I’m the no-longer executive director of a not-technically-religious nonprofit dedicated to peace in a town currently experiencing (like every town in the U.S.) a rise in violence.
It feels audacious to be writing for a spiritual publication on the subject of utopia in this time.
And yet, I am really excited to think about this, and even to share about some of my journey as a way to consider and recognize utopia based on our work in one small corner of Oakland, California. First, though, some context.
You may be familiar with Jesus’ parable of the sower, which taught of the farmer who sows his seed on a path where birds eat it, on rocky soil where it grows and then is burned to death by the sun, among thorns that choke out the sprouts, and on good soil where it grows a huge harvest.
He explains that the seeds on the path are the gospel for those who don’t understand it; the rocks are people who receive the gospel with joy but don’t have roots, so Satan can erase it; the thorns are people who let the gospel get choked by their fear or greed; and the good soil is the gospel landing with those who understand and can hold onto it.
There’s a very different "Parable of the Sower", one that brings me simultaneously more hope and more hopelessness. It is a novel written by afro-futurist Octavia Butler in the ’90s.
So, get this: in the 1990s, Octavia Butler wrote of a near future where poor people have to rely on gardening and hunting to feed themselves because wages for the bottom half aren’t enough to survive on. As a result of economic insecurity, crime has increased, policing doesn’t protect anyone without wealth, and the guy running for president is literally running on a campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again”. Fear and distrust and the need for self-protection function constantly in the background of daily life. She wrote this book in 1993, and died in 2006. This is profoundly prophetic writing.
Without giving too much away, Butler’s story follows a young woman who seeks to build a new community (and a new religion) in a place where the people can be self-sustaining and take care of each other, and stay under the radar of a government that doesn’t want poor people to be free.
I read this book in the summer of 2016 as another presidential candidate called to “Make America Great Again”, and in the midst of growing food insecurity and displacement of people in the community I served. I called friends from a neighboring church (who had recommended the book to me) to see if they saw the book as alarmingly prophetic as well. One of my friends responded, “Do you all own your land?” She asked this because in the book, the fact that the poor folks are connected with someone who owns land and shares their vision makes all the difference in their survival. My friend’s church owned their land and she wanted to make sure we did, too, so that we would have space where we could protect our people and take care of them.
While the focus of this issue is utopia, I share this story because the dystopia Butler imagined in the 1990s was a reality by the time I read the book: my clergy friends and I had a sense we needed to start preparing for something as dire as what was described in the pages of that book. Dystopian fiction is very popular these days, and in some ways you could say Octavia Butler’s "Parable of the Sower" is dystopian. The future doesn’t look great. But it’s also a little utopian: people rally together to create a different way of being community. They grow food, they build shelter, they make family, they establish ritual and connection to the Divine.
I hadn’t thought of it before, but Jesus’ parable is also dystopian (so many seeds die, so many cannot receive Christ’s good news), and yet he says to focus on the utopian — the ones with understanding who can establish roots and grow and not get choked by greed and fear. Therein lies Christ’s community. As someone who helped found what was supposed to be a utopian community, his parable is greatly comforting to me.
Somewhere between Jesus’ parable and Butler’s is where my little utopia, my church-turned-nonprofit, lives.
Here’s an account of how my little utopia emerged and is emerging:
I started pastoring First Christian Church of Oakland in 2006, with 10 people worshipping each Sunday in a sanctuary built for 700. Oakland itself often got described as a dystopian hellscape: one of the highest murder rates in the country, still recovering from the ravages of the crack epidemic, significant turf conflict between gangs. As I pastored First Christian Church of Oakland and explored what gifts existed in our small community, what emerged was the congregation’s commitment to the community knowing peace in the midst of violence. And so we started volunteering with violence prevention organizations, built relationships, and eventually began renting space to the organizations at an affordable rate in a very expensive part of the country. Over time, we met with the organizations to see what else was possible as we collaborated. Long story short, in 2012, the congregation launched the nonprofit called the Oakland Peace Center (OPC), a collective of (at the time) 25 nonprofits, 10 with office space in the sanctuary building, dedicated to a shared vision of a safe and peace-filled Oakland for all.
If you know the nonprofit world well, the vision of many nonprofits collaborating and supporting each other was absolutely a utopian vision. The idea of us being able to eliminate violence was a fool’s errand. Taking on the economic inequity that led to violence was a generational task at best. And yet, it has been a glorious journey… it has given me numerous glimpses of utopia over the past almost 15 years.
