Toshi Reagon & Octavia Butler: Sowing seeds of change

"All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. … As wind, as water, as fire, as life, God is change."  - Octavia Butler

Two weeks ago I saw a workshop version of Toshi and Bernice Johnson-Reagon's folk-rock adaptation of “The Parable of the Sower”—twice. I went twice because I wanted the music and the lyrics to seep into my body. Toshi Reagon talked about how the novels of Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler and so many other literary prophets offer us maps for the future, maps into a different way of living. I wanted some of this map to get into my heart and tissues.

“The Parable of the Sower” takes place in Los Angeles in a dystopian future where civil society has reverted to chaos and violence amid a backdrop of water and food scarcity. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, who suffers from hyper-empathy (she can feel the pain and joy of others), lives in the remnants of a walled community with her Baptist minister father, who believes the enclosure of that space will keep her and the other residents safe. Her father's vision for the community arises from his sense that God is immutable.

Lauren has another vision: she conceives of God as "Earthseed," as a force for change and that people serve as co-creators with God. She understands that salvation cannot come unless she and others traverse the walls of that enclosed space and participate, engage with the chaos and try to create something else. In Toshi and Bernice Reagon’s version, the story is told through powerful, lyrical songs that reverberate. From the song about what it's like to feel the pain and joy of others to Olivar Blues about modern day sharecropping to the final song about the sower sowing, the music and lyrics take the audience on a journey of grief and hope.

Toshi Reagon in Parable of the Sower at the Annenberg Center, photo by Lucy Duncan

The people Lauren ends up with, not necessarily those she would have chosen, create a small circle of community in the midst of massive destruction. There is a song toward the end of the performance in which an almost blind woman finds Earthseed. She sees a fire in the burning world that is not destroying, but is a light around which a small group of people stands warming themselves and resisting the chaos. She is welcomed by the community and they sing to her of the gifts she brings; through her presence they understand that they are beginning to create what they had envisioned and that all she brings can shape what they create.

Some days it feels as though we are on the brink of the chaos described in this story. The U.S. attack on the Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan…the school shooting in Oregon (one of 45 already this year)…the four-year drought in California…the uprisings and repression in Palestine…the Syrian civil war and refugee migrations... All reveal the deep dysfunction of current mindsets and habits.

It is my sense that “The Parable of the Sower,” and this particular embodied and sung version of it, describes one means toward our collective deliverance. When we shift our understanding of God from a force external and omniscient to a force within us and around us, which we help to co-create, we shift the location of ourselves in what possibilities can emerge.

Recently AFSC has been a part of some major shifts: in California AFSC supported incarcerated men and their families in working for a recent policy shift which restricts the use of solitary confinement to only extreme and clearly defined situations; AFSC's Youth Undoing Institutional Racism was an important advocate for Seattle City Council's recent resolution that endorses the goal of zero-percent detention of youth; our Denver office helped keep an undocumented husband and father of two children, Arturo Hernandez, from being deported by supporting him in sanctuary.

Seeing ourselves as part of the story and playing our role in collaboration with those most impacted has been key to these changes. It's not about us, but we must play our part in co-creating change.

I invite you to step out of your comfort zone into a community that can help co-create change. I invite you to believe in the fire that warms and gives light and that supports us all in transforming the systems of oppression and exclusion into a community of care and resistance. God is present when we invite her into the circle with us, when we step into creating the change we seek.

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