By Christian Hayden
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
Missed a lot of church, so this music is our Confessional.
About four years ago I stepped into the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, a humanist community that serves as an alternative for traditional religion for those who seek it that traces its roots to the 19th century. I was amazed, inspired, and welcomed by the level of and potential for reflective discourse. It was particularly important for me because a lack of that space pushed me away from traditional religion. My favorite part of going to my Baptist church was Sunday school, where we had the chance to articulate, challenge, and grow as a community as we wrestled together with our faiths and its meaning, until the pastor chose to cut down the question and answer portion because he did not want to confused about the “true” meaning of the word.
It did not take much thought leaving traditional religion; choosing to identify as a humanist did. Learning how to live that out is something that consumes me. An urgent question for humanists and their communities is how do we enact the world that we wish to see? How do you meld action and education fluidly in a way that builds better people, people ready and able to intellectually and emotionally do the work to make a better world? Arthur Dobrin, a former Ethical Humanist leader, professor, and writer, has been keen on the need to evaluate and develop the tools we need to do this by creating Colloquy, a meditative reflection that uses music and non responsive dialogue. Dobrin introduced this dialectic tool for Ethical Humanists that asked more from participants and made them a more essential part of each other’s growth and development.
I attended my first Colloquy in St. Louis and it concerned the topic of death. Fighting back tears while admiring the strength of people while they shared deeply about their lives and loss, it became abundantly clear that we need to have space for a group of people to reflect on such things such as pain, gratitude, or even our own society and how we factor in it. I stepped into a small room with folks older than me sitting in a circle and a modest sound device. The organizer played instrumentals that ranged from classical to nature inspired meditative music. In between he read passages that focused on a certain issues within mortality and would ask an open-ended question that elicited deep reflections.
This experience met parts of my searching. In Audio Hawk, I explored how music was essential to developing my sense of self. I began to wonder whether that search could be expanded in community? Can the sounds that give us enjoyment, individually and socially, also help us search for meaning together? What about introducing this method of searching to communities that tend silenced through economics, race, or identity? Could that help their search, what would they learn about others and themselves? These questions led to me to create Hip Hop Sanctuary, taking the main structure of the Colloquy, but adjusting it for a new audience.
I held community events featuring a DJ, a poet or performer to guide a conversation on topics that ranged from peace, women at the altar, to the prison industrial complex. These community events sought to offer that place I lacked as a child. Afterwards I tried Hip Hop Sanctuary in schools with young people in English classes, and as part of a character development course in a summer school. In the English classes, we tried an exercise where they used tracks from Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp in Butterfly,” mixed in with passages from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Augustine’s Confessions, and Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye to explore questions of community, race, and purpose.
How did they respond? Well, it was mixed. To prompt sharing among students by encouraging them to build a rapport with one another I used warm up exercises that emphasize sharing, but of the low investment kind, commonly called ice breakers. The most successful one was a torn paper response in the aftermath of the Baltimore Protests. The students placed responses in the middle of the circle and picked up another student’s to read. The reactions ranged from not knowing about it, to more conservative indictments of property damage, to empathy and concern- a few seeing some of the same conditions, with the potential for explosion, in their own city.
During the actual exercise, in one of the series we listened to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘U.’ One student spoke out of about her struggle with alcohol abuse and how it impacted how her little sister. In response to Kendrick’s haunting exercise in public self loathing amidst a drinking binge, she said, “I felt like he was speaking to me.” It was also interesting to see how these students struggled with silence. There is so much noise in silence. You are alone with your thoughts in places and times you are not accustomed to being. It can be a very scary and vulnerable place. In later sessions, a more meditation minded co-facilitator instructed me to remind the students to breathe. For this audience, urban high school students, I learned investment was key. Near the end of the summer character class, I challenged some of the students to make their own Hip Hop Sanctuary. I awed at the pride, care and weight they gave to crafting their own HHS. Looking for quotes, crafting the questions, picking songs engaged them. The potential of what this exercise for these students became apparent once they got the power to influence it.
A few weeks ago I tried Hip Hop Sanctuary, calling it Sound Circle, out with a group of Ghanaian activists who were between 18 and 30. They explored the issue of change and seemed to really take to an non-confrontational space to present their ideas. The exercise, as I have conducted, has never received such positive feedback. The most important piece of feedback was the willingness to lead or create the exercise around an issue that they cared about, a sentiment that was surprisingly unanimous. During the actual activity, how we dealt with the topic of change flowed between external and internal, which was intentional but not too loose to grasp. In the feedback form, I tried to get a sense of what people learned about themselves and others. One person said, “I learned I am passionate,” while another wrote they learned from someone a new way to think about change, actually word for word repeating something someone else had said.
I was really nervous about doing this in Ghana. I worried there was not a cultural desire for it or the awkwardness would be too much to bear and open-ended questions would leave a lot of silent moments. But maybe Ghanaians, and possibly especially northerners, could appreciate a place where they wouldn’t be checked for individual thoughts. Maybe they want a space where they were encouraged to share what made them tick without fear of disrespecting an elder. One of the worries I have had is about bringing this to another culture, is actually its humanist roots. Was I imposing my nontheistic worldview on someone else?
I for a long time thought the Colloquy was an intentional melding of Eastern and Western traditions of faith and philosophy. In fact, the Colloquy doesn’t have religious roots at all. Arthur Dobrin wrote to me to clarify: ”It didn’t pull from any religious tradition…The structure came in part from the format of women’s consciousness raising groups i.e. go around, no interruptions or cross-talk, no judgment, no responses, only your own thoughts from your own experience, speaking in the first person.” Nevertheless, this tool is religious to me. It deals with the self through community, and in that sense a kind of spirituality, with an end pointing toward the growth of the self. It is almost like a secular Jewish religious- the community is the ritual, tool, and deity. The deity being akin to a feeling of zen or love; something out of body like when you do that counting game to 20 in a group without a person repeating a number or when someone at a Quaker meeting says something really profound.
What does this tell us about the capacity for the tool for other cultures? Can we as a community build an anthology of various stories, proverbs, poems, and soundscapes that lead us to each other? Where we can learn and grow and struggle in a safe space, with our traumas and triumphs on display? For more guidance, and resources to help you lead your own Colloquy, check out Arthur Dobrin’s book, Spelling God with 2 Os. Try this tool with people that you want to grow with. You won’t regret it.