I originally met Erika through Donna Burklo sometime last summer. With neither of us having a proclivity for nonsense, we dove straight into the all the big topics during our first conversation. Due to my tumultuous upbringing in extreme religiosity, I tend to not have lots of room for it in my life these days. And, for better or worse, I tend to associate it with more potential for bad than good. So, going into our first meeting knowing that Erika was a pastor, I did my best to lay my judgments aside. The resulting conversation was one of my favorites since moving to Bend and by the end of it, I considered Erika a friend and an ally.
We heard each other as we spoke our individual truths and respected each other through our differences while discovering a path toward our common ground. We've met on a few occasions since then and I've felt an affinity for her each time. Because I thought sharing our story might be meaningful to others, I asked Erika to participate here. She accepted and, just as I hoped, she showed up in a real way for it. I'm delighted to share her interview with you here. Erika is a super smart and resilient woman with a huge capacity for empathy and compassion. And I'm proud to call her my friend.
ACT: Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
ES: My name's Erika Spaet. And I'm a Lutheran pastor living here in Bend. I'm a spouse and a person committed to community, to relationships. I'm a writer - I probably consider that my primary vocation. I coordinate, organize, curate the community of Storydwelling, which is an emerging spiritual community here in Bend that's born out of mainline denominations in Christianity - born out of Lutheranism and Methodism. That's exploring the edges and the fringes of what it means to be a faithful, hopeful, human. So, that's what I do with most of my time.
ACT: What concerns you and what motivates you to do something about it? What I mean by that is what is it about this experience through life that breaks your heart or makes you mad as hell or makes you sad and what then do you do about that?
ES: Yeah. What's interesting is that what you're doing right now is a lot of what I do every day, which is to be curious and to harvest what are people's deepest longings and pressures and heartaches. And so I have a set of things that I can say because I'm pretty practiced in that and being able to offer it back. But I do want to be intentional. What is that for me right now?
Maybe a thread through my whole life - a thread of heartache in my whole life - has been isolation. I see and have experienced isolation in terms of... well, growing up, for me, was experiencing hard things and not knowing how to talk about them and not necessarily feeling like I had places to talk about them. Experiencing addiction, incarceration in my family story and not knowing that that even was heartache. Not knowing how to articulate how I felt about that and not knowing who to articulate it to. So, that kind of isolation of - This is really shitty and I don't know how to talk about it and I'm the only one experiencing it and no one cares. And so, as an adult, I look back on my life. I see it - probably starting when I was 18 or 20 - as, over and over, experiences of trying to deal with that. This is shitty. I have no one to talk to about it. Nobody cares. And I'm the only one.
And now, when I have coffee with people, when I ask people about their story, I see and I hear a lot of that, too. And that breaks my heart. Because when I imagine an alternative future - a future different from the one that I feel like we are barreling toward - when I imagine that, it is the opposite of isolation. I would call it communion, which is kind of a religiousy word, but I don't think it has to be. It's the integration of all things: of all people and the planet. An interdependence. So, I guess, isolation breaks my heart. And in all its forms. And it breaks my heart for myself and the person that I've been. And it breaks my heart for people that I know who feel like they are the only one.
Yeah. And I think that manifests in a lot if different ways. It manifests also in an inward-turning where people don't necessarily feel committed or responsible for the health or well-being or the thriving of someone else because we're all in it for ourselves. I'm not in it for someone else. So, I think it manifests in a way that breaks my heart, but it also manifests in a way that makes me really angry about the human condition.
Is that kind of getting at all to your question?
ACT: Yeah, it's actually so refreshing because how you began that with saying you're well-versed in this and you have a number of things you can say to answer the question correctly. But you decided to answer it more genuinely. And that's what I've been seeking. And that's why I've tried to ask the question with more words than fewer because so many people want to say "racism" or they want to say "sex-trafficking" or they want to say "homelessness". I care about those things, too. They affect me. But it's what's underneath all that stuff that really bothers me. For me, false sense of entitlement that comes from pop culture - that's really what bothers me. And those things actually lead to racism; they lead to sex-trafficking. But that, when I'm frustrated at somebody, is more to the core of it.
ES: There is a difference between intellectually a thing that we understand is wrong or doesn't quite hang with how we would like to make sense of the world versus for me and my work and my whole life of trying to grapple with Who am I and why am I this way? It always has to come from this is actually how I'm wounded and so that's what makes my heart break in all these other situations. It has to start with me, I guess. It has to be about me first. And being aware of all my baggage and all the ways that I'm hurt.
ACT: What do we mean to each other - individual to individual? As you make your way through the world, what do you mean to the people around you and what do they mean to you?
