Sacred Commons: Building Both Physical and Spiritual Infrastructure in America

Sacred Commons: Building Both Physical and Spiritual Infrastructure in America

Chelsea Langston Bombino, February 3, 2017

Last week, President Trump signed executive orders that would advance construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In some ways, the new administration’s executive actions are in line with Trump’s promises to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure: mass transit, bridges, airports, electricity grids and yes, pipelines. According to an article in the Washington Post, Trump’s tentative plans for comprehensive infrastructure overhauls have been presented to the National Governor’s Association for feedback and information gathering regarding the specific needs of each state. As the article notes, while it remains to be seen whether Trump will have bipartisan support for specific projects, “governors from both parties have expressed a desire to work with him on plans to invest in the nation’s infrastructure.”

Our physical infrastructure is vital for the continued well-being of our increasingly inter-connected, interdependent society. The benefits of investing in roads and tunnels, in systems of electronic and information transmissions, have been trumpeted by Democrats in Congress as well as by President Trump. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) spoke last summer of the economic aspects of infrastructure expansion: “What is going to empower working class Americans who’ve seen their wages now stagnant for years?…Eisenhower created a network that allowed businesses to thrive by investing in our infrastructure…That means finding ways to build this country.”

Trump’s executive action promoting the construction of the Dakota Access and other pipelines would very probably have a positive economic impact on certain communities, yet it is important to consider other implications of such infrastructure plans beyond purely economic and physical benefits. Yet, we also must pay attention to the networks and institutions that sustain America’s collective spiritual health. As Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s choice for HUD Secretary, recently stated on social media: “We have much work to do in strengthening every aspect of our nation and ensuring that both our physical infrastructure and our spiritual infrastructure is solid.” How should we define spiritual infrastructure in America and what would it take to keep it strong?

The impact of the construction of the Dakota access pipeline should be considered within a framework of how its potential impact on local eco-systems of spiritual groups, as well.  For the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, their spiritual infrastructure may not look exactly the same as what we traditionally think of us as a house of worship, religious schools or faith-based social services program.  Let’s first examine what is traditionally thought of as America’s spiritual infrastructure: congregations and religious outreach ministries. America’s spiritual social sector includes the hundreds of thousands of congregations and faith-based nonprofits across the country that provide not just material goods and services, but transcendent, spiritual nourishment to those in need.

Our spiritual infrastructure is remarkably strong and diverse. Faith-based organizations reflecting a wide spectrum of spiritual paradigms offer our increasingly plural population diverse options for healthcare, counseling, vocational training, early childhood education, advocacy engagement, and so much more. These social services and faith-centered opportunities for engagement often boast awe-worthy outcomes precisely because their recognition of soul-dimension of those they serve.

Recently, the Brookings Institution and the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania convened a discussion to explore the positive impact of faith-based organizations – the building blocks of our spiritual infrastructure – on their communities. The event also discussed possible approaches to building the capacities of spiritual organizations as hubs of relational networks and civic participation. Melissa Rogers, the Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under the Obama Administration, discussed during this event the vital role of religious organizations and houses of worship in providing what she called “an invisible safety net.”

Rogers stated,: “the value of volunteer time and space for community programs that congregations provide, contributions that make a crucial difference… that service has significance far beyond the faith community that does the serving.” Rogers pointed out that the study that was showcased by this event showed that 87 percent of services recipients from congregational programs were not members of the particular congregations providing the services. Moreover, Rogers noted that services and programs provided by religious entities matter, not just to the beneficiaries, but also to public officials who “care deeply about people who are struggling, but sometimes struggle” to find the community-based and faith-based solutions that are transforming lives. Rogers explained: “And that’s where faith and community groups are so crucial in terms of their partnership with government.”

It is clear that public policy ought create an environment that supports the flourishing of both America’s physical infrastructure and of our faith-based social architecture. And these two goals are not inherently in conflict with each other. They are not mutually exclusive. How can we ensure we are encouraging our public officials to consider innovative, “both/and” solutions to expand and strengthen both our physical and spiritual infrastructure?

The Dakota Access pipeline raises one such opportunity, if we choose to frame it as such.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has consistently maintained that the advancement of the pipeline through what they conceive to be sacred land and water would compromise their capacity to fully live out their faith.  Religion News Service covered Mark Charles, a Navajo Christian and Washington correspondent for Native News Online, who explains the religious significance of the pipeline this way: “The way most Natives feel about the land where they’re living is the way most European Christians (American Christians of European origin) feel about Israel. Why? Because that’s where their creation story takes place.”

Religion, for many Native Americans, is not something that can be compartmentalized.  For the Lakota Sioux, their religion is a totalizing way of life that encompasses how they engage in inter-dependent relations with each other and with their natural world.  As one Lakota song states: “From the earth, something sacred is coming… There is nothing not sacred.”

Ironically, the clash with government officials over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline served as a crisis that elevated the consciousness of many native peoples from over 200 tribes around the country and brought them together to engage in collective, sacred activity. In short, the construction of the pipeline, paradoxically, catalyzed Native Americans to united in strengthening and expanding their own communities’ spiritual infrastructure. As Psychology Today has noted: “They are protecting their way of believing,” their religion. A common slogan, blazed in black across a carried banner of red cloth, reads: “Defend the Sacred.”

One example of this new spiritual infrastructure emerging from Standing Rock is the Defenders of Water School, a homeschool resource center for parents that helped to educate about 40 children starting in August, according to the Bismarck Tribune. The educational resource center was born out of necessity when it came time for children to return to the classroom, yet the protests were still persisting.  This unique school served the dual purpose of providing basic educational resources and options for families, but also, vitally, oriented its curriculum around imparting sacred practices, culture and language the to the next generation of Native Americans. The school has currently taken a pause from daily operations, according to April Rain, the director of development for the school and, referencing a statement on the school’s website, Rain noted “will instead be focusing our energies on the exciting work of creating a long-term project and culturally based school.”

Sometimes, spiritual networks and institutions grow and thrive even in adverse conditions. Sometimes, a perceived injustice brings people together to reengage and reenergize their shared spiritual beliefs and practices.  This is the power of embodied, associational faith for those called to live out their sacred precepts in every aspect of their individual and collective lives.

It is unclear what the final outcome of the apparent tension between the renewed spiritual infrastructure of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the policy directive to expand our physical infrastructure through continuing construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline will be. Perhaps, the innovation and creativity that is often characteristic of diverse spiritual groups will emerge and produce a solution that both protects the sacred land and water of the Sioux and provides an alternative pathway for the pipeline. Perhaps this is unlikely, and the Standing Rock Sioux and the Trump administration will each defend only their sacred or physical infrastructure interests, respectively. But when faith is involved, unexpected outcomes are possible.