Chris Heuertz was mentored by Mother Teresa for three years and spent nearly twenty years serving with the Word Made Flesh community, where he worked for women and children victimized by human traffickers in the commercial sex industry. Then, in the fall of 2012, he and his wife, Phileena, launched Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. In this interview, Chris Heuertz discusses how contemplative practices can help sustain activism, lead to a more holistic health, and create unlikely communities.
The Other Journal (TOJ): To start out, could you tell a bit about your background, specifically with Word Made Flesh?
Chris Heuertz (CH): Between my junior and senior year of college, I visited South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Singapore, and Bangladesh, and then in India, I knocked on the door of the convent where Mother Teresa used to live. I asked if there was any volunteer work I could do, and the Missionaries of Charity sent me to the house of the dying. In those first two months in Calcutta, I tended to nearly fifty dead bodies. I was devastated. I was wrecked. And I say wrecked in a great way—I felt like vocation found me.
After I finished my last year of school, I moved back to India with Word Made Flesh and helped start the first pediatric AIDS care home in all of south Asia. During those years, I traveled to Calcutta three or four times a year to meet with Mother Teresa and to continue some of the work I had done as a student.
A few years into my time with Word Made Flesh, the board appointed me to become the new international director, a role I served in for almost sixteen years. In those sixteen years, my wife, Phileena, and I helped build Word Made Flesh from a group of three or four of us in one city to an organization of over 350 folks in thirteen countries. By the end of my time with Word Made Flesh the organization was receiving between $2 to $3 million per year, money that we used to organize grassroots communities of hope in desperate places of poverty, among communities of the poorest and most vulnerable people in those cities. We primarily focused our efforts on women and kids who had been trafficked in the commercial sex industry; on children who had been forced to fight in civil wars; on youth who lived and worked on the streets, in sewers, or in slums; and on families and children who were impacted by the global AIDS pandemic. We did this as a vocation of bearing witness to our belief that God was good. In a world that has legitimate reasons to question the possibility of a good God, we threw ourselves at the absurdity of that hope, and we tried to embody it as a community.
TOJ: Wow. And what led you to the creation of the Gravity Center?
CH: Twelve years ago, Phileena and I met an older Cistercian monk named Thomas Keating. Thomas lives in a monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, and has written quite a few books on centering prayer and contemplative spirituality. He also started the organization Contemplative Outreach. We were somewhat familiar with these ideas and some of the historical Christian contemplative prayer practices through our spiritual direction, but Thomas’s words resonated deeply with who we were and where we were at that point in our lives. As we began to nurture this contemplative posture in our lives, we became attuned to the many different ways that people try to sustain vocations. Responding to a calling into service is important, we realized, but we became especially interested in the ways that people move from merely sustaining a vocation to thriving in their areas of service. We really felt that contemplative practices provided a healthy way of allowing people to ground their social engagement in a deep spirituality. These old practices seemed like a powerful way of supporting a very demanding vocation and facing the needs of the world.
For several years we had been thing about these ideas and about how we might pursue them more seriously, perhaps through a center for contemplative activism. In 2007, when we were on sabbatical from Word Made Flesh, we walked the El Camino de Santiago in Spain. We walked eight hundred kilometers across northern Spain. Every night we would look for a bed at a monastery or convent, and we found that these little places of hospitality were pit spots for the pilgrim’s soul. And I think that sparked our imagination for what the Center for Contemplative Activism could become. Later in our sabbatical, we were also hosted by the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, and the hospitality we experienced there also offered us inspiration for a new kind of hospitality to nurture the activist’s soul.
In early 2012 as we began our transition out of our positions at Word Made Flesh, we looked back on our twenty years of service and noticed some patterns. First, we saw that people in social justice vocations typically did a much better job of taking care of others than caring for themselves. Second, we saw that people in social justice vocations tended to live from retreat to retreat, from visa run to visa run, from vacation to vacation. It was as if they could serve in these cities and neighborhoods but only as long as they knew when they were able to get away and catch their breath, go home for a second, or get out. That struck us as a real inconsistency. And third, we saw lots and lots of people who were burnt out or who were perpetually teetering on the edge of burnout
We thought—actually, we believed—that we could do good better. We look back on those twenty years, and we learned from our mistakes, because we made plenty. And we think we can maybe offer an alternative way of sustaining and supporting these difficult vocations so that people can really thrive in them. And that’s really what inspired the Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, which we launched on September 17, 2012, a little over a year ago.
TOJ: “Contemplative activism” and “do good better” are two phrases from your website that really stand out. Could you explain what those mean and what your hope is for those phrases in your organization?
