USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Engaged Spirituality

Insights into Engaged Spirituality

Bringing journalists into an academic project breaks some conventional standards of social science research, which typically focuses on controlled samples and standardized research protocols. Doing so allowed us to pull off a far-ranging project such as this, and to look at questions about how both journalists and academics craft narratives about the people they study.

To give the researchers and journalists a common frame, we provided an adapted “life story interview” tool (see page 62 for the guide), which encouraged journalists to solicit exemplars to share their life trajectories. Religion is not a “thing” that can be abstracted and examined in isolation; rather it is integrally interwoven in everyday experience. Furthermore, examining spirituality or religious identity at a single point in time is not adequate, as spiritual exemplars evolve in response to particular crises, events, opportunities—and the quest for meaning itself. Within these life story interviews, CRCC asked its researchers and journalists to touch on common themes: inspiration; sustenance, the reciprocal effect of the work on the exemplars’ spirituality, the shadow side, and their relationship with institutional forces, whether their own organization or a religious institution.

Working with about 140 coding categories, academic researchers have processed hundreds of interviews, analyzing themes across the global database. Themes include: the life trajectory of exemplars, values they embody, their spiritual practices and beliefs, as well as their personal qualities and characteristics, program focus and strategies, and their shadow side.

It is simplistic to say that religion or spirituality inspires exemplars to act in the world. Rather, the interviews reveal multiple pathways to humanitarian work. For many individuals, it was a search for meaning and purpose in their lives. For others, they encountered a personal crisis or trauma in their community that called out for a response. And for some, it was a nearly accidental involvement where they engaged in initial acts of charity that then evolved into a life-long passion.

At the heart of exemplars are a number of values, including compassion, empathy, selflessness, hope, tolerance, courage and humility. These are individuals who live for others, not themselves or their own happiness. And yet joy and a sense of purpose permeate their lives.

They are resilient individuals. They often see themselves as the vessels of a higher purpose or calling. They have a gritty perseverance, taking the long view on tackling an issue. Their theology or philosophy enables them to place temporary disappointments in a larger framework. At the same time, a subset of the exemplars showcase a little acknowledged value of spiritual sustenance: the prophetic call to end human suffering. Embodying a “holistic resilience,” these actors seek to dismantle the structures that require them and their communities to be resilient in the first place.

Although spiritual practices varied by religious traditions, common to exemplars were regular periods of prayer, meditation, corporate worship/rituals, and times apart in retreat. These practices renew them daily. While a few exemplars reported mystical experiences, there was something very this-worldly about their approach to the sacred and ultimate reality. Exemplars reported finding God, for example, in service to the poor and marginalized.

Their spiritual practices and contexts open exemplars to a consciousness of ideal relations, characterized by beliefs in the sacredness of all beings, and the rights and dignity of all persons. This realm of consciousness becomes “real” in engaged spirituality—when prayer and contemplation connect helpfully with people in need. Their beliefs also enable them to frame and constantly reframe situations to find hope and possibility regardless of the circumstances.

Exemplars’ perspectives have been particularly refreshing in the midst of global turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has endangered people’s lives, health and livelihoods while exacerbating the issues that exemplars seek to address. We have been struck by exemplars’ entrepreneurial spirit in the face of poverty and trauma. Perhaps visionary action is an antidote to pessimism, cynicism and paralyzing fear.

Explore the full directory of “Spiritual Exemplars”