a community volunteer. They began as platonic friends. To this day their friendship and love trump any conflicts.

Sharif said, “In faith and spirituality when there are disagreements there’s a barrier that can come from I-feel-it’s- this-way and you-feel-it’s-that-way and there’s no reconciliation.

We’re not trying to create a sense of hierarchy of one being better than the other. At the same time, if either one of us felt the other’s path was THE path, we would have been on it. So, in as much as we agree with the other, we have to acknowledge each of us thinks we’re right.”

“In situations where Sharif thinks he’s right, I still have to respect him to the core as being a peaceful person,” she said.

They try emphasizing those things they are of one accord on.

“We are connected purposefully and spiritually and aligned in so many ways, so it’s a challenge trying to walk through the things we may see differently,” Sharif said. “Our ideologies are very similar in terms of how we treat one another, the belief in one god and in a creator, the understanding that your actions need to reflect what you believe, the sense of having purpose and being created intentionally, having strong moral values and the way you carry yourself as vital.”

Gabrielle said she believes she and Sharif are ordained “to journey together to do the things that make this place better,” adding, “We strengthen community, we strengthen our children and family and we’re role models for people to see that oh, yes, you can get beyond differences.”

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©photo by Devra Kaplan

 

 

It hasn’t always been easy.

“For many years she wasn’t sure how I would take it if she was using Jesus a lot,” Sharif said. “I wasn’t sure how she would take different things – like greeting someone with ‘as-salamu alayka’ or s’alamun alaykum’ (peace and blessings or complimenting someone with ‘alhumdulillah’ (all praises be to god). Or praying-reading from the Koran before eating. Or using Allah for God. Those are Arabic words for English words commonly agreed upon and used in the house.

“We sometimes would self-dictate what made the other person feel uncomfortable. But then as we started to explore and grow,

especially in terminology, she used Yah as the one creator and I used Allah. We came to an understanding that when we say that we’re not saying it be contentious, rather we’re saying the same thing in two different ways. We don’t see them as counter or correction.”

As much as he or she might want the other to follow their beliefs, neither takes offense at their choosing not to.

She said she doesn’t accept Prophet Mohammed as “the final messenger Jesus said was to come after him –I feel like Jesus was talking about the spirit of truth and great comforter that would never leave us alone and would guide us without us having to follow a man and what the man said. I feel that deep in my soul and, yes, I would like my husband to feel that.”

She takes issue with the inequity Muslim women face. There are things about Christianity he finds difficult.

Each felt pressure to bring up they’re kids in a certain faith.

“There was a lot of recruiting by our parents wanting to make sure they grew up in the faith tradition they believed,” Sharif said. “We exposed them very intentionally and unashamedly to our faith. It was no secret Christian faith was on one side of the family and Islamic faith on the other side.”

He said he and Gabrielle left it open for their kids to identify as they saw fit. “Our kids grew to be examiners of information. The same way they took everything, they absorbed and created their own paths.” At various times, he said, they identified as “Muslim-Christian, neither-both, half Muslim and half Christian.”

In 2015 the couple’s middle child, Zaiid, was killed in an auto accident and the loss set them on a new path seeking answers.

“The passing of our son had us exploring an element of our faith we didn’t have many occasions to discuss (before),” Sharif said. “We found commonalities in the way we saw things and we talked through differences. Everything from wording to where Zaiid is now – physical presence versus spiritual presence – to where we originate from as human beings to where we come after we die. We share the philosophy that we are souls with a body, not bodies that have souls. Our bodies are vessels we carry until we return to our creator.”

The couple doesn’t allow any divergence to supersede their relationship.

“The harmony we want is because of our love – our love being bigger than him having a different religion than my spiritual way.

It’s love above all,” Gabrielle said.

They are secure enough that they can broach awkward disagreements without fear of rejection or resentment or rupture.

Sharif said, “Because of the way we feel about each other we can go deep into conversations other people can’t and we feel confident in exploring things. There’s intentionality and purpose. We work on it as much as we do for us because we’ve vested this many years into it, but beyond that working on us is working on God’s plan. That part we know to be truth – no doubt. We have to work through some stuff we don’t agree with or understand but we know the outcome will still be that this union stays. As much as we have some (conflicting) areas, I believe we’re walking the same path.”

