Three weeks following brain surgery meant to save her life, Nancy Good was still in a remote state of consciousness doctors diagnosed as a coma. She was to be moved from the ICU to palliative care. All the while, prayer chaplains she herself had trained held the high watch.
Nancy is to Unity on the North Shore (UNS), Evanston, Ill., what Peter is to the early church: Passionate about spiritual education, she led workshops on how to release stress and find inner peace. Passionate about prayer, she founded and led UNS’ prayer chaplain program for nearly a decade. Passionate about community outreach, she was the driving force behind a monthly food collection for a local food pantry.
But of her many works, the one Nancy cherished most was organizing our annual observance of Unity’s World Day of Prayer. It culminates in an Interfaith celebration we call “Sharing Sacred Practices.” A variety of presenters are invited to share a devotional practice calling forth the energy of their faith or spiritual tradition. Emphasis is on experience and participation, though it’s always informative and educational, too.
Over the years Sikh, Muslim, Catholic, Lutheran, Native American, Jewish, Episcopal, Buddhist, Hindi and Essene presenters have shared songs, chants, hymns, readings, prayers, dances and rituals under our Unity wings. We offer this celebration as a gift to the local community, paying presenters a modest honorarium as part of our tithes, and designating the love offerings received to Interfaith Action of Evanston, a nonprofit dedicated to feeding our hungry and homeless neighbors. The event is a glorious combination of Nancy’s three great passions.
So on her last day in ICU, after other visitors had left, and before hospital staff came to remove the machines keeping her heart pumping and lungs breathing, I held Nancy’s hand and connected with her spirit. (Despite the monitors indicating no brain activity, all of us holding high watch had strongly felt the energy of her spirit throughout the three weeks.) This time was different though; more intense. It’s possible I was just projecting my own emotional state, but I choose to believe I was enfolded in God’s love and light pouring in and through Nancy’s Spirit. Without thinking what was entailed, I was moved to promise we would continue hosting Sharing Sacred Practices. When I did, a single tear fell across her cheek.
Western medicine regards such a “coincidence” as reflexive bodily function, unrelated to conscious activity. I believe consciousness functions in realms far more subtle and powerful than we may ever be able to monitor. Bottom line: Breaking the promise made that day would be breaking a sacred commitment.
Yet three years on, as the time for planning 2016’s World Day of Prayer activities approaches, the promise is one we’re thinking of breaking. Sharing Sacred Practices is a powerful, prayerful experience for those who attend. It blesses Chicago’s North Shore community by creating an opening for greater understanding between people of different faiths. It raises money for charity. It’s a beautiful demonstration of our center’s mission to be a “welcoming diverse spiritual community.” But attendance consistently fails to meet expectations.
Each year, we have promoted to wider and wider audiences with flyers, postcards, social media and paid advertising. We’ve developed relationships with Interfaith colleagues encouraging them to bring guests. We’ve partnered with Interfaith Action which promotes the event to hundreds of its members. Still, it’s a “best kept secret.” And from a strategic church growth perspective, our leadership team questions whether it makes sense to offer a “product” with a “target market” that for the most part already identifies with “competing” churches or spiritual communities.
Of course, sacred social justice is about more than funds raised and numbers served … but how do we balance consciousness-raising with wise stewardship of time, money and energy?
The larger question, it seems, is whether success in the realm of spiritual social action can or ought to be determined by tangible metrics—offerings received, numbers served, media impressions, etc. Sure, sound business is a facet of leading thriving spiritual communities; but if we believe raising consciousness is the nexus of creating positive change, then impact on consciousness has to be a consideration in how we participate in sacred service to the world, no matter how difficult it may be to quantify.
So what does consciousness-raising look like, social-action wise?
Here are four considerations beyond business-type measurables for assessing “success:
- Focus is on solutions, not conditions: Is the consciousness of the action or activity grounded in an awareness of all-sufficiency, unconditional love and oneness; or, is the primary energy fueled by fear, lack or anger? Witness someone standing against racism vs standing for racial equality. There may be no discernible difference in terms of observable behavior. But the vibrational difference is a spiritual power uniquely recognized by Unity as a creative force. Employing that power in the service of good is our wheelhouse.
- We ourselves are changed: Talk to any prayer chaplain and they’re likely to say their service blesses them as much as those with whom they pray. The same dynamic expresses in social action that’s sacred. Collecting and blessing teddy bears for residents of a psychiatric center is lovely. Meeting those residents, and realizing their lives differ from ours only by degree, is a transformative experience of Oneness.
- It’s not [just] about us: I know … claiming Oneness affirms no separation. But in service that is truly sacred, any raising of consciousness extends beyond personal experience and beyond the walls of our centers. Supporting a local food pantry with a monthly canned-food drive is well and good. But if we’re giving from an energy of judgment about these “poor, hungry souls” or fear that “there but for the grace of God go I,” we’re feeding a consciousness of impoverishment. Better to give with the conviction that our donations are nourishing recipients with the creativity, energy, will and strength to reach their fullest potential.
- “Miracles” support the work: To what degree are efforts supported by divinely ordered introductions, synchronistic resource allocation and right and perfect timing? In a recent Facebook post, Rev Greg Barrette describes I Lift Detroit in Prayer,* a 2008 gathering Unity Renaissance, Warren, Mich., organized. All energies, from reporters’ calls and media coverage to weather and alternate venue availability, colluded to transcend obstacles seen and unseen. Such occurrences, especially seemingly minor ones, can easily be dismissed as coincidental: They may well be an indication of spiritual congruence.
It’s still unclear whether we’ll host Sharing Sacred Practices in September. What is clear is that we’ll ask stakeholders to consider and discuss these points, pray for discernment, then share whatever guidance is received, trusting that right action will follow. “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”—1 Cor 2:10
* Click here for the Contact magazine article. Scroll down to page 38.