Radical spirit

May 9, 2001 at 12:00 am

Marianne Williamson is sitting in a straight-backed chair in the library of her big house, bare feet propped up on an ottoman, casually clad in a loose pullover sweater and slacks. Her hair still slightly damp, she graciously apologizes for being just a few minutes late. It happened, she confesses, because she gave in to an impulse to grab a few more minutes of sleep after dropping her daughter, Emma, off at school.

Williamson seems relaxed and sunny, but her aura also says she has a lot to do and not enough time to do it in.

No wonder. The best-selling author, internationally known spiritual lecturer, spiritual leader of the now very popular Church of Today in Warren and somewhat-stressed single mom is in the midst of another of her ambitious projects. Williamson is not home much these days; she’s busy traveling around the country to talk about her latest book, Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century. Rounding up and editing 40 essays by a smorgasbord of progressive, mystical, radical and New Age thinkers — including Deepak Chopra, bell hooks, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Paul Hawken — may have been the easy part of making Imagine happen. Now comes the grind of not only promoting it but also motivating people to work toward its goals and the refreshing future it envisions. Just recently she’s been from Dallas and Denver to San Francisco and New York City.

In the adjacent hallway, a camera crew lugs equipment into the living room to shoot a segment for insertion into an upcoming broadcast of the Church of Today’s Sunday morning service. The phone rings frequently; her small staff fields the calls and acts as snap-to-it gofers whenever Williamson needs something done.

This is no quiet, ruminative pastor content to contemplate her flock and the best way through those pearly gates. This is a woman on a mission, with no false modesty attached. As she talks about her career — which includes writing seven books about spirituality, founding bicoastal nonprofit organizations for AIDS patients and engaging briefly with Los Angeles’ treacherous celebrity culture — her voice rises and falls dramatically. It ranges from an almost indignantly insistent tone to a low whisper that occasionally causes a reporter’s voice-activated tape recorder to shut down.

Ever since Williamson’s first book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course In Miracles, hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list and stayed there for 39 weeks back in 1993, she’s been at the center of a spiritual whirlwind. Her move to the Midwest three years ago to begin leading the Church of Today has only brought winds of change and controversy there as well. Even something as seemingly simple as changing the church’s Sunday morning music generated controversy, she recalls.

“They’d play Broadway show tunes on Sunday morning!” she says incredulously. “They were songs that I like, but I thought it was unbelievably inappropriate for Sunday mornings. That is not a spiritual environment!”

So she hired a brand-new gospel choir that makes music deeply rooted in black gospel harmonies and rhythms, but with lyrics honed to Williamson’s message.

“At the time it seemed like such a radical idea to people, “ she says. “You’d have thought I was trying to start World War III. But I love the music; to me it is an important ministry.”

The now-burgeoning church has one of the best gospel choirs in town. It draws frequent standing ovations from the nearly 3,000 people who now pass through the church’s doors every Sunday morning.

Fielding a great choir is an important tradition in African-American churches, but a surprise at a church that was, until recently, almost entirely white. It’s surprising, too, to hear a congregation fervently singing the old Motown hit “My Girl” transformed — by changing exactly one word — to “My God.”

“There is something for everybody there,” Williamson says. “I like that. I just want people to suck the juice out of the place.”

These days there’s quite a bit of juice at the Church of Today. Besides the plain, brightly lit, 1,600-seat auditorium where Sunday services are held, the sprawling, anonymous-looking, 1960s-style complex on the south side of the I-696 service drive between Hoover and Van Dyke also houses a large, well-stocked bookstore and gift shop; a coffee shop; an adjacent, smaller, video-friendly meeting room; extensive offices; and a TV control room and production studio. The coffee shop doubles as a gallery, its walls frequently decorated with sometimes-stunning original art.

Throughout the entire week, there are always plenty of things to do, people to talk to or ceremonies to participate in. The church has become a friendly gathering place for various, interrelated communities, each with its own set of concerns that fit into a larger, quite dynamic whole.

“I like the fact that you go over here and there’d be Native American things and this Buddhist stuff over there, and way over there there’s a shaman,” Williamson says, her eyes aglow with enthusiasm. “To me that’s alive. It means people aren’t watching TV tonight. That’s what it should be. Church should not be about control. It should be about having a space, a permission for joy and celebration.”

