Gathered At The River – DOTAC 2023

Gathered At The River – DOTAC 2023

The Mississippi River has a captivating mythology.  The recent conference of DOTAC (Diakonia of the Americas and Caribbean), held every four years and organized this year around the theme “Gather At The River”, took place within a few short blocks of that mighty river in Minneapolis. 

From August 14 to 18, 2023, more than a hundred people engaged in various forms of diaconal ministry from across North and South America and the Caribbean came together to connect, reflect, and learn. Among them were CCS staff members Lori Stewart and Marcie Gibson. (Other CCS staff took part online at various points.)

The first liturgical action of the event invited participants to name Biblical water stories and to dip their hands in a bowl of water as a remembrance of their baptism.  As members of the family of God and of diakonia they said, “By water and the Spirit, we are called, claimed, and commissioned.”

One of the themes that flowed through the conference, for Lori Stewart, was connection with diaconal community. She found that table groups helped begin the process of getting to know more about the expressions of diaconal service in different traditions.  It also helped break the ice and open up ways to engage in conversation with one another.

Marcie Gibson also found the opportunity for new diaconal conversations important, both for her own diaconal identity and for informing the diaconal formation content that we provide at CCS.  

“Sometimes those are new conversations with friends and colleagues who I haven’t seen in years – What are you reading? What are you thinking about?  How is your educational practice changing?  What’s happening in your faith community and denomination? Sometimes those are first conversations with diaconally-associated folks I’ve never met – What does diakonia look like where you live? What are your beloved sources of wisdom and diaconal direction? What are your struggles, celebrations, and hopes? Who are your conversation partners?  or How might we collaborate?”

Lori particularly remembers conversations with Cindy, who shared a powerful land acknowledgement on the first night.  “When I asked her about it, she told me about a process for writing personal land acknowledgements presented by the Minnesota Hopeful Earthkeepers.” Lori also remembers a conversation in which Jessica told of recently leaving an organization where she was involved in environmental activism.  “We talked more over lunch about how she felt burned out and needed a time of healing before taking on anything new.” At one point in the conference, Eliaikao, an ecumenical visitor from Kenya, sat beside Lori and shared how her Heart to Heart ministry to children was struggling after losing a large funder.  “It matters because she, like these children, came from the slums and she knows how important education is for improving their opportunities.”

Marcie recalls a recurring conversation with border guards, hotel workers, or people at site visits during the conference: “Dia– who? What the heck is diakonia?” But that became the exception rather than the norm for a week, she notes.  “It’s refreshing.  It’s grounding and affirming that diakonia is my starting point for ministry, and to know that I’m not alone. It stretches me to understand diakonia more broadly and deeply. It helps me to articulate what I mean by that, how it is in conversation with others who also identify themselves with diaconal traditions, and to move beyond 101 definitions or references.”

Of course there were opportunities to meet and share with old friends, DUCC members (Diakonia of the United Church of Canada), and alumni of CCS too — one of the benefits for both Lori and Marcie of having attended diaconal gatherings before.

Another theme that flowed through the event was Lament and Joy.  

Poet and activist Joe Davis spoke twice.  He names himself an “apocaloptimist”which he says means he “knows the world is ending but we are going to be all right”.  He spoke to us about the “struggle bus”, naming all the things that are going on in the world that we lament.  But he reminded us that a deep capacity to feel sorrow deepens our capacity to feel joy.  Joe invited us to seek joy as a radical practice in the midst of struggle.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  

DOTAC participants also reflected on struggle and joy as they created an art piece together led by Angela Two Stars.  Heart and tear drop shapes became a river full of our heart’s longings/laments and tears of joy.

Minneapolis is a sacred area still called Bdóte Othúŋwe by the Dakhóta peoples at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Site visits and workshops as part of the Gather At The River conference, such as a session with organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign,  provided an opportunity to dive deeply into the local context. 

Both Marcie and Lori recall the site visits to the George Floyd memorial Square where community members met them and told how they had organized in the wake of his death.  With some DUCC members they walked the “cemetery” where cardboard tombstones recorded people who had died at the hands of police.  “It was a moving lament as we said the names out loud,” says Lori.

Lori visited San Pablo/St. Paul’s, a Lutheran church in an area of Minneapolis with a large Mexican immigrant population.  Pastor Hierald and Pastor Christine shared some of the laments for their community and how the church is actively engaged with people in the neighbourhood, particularly through arts programming to promote belonging.  

Marcie recalls hearing the familiar-yet-different Indigenous-told histories of genocide, land theft, and resisting settler development on sacred burial lands (one site here shares some of this history).

Struggle and joy.

Bible Study was offered two times.  Each time participants reflected on Psalm 46 and looked at the same pictures taken by photojournalists of news stories.  The first time focused on lament and the second time, on joy.  To quote the Most Rev Dr Winston Halpue of the World Council of Churches: “God is our refuge and strength.  As we encounter huge challenges—pandemic, war, poverty, gender and racial discrimination, modern slavery, our global village groaning with the threat of climate change—You are a God who is with us to provide ways forward.”

As the participants in the DOTAC conference gathered at the river, they lamented what is wrong in our world, claimed healing for our planet and its inhabitants, and moved toward holy joy in their work for justice.  

Joy is also found in new and renewed diaconal connections. Marcie says, “I hope more CCS community – especially students and recent grads! – will find themselves in these fertile and sacred conversations.”

Comments: 2

  1. Lori Stewart says:

    Hey Marcie. Thanks for your conversation questions to help get started talking to people–I always struggle with how to get started and these are very helpful!

  2. Ted Dodd says:

    Holy reflections and sacred insights. Thank you.

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