Kennel-Shank: Once more, gratefully

Time has been slippery lately. These days, weeks and months of the pandemic slide together, though punctuated with dramatic moments: the loss of jobs, the deaths of loved ones, the deaths that hospital workers have witnessed.

Celeste Kennel-Shank

This pandemic has revealed truths about our society ever more starkly: the devaluing of black lives, the exploitation built into our economy and the threat of climate change. Racial and economic disparities place some at much greater risk of harm. And in the areas where some of us live, pollution has been taking a silent toll on our lungs each day for decades.

In this slippery time, I’ve realized that it has been 10 years since I started the Living Simply column. I chose the name thinking of the full phrase, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

I’ve written about gardening; socially responsible investing, shareholder advocacy and divestment related to fossil fuels; and local efforts to close a coal-fired power plant near my home. I’ve looked at reducing plastic consumption, examining our relationship with our stuff and weighing the costs and benefits of owning a car.

At the root of all I’ve written is exploring how faith can sustain work for justice and peace. We need each other to be vigilant about the all-too-real risk of burnout.

I’ve tried to move beyond an either-or choice between changing our own practices and joining in movements for large-scale solutions. We can do both, as many people I know do. To my mind, the best place to begin is at the grassroots level, building from households to congregations and communities, neighborhoods, towns, cities and nations.

However, there are some tensions that can’t be easily overcome, such as these: 1) Institutions and people with power and privilege — even if they are not powerful and privileged in all aspects of their lives — often resist change that disrupts the status quo. 2) It isn’t easy for people who have spent their careers in a particular industry to become trained for new jobs when those industries change. 3) Engagement with elected officials is crucial, but when we place our hope in any particular politician or election, we will inevitably be disappointed.

In this pandemic we continue to see that it really does take all of us to radically change our behavior. We need responsible government leaders to make good policies, but we can’t rely on the law to determine our choices or sit and wait for the next election. As more people become aware of how racial injustice and environmental injustice are connected, it opens opportunities for new vision and action.

We will inevitably fall short in many ways and need the grace offered by our God of justice and mercy. Grace liberates us to work for change, beginning with ourselves and radiating outward. These efforts are an integral part of the life of discipleship. Grace allows us to do more, take risks and fail sometimes — then learn from those failures and keep striving. The only place to start is wherever each of us is. But no one has to stay there.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past 10 years. I would write some things differently now as I’ve continued expanding the stories I hear, perspectives I read and experiences I wrestle with. Yet as I finish my last Living Simply column, my main feeling is gratitude for everyone who has read my words in these pages. I hope they encouraged you in your own work for a just world, where more people can simply live.

Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.

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