ES: The first word that's coming up for me is our capacity to be co-conspirators. Collaborators, maybe? But co-conspirators kind of feels... we could potentially be in on something together. We are each potential allies of one another in the creation of whatever we imagine the world could be like and reality could be like. That we are each potential co-workers, colleagues in that. What do we mean to each other? That's a really big question. And I realize now that I've said that, not that we are each potentially useful to one another. Although (laughs), I think that is true, but not in a way of let me take what I can get from this person. It feels important to me to add this co-working or co-conspiring dimension to our relationship to one another beyond kindness, beyond compassion, beyond service. I can be a helpful person. I can be a kind person. I can understand that we are all, you know, in it together. But, for me, that framework only gets me so far. I need to see everyone as a potential necessary part of the creation of something else. I need to be able to depend on them. I need them to be able to depend on me.
So, yeah, I guess the image that's coming to mind is kind of like a lot of different ants creating the anthills or whatever - the tunnels - creating the livelihood and the future that they need to have happen, but doing it together. That feels important because so often I just think that kindness doesn't get us there. We need to see one another as vital. Not me as always the helper and you as the helpee. Not me as always the one having something to give and you being in the place where you have to receive, but as truly co-conspirators. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's what's coming to me at the moment.
I am in a lot of circles - religious circles - where the impulse is to help and to be kind and to be compassionate, so I'm responding to my context. In which that what it has meant to be Christian or to be a religious person is to be kind and of service. And I just feel really strongly about not eliminating that - that impulse is good, I think - to have peace and kindness in the world. Kindness fits in very well to, again, this future that we are barreling toward - of extinction of humanity and the death of the planet. I think those things will happen - not in our lifetime, but... I feel a responsibility and I actually can't help but hope and imagine a different reality - for right now and for the future. So, I feel this desire to move beyond a kindness paradigm and toward a like, I need all of these people. I need them.
ACT: So what does it mean to you, then, to be part of community if we all are co-conspirators? To be part of this with so many people with so many different agendas, so many different ideas, so many definitions, so many... so many differences.
ES: Well, I'd say first on a macro kind of level, thinking about all the people and all the things, I do believe - and maybe it's the only thing I would say that I really believe (I don't use that word lightly) - is that we are wired to live and seek life and to thrive and to always be pursuing that and to be resilient when the world gets in the way of our thriving. I think we see examples of individuals and communities, despite everything, being resilient. I think evolution is a gorgeous example of life wants to live and it's gonna figure out whatever it has to do in order for that to happen. So, on a macro level, I would say to be alive right now is to be in community or communion and to seek life and to also seek it for everything else. That's really vague and, like, meta.
I think for people who are in the social justice world or faith communities or people who... I think we need to deal with the nitty gritty. We can't just be thinking about all things living in peace with one another one day. We need to think really locally and really tangibly about what does communion look like in my neighborhood at this moment? Like, what could we actually do? What is the most pressing thing right now? So, I think to be in community in a really physical, tangible way is to know one another so we know even what does stand in the way of our thriving. Us, specifically, right now. And that's pretty political, I think. And that's local politics and that's local organizing.
I have both an imagination for what it could mean really vaguely, like in the world of my dreams, but really, I would say for me right now, it feels more important to say, for example, folks who move to Central Oregon fleeing violence in Central and South America - what stands in the way of thriving? Recognizing that is also standing in the way of my own thriving. We are co-conspirators. So, we know that the asylum-seeking process is super expensive and super difficult and there's so many things that stand in the way. But that feels like something that we could actually begin to research and to develop language around and maybe even seek solutions to. So, for me, community transforms us. It says, I love you so much that we can't stay the same because things aren't the way that they should be. And it also seeks really tangible ways of reducing barriers to thriving. Calling out the things that are killing us.
ACT: Do you have a sense of purpose or a compulsion to live with intention or a responsibility to affect positive change?
ES: I knew you were gonna ask this question 'cause I saw the questions on the website and I've been thinking about that one more specifically. That while there's a part of me that is formed in... I'll just give a little callout to the Lutheran tradition, which was cultivated in a time where you were only worth anything if you were a priest or part of the aristocracy or like a king. So Martin Luther came around and said like, No, you are a parent changing your kids poopy diaper. That is a vocation. Nobody had ever thought of the mundane stuff as having value like that. He said, No, that's a vocation just like being a priest is a vocation. So, when I think about purpose, there is a part of me that loves that - that being a friend, being a good, thoughtful friend is a part of my vocation.
On the other hand, I have started to feel like... What's my purpose in life? has started to feel a little individualistic. So, not to say it's not a good question 'cause I think that it is, but me pursuing my purpose in life feels like... it just doesn't feel right any more. I think I'm constantly trying to think of ways that I can fit in to what I was talking about - that kind of current toward thriving. And in religious speak I would talk about that like God is already doing something. The spirit is already in motion. And scientifically, I think we can see that, too. In the adaptation that things want to live. How can I simply be a part of that? What's the best way? What can I do reasonably well to be a part of that right now? And not stand in the way of it? So, that feels different from my pursuit of purpose. You know? I used to want to be Katie Couric. That feels like a pursuit of purpose. And now I'm just like, How do I reasonably just participate in what I already feel like is rumbling? So, yeah, living with intent to do that. I think a lot of that comes down to being a person who listens more than sets goals.