Seeking the lite?

It’s difficult to find the word “don’t” in Williamson’s teachings. Her vision of spirituality eschews sin, punishment and hell. While much of her language is Christian, she’s quite likely to refer to Ghandi, Buddha, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jung or even the Star Wars movies when making her metaphysical points.

Her main theme is, in some ways, deeply Eastern — God is not somewhere up above; you and I and she and everything we see are all God. What Williamson adds to that mix is this: Since God is love we, too, are love; everything that’s “bad” is merely fear-based illusion that can be overcome.

Williamson came to this conclusion by reading A Course in Miracles, a book she says completely changed her life when she decided to study it seriously in 1978. Originally published three years earlier, A Course in Miracles is the work of two medical psychologists — William Thetford and the late Helen Schucman — who claim it arrived by way of “inner dictation” that Schucman experienced in her dreams. A dense text with an unorthodox take on existence and God, the book maps a route to spiritual centeredness through self-control of one’s view of the seemingly real world surrounding us. And it slowly found students.

According to Williamson’s own account, by the time she found and read A Course in Miracles, she was “a total mess” — fighting depression, alienation and other common maladies of the 1960s counterculture.

“Like a lot of people at that time,” she writes in A Return to Love, “I was pretty wild. I didn’t know what to do with my life, though my parents kept begging me to do something. I went from relationship to relationship, job to job, city to city, looking for some sense of identity or purpose, some feeling that my life had finally kicked in.”

Williamson started her life in Houston as the daughter of a liberal Jewish lawyer, a first-generation immigrant from the former Soviet Union. She was brought up Jewish, but her parents kept the Koran, the New Testament and the writings of Thomas Aquinas around the house. Her father even took her to Vietnam when she was barely a teenager to show her the evils of war.

She studied philosophy at Pomona College, wandered gypsylike in search of a meaningful life, then returned to Houston and operated a bookstore. Then “one day she just got in her car, drove from Houston to California and started selling A Course in Miracles out of the trunk of her car,” according to Sandy Scott, a longtime West Coast colleague who followed Williamson to Warren to become an assistant minister at the Church of Today.

Williamson began lecturing to small groups on A Course in Miracles; as word spread, she became a well-known spiritual lecturer. But she also became an AIDS activist, raising well over $1 million to establish Centers for Living in Los Angeles and New York City in 1987, well before many mainstream organizations were paying attention to the disease.

Then she exploded onto the national scene with A Return to Love. Vanity Fair wrote her up; Oprah Winfrey endorsed her book lavishly on TV; she became a top name on the spirituality lecture circuit.

Since then she has released still more million-selling books and stacks of audio tapes, all devoted to her take on spirituality in this, the most religious country in the Western world, with 1,350 denominations and 40 percent of its population claiming churchgoing status. Indeed, her spiritual path seems almost all-American, because it seems so instant and looks so easy.

But how, her critics ask, can we take seriously this “spirituality lite,” with its promise of miracles in exchange for five minutes of daily prayer? Combined with articles in the entertainment press in the early 1990s that smirked at her immersion in Hollywood’s culture and painted her as a bitchy boss masquerading as a Spiritual Love Goddess, it’s been easy for casual observers to shrug off both the messenger and the message.

Williamson, however, has rarely looked back, moving to Santa Barbara with her young daughter in 1994. In 1997 she published The Healing of America (since then revised as Healing the Soul of America), which insists that cultivating guilt-free, love-based spirituality is by no means enough.

Dirty fingernails

The book argues that spirituality must be applied in service to others. With the country and the world rife with racism, sexism, poverty, disease and a looming environmental collapse, the narcissism of the baby boom generation — a gigantic disappointment to her — is no longer an option.

The social goals she outlines in Healing are vintage left wing. Not surprisingly, some political writers — in the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic, for instance — savaged that book and advised her to stay out of politics. But Williamson has kept pushing for social involvement by “spiritual” people. Imagine is very much in that tradition; by including so many different voices under her own imprimatur, she seems to be trying to help build a broad coalition of spiritually motivated activists.

“You could call her politics holistic politics,” says Mike Whitty, a professor of labor relations at University of Detroit Mercy who’s edited a book on work and spirituality titled Work and Spirit. “She does have a worldview or a cosmology that is political and has clear implications for economics. Because it is based on compassion, it is an economics that would require a re-examination of the current economic model, which is survival of the fittest and dog eat dog.”