Gabrielle doesn’t mask feelings about certain tenets of Islam she opposes but she delights in how she and Sharif find common ground.

I view Islam as being a religion and I feel less inclined to follow any religion. In his mosque I can’t go with him and stand or sit and make Salat with him, and I don’t agree with that. I want to be led spiritually by my husband. I want to have that accountability for a man to uphold his household with first priority to serving God and loving his wife and giving to his children every nurturing and provision he can.

“Sharif embodies all these beautiful characteristics to me and when I can grab his hand and we can pray prayers each of us understands, we’re worshiping,” she said, clasping his hand in hers at their dining room table, “and I believe it doesn’t need a religion that goes with that. It’s just us trying to put God at the center of our marriage and home and bring him glory. That’s where I like to worship. Personally I have found the church of Jesus has no walls. I will continue to have church with people who believe in God, whether we’re at my dining table or on somebody’s couch or in a coffee-shop or outdoors.”

 

 

 

She said nature, music and art resonate with her and Sharif’s spirits. In their North Omaha home plants sprout everywhere, international music plays, incense burns, art pieces from friends and travels pop on walls, tables, shelves. The couple’s curiosity is reflected in their many books and periodicals.

While no discernible faith artifact is displayed, the home exudes a warm, prayer-like intimacy and calm. When their kids were small the couple deliberately integrated faith in their home.

Gabrielle said. “We had the Bible, we had the Koran. We prayed as a family. We adopted and said mostly in English a Hindu prayer. We did prayers I grew up with. We asked our kids to invent prayers. Sharif taught our kids how to make Salat. We didn’t continue to do it religiously, nor did we do Bible or Koranic studies religiously, but our family has a strong sense of being together. We pray when we hear an ambulance go by. Whenever we’re at the table about to eat we honor God first because from God all good things come.”

Their oldest, Parris, composed a prayer the family still recites:

“Thank you Yah for this beautiful day.Thank you for all the blessings you have given us today. Please bless this food. Take any impurities out of it and let it nourish our bodies in every way it can. Please help anyone in need of your merciful blessings and wonderful healing. Amen”

The couple’s faith, she said, extends to “doing community service and standing up for people in need.” She stays “prayed up” for people regardless of their beliefs. “It doesn’t matter what they’re following, if they have a religion or not, just that they’re part of who I call mine. We pray no hardship or harm for our loved ones and that means my Muslim loved ones who cover. The Muslim community is part of who I pray for all the time.”

Though Gabrielle’s concerned about anti-Muslim sentiment, she said, “I have more concern over Sharif’s well-being because he’s a black man in America versus being Muslim.”

After the human stampede that killed and injured thousands during 2015’s Haj, she worried about his safety on the pilgrimage to Mecca he made last summer. Not used to being apart that long, the separation reconfirmed their love.

“We missed each other like crazy when he was on his pilgrimage,” she said. “I think both of us held onto that our love is going to be bringing him safely home and us back together again because of our destiny.”

She feels as a couple they’re still all-in.

“We have 21 years under our belts and it doesn’t feel like we’ve come to a place of we’re too tired to work on this or we don’t have any sparks about each other.”

 

The Reader November

 

 

Meanwhile, they support interfaith exchanges. Omahan Beth Katz used their perspective to frame dialogues and trainings at Project Interfaith. She said she admires their “commitment as individuals and as a couple” to engage on issues of identity, faith, diversity, culture and community” that are “complex and messy and many people prefer to avoid.” “But I think it is precisely because they each have a deep sense of faith rooted in different religions that avoidance has never been an option and they have embraced this reality rather than resent it.”

“They also didn’t sugarcoat the experience,” Katz said. “They revealed there were times of tension and unease. I think their willingness to share publicly their journey on issues of religion and faith speaks to the incredible respect they hold for each other as people of faith, as a couple and as a family. They live out their faiths and the common values it provides them through their commitment to their family and the larger community.”

