The Spiritual Life of a Nagging Prophet


written by Todd Whitley for
SPFT1082: Spiritual Formation for Leadership
October 27, 2015 

Dedication

While this paper itself serves as a dedication to its subject, I want to acknowledge with sincere gratitude the effect that you, Jim Mitulski, have had on my life. As soon as I read the assignment, I knew I wanted to write about you. Not only has my social justice IQ increased exponentially because of your influence, you are the reason I am even here at Pacific School of Religion—a place where traces of your influence echo everywhere—with the opportunity to learn from and write about revolutionaries, a list of people that includes you. Writing this paper allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of your life and how it has shaped your writings, acts of justice, community building, and your significant effect on the world around you. Your story also gave me a blueprint for how I can affect the world around me more profoundly: by paying attention to my entire being, particularly my spiritual self. I sincerely hope that this telling of your story and analysis of your spiritual practices honor you to the same extent that your friendship and brotherhood has honored me.

IMG_7291

Bishop Mitulski preaching at City of Refuge UCC Sunday, November 15, 2015

Introduction

After a particularly abrupt and ugly divorce between our church and its senior pastor in 2013, a prophet was sent to help us heal and find our way. Beyond just losing a beloved pastor, this separation revealed deep wounds within the body and exposed significant issues we needed to deal with. I remember hearing someone make the remark, “Not even Jesus could fix that mess.” Sadly, this anecdote was not far from the truth.

Rev. Elder—and now Bishop[1]—Jim Mitulski came to Dallas amid a great deal of internal strife, instability, and doubt about the future. Jim maintained a long association with the church and knew many if not most of the players who had been involved over the past two decades. Equipped with a bag of tools that included progressive and liberation theologies and experience resolving church conflict, Jim wasted no time getting started finding his permanent replacement. He began first helping us heal from wounds of the past and find reconciliation with many who had been hurt along the way. He then turned our attention to looking at our selves and our church, challenging us to think about what kind of people we were and what kind of church we wanted to be. This phase—characterized by a focus on work we needed to do related to racism, sexism, and xenophobia in particular—was acutely difficult for many people; some stayed and did the work while others left. Only after this phase did Jim begin to prepare us to receive a new senior pastor, a search that would not begin for six months after he arrived and would stretch over the next year.

We would not be the church we are today or have the visionary, permanent senior pastor without Jim Mitulski. On April 12, 2015, moments after the senior pastor candidate was affirmed as the permanent senior pastor by a 99.3% affirmative vote of the church membership, I made the following post on Facebook (3:06 p.m.):

Our brother Jim tilled the dried up (in places) ground and hoed the rows, preparing the soil. He encouraged us to weed out bias and negativity from the plot. And with the rain of prayer and guided by the hands of many faithful people, seed planted by [the new senior pastor] and the rest of us will take root and flourish. We cannot thank the Goddess enough for the work you did among us. You challenged us. You guided us. You changed us. (accessed October, 11, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/tdubtx/posts/10205634036302730)

This work among us was not without significant struggle for Jim, either. The church struggled with—rebelled against, even—many of the things he preached and taught. In their discomfort and disagreement, many individuals were downright mean-spirited. The dissention among members and the board of stewards and our shaky financial ground troubled him; absence of members grieved him. I remember thinking to myself on multiple occasions, “How does he do this? How can he continue to endure all that is going on here, especially when people are so unkind?” As I learned more of his personal story, I wondered how he had survived the deep grief of the most intense years of AIDS deaths—he conducted over 500 funerals during that era—and later, almost losing his physical life to the disease.[2] Speculation as to the secret of what kept him going was always in the back of my mind.

I knew Jim was a man of sincere prayer; he often talked to us about it. I knew he spent significant time in the Word. (Anyone who saw him with his tattered Bible full of pages marked by post-its and other annotations knew it was well-worn from ardent study.) I knew he made it a practice to attend an evensong service Sunday night at a local Episcopal church, even though I could not understand why he would choose to go to church—and to that kind of service—after a preaching two services that day. And I knew he was most passionate about issues of social justice and the role of the church in such matters.

