Watson: High-fiber activism

Mar 13, 2017 by

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“Every time I leave one of these, I have a headache,” a woman groaned as we left the community town hall meeting. More than 150 people had crowded into a church’s multipurpose room to discuss the issues they wanted to advocate for during the congressional recess.

Hillary Watson


It was political, strategic, complex. Like my neighbor, my head was spinning, and when she spoke, I thought, “How does she manage to go to these so regularly?”

In the aftermath of the election, many Americans have renewed their commitment to public activism. Mennonites are engaging the political sphere in ways that were inconceivable 50 years ago. Many, however, are wondering, “How do I continue speaking out without burning out?”

The question I hear most often, in the church and outside of it, is, “How do I practice public action and practice self-care when everything in my self is overwhelmed by public life?”

Public activism is important. Signing petitions, visiting elected officials, gathering in the street — it’s the meat and potatoes of social change. But in the delicate balance of activism and self-preservation, we need more than meat and potatoes. I am more and more convinced consistent, individual micro-change is the asparagus of social change.

Public activism will fill us up, but we need the nutrient-rich, high-fiber diet of individual behavior change in order to maintain our health.

You could call it “domestic activism.” Bringing change in our smallest social sphere. Reorienting our households to the values we believe in. Bringing cookies to new neighbors. Volunteering in your child’s classroom. Reading an inspiring book with your spouse. Transferring your money to a credit union. It is domestic activism, but at its core it is ethics — drawing our actions closer to our beliefs in a sustained, habitual way. We can value public activism, but it must be balanced with spiritual disciplines that root us in a sense of God’s love and our own createdness.

I am grateful to realize I am in a stronger, healthier place now than I was the day after the election.
How did I get here? Returning to the daily practice of writing poetry. Trying new recipes in the kitchen, crafting cheesecakes and homemade yogurt I wasn’t sure I was capable of. Watching my kombucha ferment for 30 long days, smelling the clean, tart juice turn into a nutritious drink. Learning the patient practice of fermentation. Getting together with friends and trading little inspirations. Increasing the “donations” column in my household budget, giving more and more intentionally. Going on regular walks. Taking time outside, no matter the temperature. Ordering most of my seeds from heirloom, conservation-minded nonprofits. Birdwatching as the early spring migration begins. Learning to identify who is moving into the neighborhood.

Last week I took several youth from my congregation to visit Goshen (Ind.) College as prospective students. I wandered the grounds, noticing that the wide stretch of marshy grass between the music center and the underclassmen dorms had been seeded with tall, tipping prairie flowers. Wooden signs explained: “Native Prairie.” Later, one of the youth told me, “The ecology students get to practice prescribed burns there in the spring. Plus, our tour guide said it’s pretty in the summer.”

This is the most domestic of activism: seeing a grass field and realizing it aligns better with our values when it is filled with the native plants God ordained for this region. This sort of small change, I believe, is as critical as the flashy, secular world of public protest.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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