Sharif said the interfaith dynamic he and Gabrielle share adds a “very strong richness” to their lives. He agrees with Katz that most folks aren’t ready for open, honest conversation along faith lines. “As a community I think we’re not as engaged in that interfaith conversation as we need to be. Whether interfaith or interracial, conversations are ignored so that nobody feels     uncomfortable or because you’ve decided you know about a particular group of people or it’s just easier to have this hateful opinion versus actually listening and possibly liking the other. Some people are not prepared to deal with that dissonance.”

He likes the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative’s attempt to bring Christian, Jewish, Muslim faith centers together on one campus.

“It’s countering the narratives we see and hear that folks are not getting along based on their religion and the politics of that, where in many parts of the world these three faiths are interacting in a peaceful way.”

Gravitas – Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz create place of healing for healers

April 1, 2014 1 comment

UPDATE:  Pam and I participated in a weekend Grounding Retreat facilitated by the founders-directors of Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism and it lived up to everything that Christopher and Phileena Heuertz described to us when we met them several months ago. Here is a Metro Magazine story I wrote about the couple, their years of humanitarian work overseas and the mission of Gravity. The organization is based in Omaha, where they live and where Pam and I live. The Grounding Retreat was held at the St. Benedict Center near Schuyler, Neb., a lovely place to experience and connect to the truth that our Higher Power speaks in the scriptures:

Be still, and know that I am God.

I look forward to doing another retreat and to writing a new story one day about the work of this amazing couple, especially now that I have seen them in action.

OLD INTRO: The more I look around the more I appreciate just how many interesting stories are available to me right in my hometown of Omaha, Neb. if I just open my eyes and my heart to what’s here.  As I expand my vision, I see more than I did before.  There’s also a law of attraction thing going on whereby as my personal spiritual journey ramps up more and more stories of people’s own spiritual journeys and personal transformations present themselves to me.  One such story is that of  Gravity, A Center for Contemplative Activism, which I’ve posted here.  This feature for Omaha’s Metro Magazine is really a profile of the married couple behind the center, Christopher and Phileena Heuertz, and a chronicle of the serious traveling they’ve done – physically, emotionally and spiritually – to arrive at the place of healing they operate for fellow healers like themselves.

 

 

 

Christopher and Phileena Heuertz

 

 

 

 

Gravitas
Gravity Center for Contemplative Activism founders Christopher and Phileena Heuertz create place of healing for healers

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

After serving the poorest of the poor, an Omaha couple now helps heal fellow healers.

Omaha is a world away from the slums of Calcutta, the killing fields of Sierra Leone or the red light districts of South America. But the human pain found there is never far from the hearts and minds of a spiritually enlightened local couple who worked among the suffering in these and similarly challenged places for nearly two decades.

Christopher and Phileena Heuertz are 40-something-year-olds who’ve devoted much of their adult lives to social justice activism with the poorest of the poor, all the while led by the scripture admonition “faith without works is dead.” Growing up – he’s from Omaha and she’s from Indiana – each had powerful do-the-right-thing examples of radical hospitality in their own lives. His parents took in foster care kids in crisis and adopted two at-risk children. Later, his folks founded and ran a local agency to help resettle Sudanese refugees. Her father is a Protestant pastor and the senior chaplain for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

By the time the couple met at a small liberal arts Christian college in Kentucky Chis had already done service work on a Navajo reservation, in Cabrini Green Chicago and in South India and Southeast Asia. In love with him and their shared commitment to serve others, Phileena joined him overseas.

The many hard things they witnessed brought them to a crucible of faith that now has them dedicated to nurturing the spirits of people whose human service vocations align with their own.

A new path
In 2012 they founded the Omaha-based Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. Officed in the Mastercraft Building in North Downtown, where kindred spirit creatives, entrepreneurs and social justice warriors (at Siena/Francis House) are their neighbors, the center is the arm for their new outreach focus. The couple’s new mission finds them leading prayer sits and pilgrimages and giving retreats and spiritual direction in support of people like themselves committed to humanitarian work. The Heuertzes know first-hand how draining that work can be and therefore how vital it is to have a discipline or method or sanctuary in order to get refreshed.

