“Don’t Separate Prayer from Action”

An Interview with Adam Bucko

ROWE CENTER: What in your personal journey has helped to shape your vision of Spiritual Activism for the next 40 years?

ADAM BUCKO: My story is that essentially after many different things I went to India believing that God could be found in the silence of monasteries and the Himalayas, but I found God in the streets working with homeless kids broken by abuse and HIV-AIDS and poverty. What I discovered is that even though I wanted to have a purely transcendent yogic experience I found that working in this world is a gift — everything I know I learned from working with homeless kids. It taught me that there are ways of doing activism in which your actions are not only connected to contemplation, but your actions become prayer. Part of my mission in the world is to discover God in service and justice-making. I think this is where a lot of activism needs to go — don’t separate prayer from action. For me, the future is about those two movements, the contemplative movement and the activist movement, coming together.

In regard to the contemplative community, many monasteries are empty now; not many people are feeling called to leave the world. The other community that I’m deeply engaged with, people in their 20’s and 30’s who want to work for social and climate justice and who are concerned about our world, those people basically are saying, “We are here — we’re longing for peace and purpose.” They’re longing for those contemplative practices that can help us discover our purpose in the world, to build a world of justice and compassion. I’d love to see both of those communities unite — to have the monasteries be open to those young people so they can learn contemplative practices from the monks who are still there and translate those practices into something completely new and relevant, becoming warriors of compassion in line with what the monks have discovered.

R.C.: How will Spiritual Activists avoid the serious dangers of being co-opted by an American culture of consumerism and celebrity worship in coming decades?

A.B.: I think that how we relate to spirituality is to change the old model, and the spiritual celebrity model is just a reinvention of the old model, not a real change. We need to start finding new kinds of guides and mentors who can lead us in a space of contemplative prayer, a place of openness, and help us feel the guidance of the holy spirit that everyone has the potential to feel. We need guides who instead of offering answers will offer questions, so that we can follow the impulses in our hearts — we don’t need people taking the role of a teacher who sells us a product; we need people who can give us tools to deepen the direct relationship that we can have with God. Then we relate to our mentors differently. In practical terms, we’re moving from celebrities showing up and giving us lectures and teachings to small groups meeting as friends and exposed to each others heartbreaks, and in that vulnerable space amazing things happen. In my experience, in those prayer meetings the presence of God just kind of descends and guides us to new ways of being together and of ways of doing spiritually.

We need to move from big churches to groups that are committed to each other. There’s nothing new about it — you see it in AA and in Occupy.

R.C.: How do you think Spiritual Activists will be able to cope with strong push-backs from religious ideologues who are Christian, Jewish, Islamist, Hindu, or Buddhist fundamentalists?

A.B.: I think it’s going to be hard. We want to say that things are improving, but also there’s tremendous religious violence and exclusive claims and horrible things we see on a daily basis. But I’ll give you one example of how change happens. In New York City during the Bloomberg administration they considered one of their biggest enemies to be Occupy Wall Street; they wanted to destroy it, and that’s what they did, through violence and the brutality of policemen. Then months later Hurricane Sandy happened, and Occupy regrouped as Occupy Sandy and went to the places destroyed by the hurricane and offered services, way before the Red Cross or FEMA, and within hours they organized and saved people’s lives.. A Russian immigrant woman I spoke with said, “When no one was there for us, they showed up every day, with water, food, blankets.” All of a sudden the city government and FEMA were sending their workers to Occupy Sandy to get training.

So this is how it has to happen. When small groups organize, when we get serious about our prayers, our love, our commitment, then the world will see that. It’s like Jesus said: “By your love, they will know you.” We can show the world that there’s an alternative to religious fundamentalism.

R.C.: You work a lot with homeless youth; how do you think the problem of homelessness can be addressed in the next 40 years?

A.B.: I think that non-profit and social service agencies are very important in dealing with all the social problems we have, but there’s also another component — Dorothy Day had this idea that every person should have a Christ room in their home where they can take people in. We need to go back to basics and start there, so those kids feel what it’s like to be loved. It’s a long-term solution: we need the social agencies but we also need spiritual commitment as individuals and communities.

R.C.: What would you say to a young person in 2054?

A.B.: When I’m 79 years old, if I’m still alive, God willing, I’d say pay attention to the dream that’s trying to emerge in your heart, to your deepest longings and your vocation, and be faithful to it. Connect to elders, but only to those who support you in the process of saying “yes” to it. The test for that dream is: Does it allow to you to use all you have to serve compassion and justice? If so, then dedicate your life to ensure that it becomes a manifestation of that dream.

Adam Bucko will offer his workshop “Occupy Spirituality: Radical Aliveness for Changing the World” at Rowe on February 6–8.

ADAM BUCKO is the co-author, with Matthew Fox, of Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation. Born in Poland during the totalitarian regime, he spent his early years in the anarchist youth movement and at the age of 17 emigrated to the U.S., where he embraced “new monasticism” and was closely mentored by several contemporary spiritual teachers. In India, he began working with homeless youth at the “Ashram of the Poor.” Returning to America, he began working with homeless young people and founded the non-profit Reciprocity Project and an inter-spiritual “New Monastic” fellowship for young people called HAB, featured on ABC News, CBS, NBC, Yoga International and Sojourner magazines, and elsewhere.

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