Planting Gardens of Belonging
Our cultural moment is marked decisively by a bitter, national upheaval. The ramifications of such division are evident in the ongoing reformation of social and civic life that has fundamentally reshaped the American landscape for the next generation of public leaders, particularly those who are deeply rooted in a spiritual tradition.
As someone born between the conclusion of the Millennial generation and the genesis of Gen-Z, this decade of social animosity, political hostility, and religious skepticism is my only experience of political and religious life. I navigated the complexities of voting in my first primary election in 2016 while enrolled in a theology program at a conservative, evangelical bible college in downtown Chicago. I studied American religious history and public theology in seminary during a global pandemic that put the worst of my tradition on display for the public to see. Today, I work at a civic, bridge-building organization that seeks to elevate the constructive role of faith in public life at a time when the integrity of both organized religion and democratic systems are under heavy scrutiny.
While these experiences have produced long seasons of pain, frustration, and grief, my engagement at the intersection of faith and public life over the past decade has also taught me an important lesson: change is not only possible, it is inevitable. Indeed, our country and those who reside in it are constantly shifting and changing. We are ever caught in liminal space: of devastation and building, of death and life, of grief and joy, of pessimism and hope, of death and new life, of what is and what might be. The collective spirit of America is a malleable energy that is impossible to contain.
Framed another way, this decade has—for myself and many others—removed the illusion of permanence. Desipte their present grandeur or platform, no person, institution, building, or system will stand forever. The clarity and freedom that accompany this realization are the beating heart of great social movements that have prophetically envisioned new designs of habitation and built new possibilities for our shared life marked by belonging, community, and inclusion. These movements of change directed by and towards love resist the bifurcation of buildings from bodies and systems from citizens. Most importantly, these movements of change are not destructive in their end; their vision is one of redemption and justice.
We meet God drawing us and showing us the life of one who yields and listens, and in this way, the yielding and listening prepare for us a life together of dreaming and building.
—Willie James Jennings, “Addressing the Hateful Condition of the Line”
The task at hand for young people of faith is to draw from our traditions to steward this change—this social transformation—towards the redemptive possibilities of loving exceedingly, seeking justice, practicing hospitality, and giving generously. In doing so, we might reimagine and create anew the means through which our communities join together across differences. In my experience, this joining work often looks like bending down and digging our hands into the earth to cultivate the soil of our cultural landscape with the nutrients and environment to bring forth a garden of dreaming, building, and flourishing together.
This begins by telling good stories that can transparently name both the tensions and promise of a shared, common life. At their best, stories like these remind us that difference does not necessitate division. They can name where our experiences diverge while also binding us together through a shared vision of who we can be together. Stories remind us that, although we may be strangers, we are deeply connected—and connection is the seedbed for a robust, generative community.
Second, planting a garden or building an institution requires identifying a space to lay a firm foundation. If we aim to draw in our communities towards a constructive vision of our common life, then we must build and plant at the site of public gathering. Truly, our moral and civic formation is not located in prescribed rules and legislation but in communion and belonging. If we want to shape and direct the malleable energy of our communities and society, we must place ourselves where individuals and habits are formed: churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, gurdwaras; and museums, hospitals, schools, potlucks, food pantries, and community centers.
Moreover, in these spaces where people gather across lines of difference, young people of faith must lead the way in cutting through the fog of ideological isolation and tribalism by uplifting the hopeful majority of individuals in every community who genuinely want to their neighbors to thrive. Of course, this is incredibly difficult when we are implicitly formed to treat disagreement within a moral frame—where “you are wrong” necessitates “you are evil.” It is the task of the leader to foster the space and opportunity for shared action towards belonging and a common good.
Finally, no garden grows without the gentle care and fervent love of a passionate gardener. As young leaders strive to make constructive change in their communities, they must draw from their spiritual traditions to love tangibly—to till and plant, water and weed. Anne Synder says it best when she writes, “There’s a growing awareness that love can never be abstracted—we’re touched by incarnational living and doing, less prescription from on high.” The image of a garden is beautiful, just as a vision of belonging is powerful, but both remain incomplete until real fruit is borne and real flowers bloom. Our striving for a meaningful community must be materialized—incarnated—through proximity, hospitality, generosity, and collective action.
Described theologically, the action of love opens people to participate in the divine love that is constantly sustaining and making the world fresh and new.
—Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life
In the Christian tradition, the potential of prophetic social change is never rooted in the individual leader. Instead, the spiritual source of this work is found in an eternal, permanent God who wombs and breathes out beautiful things and, in return, compels us to join in this creative action. This is the mission set before the person of faith engaging in their community: to cultivate, create, and nurture a faithful, hopeful, and loving way of being alive that compels others to join in this way of life.
There is no question that a great deal of work lies before us if we seek to build beautiful and loving communities through healthy civic and democratic practices. I believe that young people of faith are exactly the kind of leaders we need paving the way. Equipped with the experiences, wisdom, knowledge, and energy to transform communities, young leaders of faith have the incredible opportunity to lead us into a better way of being in the world marked by love of God, neighbor, earth, and self.
Amar D. Peterman (MDiv, Princeton Seminary) is an author and theologian working at the intersection of faith and public life. He is the founder of Scholarship for Religion and Society LLC, a research and consulting firm working with some of the leading philanthropic and civic institutions, religious organizations, and faith leaders in America today. His first book, This Common Life: Seeking the Common Good Through Love of Neighbor is forthcoming with Eerdmans Publishing Company. You can learn more about him at amarpeterman.com.