Not long after The Healing of America was published, the Church of Today, apparently unfazed by her increasingly political stance, invited her to become its spiritual leader. Missing the “feeling of dirt under my fingernails” that she had while working closely with AIDS patients in her early days in Los Angeles, Williamson accepted.

“She had actually wanted a church for years and years,” says Scott. “Her move to Warren didn’t surprise me at all. She’s very mobile.”

Williamson had actually visited the Church of Today to speak several times before, starting in 1993, soon after the death of Jack Boland, its charismatic founder. Then it was still largely a “self-help” church — full of 12-step programs — affiliated then, as now, with Unity, a national, nondenominational group of churches whose tenets are somewhat similar to Williamson’s. But the church had been drifting after Boland’s death. Attendance shrank; financial problems grew. Snagging the nationally famous, charismatic, hard-driving, mystical Williamson seemed like the perfect solution.

Be careful what you pray for

Almost from her first day as the Church of Today’s new spiritual leader — March 8, 1998 — Williamson has said she intended to apply the principles of Healing the Soul of America to the healing of metro Detroit. Given the region’s rampant segregation, she put racial reconciliation at the top of that agenda. She made it clear that everyone — black, white, young, old, Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, agnostic, gay, straight, everyone — was welcome. And with word of that message, her compelling oratory and the spectacular new choir getting out, the congregation grew dramatically and became noticeably more black.

So, one Sunday she asked all the African-Americans in the church to stand up. Then she invited the white people near them to take their hands, look them in the eye, and apologize for the suffering and humiliation that the nation’s racism had caused them and their people. Reportedly, some people walked out. Reactions of those who participated varies sharply.

“I loved it,” says Mary Hill, a 70-something white woman who’s attended Church of Today for more than 30 years. She says she realized years ago that, while she preaches racial equality, she’s sometimes been “a damned hypocrite. So I do think we have to constantly examine and re-examine our true feelings. It had a positive effect on me. I don’t know what possible harm it could do, though I suppose some people may have taken offense at being so put on the spot.”

But Sheila Wright, a middle-age black woman who’s a longtime church attendee and a psychologist in the Detroit Public School System, wonders just who benefited from the controversial exercise, which Williamson repeated on several occasions.

“I think it makes white people feel better,” she muses. “I believe in forgiveness and I think some things are symbolic. But it is one thing to apologize and another to process that and move forward from that. I think that if people had come knowing that that was going to occur … it might have had a more dynamic effect.”

And Carole Mullins, a black woman who recently served as the church’s board president for 18 months, still has mixed emotions about it.

“It stirred up a whole pot of different emotions in people,” she says. “It was very powerful. One Caucasian lady came up to me the last time Marianne did that and just lambasted me as the board president.”

Despite the controversy, Williamson has, if anything, become more specifically political during her three years at the church. Late last year she spoke almost weekly about the presidential election while its outcome was still in doubt. It was obvious, observers say, that she wanted Al Gore to win; when the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner, she could barely conceal her disappointment, even anger. Her final message about it, however, was about healing; she urged people to love and pray for Bush.

“The overwhelming majority of people didn’t care for it at all,” Mullins says of the highly specific politicking. “Some people left the church. While I understand it is important to make people socially aware, it is not something I want to hear every Sunday. A lot of people were saying, ‘I hope she is done with that, I hope she gets back to the inspirational stuff.’”

And therein lies the challenge for Marianne Williamson — how to keep inspiring people while, at the same time, convincing them to do something with that inspiration besides enjoying how good it feels. Since she believes the planet and its people are in ever-deeper trouble and that a big change — either wonderfully positive or horribly negative — is coming soon, it’s an urgent challenge. That belief and her own feisty nature mean that she’s not backing off.

“The last thing I am going to do is get up on a stage or pulpit and say what I think people want to hear in hopes that they will come back,” she says. “That’s not me. I feel I have been quite careful. But I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr that it is the role of religion to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

She slaps her hands together sharply.

“I like religion with meat, with juice,” she says. “When I was a teenager, I was at temple and our rabbi spoke out against the Vietnam War, and I remember being so surprised at how many people had felt that was inappropriate.”

Is she satisfied with how the Church of Today has responded to her increasing calls for deeper social engagement?