With a bit of a gleam in his eye—visible even through the video of our Google Hangout—Jim said he had the reputation for being a person who would not go along with the crowd on social justice issue. Then he asked, rhetorically, “Where did I develop that capacity?”[3] This paper sheds light on the answer.

Writing about the recent passing of his spiritual mentor and close friend Fr. John McNeill, Jim said McNeill, “taught us about developing a sense of inner authority, to cultivate our own consciences and that this was healthy and normal.”[4] As a former congregant who worked alongside him on social justice issues, and through research, I have learned that his sense of inner authority has been nurtured by a panoply of spiritual practices that engage his whole person—body, mind, and spirit. To cultivate his own conscience, gain strength to withstand the trials and expectations of pastoring, and rejuvenate his spirit, Jim has engaged in practices that include music and sound, reading, physical activity, prayer, and engaging with other faith communities and people outside his social location. These practices continue for him to this day.

As I myself have begun the pursuit of theological education to equip me to become a revolutionary, delving into spiritual discipline is already benefitting me in significant ways—not the least of which is discovering the spiritual practices that can sustain me now and in my vocation to come. This paper focuses on Jim, the person I call “the nagging prophet” out of affection for his influence on my own life and the revolutionary, activist-pastor whose disciplined and passionate spiritual life serves as a model for me.

 

The Spiritual Life of a Nagging Prophet

If you are not protesting something, then you are not paying attention to your spiritual life. If we are not challenging the dominant culture, then we are not spiritually attuned.[5]
Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski

The mantle of prophet is not one a person assumes easily or without great consideration. The biblical text is full of stories of prophets—most of whom, including Jesus—who were not welcome at home much less well received by the people outside their home. Some would lose their heads; others would vanish, whisked away to be with God. Most of these prophets, despite great persecution, they pressed on and accomplished great things in the name of the God whose truths they were willing to speak.

The prophets of the Bible undoubtedly possessed great spiritual fortitude to endure the amount of challenges they faced and to accomplish the things God or the Spirit implored them to do—build an ark, free a people, prepare the way. The need for spiritual fortitude is the same for modern-day prophets who are living out their call to bring a message or shake things up or restore a people to their God. Spiritual practices these leaders engage allow them to live in a place where they can hear the voice of God, feel the movements of the Spirit, and find strength for the difficult work they have been chosen for.

Rev. Jim Mitulski (Jim) is one of these prophet-types or as he explains it: “the combination of activist and pastor is descriptive of what I try to embody.”[6] Described by Justin Tanis in the LGBT Religious Archives Network as someone who is “known for his passionate connection of spirituality and social justice,”[7] Jim has lived out his role as an activist-pastor for over 30 years with a bold commitment to the Word of God and the works of the Spirit working in tandem for the liberation of people in great need. In 1990, he wrote, “God calls the church to challenge the status quo, not reinforce it.”[8] He has not desisted in doing precisely this work, labor which has required great resolve and energy; grief and the sheer demands of the work rapidly deplete his reserves.

Jim was ordained by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 1983. He arrived at the MCC of San Francisco, located in the Castro district, in 1986, at the outset of the AIDS pandemic, just on the other side of what he described as the Castro’s greatest years.[9] Immediately, Jim found himself in the middle of hospital visits and funerals and later, weddings before inevitable funerals. There were also firebombs and earthquakes to deal with. He was consumed with the work of grief, where he:

“…[had] frank and even intimate conversations with men about mortality and love and guilt and shame…interacted with their families…held the mother who cried because she was praying that her comatose son would die…listened patiently to anguished parents who felt their churches were asking them to choose between their religion and their son…sat up with lovers and ex-lovers as their loved ones died…kept the deathwatch with people.[10]

He would call this time in his life the “hardest thing I have ever done.”[11]

