Don Samuels answers the question:
In your life, what is the relationship between spirituality and civic engagement?
Watch Don Samuels’ interview:
Thank you, Phil, it's great to be with you, and to see your face for the first time.
Definitely, I was looking forward to this. Allow me to introduce you, Don Samuels spent 27 years in the toy industry as an R&D executive and an independent inventor/designer. An ordained minister, Don evolved from community leader to become a 3-term Minneapolis Council member and current Director of Minneapolis Public Schools. Don is CEO of MicroGrants, which gives business and career grants to low-income people of potential.
He also co-founded the Peace Foundation in 2003 to address community violence; it now does business as the Northside Achievement Zone, transforming educational outcomes for 1,000 families and 2,300 children. He is a board member of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, and is a recent graduate of The Living School.
Don in your life, what is the relationship between spirituality and civic engagement?
Well, Phil I think that's a great question, it's something that I have wrestled with, I guess you could say, for all my life. Because I came from a very religious background; my father was a Pentecostal preacher, and my mom was a leader of the women's auxiliary and that kind of thing.
So we went to church on Sunday mornings for Sunday school and service, which combined might be about four hours. And then there’s Sunday evening service, which is another hour and a half, and then there's Monday night, and Wednesday night Bible study, and Friday night Youth Night, so it was a full-week engagement, very engrossing. As a teenager, I was the most churched among my friends.
But as I became a teenager, and began to hear about the Civil Rights Movement, and to contemplate growing up in Jamaica in a pretty classist environment, a post-colonial — but still colonial culturally — environment of classism, and the hierarchicalism of British society, was adopted in a way by us and it was all entwined with faith and religion of the local community.
And as I watched the inequities, being a low-income kid myself, between myself and others, and between people within the society, and looked at scripture, it seemed to be all incompatible. It was all these strange little feelings I had. I could act in my own personal life to be as fair as I could, but it was a personal quirk almost that I had, this being concerned about the society and the systemic nature of the inequities. The impenetrable fortress of class transcendency was bothersome to me.
But there was no venue to talk about it, then the Civil Rights Movement just popped up… it was like, wow, this is connected with scripture, with spirituality, the brotherhood of humanity, and of course the American Dream was part of that. But the way that Martin Luther King was able to articulate that, and combine his spirituality as a religious leader, a pastor, saying things that no pastor would say in my experience, began to show me that interpretation of your religion or your faith was as important as the faith itself.
And that there's a variety of interpretations — and this idea of civic engagement... for me living in a low-income community where 95 percent of my neighbors couldn't go to high school because they couldn't afford it, where they were guaranteed to become maids and yard boys as they call them for the middle class and the rich, and where they were going to be treated as second-class citizens for their entire lives... this was exciting to me.
So when I landed in America at age 20, and went to school here, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to a black church, to get the vibe, to connect with the values… and I did that right as I graduated from college, and became part of the black church in America, or Baptist church, for about 25 years.
During which time, I got a creeping consciousness of the reality of classism within this community also. And a sort of abandonment, if it was ever, at least for me, of Martin Luther King's vision of this kind of a spiritual leadership of America; rather there was a shrinking of the vision to a shoring up of gains.
Martin Luther King had begun to talk about the Vietnam War and larger global issues, and within the community, classism, and, of course, racism. And so I kind of got stuck, I didn't know where else to go. And then I finally... I used to have vigils for people who were killed, and I felt that the society’s, the community's insensitivity to the death of young African-American men… as one of my neighbors said, “That's one less 911 call to make,” when she heard that another neighborhood kid had been killed.
And so the vigils were a way to acknowledge the value of the deceased, and to do what a compassionate community would do when they lose a member, to grieve. And it was in that context that I met someone, my friend Brian Mogren, who was a devotee, I guess a follower of, Richard Rohr. I was introduced to Richard, I met Richard, I had spent hours with Richard one on one, and then went to many of his symposiums, and then eventually went through The Living School.
And so I've been able to put meat on the bones of my childhood yearnings... and in my attraction to... the gravitational pull of the Civil Rights Movement, and their capacity to change the world. And I began to see my Pentecostal upbringing... Pentecostal as in coming to Jamaica from the southern part of America where there were no blacks in churches, but then they were Pentacostalizing the rest of the black world, which was a strange, almost denial of reality.
And so with the missionary work came a theology that was devoid of social consciousness so that it would allow those who were living in inequities to live happily, and just strive after spiritual things, and eventually eternal life. And I think this kind of living, this kind of value system, is a seduction to our humanity that pulls us away from the true center of spirituality and faith, which is that we are all one, one creation, as human beings, and as a creation around us, that we are connected in a way that's more than a sibling connection.
