RecWeek refocuses restfulness

Jonathan Walton (back, far left) poses with participants in RecWeek. Over the course of several teaching sessions, students learn to sustainably engage in social justice efforts. Courtesy of Jonathon Walton.

“I am a sex addict,” declared a written statement on the dusty window of an abandoned storefront in Chinatown, Manhattan. While thousands of New Yorkers power walked past the dilapidated window daily, my group intentionally stopped and huddled around it. In our circle of six, we mourned and prayed in silence, and then out loud. Inside, I could vaguely envisage mats and posters traditionally found in a massage parlor, the remnants of a common site of sexual exploitation in this part of New York. This particular walk was dubbed the Jericho Walk, in reference to the biblical Battle of Jericho. In this powerful account, Joshua’s Israelite army crumbled the walls around enemy-city Jericho by simply blowing their trumpets. The walk was our version of the same battle: prayerful resistance against sexual exploitation in Chinatown. Our prayers were our trumpets, and I wondered if the sex addict, and the victims of his addiction, heard them. The graffiti whispered on the dusty front hinted at greater injustices committed behind closed doors. This walk happened during Reconciliation Week (RecWeek), a project sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to engage with issues of national and global injustice. Over spring break, fifty-something college students and staff, including myself, met at the Overseas Chinese Mission to grapple with social issues which necessitate activism, such as sex trafficking. I had the privilege of meeting students from the University of Virginia, University of Tampa, Eastman School of Music, Rochester Institute of Technology and other universities on the East Coast. We were led by author, speaker and activist Jonathan Walton, whose spoken word and written poetry eased us into these sensitive topics.

Previously the director of the New York City Urban Project (NYCUP), Walton leads seven weeks of RecWeek during collegiate spring breaks and is the co-owner of a fair trade coffee shop called Bird & Branch on West 45th Street. Every morning, breakfast came from Bird & Branch. Walton once aptly quipped that the food “tastes like freedom” because the coffee and ingredients are all ethically and sustainably sourced.

Walton changed the way I approach social justice work through the introduction of a personal, relational and systemic lens. Reconciliation happens when we wrestle with issues of injustice individually, partner with allies within a rich community atmosphere and fight for lasting legislative change on the national level. We focused on our personal roles in injustice as Walton constantly invited us to self-interrogate: How do I unconsciously add to environmental waste by investing in fast fashion industries? How does my rage toward Brett Kavanaugh and others hinder the advancement of the #MeToo movement? We grappled with sex trafficking, environmental exploitation, sexism, xenophobia and racism.

Walton presented three documentaries to foster discussions on these sensitive topics. “The Mask You Live in” focused on toxic masculinity. “True Cost” discussed sweatshop labor in Bangladesh and the fast fashion industry. Lastly, we viewed “Documenting Hate,” a Frontline documentary on white supremacy. It was powerful to watch the latter documentary alongside University of Virginia students who were personally impacted by the Charlottesville marches last August. These issues hit close to home.

In the context of these harrowing struggles, Walton asked us to consider rest as radical resistance against our biggest local and global issues in an impatient world. As a framework, Walton introduced us to the 4 Rs: Rest, Restore, Resist, Repeat. Emotionally healthy activism springs from a healthy, reflective interior. He guided us through daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal and annual rhythms of rest and restoration. Social activist groups are quick to emphasize action. Emotionally healthy activists are slower to act and quicker to decelerate.

So, what would pursuing restful resistance look like? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, stopping for Sabbath is radical in a culture that disregards rest. Remember, “if you rest you rust” and “you can sleep when you’re dead.” I decided to introduce the ancient practice of Sabbath in resistance to the restlessness around me. The Hebrew word sabbat comes from the verb sabat, meaning to stop, to cease or to keep. Theologically, it is modeled after God’s rest following the six days of creation. Sabbath as a noun demarks a holy day, 24 hours set apart from the rest of the week. It exists not to make us more productive on the other six days, but to provide an ordained period of communal celebration of completed work. It reminds us that we are not people defined solely by performance and activity—human doings. We are simply human beings.

A day of uninterrupted rest is a beautiful acknowledgment of my limitedness. Since dedicating Friday afternoons into Saturday afternoons to no school work and limited phone use, I have noticed a significant change in my mental wellbeing. I’m more patient with the guy in front of me checking every pocket in his backpack for his VCard. I’m more creative, and I have more space to process negative emotions and achieve catharsis. I drive better on the road and run faster during the day. I empathize with my family and friends more deeply. When I rest, I don’t miss out on better projects. I am restored to love and lament well.

Lamentation is a difficult yet foundational part of reconciliation—one I have vehemently avoided. RecWeek taught me the necessity of the process. I lamented the ways I consume commercial products, prioritizing price and convenience over the human price paid abroad. I lamented the culturally-ingrained message that men shouldn’t be emotionally vulnerable. I lamented the existence of human trafficking in Flushing, Queens, less than an hour from my house.

It is sometimes easier to attend a protest or repost a compelling article than to weep and sit in the pain of how injustice hurts people. It’s easier to cite statistics like, “The United States makes up 5% of world’s population and consumes 35% of its resources” without grieving how I’m part of the problem with my tendency to buy cheap products that I will need to replace weeks later.

While RecWeek was a deep dive into heavy systemic injustices, I left feeling painfully confronted with my own self: the person who couldn’t face the terrorizing thought that there is pain in the world in which I am complicit. Injustice persists when I don’t reconcile my personal failings with brokenness everywhere.

But we can’t stop there in the muck and mire. We need people. There was beauty in our communal confession, hope in our prayers and our longing for change. While we couldn’t reverse the environmental damage of fast fashion, defeat sex trafficking, conquer white supremacy or make Trump’s wall and accompanying ideology collapse, at least we knew there were communities with which to weep.

Walton modeled what it looks like to reduce clothing waste in community. He gives clothes away to friends to combat the pile-up at overstocked Salvation Armies. The owner of his local bagel shop admired his daughter’s clothing. In response, he gave the owner a bag of his daughter’s clothes, and she returned his generosity with free bagels. The goal was never free bagels, but giving produces some scrumptious rewards beyond unloading unwanted items and reducing global waste. He demonstrated that justice is futile in the absence of relationships.

Systemic change is necessary, but it takes longer than a week to create. I will grapple with what it means to be a mindful consumer, emotionally healthy activist and prayerful resistor for the rest of my life. But for now, I need to renovate the broken parts in me.

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