It was during these years that he would flout the state’s shuttering of much-needed medical marijuana clubs, risking a felony charge to distribute marijuana to those who needed it to ease pain or help with appetite due to AIDS and other illnesses.[12] He also started a youth homeless shelter in the Castro—in direct opposition to the merchants association who didn’t want that kind of organization in the neighborhood.[13]

Writing in 2001, six months after he ended his 15-year stint at MCC San Francisco, Jim said, “even now, along with deep affection I also feel equally deep sadness, a level of grief I carry in my body and that leaks out unexpectedly. The sadness stems from having lived with and through so much illness and death.”[14] As he transitioned away from this period of grief, Jim worked continued to work in roles he describes as a combination of activist and pastor.[15] He curated gay- and AIDS-themed exhibits for a library; worked as a spiritual leader and executive within the MCC denomination; taught and pastored at his alma mater, Pacific School of Religion (PSR); and served churches in transition as an interim pastor. He has led gay and lesbian rights movements, promoted HIV/AIDS activism, fought against racism, spoken openly and unabashedly about sexism and misogyny in the world and in the church, and fought for the rights of migrants—all to name a few of his callings as an activist-pastor.[16] “There are a lot of different types of pastors,” he explained. “Paying attention to people, trying to impact the world. Rooted in my relationship with God. That’s how I try to be in the church and be in the world.”[17]

 

Rooted in his Relationship with God

Jim defined spirituality as “ the capacity to see, feel, embody, experience, advocate.” The key to this kind of life, he said, is discipline.[18] Exploring the life’s work—the typical and the devastating—of this activist-pastor over the past 30-plus years, it is evident that Jim has maintained a specific focus on balancing his work and his own spirituality.[19] Through spiritual discipline—a “cultivation of conscience” as he calls it— he employs a variety of tactics and meditations that engage his senses—his mind, his body, his spirit. These practices also aid him in helping others to develop in themselves a capacity for social justice work.[20]

Music—or even just sound itself or making sound—has played an important part in nurturing Jim’s spiritual self. He referenced the diversity of music, from the “praise-break” in the black Pentecostal tradition—“it’s something about where it comes from”[21]—to four-part harmony sung A capella to the cacophonies experienced in a symphony concert as samples of the types of music that had restored his spirit. He recalled this powerful story of how music even ministered to his body:

I remember when we went to Mother of Peace [an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in Mutoko, Zimbabwe]—when we got of the bus in the village and we were surrounded by people singing, in harmonies (not Western harmonies) in a language I didn’t know, I actually felt the cells in my body vibrate—and my T-cells increased. Here were people with AIDS on the other side of the planet, a different race, different life experience, and they were singing. So the sound even had healing properties.[22]

“Music is important to me,” he said. “It’s a conduit from the heart of the universe that goes right into the part of me that needs to be replenished.”[23] So much so, Jim was moved to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people reclaim religious music as a spiritual asset. He was a part of a group that prepared a hymn festival comprised of lesbian and gay poets and composers. The purpose of this service was to show how the words and music of hymns were for lesbian and gay people too. “We know that people who have tried to say we don’t belong in the church are wrong, and that we have always been in the church. And in fact, even when churches say they don’t want us in the pews, here we are in the hymnbooks.”[24]

Reading and study comprise a spiritual discipline that has formed for Jim an internal library of spiritual resource. He mentioned the importance of reading the Bible daily and how hearing it read aloud multiple times at daily mass daily mass.[25]  Always, scripture has provided him with direction and strength. For example, as he time and again spent the last moments of a “person passing from this life to whatever is next…two scriptures were always on my lips: ‘Love is stronger than death’ and ‘Love never ends’.”[26] These words undoubtedly strengthened everyone in the room, himself included. Scripture also became a way for him to gain—and provide—strength and liberation. Exploring Ezekiel 37 as a way to develop an HIV hermeneutic, Jim wrote, “The spirituality that has evolved in me and my community throughout the AIDS years have given me the tools to mine the biblical text for resources necessary to our survival.”[27] Further, he discussed the importance of engaging with non-biblical texts to exposes his mind and spirit to different sources of thought inspiration such as ancient patristic writings and books by C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Maya Angelou to name a few.[28]

