Wade Through Deep Water: An Introduction to D.C.’s Watershed

Tevyn East as Miriam and Jay Beck as John the Baptist in “Wade Through Deep Water”

By Rose Marie Berger
Introduction to “Wade Through Deep Water” presentation held at the Festival Center in Washington D.C.

In the Roaring Twenties, the WWI war profiteers were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, while rural landholders were losing their farms to debt and moving into the cities looking for work. The war had displaced millions of refugees who also were pouring into the cities.

Along with immigrants came the Chinese exclusion act of 1923 and National Origins act in 1924. With the rise in urban population came the “modernization” of the city, the rise of tenements, streets for automobiles, and rudimentary cisterns and sewers. The Roaring Twenties are also sometimes called the Jazz Age. And Jazz captured the frenetic, complex energy of a city in the way that Mississippi delta blues never could.

In March 1923, Robert Frost published a poem in The New Republic titled “A Brook in the City.” In it creates a snapshot of the once solitary farmhouse nestled into fields swallowed by new urban sprawl. Frost meditates on the stream that used to identify the watershed in that place.

A BROOK IN THE CITY by Robert Frost

The farm house lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in. But what about the brook
That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force
No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.

Tonight we gather with members of Holy Fool Arts as they present “Wade Through Deep Water,” a Ceremonial Theater event “tracing the soggy footprints of a people through the wombs of the Red Sea and Jordan River to birth an Exodus thirsting for collective liberation. Come near to hear the voice of water’s lament as told by Miriam, Moses’ sister, and John the Baptist—two of God’s prophets whose water-logged lives kept them swimming in transformation.”

But before this ancient narrative can well up in our own, we have to learn about where we are. Here at the Festival Center on Columbia Road in Washington, D.C. we are guests in the watershed of our country’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay. The bay was formed 35 million years ago when a speck of stardust was flung from the hand of God into Delmarva peninsula, punching a hole that slowly filled with water. For 10 million years, the estuary spread. It sprouted rivers—the Anacostia, the Susquehanna—in the fissures opened in rock by melting ice. Twenty thousand years ago the Anacostia settled into her riverbed, creating this watershed, this basin of biotic relationships (see Brock Dolman).

For more than 10,000 years, Native peoples have created thriving societies along the Anacostia and her tributaries: the Powhatan, the Piscataway, and the Nanticoke.

The Piscataway had about 8,500 members in 1604 when the English arrived. Within 100 years only 300 remained. And they remain still. We give honor here to the Tayac family to Chief Billy, Gabrielle, Sebi, and the community. The Piscataway Nation continues to offer prayers for the Cheseapeake bay, for Anacostia river, for the streams and tributaries. They serve as sacred water protectors here.

These rivers, like this city, were weaponized during wars—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II—with bases and armories built on their silty backs. Until 125 years ago, this city was known for its artesian springs—like Rome today There were more than 50 public wells and hundreds of private springs that provided fresh water.

Here on Columbia Road we sit on Lanier Heights, the very western edge of the Lower Anacostia watershed. This neighborhood is held in the arms of two abandoned and buried tributaries—Reedy Branch and Moore Spring.

All the wells and springs were backfilled in the 1920s. A system was devised to divert water from the Potomac for public use.

Only in the past 10 years–with the pressures of climate change–are we reversing the way this city uses water and looking at how to revive and protect our underground streams. The most stunning example of this is the project to return the Broad Branch tributary that has been piped in and concreted over back to the surface in a process called “daylighting.”

As Robert Frost wrote, “No one would know except for ancient maps / that such a brook ran water. But I wonder / If from its being kept forever under / The thoughts may not have risen that so keep /This new-built city from both work and sleep.”

This is where we are. Now we ask: What does it mean? I hope these underground streams will delight and disturb your dreams.

—Rose Marie Berger (9 June 2017, Festival Center, “Wade Through Deep Water” ceremonial theater). Find out more in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Cascade, 2016).

Flamenco Flatlines Big Bank of Spain

Guerilla theater prophets at Rev. Billy’s Church of Stop Shopping have turned their sites to the thievery of Big Banks saying, “We return to the shiny, silent interior of big banks, the lobbies where we hope to establish a visual wedge, an opening of possibility in the rogue empires of Chase, Citi and B of A. Why do Americans continue to reverence these criminal organizations called big banks. Trillions in assets – with the money spent around the world as if from a detached dirigibles, untethered to any democratic controls.” Below are the flamenco artists who brought their message to the Bank of Spain.

