Sustenance for Uncertain Times

November 4, 2020

By: Joe Tolbert Jr.

Joe Tolbert Jr. was graciously part of our "Navigating Power in Creative Placemaking" plenary at the ArtPlace Summit. You can watch a recording of this plenary here. 


The coronavirus pandemic, and the recent uprisings due to the continued death of Black people at the hands of the police, has irritated festering wounds of communities bearing the brunt of inequitable death dealing systems. This moment of intensified personal grief, communal grief, and the anticipatory grief that comes with living through uncertainty, leaves many in our communities stuck and unable to move through the myriad of emotions this transformational time is eliciting in our minds, bodies, and spirits. This time is calling for us to remember our spiritual practices that roots our being and allows for us to remain resilient through the uncertain times we are living in. It is easy to get caught up in the work for cultural transformation that we forget that it is an embodied practice. Working to end systemic injustices affects our minds, bodies, and spirits, and if we are to meet this moment of uncertainty while thinking about the long haul that is required of us to end inequitable cultural practices, we have to remember to ground ourselves in our spiritual practices.

I have noticed that in many of the arts and culture conversations that I have been a part of, spiritual practice as cultural practice is overlooked, or outright omitted from the conversation. When I try to bring this into conversations on cultural equity and interculturality, I am often met with pushback, because often it is assumed that I only mean organized religion. One look at the ways religion has been wielded in the names of domination and control, it is understandable why cultural workers often shy away from such conversations. However, when I speak of spiritual practices, though it includes a community’s religious practices, I am also talking about more than that. I am talking about rituals and practices of communities that connect us to ourselves, a higher power, and each other. The fact that we are still here speaks to the fact that our ancestors had spiritual technologies that allowed them to endure the onslaught against their humanity. Those practices handed down to us are pathways forward through this unprecedented time.


Why Spiritual Practice

Aaron and Jeff were best friends that had been talking about planting some new trees. They finally decided on the types of trees, and took them home to plant them. After the initial planting, Aaron tended to his tree. He watered the tree. With his care, the roots went deep into the earth. The tree’s bark began to thicken. However at Jeff’s house, he didn’t tend to the needs of his tree. The ups and downs of life took his focus away from the needs of the tree, and as a result, the tree's roots weren’t healthy. Its bark was thin and brittle. Some time later, unknown to both Jeff and Aaron, a storm was brewing a few towns over. Before they knew it, the storm was raging. The rain was heavy and the winds were strong. Jeff and Aaron’s families had to take cover. As quickly as the storm appeared, it seemed to disappear. As the families came out of their homes to look at the damage, Aaron looked around and saw the tree that he had planted months ago still standing, looking like it did before the storm. However when Jeff looked around his property, he found the tree on its side, uprooted.

There is a lot of talk about resilience as if it is something that just materializes out of thin air, but as the story illustrates, resilience is a practice, and it is something that needs to be cultivated. Spiritual practice is the way to do for our spirits what Aaron did for the tree he planted. When we practice our spiritual practices, rituals, we are nurturing our spirits, grounding them, so that we can be rooted despite the uncertainty of the political moment we find ourselves in. If we are using the definition I offered above, while rooting our spirits, it also strengthens the bonds we have with others in our communities, which helps us be better able to organize for cultural transformation. In these uncertain times when nothing seems stable it is very easy for our communities to become uprooted like Jeff’s tree. As cultural workers, we must use cultural strategies that center rituals and practices of renewal in our work, so that we can feed our spirits in the midst of this political moment. It will help us ensure that we are cultivating resilience in our communities which is a strategy to let us continue our fight for cultural transformation.


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Joe Tolbert Jr. (Joe T.) is a minister, art critic, and the founder and lead cultural strategist of Art at the Intersections. His work is at the intersections of art, culture, spirituality and social justice. He received his B.S. in Communications from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and completed his M.Div. with a concentration in Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York. His work has been supported by fellowships from National Art Strategies Creative Communities Fellowship and the Intercultural Leadership Institute. Joe believes that art and culture plays a vital role in any movement for social change. As a Cultural Organizer and Consultant, Joe is a sought after facilitator and cultural strategist that works with communities to help them harness the power of art and culture through the building, implementation and evaluation of cultural strategies. As a writer he has contributed articles to Alternate Roots, Arts.Black, and Quiet Lunch, among others.