CH: We’ve come to understand that even in our best efforts or attempts to be involved in meaningful, cause-driven social justice or social activism work, there will always be unintended, harmful consequences. I think that many of these unforeseen consequences come from our subconscious and our unconscious motivations. One of the gifts of contemplation is that it facilitates a very gentle awakening to our misguided, selfish, and ego-driven motivations, and when we become awakened to these subconscious and unconscious motivations, we’re able to mitigate some of those unintended harmful consequences; we’re able to do good better. Clearly, we won’t always get it right, and I think that’s part of the confessional tone of that phrase, but as folks on a journey, we can allow that spirituality to ground our activities and rest our motivations.
I think our language of contemplative activism throws some people off. They have this sense that those two words are in tension with one another. But the true contemplative isn’t the person who completely withdraws from the world. The true contemplative doesn’t simply nurture the interior in isolation. I think the true contemplative is a person who allows this deep soul work to lead to a broader, more substantial transformation than just at the individual, insulated, isolated level. Likewise, I think that true activists do not simply throw themselves at a cause for the sake of the cause without first allowing a passion or focus to have some sort of anchor or grounding point. And so bringing contemplation and activism together creates a fresh kind of accountability to those who have more of an affinity toward the contemplative or the active, illuminating for us that neither can be isolated from the other if we really want to have an impact.
Mother Teresa is a really good example of this. She is someone who was a teacher and a mentor for us, someone who we spent a lot of time with. Mother Teresa lived a very active life, and she was very present to real human needs, but four or five times a day, every day, she would stop for prayer. She would stop for mass. She would stop for adoration and take time for silence. These were undramatic, quiet, mundane bits of her life, but I believe that without those intentional pauses her impact on the world would never have been of the scope that it was. So we look at people like Mother Teresa as an example of a contemplative activist who showed us a different way, and we see the fruits of that in her life.
TOJ: When you speak of the contemplative as a way of sustaining activism, I hear something of a marriage between the soul, the mind, and the body. In light of The Other Journal’s current issue on the body, could you say a little bit more about how those are related?
CH: I think that a lot of articles show up in our Facebook threads and our newsfeeds about meditation, contemplation, solitude, silence, and stillness as ways of nurturing a holistic view of health—even among the nonreligious. I believe that these things are connected to the body, that our breathing, our pace, and how we relate to the strains and the demands of our life actually create these frenzied versions of our shadow side or our false self. Taking time to pause and to create a spirituality that is marked by silence, solitude, and stillness is a correction to that.
There is so much noise in our lives—e-mails, texts, phone calls, Twitter notifications, Instagram notifications, Facebook updates—and I think that noise distracts a lot of us from being able to hear, to listen. Silence helps us learn how to listen to the voice of God in our lives, a voice that we maybe have not been able to recognize. Silence helps us listen to the people in our lives who speak loving truthful words of corrections or affirmation over us.
Solitude functions as another correction to that noise. Most of us are surrounded by people all of the time, but as much as we’re surrounded by people, many of us are still very lonely. Solitude teaches us how to be present—present to ourselves, present to God, and present with others.
And stillness. There are more nonprofits being started and more people identifying themselves with causes that they believe in and are concerned with than ever before. I think there are more people in the so-called developed world who want to make an impact, but I think stillness arrests some of this, and it allows us to reflect deeply on it and to create pauses for accountability.
When we give ourselves silence, solitude, and stillness, it not only nurtures a spirituality of the soul, but it also quiets the mind in a way that offers us the chance to make major corrections to our behaviors that are otherwise obscured by life’s noises. I think this leads to better holistic health, and we feel it in our bodies. We walk slower, we lift our heads a little higher, and we see things that we maybe haven’t seen before. I think the contemplative catches us off guard by way of its fruit. These contemplative practices and disciplines affect every part of us and every part of who we are.
TOJ: How would you say the silence, solitude, stillness, and the contemplative works in respect to the body of Christ, the congregation? What role do these practices play in the community?
CH: That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about because I think the contemplative creates spaces for a different kind of Christian unity that I’ve not seen before.
One of the things I did as director of Word Made Flesh was to try to transition Word Made Flesh from a group of evangelicals to an ecumenical experiment of tacit Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical Christians working together. That was difficult, I think, because of the muscle memory of evangelicalism that sometimes tends to exclude Christians from other Christian faith traditions. But it was easy in that we all agreed that little kids shouldn’t be sold into prostitution, and we all agreed that that was probably not God’s intention or desire for childhood. Thus, we created ecumenical unity around issues of hurt, exploitation, and injustice.
But with the center, I think we’ve seen that contemplative spirituality nurtures a different kind of oneness within the body of Christ. Every week at our center in Omaha we have an open prayer sit, a meditation sit where anybody in the city is welcome to join us at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoons. And people from all over the world, folks living outside Omaha, also join us remotely during this hour. Many of them are Christians. They are Catholics and Protestants. They are evangelicals. They are the Episcopal bishop for the state of Nebraska and the head of the theology department at Creighton University, which is a Jesuit university here in town, and a preacher from a big Southern Baptist megachurch and an African Catholic priest. They are clergy who would be divided by words if they were sitting around a table discussing doctrine or theology, but here they have come and created a real community.