They are, as Rev. Billy puts it, “artists who brave the high church environment of the big banks’ insides.” You can watch more at Fearofbanking.com. And read Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on Rev. Billy in What Would Jesus Buy?

Lenten Reflections on Marina Abramovic, Todd Bentley, and Performance Healing


Tip of the Hat to Vintage Jeannie‘s eclectic tastes that led me to performance artist Marina Abramovic and “Our America with Lisa Ling,” a new TV series on OWN. Both have prompted some esoteric reflections on Lent, Lenten disciplines, prophetic witness, and social healing.

From the Lenten prayer of St. Augustine: “O Lord, the house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.”

First, the strange world of Marina Abramovic. Abramovic, born in Belgrade, is one of the leading artists from the “live act” performance art movements from the 1960s and ’70s in Eastern Europe. The performance art and body art movements in Europe can be traced back to the Dadists in 1915 who created “anti-art” to shock and critique the values of a society that preferenced the pretensions of high culture while countenancing the brutality of World War I.

In Abramovic’s performance pieces, her body is the primary medium–taking her and her audience to the limits of emotion. She creates dangerous spaces. She says, “I’m interested in art that disturbs and pushes that moment of danger.” After the terrorist attacks in New York city on Sept. 11, Abramovic performed “House With an Ocean View” at a gallery in Manhattan in which she publicly mourned for 12 days, including fasting, weeping, sometimes tearing her clothes.

“For those twelve days, in perfect silence, she ate nothing and drank only water,” wrote art critic John Haber. “She had nothing with which to read or write. Nothing stood in the way of thought or sleep but lightheadedness and danger. She sought to ‘change my energy field.’ By the end, her flesh fed on muscle, just as in an earlier work, of incisions into her skin, muscle fed on flesh.” And hundreds came to the gallery to participate with her in the public ritual, her prophetic witness. So like Jeremiah weeping for an unrepentant people.

Last year, in preparation for a retrospective of performance art pieces at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic led a workshop at her farm in upstate New York called “Cleaning the House.” Participants slept outside and did not eat nor speak for four days. They engaged in a regimen of individual and group exercises, such as walking backwards in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single object for hours. The goal of these exercises was to enable them to become aware of their limits and to find their own “charismatic space.” They pushed their bodies and minds to learn something about their souls.

The trailer to the movie Marina (see above) tracks one of those workshops. Individuals are led through a series of exercises meant to sharpen their minds and shock their bodies. They go through a 4-day process of “cleansing.” Abramovic walks through the group with an “offertory basket” collecting everyone’s cell phones, IPAs, Iphones, etc.  They are asked to temporarily sacrifice communication in order to be present to themselves and their surroundings. They take a vow of silence. They sleep in the open, in the cold. They bathe in the river. They find a spiritual space where they can identify their own limits, the spiritual boundaries of another, and the impenetrable mystery that lies in the gap between the two. Participants come away completely transformed–shocked at how much more “human” they have become in just 4 days of intense study and training.

In “Our America with Lisa Ling,” the premier episode is devoted to exploring faith healing through Todd Bentley at Morning Star Ministries in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. Ling describes Bentley as a “rock star among faith healers,” and also points out he is a former drug addict whose adultery nearly derailed his ministry.

Bentley runs a school for would-be faith healers. Those who come are the addicted, the abused, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, the needy. With the praise band wailing in the background, Bentley – who looks like a biker in his black t-shirt, full-sleeve tattoos, and body piercings – mows down the line of the desperate, slaying them in the Spirit. It is powerful and pitiful, prayerful and spiritually pornographic.

It is also performance art: Bodies in space; the interacting of charismatic energies. Also with painful, though less dangerous, social commentary.

Ling visits two middle-aged sisters who have paid $600 each to attend Bentley’s workshops, hoping that when they bring their mother to one of Todd Bentley’s worship services she will be cured of her untreatable cancer. “Faith healing is,” Ling points out, “a multibillion dollar industry, and the sisters say these sessions are cheaper than medical treatments their mother’s insurance does not entirely cover.”