Chris says, “We’re trying to create this sort of pit stop for the activist soul to catch their breath, to be refueled, to find practices that will help sustain their vocations and journeys.”

Many of the practices are contemplative in nature, meaning they emphasize silent prayer, meditation and reflection which nurtures self-awareness or consciousness. Centering prayer is one such practice.

Gravity does some of this work right at its spacious office, such as the weekly prayer sits and spiritual direction. and holds retreats at the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb. and around the country. The husband and wife team leads pilgrimages to historic sacred spots around the world (Assisi, Italy) and to historic social justice locales around the world (Rwanda). In the U.S. pilgrmmage has focused on “21st Century Freedom Rides” revisiting civil rights sites in the South. The couple also does workshops and makes presentations for communities, churches and universities across the nation.

 

 

 

 

“Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place,” says Phileena, who completed her certification as a spiritual director. “Since Gravity opened its doors we’re finding that people from all different walks of life are coming. Even if they’re not in formal social justice work many of these people want to make the world a better place and they’re doing that in their way through their unique vocation.”

The couple came to start Gravity after reaching a point where they needed their own reset. They intentionally took time off to minister to themselves, along the way finding some spiritual practices they found beneficial for their own peace of mind and spiritual growth and that they now share with others.

After years working in the trenches with the destitute, the desperate and the dying they took a sabbatical in 2007. For part of their time away from the fray they made a famed pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, that saw them walk almost 800 kilometers (500 miles) across southern France and northern Spain on a 33-day trek. There, under the stars, unplugged from modem life, they discovered some essential truths.

“Every night on the Camino we’d stop at a convent or monastery or pilgrim house,” says Chris. “For 1,100 years these folks have practiced hospitality. You’re so exhausted after walking 25 or 30 kilometers, carrying everything in your pack, and then these folks welcome you in, saying, ‘Here’s a hot meal, here’s the shower, you can wash your clothes, we’ll make you breakfast in the morning and send you on your way.’ And it just always refreshed our spirits, our souls, our bodies, and that’s what we want to do through the center. We want to offer these little glimpses of hope and tools of nourishment for the activist soul to keep going, to keep fighting for a better world and not give up.”

During that same sabbatical period the Heuertzes received a fellowship from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

“They hosted us,” says Chris,”and we found it such a great place for reflecting deeply on very difficult things in the world with a very diverse group of people.”

These experiences of taking time out for solitude, reflection, community and rejuvenation set this always searching couple on a new path, this time not directly tending to the suffering but to those who serve the suffering. Thus, their new mission is healing the healers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking stock

In all the time Phileena and Chris served the oppressed, the exploited, the hungry, the sick and the dying, surrounded by a sea of want and hopelessness, they saw many of their colleagues lose their bearings.

“We worked all over the world and saw pretty messed up stuff and we saw a lot of great people burn out and walk away from their beliefs or faith or communities or vocations,” says Chris.

The couple came close to their own personal breaking points.

He says, “What we experienced in 19 years of really grassroots, gritty, on-the-streets, in-the-neighborhoods difficult work was that we gave a lot of ourselves. We saw lots and lots of terrible things that started to weigh on us. The work that we did impacted us and we absorbed a lot of that. What we saw in our own lives, in our own health and bodies, in our marriage were things that were hurt, that were wounded.

“It did take some emotional, spiritual, physical toll on us.”

While they were still wrapped up in that work though it was hard for them to see that damage. Only after being back home – Chris headed the North American office of Word Made Flesh from here – could they grasp just how much trauma they’d stuffed. There were the tragic figures at the Mother Teresa-founded House for the Dying, the maimed victims of the Blood Diamonds War, the Latina and Asian women recovering from being trafficked in the sex trade.

Phileena says the burden of it all came to a head for her one day.

“Back home a friend asked me after listening to what we had experienced, ‘Do you ever doubt the goodness of God?’ Immediately it was like a dam broke loose and the emotions took over and I just wept and wept and said, ‘Yes, I doubt the goodness of God.’ What I realize now is that in all my work social justice work up until that point I was operating in terms of finding someone to blame, someone who’s responsible for the state of the world and the suffering and injustice that is there.

