Hope from the Thirteenth Century

There is hope. Hurricane Katrina ripped away our illusions about racism being an evil of the past in this country. The connections between poverty, racism and environmental destruction have been starkly revealed, making the need for change more obvious than ever.

Though violent fanaticism seems to have set the world ablaze in conflicts all too reminiscent of the twelfth and thirteenth century Crusades, a deeper look into that same history reveals a surprising counter-movement that remains a powerful inspiration today—if we can reclaim it.

Between 1134 and 1300, outside of Paris, a spontaneous peace and reconciliation movement arose with the building of Chartres Cathedral. At the site of the sacred spring and oak grove where pre-Christian Druids had worshipped for centuries, early Christians made a shrine to Mary. As scholar Karen Armstrong writes:

“At Chartres, the lay people quite spontaneously created a counterpart to the Crusade when they decided to build a new church for Mary in their city at the same time as the Crusaders were leaving Europe…A building society was formed that organized lay men and women, rich and poor, to quarry stones themselves and convey them to the site… Nobody could join the building association unless they had reconciled themselves with all their enemies…The emphasis in this movement around the Virgin was on peace and reconciliation, not on holy war…”

"I, too have been working with stones..."

As many of you know, I, too have been working with stones in the rural countryside of East Texas, only these stones are gravestones, burial markers. Yet the heart of the work is the same—peace and reconciliation. The black community whose ancestors are buried in Love Cemetery found themselves locked out of their own communal burial ground for more than forty years. While doing research in East Texas, I heard this story and became involved by convening an interfaith, bi-racial comittee of spiritual and lay leaders. Together we began to reclaim Love Cemetery.

As we clear the tangled underbrush covering the graves, by hand and with tractors, we are acknowledging the buried history of our country. Working alongside African American elders, young Scouts and white members of the community are learning a history many of us would rarely glimpse otherwise. In August, 2004, we reconsecrated the two-acre burial ground with an interfaith ceremony. In August, 2005, we discovered three more graves.

As the work on Love continues, I’m writing a book about this experience, The Keepers of Love, to be published by Harper San Francisco (2006-2007). By telling the story of this one act of interracial and intergenerational reconciliation, we are providing a model of the kind of small community action that can contribute to the healing of our country’s deepest wound.

The Chartres Project

The story of Chartres also seems deeply appropriate as I reflect on the conference we put on in June, 2005, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. We called it “Awakening the Energy for Change, The Black Madonna and the Womb of God” because no matter how much we know we need to change, awakening the energy to do it is another story. Witnessing two hundred and fifty vital people gather to celebrate the Divine Feminine and the powerful, healing energy she brings validated our instincts. Conference Recording Services in Berkeley has audio tapes available now at http://www.conferencerecording.com

Many wanted to build on the transformative energy of the conference. As a consequence, IOD is developing The Chartres Project: Circles of Love. We are supporting the growth of small groups—some of mixed gender and some for women only—meeting as “circles” to engage in reconciliation: personal, racial, spiritual and environmental. We use models of women’s leadership and the principles of “council” (see Christina Baldwin’s Calling the Circle) that offer clear alternatives to hierarchical forms. Together, we are building altars, both literal and metaphoric, as we reclaim “the stone the builders rejected”— dark and female forms of the sacred.

The Chartres Project is intended to culminate in three years, in a three-day conference, “The Welcome Table.” Co-sponsorship is being explored with S.T.A.R., the Southern Truth and Reconciliation committee at Emory University’s Department of Religion and with Brandeis University. Co-sponsorship is also being discussed with Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder of the World Religions and Ecology Forum at Harvard Divinity School. By bringing together these areas of discourse—race, reconciliation, and environmental peril—within the context of women’s leadership and spirituality, IOD will expand this critical dialogue. Unlike South Africa, our country has no officially sanctioned Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Like the builders of Chartres, like the early members of Solidarity in Poland, we have to do the work ourselves, in small, local groups.

In addition to writing The Keepers of Love and tending the Chartres Project, IOD is in the early stages of producing video and audio documentaries based on The Keepers of Love. We have been filming and recording in East Texas, three to four times a year, since the project’s inception, and will continue transcribing and editing the material for public distribution when the book is finished.

To find out more about Circles of Love, click here.

An Opportunity

To complete any one of these projects would take a fair amount of support; to continue all three requires extraordinary support. But these are extraordinary times that demand a whole-hearted response. IOD’s work of reconciliation, our multi-media documentation, our circles and our conferences, offer a powerful, hope-filled alternative for those of us who cherish peace, reconciliation, and the earth itself. Your support is critical to awakening the energy so needed now for change.

IOD recently received a generous $20,000 matching grant from the Tides Foundation which means that your gift—whatever the amount—will be doubled. This is a phenomenal opportunity to make your money go twice as far to support your values at this precarious moment. Funds are needed, most immediately, to allow me to complete the work on The Keepers of Love (The publisher’s advance only covers about 30% of the costs), and then, when the book is finished, to complete post-production on the video and audio documentaries, to create the online infrastructure that will support the Chartres/Circles of Love Project, to plan “The Welcome Table” Conference for 2007-08, and, last but not least, to cover the ongoing operating expenses of Images of Divinity.

In joining our community, you are taking a stand for love. Whether it’s reclaiming the African-American cemetery in East Texas or sitting in circles of love in your community, you can keep “choosing love when there’s reason to hate.” as one of the African-American elders in East Texas told me many years ago. There is no other answer. Love is the antidote, compassion—fierce compassion—the basis for action. There is hope, but it is up to us to keep it alive.


China Galland

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