This is a deeply primal, DNA, a kind of a cosmic rudimentary connection that is coming from one single pinpoint source that was our origin. And that true spirituality reconnects us; it's almost like true spirituality reverses the Big Bang, and brings us closer and closer together to our origins of that singular point of connectivity.
That's true spirituality, that transcends the simply material, but recognizes the source of all things material… and brings us back to that point in defiance of the time it took for the universe to be this big, and makes us all again, aware, in a very rich way, of all the things we have in common.
And then to act out of that commonality, with the same instincts that we act out of for ourselves: survival. What is urgent? Pain is urgent. What is urgent? Suffering is urgent. Relief and healing are emergency priorities. And when we are sick, we stay home and go to the doctor. When our pinky is sick, the whole body gets up in cooperation with that throbbing joint in the smallest digit, and takes that digit to the doctor, because it's one body, and it's all the sensibilities, and the nerve endings are connected.
And so when we begin to see the oneness of all creatures and all living things, and certainly all human beings, and we begin to develop the right reaction to the human conditions around us... and we begin to spontaneously almost move into healing relationships with those around us, starting with our families but expanding very quickly as we mature to our surrounding community, and then as we become even more mature, humanely and spiritually, to all people in all neighborhoods in all countries.
Now this is in defiance, of course, of the reality — your family wants you to prioritize the family, and will consider you defiling the family boundaries if you bring someone into the family. So someone might be upset if you bring someone of a different race into the family, or a different religion into the family. Or if you bring someone into the family that demands more of the family.
And so it starts there, and then it goes to your political party... if you have a relationship with someone in another party, it’s “How can you talk to those people?” Or you have someone of a different race in a relationship or a friendship, and it's like “Wow, just don't invite them to the party.”
And then it's, “We're Americans, we don't want anybody else,”... it's our priority, this is America and so we love our soldiers because they kill our enemies. And we celebrate them by putting them on the planes first because they defend us and keep our boundaries intact. We wouldn't do the same for somebody from another country, that's normal.
But now we're finding a new kind of spirituality that breaks down those boundaries, and understands the humanity and equality of all people — one big family of humanity. And, of course, naturally, your family, your party, your estate, your race, your nation might all be offended at some time at some point when you begin to engage the world in this way.
When you do that, then you begin to become active to defend the weak, to relieve the suffering indiscriminately. And it can be called activism; it might take the form of a studied approach to end discriminatory practice or an unjust practice in a certain category of law or social life. But it also must include that good Samaritan action of spontaneous response to unjust suffering.
Where I might even be on the way to the State Capitol to fight for the rights of gays, or people of color, but I must stop if I see something that needs attention, and someone who is in great harm and take care of that, then go back and, as Jesus said, then you can go and give your gifts on the altar.
So dealing with the systemic, and dealing with the emergent must be part of our humanity if we're to become truly the evolved spiritual beings that we were created to be.
Thank you for sharing your perspective with us today, Don. I very much appreciate your depth of insight and wisdom, which is born of experience and contemplation, and I'm honored to help share this important outlook that you shared with us today. Thank you very much.
You're very welcome, I'm pleased.
Don Samuels spent 27 years in the toy industry as an R&D executive and an independent inventor/designer. An ordained minister, Don evolved from community leader to become a 3-term Minneapolis council member and current director of Minneapolis Public Schools. He also served as chair of the Public Safety Committee and on the Zoning and Community Development Committees.
Don is CEO of MicroGrants, which spurs economic self-sufficiency by giving business and career grants to low-income people of potential through the partner agencies that train them.
Don co-founded the PEACE Foundation in 2003 to address community violence; it now does business as the Northside Achievement Zone, transforming educational outcomes for 1,000 families and 2,300 children. He also co-founded Hope Collaborative, which identified the top-performing urban schools across the nation in low-income communities of color. Over a 2-year period, the collaborative hosted and presented 10 of these school’s leaders to the Minneapolis community.
Don now serves on the board of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Luther Seminary, Twin Cities Rise, Alafia Foundation, Rock ‘n Read, and Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board. He is a recent graduate — and newly elected board member — of The Living School.
Click here to read Don’s September 2018 article in Catalyst, “Living With and Serving the People That America Has Forgotten.”
Don is married to Sondra Hollinger Samuels. They live in the Jordan Neighborhood of North Minneapolis with their two young daughters. Their adult daughter and son live in New York City.
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This article appears in: 2018 Catalyst, Issue 25: Perspectives on Spirituality