“And certainly some of us are responsible and we need to take responsibility for our actions. But in Freetown, Sierra Leone everywhere I looked I found the person to blame was also victimized and so then I had nowhere to turn except to blame God for the state of the world and for the condition of my friends.

“I was in a crisis of faith.”

Just when things seemed bleakest a ray of hope shone through in the person of Father Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and priest who is a leading proponent of the Christian contemplative prayer movement.

“Keating came to Omaha to speak at Creighton University and he introduced us to the contemplative tradition and centering prayer,” says Phileena. “That was really a lifesaver for me. It was immediate grace. There was a way for me to just be with the terrible suffering and trauma of the world, the human brutality, the questions, the doubts. There’s a way for me to be with my anger towards God and my questions and doubts about my faith. There’s a way to live faith without having all the answers.

“The answers I grew up with in church in mid-America were not connecting with the real problems of the world. Keating was just so helpful in providing a way for me to stay connected to faith, to God in a way that would allow me to deepen and grow.”

It should be no surprise then that Keating, the author of several books and the founder of the St. Benedict’s monastery in Snowmass, Colo., where he resides and teaches, is a founding board member of Gravity.

Keating’s oft-professed lesson that a test of faith is an opportunity for growth resonated with the couple.

“Keating teaches that if we stay on the spiritual journey long enough we’ll come to the point where the practices that have sustained us in our faith journey fall short, they no longer nourish us, and when that happens it can be completely disorienting,” says Phileena, who went through this dark night of the soul herself. “A lot of people walk away from their faith at that point but Keating says it’s actually an invitation to go deeper.”

She and Chris chose to plunge the depths.

 

 

The contemplative way and paying it forward
“What we found is there’s a real difference between faith and certainty,” she says..”Faith is being able find yourself being held by something bigger and greater than you and not having all these answers. Doubt can be contained within our faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith. I think a lot of spiritual or religious people put a lot of bank in our certainty, but that’s actually a barrier to faith. Certainity can be a disguise for pride and superiority and thinking we have all the answers and have figured it all out and can figure God out. But faith is something that carries us. It’s a grace that helps us to be a part of the mystery of life and God and any goodness that is in us and that can flow through us to heal and transform the world.

“It really gave us an understanding for what we had witnessed in Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in South India. Mother never talked about this but we saw in her this pure model of contemplative activism, where people were dying at her doorstep and she was disciplined to see that they were taken care of but also to see that she and the Missionaries of Charity would take regular time out to meditate and pray. They had these regular rhythms of withdrawal and engagement and getting connected to a source that is greater than them.”

Reflecting on their own and others’ service experiences, Chris says he and Phillena concluded that many “folks in social justice actually take better care of someone else than they do themselves,” adding, “Where’s the integrity in that? If we don’t really know how to love ourselves how well can we really love someone else? We also saw folks who had really beautiful compelling vocations were sometimes being very unpleasant, grumpy people. We did see a lot of people burn out and a lot of people perpetually teetering on the edge of burn out.”

He says he and his wife resolved they and their fellow social justice workers “don’t have to do this at our expense, we don’t have to do this in a way that ends poorly for us or that ends with people walking away from their work, their faith, their beliefs, their community.” That’s where Gravity comes in. “The idea is we want to accompany or journey with folks in this formation of helping ground our social engagement in a deep contemplative spirituality.”

They’re guided in their new mission by the wisdom and example of figures as diverse as Keating, Father Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Phileena says the monastic teachings of Keating, Rohr and Merton “have done a lot to bring contemplative spirituality out from the monastery and into the secular world. We’re a part of the next generation who are making it even more accessible and demystifying it. I think a big part of what we’re offering is accessibility to mysticism or contemplative spirituality. At the retreats the demystifying comes by practicing together and talking about our experiences.”

Gravity is a resource center whose programs, activities, books and videos help fulfill the mission statement tagline: “…do good better.” Both Chris and Phileena are published authors on matters of faith and spirituality.

The spiritual experiences that led them to Gravity, including all the insights gleaned from their teachers, colleagues, friends and role models, is their way of carrying the message.

Visit http://gravitycenter.com for a schedule of upcoming retreats and programs and links to materials.

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