Here’s where I’m grateful to re-encounter Jesus’ parable through a new lens, with the interpretive lens of Octavia Butler. The mainstream version of our story is that we took dystopia and turned it into utopia. In other words, we tended the seeds that landed in good soil. In Jesus’ story, the utopia happens when we tend the growth and let go of the failures. In Octavia Butler’s story, the utopia emerges from the community that people in power believed was dystopian and disposable.
This is what I’m realizing as I reflect on the parallel stories of Jesus and Butler: for us at the OPC, the seeds of utopia (the seeds of good news) existed in the midst of dystopia. A dying congregation in an underserved neighborhood was textbook dystopia. And yet, that congregation saw themselves as having the gift of peace to offer. And they didn’t have to do it alone — because amidst the dystopian reality of violence, people cared about our community enough to have started anti-violence projects. The utopia already existed amidst (and sadly because of) the dystopia.
What that meant was that we might host a vigil as part of a series of vigils across the city, and a neighbor would show up and tell his story of losing family in the streets. And we would grow closer because of our shared loss, and we would build deeper community.
A tiny dying congregation understood the gospel when presented with it — they weren’t the path where the seed got snatched up by crows. Their roots were deep so Satan couldn’t burn away the sprouts that grew — they weren’t rocky soil. They were so generous and so willing to overcome their fear when so many churches cling to a building rather than letting it be used by a community in need — they were clearly not the brambles. That congregation was good soil in which the gospel was planted. They saw utopia in the midst of dystopia and chose to nurture it. In fact, a predominantly Black congregation that had weathered gang violence, property destruction, fires, and systemic racism in that community also engaged OPC partner organizations by inviting them to think of the land as Indigenous land. They had inherited the church as a legacy of a white congregation that they helped integrate. And because they knew the dystopian reality of that land from personal experience, they were able to understand that the building could either serve the dystopian vision of being a commodity to be traded to the person with the most money or it could be something we grew in relationship with. It could provide food and deeper connection between the community and the land. It could provide shelter for services and also housing for people ignored by our current market system. The gospel grew in that congregation and bore fruit beyond imagining.
I mentioned that I am no longer executive director at the Oakland Peace Center; I’m now “connections consultant”. The staff is now horizontally structured (no one is executive director; all staff bear equal responsibility and equal power), another utopian experiment to live into our values about how community can thrive without hierarchy. It’s a beautiful shift to make sure everyone is empowered and supported and equipped for their work. I’ll be honest, it was a shift driven by my own burnout after 15 years of trying to create this organization with the traditional model where I was at the top, and experiencing all of the pressures that went with that had taken a real toll. And the result of this collectivist structure has been that we get to learn how to “utopia” better from each other as equals.
There are so many details I’m leaving out about a mostly Black congregation hiring me, the very first pastor of color they had ever hired (and I’m a light-skinned, mixed race Asian American), and doing their best to be patient with my grand visions and constant demands for change. There are details about when staff conflicts arose and never really got reconciled. There are details about times I skipped getting paid so we could keep our doors open. There are details about wanting to give up except that so many people had told me this project couldn’t and maybe shouldn’t be done, and I disagreed. And yet, there were glimpses of utopia almost every day. Nonprofits collaborating. Neighbors connecting with the work of justice and healing. People finding belonging when they hadn’t believed they would ever belong. Youth realizing they were leaders; elders being willing to be learners.
Octavia Butler wrote about a new religion in her "Parable" books; it was called Earthseed, and it acknowledged the power of Change. In part it said that everything we touch is changed, and that in the process, we are changed. In our openness to change, we connect with the Divine, because God is change. In Jesus’ parable of the sower, he talks about how the landscape is changed when we are open to the fullness of the gospel. Jesus didn’t have to say that seeds sprouting across the land and growing and bearing food were one of the best forms of change for people living in arid, precarious conditions. When the community at the OPC — when ANY community — opens itself up to the wisdom of those around them, and when we commit to creating good for and with each other, that results in change. It results in encounter with the Divine. A sort of utopia emerges.
COVID has made building community hard and it has made serving community hard. And yet, the community garden we had tried three times to launch is now being run by about 12 neighbors who have turned it into a living food pantry where they build relationships as they manage our land and harvest food for people struggling with food security. It feels like a metaphor. The seed has fallen on good soil. The seeds of utopia are growing amidst dystopian circumstances. And I don’t need to be the savior because Jesus set it up so the community can save itself. And I’m moved to respond: Praise be to the God of little utopias everywhere.