In addition to exercising the mind, Jim finds it important to engage his body as well. In the past that has included physical exercise that he purposed for more than just physical conditioning—which he also finds beneficial—but for meditation as well. In the years of the AIDS crisis, engaging his physical body helped him deal with the weight of the pandemic on his very soul:

…when I was 30, I suddenly gained a lot of weight: I was doing a lot of funerals, and clearly I was eating my grief. I had to get back some physical balance so I forced myself to go to the gym. Now I go every day and do a half hour of aerobic exercise on the Stairmaster. Although it’s physical, it is primarily a spiritual experience for me. I pray the whole time. It’s my time with myself, to see what comes up, and it’s helped me process the grief.[29]

He also talked about the how the combination of dance and sound helped to cope with the immense grief and loss he and others were experiencing in the the 90s. He found transcendence from his woes through dancing and listening to the music and sound waves of large dance parties. To this day these moments are dear to him and still inspire him.[30]

McNeill wrote, “The great mystics recommended in prayer that we should empty our minds of thoughts and concepts and enter the cloud of unknowing.”[31] Today, Jim’s practice includes regular walking each day, particularly around bodies of water. He said, “By walking, emptying my mind, there is a spiritual openness. That is when things come to me. When I need to be thinking about doing, acting on, engaging the body as well as the spirit simultaneously–that happens for me when walking by water. It is a unique time of receiving as well as emptying.”[32]

The spiritual practice that seems to take prominence among Jim’s spiritual disciplines is his invocation of prayer as a lifestyle, as a way of connecting with the Divine. In one of his sermons at Cathedral of Hope, Jim told us, “Some days, if I didn’t pray, I don’t know how I would make it through. And there have been periods in my life when if I hadn’t had the resource of prayer, I don’t know that I would be alive here today.”[33] He tells of a time when prayer saved his life. He was emerging from a coma, having almost died, repeating in his head the words “Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Here is why:

A Filipina Catholic nurse had given the Rosary to me for some reason.  At one point while I was still intubated and couldn’t speak and my hands were tied so I wouldn’t try to remove all the tubing, I heard her tell my mother on the phone, “Yes I gave him a rosary. The old ways are the best ways. They always come back at the end.”[34]

In addition to praying the rosary, he uses the Book of Common Prayer as a part of his daily routine; both are acts of prayer he has practiced all his life. In a light-hearted manner he added, “I read the Book of Common Prayer out loud so that the cats can also be evangelized. It’s meant to be read aloud.”[35]

Jim explained the centrality of prayer by focusing on it not as an act but as lifestyle, saying, “Prayer can be composed or can be how we live.” [36] As a lifestyle, then, Jim sees prayer as vital for works of social justice, accessing its power and healing properties, particularly when the church body “combines their energies and synchronizes their spiritual lives” which can impact the world incrementally if not immediately.[37]

Prayer has had—and continues to have—a profound impact on his life and has helped him navigate the many difficult experiences that have occurred during his life and his role as a spiritual leader. But he is clear to point out: “Prayer isn’t just about getting through the difficult times, it’s also about experiencing the abundance of life unfolding all around us.”[38] It is telling, then, that the headline of an article announcing his departure from MCC San Francisco in 2000 read, “The Rev. Jim Mitulski cedes his pulpit tomorrow after years as a community’s prayerful conscience.”[39]

To stay grounded, he immerses himself in both the worship services and faith traditions of other churches and in justice work with people outside his own social location. He attends Catholic mass most days and goes to religious services in other churches, synagogues and other religious and spiritual opportunities where he can worship and engage spiritually without responsibility. This practice—which he believes all pastors should engage in—serves as a source for the spiritual leadership he provides to the people in his own church and those to whom he ministers.[40]

Similarly, he feels compelled to expand the role of spiritual leader beyond his own congregation and into works of solidarity and protest on behalf of others. Jim wrote that McNeill taught him to “risk our lives, even, and our careers and our ministries, in order to bring sustenance and nourishment to those who are desperate for it and who could only do it because people took risks.”[41] For Jim that has meant going beyond the ideology of paying equal attention to the social location of women, people of color, migrants, and others.[42] Actually practicing solidarity and protest by “learning from, listening to, and being in community with people who may in some aspects of social location may be different from me and then channeling that at times into a voice of protest” is a purposeful discipline that has shaped Jim’s leadership—and his life—wherever he has served.

