by Luke Winslow
It felt like the Puget Sound hadn’t seen the sun since November. It might’ve come out for a few minutes here and there this winter, but my curiosity in visiting a completely different bioregion for the Bartimeus Kinsler Institute was matched by a readiness for immediate sunburns the moment I arrived in Southern California. I’m grateful for the flexibility of an academic schedule—a few months away from finishing my master’s work at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology—to have this weeklong Institute nicely timed with spring break. Driving through occupied Duwamish, Puyallup, Nisqually, and others’ territory to leave my adopted watershed after an Ash Wednesday service, I felt a twinge of vulnerability. I would be spending time amidst the land’s pain and trauma in the devastating wake of the Thomas Fires two months prior. I felt deeply impacted by the Bartimeus community’s online reflections, lamenting Grandmother Oak and re-membering the Asistencia Santa Gertrudis, places that literally bear the ashes that we’d just liturgically reflected upon.
Something that watershed discipleship has introduced me to is the possibility that theologies of creation care that solely appeal to an “appreciation of earth’s beauty” might not be sufficient to motivate white and settler bodies into actual and sustained solidarity with indigenous communities in resistance to colonial capitalist industry. In Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, Seth M. Holmes reflects on a moment when (during his enthographic immersion) he was working with Triqui farmworkers in the Skagit Valley, an hour north of so-called Seattle and situated at the mouth of the North Cascades. Holmes writes:
Even the vistas that were so sublime and beautiful to me had come to mean ugliness, pain, and work to the pickers. On multiple occasions, my Triqui companions responded with confusion to my exclamations about the area’s beauty and explained that the fields were puro trabajo, pure work. (p. 89)
So, whereas I think many fellow Millennials made starry-eyed by the neocolonial-made-consumable adventures and explorations of Instagram would flock to the same hyper-beauty of the “views” in so-called Yosemite National Park (which is stolen Ahwahneechee/Miwok/Paiute land), for example, what does it mean to come to the Ventura River Valley and spend deep time there on a short visit?
Such a connection could hardly be better reflected than in the words of a member of the Washoe Tribe in the Sierra Nevada (Warren L. Azevedo, Straight with the Medicine: Narratives of Washoe Followers of the Tipi Way, 2):
The old Indians didn’t have books like the Bible. They didn’t have no writing or no books like the white people to read and write what they believe… Peyote is our Bible… When you see this little Herb you see our Church and our Bible.
The oak trees and their acorns, for the Chumash in these valleys, are like the peyote cactus in this way. Noticing these non-human parts of creation—and their absence after drought, fires, and landslides—served as a way for me to learn and try to honor the land I was visiting.
The theme of this year’s Institute was “Digging In: Heels, Histories, Hearts.” In my school community we do a lot of work in the latter two—the interdisciplinary pedagogy where theology and psychology meet means that we have a lot of hard conversations about trauma, family of origin stories, intercultural competency, and personal self-awareness as inseparable from vocational discernment. Every first year student goes through a yearlong “group therapy” intensive where we work these out in community and personal practice, not just reading books. But the Institute, for me, reflected a deepening of that first category: digging in our heels as sustainable resistance to the intensification of colonial capitalism under this first year of the Trump Administration.
As I reflect back on the Institute, my thoughts keep returning to a line from Rev. Art Cribbs’ sharing, a kind of Bonhoefferian insight:
Inward concern for innocence produces abstraction which produces apathy.
What does it mean for privileged bodies to move from a place of distancing ourselves from the “problematic they” (Trump supporters, conservative Christians, etc.) as a kind of self-concerned purity, to a place that produces not abstraction and apathy, but rather connection or vulnerability on the path to resolute solidarity?
As Ched Myers argued, there is a kind of “defective” quality to such a move, insofar as the collectively legitimated addictions of the dominant culture have every interest in maintaining the illusion of that culture’s various necessities (fossil fuels, food production that requires oppression, etc.) and will ostracize anyone pointing to a different way. As Art’s play “Awaiting Judgment” showed those of us in the audience who are white, there was something in Bonhoeffer’s story, as a white man, that shifted his direction from theological abstraction to immersive solidarity. Like the recent works of Reggie Williams and J. Kameron Carter, the play pointed to Bonhoeffer’s experiences in the Renaissance and neighborhoods of Harlem—the “Harlem encounter”—as a soul-transforming moment that gave him different eyes to see and ears to hear. (For more information, see video lectures by J. Kameron Carter, “The Swander Lecture: Bonhoeffer’s (Failed) Blackness,” and Reggie Williams, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Harlem Renaissance.”)
Like the deepening pushback that watershed discipleship has offered to creation care discourse, the play “Awaiting Judgment” at the Institute made a similar connection for me with the contemporary Bonhoeffer question. In the category of digging in heels, is there a move from “appreciation” of cultural difference to actual connection or inseparable relationship between privileged bodies and colonized bodies? Is this not what’s at stake in our assessment of Trump’s first year, as Rose Berger pointed out—those bodies that get to escape being a target of this state violence, and the bodies that don’t? What did Bonhoeffer see in himself anew, and what did he learn to pay attention to, that we can likewise recontextualize in our own moment and watersheds as a way of saying, “No, I’m not okay with being protected from this targeting, I will take on this vulnerability, too”? These are questions I take with me back to my own watershed.
Like Bonhoeffer taking this insight into his Finkenwalde community, the Institute models (for a week) the necessity of community in order to sustain this kind of work. Elaine’s fishbowl of women’s storytelling—young Yul’s amazing moves stealing the show at Thursday night’s dance party—the Eucharist procession of the Four Directions in joyful celebration—getting to see the stars every night, which this Seattleite hasn’t had in three very overcast months—these are just a few of the Institute’s many gifts I enjoyed. I get to take with me a reinvigorated heart and some new connections of thought that make real that “between streets and soil” phrase of watershed discipleship. I’m grateful to have participated in this Institute as we brought together many different landlines and bloodlines, coming together for a time of asking the real questions and wrestling for deeper answers.
Bio: Luke Winslow is a guest on dkhw’duw’absh (Duwamish) land and Coast Salish watersheds in so-called “Seattle.” He is completing a masters in theology and culture at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology exploring how theologies of food, land, and body intersect for both colonized and indigenous communities, towards a vision of eating practices as discipleship strategy in engaging trauma and decolonial work. He spends time mushroom hunting, singing Sacred Harp, and not getting too behind with weeding in the garden.