What’s been fresh for us is that not all the Christians who join us are heterosexual. Everyone is welcome and everyone’s participation is celebrated. Together we are forming a new we, a new kind of community that has been created by sharing silence, by making time each week to pause in this posture of consent. And it’s been great to see the unlikely friendships that have come out this.
I think that one of the fruits of the contemplative is that these practices lead to a new kind of acceptance. It isn’t just an acceptance of self, but it starts there. It starts with accepting who we are in relationship to how God loves us, and then that acceptance begins to translate beyond the divisions we have created around us. We’ve seen that here—a real sweet sense of unity in the folks that join us each week—and if we could see that on a larger scale, then the contemplative would nurture a new kind of community within the body of Christ.
TOJ: You’ve described your center as part of a revolution or movement. In what sense would you say that it’s revolutionary?
CH: Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, and the contemplative initiatives that we are emphasizing are not new, of course. We stand on the shoulders of lots of people who have gone before us, and we stand within the historical continuity of a church that we’re grateful to be included in. At the center we’re simply trying to remember that our social engagement needs to be grounded in a deep contemplative spirituality, and I think that spirituality arrests our motivations and informs our engagement.
We’re also not excluding anyone in our programming, retreats, or pilgrimages. We want the services of Gravity to be available to anyone who cares deeply about their spirituality and about making the world better place. I think that’s been refreshing for a lot of people who have been uncomfortable with churches or organized religious expressions of the church. I think what we’ve found is that a lot of people recognize themselves as spiritual beings, but they feel hopeless or orphaned by religious communities, and we want to offer an alternative to that. I hope what’s fresh about what we’re doing here is that we’re prioritizing a spirituality marked my solitude, stillness, and silence in a world that is distracted, busy, and frenetic—a world that has forgotten how these values may nurture their spirituality.
TOJ: Practically speaking, what do your retreats and pilgrimages look like? What goes on? CH: We do quite a few retreats for organizations, churches, denominations, and universities around these notions of contemplative activism. Our spring retreats are pure silence. They include four to six hours of guided prayer sits, meditation, or centering prayer sits each day; they include a little bit of teaching, but we begin and end these retreats in silence. We also do a fall retreat, which is an introduction to contemplative spirituality; at that retreat we offer a lot of content about historical Christian contemplative prayer practices, instruction and practice of those contemplative practices, a debrief of these contemplative practices, and a reflection on the fruits of what these practices look like if they become a routine part of a person’s life. We host people from all over—Canada, the United States, Mexico—who come from all different types of organizations, companies, and denominations. It’s refreshing time to see people who live very active and demanding vocations stop to nurture their spirituality.
We also lead pilgrimages of solidarity. These pilgrimages are in step with their religious and confessional pilgrimages. We’ll be taking folks to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, and we’ll be taking folks to India, Nepal, Thailand, and Cambodia. We will also continue to partner with Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House to do Twenty-First-Century Freedom Rides with some of America’s great surviving civil rights leaders.
We’ll be taking folks on religious pilgrimages to Assisi, Italy, where we will walk in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Claire. And we’ll also be leading a Spanish mystics pilgrimage where we visit and reflect on the life, the spirituality, and the legacy of Teresa of Avila, the Jesuits, and St. John of the Cross, and introduce folks to the Way of St. James by walking a couple days of that ancient pilgrimage route together.
Finally, we also offer spiritual direction and contemplative prayer sits. This is our first year and we’ve really just been building an infrastructure and capacity, but we’ve kept pretty busy. I’ve been on over ninety flights in the first nine months of the year, and I have a pretty busy travel schedule through the end of 2013.
TOJ: What have you learned in first year of the organization?
CH: Because it’s our first anniversary, we’ve been reflecting a lot on this past year, and I think what we’ve learned is that we’re not alone in this. In fact, the ideas that we’re championing resonate with a lot of people. A couple of our board members include Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar down in New Mexico, and Father Thomas Keating in Colorado. These two men have really been great friends, and even more than that, they have been mentors and teachers to us. As we’ve interacted with Father Richard and Father Thomas, we’ve typically seen that the crowds they draw to their conferences, events, monasteries, and centers are older people who may have come to understand in the second halves of their lives the value of the contemplative. I think what has surprised us is that there are also a lot of young people who care about this and are trying to find their way into this. There are a lot of young people who are eager to find teachers themselves, and I think that’s been an encouragement to us, that this is resonating across generations and across faith traditions.
TOJ: Speaking of young people wanting to get involved. How do people get involved with the Gravity Center?
CH: There are a lot of opportunities, and I think our website (http://gravitycenter.com) makes it easy for people to register for retreats or fill out a form to have Phileena or me speak at retreats. Our website also includes information for getting in touch with us about getting involved with pilgrimages or spiritual direction.