ACT: Great. Yeah, I keep the question because it means so many different things to so many different people. I've talked about this in some other interviews, but the phrase - the three words - sense of purpose, for me, are pretty loaded from my previous religious background. So I've added the rephrasing to potentially make people who don't have that association more comfortable, but I'm learning as the process continues that not everybody has a religious connotation to those words.
Just a quick response to what you said, it would be interesting to hear what Katie Couric would think hers was. Right? Because it probably isn't journalism for her. Even though so many of us see that as her role. Hers might be caring for her dog. Not to put words in Katie's mouth. I think it's really fascinating how we all interpret that differently.
Do you want to ask me anything?
ES: Well, now I'm curious - what does sense of purpose mean for you? For me, I wouldn't say that it necessarily has a religious connotation, but what does that mean for you?
ACT: The way that I tend to talk about this typically involves a lot of unknowns. So, I have compulsions, feelings, gut-stirrings that I find very difficult to name. I also have a difficult time fully understanding why I validate and respect those. I think these are things that are quite difficult to label. But I like mine very much. They feel - whatever that means - right or true or worthwhile, so then I pursue them. I guess I'm calling whatever those things are my sense of purpose. Because when I do them I feel better. Even if I potentially feel worse because it's very challenging, but I feel in line. And I don't know with what. I think it's an extremely difficult concept to articulate. Especially with how many different sets of beliefs there are or non-beliefs or the fact that I think questions are much more valuable than answers. There's so much to it that I find difficult to talk about.
I’ll just go down this rabbit hole. There wasn't a number of things in my life that happened to encourage me to become a photographer. I didn't come from a long line of them. I didn't have a mentor. I wasn't even really encouraged to pursue it. I wanted to. I really don't know why. I was also very encouraged to go to college, so I went to college and then I immediately went to photo school. And then that felt like the thing to do. And then at photo school it felt like the thing to do to go to photojournalism school. And then at photojournalism school it felt like the thing to do to pursue a career in asking people questions. And that led me to a project called I Heart Strangers. And then led me to a period of introspection and tail-between-my-legs self-doubt and wounding and to a period of drought until I came out to Bend and was walking in the woods with my dog and the idea for A Community Thread just landed on my shoulder. I don't know. I call all of it or it feels like a purpose, but it's also my purpose to have more patience with my partner and to disagree with the norm and to stand in opposition to things that aren't seemingly right to me.
I rarely ask people what they do. I don't really care so much, but I do care about how you are. And I very much care about how I am. And at my best, (laughs) I'm looking at that often and at my worst, I'm not living up to who I think I should be. And then dealing with the feelings that come along with not living up to my standard. I don't know. I put a lot of value and a lot of importance on my standard because it seems to be a better one than most of the ones that I see around, but it's very challenging to live up to. But that's the interesting part about life is trying to be.... good? I don't know what that means, but trying to do it well.
ES: It seems like the word that you used before, with intention - that's it. Right? None of us will be good all the time. And I dare say no one is living up to the standards that they have set for themselves or the expectations that they have for themselves. And maybe that's why I'm trying to live a life in which I'm not setting them. But doing so with intention. Constantly reflecting on is the way that I'm living and the way that I'm relating, does that match how I would want it all to be? Does that have integrity? That feels like a purpose and I think I would describe it as a practice.
ACT: Do you have anything that you'd like to say in closing?
ES: I think that the questions that you're asking and the work that you're doing are like the stuff - are it - and certainly fall into how I imagine the world that I would want to live in. Has integrity, maybe, is a better way of saying that. And, as someone who is having conversations like this a lot, there are a lot of people longing for them. And, I think, having them. And then my curiosity is Okay, then what? So maybe I find myself living in the place of then what? Now and not yet.
ACT: Well, so, then what? What are you imagining when you say that?
ES: Maybe I'll double back a little bit and say that the conversations are the point in a lot of ways. It's already the thing. Small pieces of the whole should reflect the whole. There's a scientific word for that that I forget. So, those small conversations - they are already a reflection of that. But then what? I find for myself when I observe in other people and in community a hesitancy to engage in conflict and to take risk and to keep at the forefront of our hearts and our minds like what is actually at stake. There is a lot at stake. So we must continually move not away from conversation, but our conversations have to bear some fruit. My imagination only extends to organizing, to social change. And I think that there is a more cosmic piece. At the end of the day the and then what? will always be limited. So, I think I'm caught in that. Of wanting to take risks, wanting to take action, and at the end of the day, I know it's gonna be flawed and really limited and I trust that things will unfold and it's not up to me. So, there's a tension there for me.