“When I first got here,” she says slowly, “I wanted to take the reins and gallop. And there was a lot of resistance to doing that. I don’t know how much of it is because we are in the Midwest, and how much of it is the church itself. It is like this big ship, and I have been successful in changing its course by maybe 30 degrees. On one hand, I think to myself, ‘God, you know, I would like to see it change more.’ But then, you know, as that ship travels, that 30 degrees really adds up.”

Beyond the walls

Many who attend the Church of Today think the changes Williamson has triggered there are both dramatic and meaningful. Attendance has soared, making it the second-largest Unity church in America; African-Americans are perhaps 30 percent of the Sunday worshippers. The Sunday morning TV show has become self-supporting after years of decline. More basically, a church based in a decidedly blue-collar, conservative community now openly espouses very liberal political ideals while successfully inviting multiracial participation and welcoming the visible presence of gays.

The Church of Today has begun reaching out beyond its own walls. Williamson doesn’t seem satisfied, but others see a big, positive leap forward.

As Katie King, a church member for the past decade puts it, there has been “just a groundswell of service to the community since she came.”

Indeed, the church’s Volunteer Impact program recruits people to help a number of inner-city soup kitchens and homeless shelters with everything from fund raising to remodeling. Volunteers also aid several Detroit-based tutoring programs, make dolls for a children’s hospital, visit homebound Detroiters, help build houses with Habitat for Humanity, visit inner-city nursing homes and even groom animals at the Michigan Humane Society. Scott estimates that, in all, the church has 400 volunteers helping out both within and outside its walls.

“Every time a call goes out for volunteers to do something in the community, they don’t just get 20 or 30 people, they get tons,” claims former board president Mullins. “When we asked for people to bring school supplies to put into the backpacks of kids who need that kind of help — oh, my God, the response was just overwhelming. Last year we ran out of backpacks to fill. This is a very loving and giving church.”

Williamson’s three assistant ministers — Scott, Jim Lee and Karen Boland, who was once married to founder Jack Boland — also work on other projects that offer support to refugees seeking asylum, people in need of legal aid, gay and lesbian groups, and the more typical men’s and women’s groups. Scott says a prison support program will also be starting soon. Led by Boland, the plethora of 12-step programs continues. And the church frequently hosts talks by progressive thinkers, authors and activists.

Meanwhile, Williamson is working on another new project, one with a rather grand name and a seemingly mystical mission — the Global Renaissance Alliance. The GRA is part prayer group, part discussion group and part political action committee. The “citizens’ circles,” as they are called — 190 of them currently, mostly concentrated in North America and Europe — meet regularly as individual units and also link up “metaphysically” at exactly coordinated times to pray, meditate and create a simultaneous, far-flung “field of intention” around particularly timely or thorny political situations. GRA circles hope to influence world events and leaders through the sheer power of concentrated love and prayer.

A typical Sunday afternoon meeting of the Warren GRA circle attracts from 20 to 60 people and features 20 minutes of silent meditation, followed by each participant’s sharing of their personal vision for world peace. A recent meeting was capped by a discussion of Michigan’s new concealed weapons law and the state Legislature’s pay raise, plus a plug for attending a public forum on the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act hosted by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan.

Williamson says the proceeds from Imagine are being donated to help create GRA chapters around the world. It’s another example of her penchant for hooking up her formidable talents as writer, speaker, celebrity, spiritualist and political radical in a way that just might make a difference. But she denies she’s trying to save the world.

“That is such a bogus thought,” she says when asked if that’s what she’s trying to do. “The only person it is my business to save is myself. I don’t think I would have had the career I’ve had if people thought otherwise. People can smell that kind of messiah complex. A Course in Miracles is very adamant about that: You teach by demonstrating what you know. The issue is that you make the best effort you can on a daily basis to be a better person, and that that has an invisible effect on the world around you. I think we are living in a time where there is an increasing progress toward, if not an actualization to be harnessed, of a critical mass of people aware that the direction we are moving in is dangerous for the survival of the species. A Course in Miracles says that salvation begins when you consider the possibility that there might be another way.”

She pauses, a fleeting thought momentarily softening the intense gaze of her piercing, brown eyes. Then she says it again, as if to make sure she’s clearly understood.

“There might be another way.”

Jim is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]