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‘A Matter of Faith,’ a PC(USA) podcast, explores creating worship spaces for people who feel they don’t belong there

The Rev. Michiko Bown-Kai is the guest on the most recent podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Michiko Bown-Kai

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Michiko Bown-Kai, a pastor in the United Church of Canada, discussed during “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” last week how people who feel they don’t belong in religious spaces can indeed feel that sense of belonging.

Hear the conversation on “Decolonizing Spiritual Spaces and Practices” with Bown-Kai and hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe, editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, and Simon Doong of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, by going here. Bown-Kai enters the conversation at the 25:33 mark.

Bown-Kai described themselves as a “non-binary queer person of color doing ministry within congregational settings.”

“It’s been my passion to be connected with all kinds of justice movements,” Bown-Kai said, including with people who “felt they didn’t belong in religious spaces,” some of them struggling “on a spiritual level with no tools or community of faith.”

How do we decolonize practices and traditions, Doong asked, helping people to make them their own?

“For me, these questions come back to power: who has it and how is it being used?” Bown-Kai said. Often when we talk about spiritual practices, “the norms are that there is a professional, someone who knows what’s going on and therefore they get to control what a spiritual practice looks like. If they are leading it, it is deemed as a worthwhile practice.”

“Part of my philosophy of ministry is empowering people with the tools to say, ‘we are all spiritual beings and we all have a relationship with God, and so we all have the capacity within us to imagine,’” Bown-Kai said. “We know best where we’re feeling called, where the Spirit is stirring within us in terms of our own needs for healing, and what is drawing us to community.”

Rather than a colonial model of worship, “which would be hierarchical, top-down thinking, how do we empower from the ground up,” Bown-Kai said, “giving people agency to name what is meaningful and important to them?”

Colonization and white supremacy “in any form rely on this idea of scarcity and fear to maintain control,” Bown-Kai said. “I think spiritual practices can help us resist fear … and can enable us to see abundance in our lives, to be connected to God and able to see God’s definition of abundance … It can be so nourishing for us as individuals and as communities.”

“We preach progressivism, and we want to dismantle racism and white supremacy,” Catoe said. “But oftentimes we miss a vital connection into how we create models of worship and ritual and spiritual practices that are very much dismantling those systems. Sometimes I think we preach a good game, but we don’t often reflect that through our practical theologies.”

“How might we create rituals and practices that dismantle these systems?” he asked Bown-Kai. “What’s your experience?”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“What I’ve found helpful,” Bown-Kai responded, “is to create spaces that are more workshop-like to create that shift in people’s approach. If you say, ‘We’re all gathered today to participate in something and figure this out together,’ that can help people who when they think of worship think of what they’ve always experienced and so don’t show up thinking, ‘I’m going to contribute in a certain way.’”

“Of course, when I do a workshop, I like to make it accessible and for people to participate as the feel comfortable. I really love that model,” Bown-Kai said. “I think there’s a certain among of community-building and intimacy that can be created that oftentimes, sadly, we don’t do in worship. I often wonder, how can worship be more like a workshop? I often feel connected to God and community in workshop spaces in a way I can’t access in worship.”

Another tool “is to pay attention to where ritual already exists in our lives and to figure out ways to pay attention to that more and lift that up,” Bown-Kai said. When something happens that’s distressing to us — when we’re grieving as a community — “we often see people know how to sit vigil,” Bown-Kai said. “They know how to gather in a community space and light candles. There’s an understanding that being together in a space, sharing stories and music are all meaningful ways to express how we’re feeling as a community.”

The work of reclaiming ritual includes determining “what was going on here? Why was this so important?” Bown-Kai said. “At the time it was developed and first practiced, what was the messaging? What was the meaning behind it? Then you can adapt it in a way that feels true and honest.” That was the process many faith communities went through early in the pandemic regarding taking communion, they said. “We were able to say, ‘what is happening in the breaking of the bread?’ Can I come on Zoom and say, ‘go grab what’s daily bread to you and we’re going to share in this liturgy together.’ People have different theologies, and so that landed differently for different communities of faith.”

One project Bown-Kai has undertaken with both secular and religious communities is a reclamation exercise involving the Beatitudes. “What’s beautiful and unique about this is Jesus was naming people and groups as sacred and beloved, and he was lifting up marginalized people,” Bown-Kai said. “If we were to imagine this today, what would you name as sacred in your day-to-day life or in your community of faith? You could say, ‘blessed are the queer people,’ ‘blessed are the underhoused people or the people struggling with addiction,’ the people we see as marginalized today.”

“I think it holds true to what was being said and done when Jesus offered these words, but it also contextualizes it in a way that’s really meaningful,” Bown-Kai said. “I love seeing the variety of examples and the way people have engaged in that.”

“If you want to control a group of people, have them not pay attention to what the Spirit is saying within them,” Bown-Kai said. “Have them feel so disconnected that they don’t even have the tools to know how to listen to what feels true and honest in these most basic, spiritual ways.”

“For me, reclaiming ritual feels important because ritual done right is a very disruptive force in all the ways we need it [to be],” Bown-Kai said. “We need people to know and honor what oppression feels like in their body, to know it’s not OK, and we need to collectively work to resist all those things.”

Asked about any “aha” moments, Bown-Kai said they’ve witnessed “somebody stepping forward” to say, “I’m going to lead this prayer now. I’m going to be the one who calls us together as community. I can do this.”

“It’s almost like Mad Libs. Just fill in the blanks in these very simple questions and sentences, and there you have a very beautiful and powerful prayer. When you’re able to offer people these very simple 1,2,3 steps, they realize it’s not so mystifying and they have the capacity to do that work they think some other leader might be coming in to do for them instead.”

“I invite people to try it. If it doesn’t work, there’s no failure — there’s only lessons,” Bown-Kai said. “If you say, ‘that was a complete flop,’ then you know there’s maybe another direction.” Worship leaders might say, “We’re going to try this for a week. We’re not changing it forever. Let’s just try it.”

“I think invitation into these things can be really helpful, because people love their traditions,” Bown-Kai said. “They feel strongly about certain things, but to know it’s just an option and to know we can always go back as needed can help ease some of that exploration. I hope that inspires you to go out and give it a try.”

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