One commenter on the episode said, “Many turn to faith healing because they cannot afford treatment from conventional medicine (like the woman in the show with cancer who had to stop her chemo). There are many who want to go the route of conventional medicine, but when that is no longer an option for them, where do they turn? I hope that this show, and those like it, help others to see that we need to find ways of helping everyone have access to medical treatment (no matter what their financial situation may be).”

When the faithful are not cured of cancer or paralysis, Ling reframes (as people of faith have done for centuries in these situations trying to understand the mysterious ways of God). She looks at how the individuals have transformed their own lives with God’s help–turning away from drugs, leaving abusive relationships, gaining emotional and psychological strength–rather than emphasizing the somewhat suspicious snake oil of Todd Bentley.

At the end of the episode Steve, a man paralyzed for years who is convinced that the Lord will heal him through Todd Bentley, is not able to walk again. But when Ling kneels before him in his wheelchair asking how he understands what has happened, he instead pours out his prayers on her. He is compelled to release the spiritual energy built up inside him. He lays his hands on Ling’s head and she receives a peculiar annointing. All of which calls into question who or what was actually being healed.

Liturgy and ritual, stripping away illusions, prayer and healing, surprise and danger, temptations all are part of Lent. We experiment with who we are in our humanness, when masks are ripped away. We expose our wounds. We are vulnerable to Satan/hucksters selling us cheap grace.

Lent is a time to “Clean the House.” St. Augustine’s prayer continues: “My soul is ruinous, O repair it! It displeases Your sight. I confess it, I know. But who shall cleanse it, to whom shall I cry but to you?” We are such peculiar creatures. We choose such strange sins.

Catholic Ohio: Sacraments in the Rust Belt

blessed-sacrament2I went to a fantastic Holy Saturday vigil mass at Blessed Sacrament in Warren, Ohio, last week. The architecture of the church is stunning with an glass silo-type spire.

There were 6 or 7 people baptized in the full-immersion font and probably a half dozen more who were confirmed into the church that night. It’s a parish alive with grace, patience, beauty, and (!) teenagers! This is a Catholic community thriving in the spirit of Vatican II.

Unfortunately, many Catholic churches in Ohio are not faring so well, according to a recent CNN story.

Along the Rust Belt and in cities dotting the Northeast and Upper Midwest, Catholic communities are mourning the loss of parishes. It’s a five-year trend of sweeping church closures that most recently hit Cleveland, Ohio. …

What drove the decision to close parishes in Cleveland were population shifts to outlying areas, financial strains that have 42 percent of parishes “operating in the red” and priest shortages, diocese spokesman Robert Tayek explained. The bishop, he said, is trying to find “an equitable solution.”

But the announcement has raised many questions. Among them: What happens to the struggling neighborhoods that have come to rely on outreach and programs offered by some of these inner-city parishes?

“Too many bishops are treating parishes as if they were Starbucks franchises,” said Sister Christine Schenk, a Cleveland-area nun who’s been fighting for nearly two decades to institute change in the church through her organization FutureChurch. “It’s about more than money. It’s about mission to the people,” she said.

The Thomas Mass

I just found this photo from the closing liturgy at the 2006 Politics and Spirituality Conference that the Center for Action and Contemplation and Sojourners co-hosted in Pasadena, CA. It was called a “Thomas Mass. ” The con-celebrants were Anita Amstutz, Richard Rohr, and myself. Jim Wallis preached.

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The “Thomas Mass” was first created in Helsinki, Finland in 1988 by a collection of ministers of various denominations, artists, musicians, and civic leaders (hence it is not really a “Mass,” in the official Catholic sense). They wanted to create a prayerful service that would again fill their cathedral, but with seekers, searchers, and believers alike. They recognized that much of Europe had become a continent of skeptics, and so they named the service after St. Thomas “the Doubter.”

After an initial attempt to create an ecumenical and new liturgy, they realized that it basically had the structure of the historic Catholic Mass. It immediately began to spread across Europe.  The Thomas Mass avoids the usual denominational turf, arguments, and leadership, while still offering a deeply sacramental structure where disparate groups can gather in a faith-filled way.

It retrieves the historic meaning of the very word “liturgy” as a collective work of the people. One of the strengths of the Thomas Mass is that it emphasizes full participation instead of mere listening or “attendance.” It was a wonderful experience.