Rev. Cecil Williams, pastor emeritus of San Francisco’s pioneering social-justice church Glide United Methodist who walked alongside Jim through civil rights marches, characterized Jim as “a man not only out to bring some significant spiritual life to his own work, but also to make that spiritual life be transferred to other communities.”[43] Summing up his role as an activist-pastor, Jim said,  “Sometimes we have to act up, act out, and not let anyone else define us…that we can serve God in the church or we can serve God outside the church.”[44]

 

Conclusion

Jim Mitulski has amassed a legacy of meaningful social justice work, reconciliation, and restorative ministry because of his attention to his entire being—body, mind, and spirit. The nurture of and sustenance from these spiritual practices—part of the “rhythm of his life”[45]—have given him the capacity for the strength, presence, and compassion required for his work.  As a result, his role as comforter, leader, and “nagging prophet” in the world has been all the more effective. His purposeful approach to cultivating these practices has allowed him to minister to others with authenticity and endurance.

Jim’s belief that “in order to do public religious work, you have to do private religious nurture”[46] provides valuable counsel as I continue down my own path toward spiritual leadership. The work of activist-pastor that I myself aspire to will have a depth and reach that is directly proportional to how much attention I pay to my own body, mind, and spirit. I have not always practiced to any substantial depth a disciplined spiritual life. Already, however, finding practices that nurture my whole self and being disciplined with their implementation are already changing my sensibilities, providing me with new insights.

A deeper glimpse into what has sustained someone I admire and consider a mentor has given me a practical understanding of how to approach the strains and burdens of ministry and social justice work. Jim’s example of “leadership also rooted in spirituality” models for me skills that equip me to act without deference to the approval of others and avoid being involved in ministry to satisfy my own ego.[47]

My practices may be different or find other forms; I will struggle from time-to-time with disciplining myself to practice them. Yet, the very cultivation of practices that nurture my being is precisely what will sustain and renew me, allow my work to be as effective as the Goddess intends, and grow me into the kind of leader who can effect great change in a world so greatly in need of spiritual guidance and healing. I know these things are true because I have seen a living example—a prophet—imbue them to great effect, with humility, discipline, and a deep love for justice in the world.

 

Bibliography

McNeill, John J. “Published Articles: My Spiritual Life.” The Owls Nest. Accessed October 19, 2015. http://www.johnjmcneill.com/articles.html.

Cherry, Kittredge, and Jim Mitulski. “We Are the Church Alive.” In The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis, edited by Letty M. Russell. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Mitulski, Jim. “Blurred Lines: Prayer and Spirituality” (video). Sermon, Cathedral of Hope–UCC, Dallas, TX, May 28, 2014. Accessed October 11, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQj15lKhvek.

Mitulski, Jim. “The Castro is a Sacred Place.” In Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism., edited by Winston Leyland. San Francisco, CA: Leyland Publications, 2002.

Mitulski, Jim, “Ezekiel Understands AIDS: AIDS Understands Ezekiel, or Reading the Bible with HIV.” In Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, edited by Robert E. Goss and Mona West, 153. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2000.

Mitulski, Jim. “John McNeill, Pastor.” In Sex as God Intended: Festschrift Essays Celebrating the Life and Work of John J. McNeill, 195. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008.

Tanis, Justin. “Profile of Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski.” The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network. May 16, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2015. http://www.lgbtran.org/Profile.aspx?ID=399.

 

Footnotes (converted to Endnotes)

[1] Jim Mitulski was ordained in The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries on Sunday, July 19, 2005 and named a Bishop in the Fellowship. (personal knowledge)

[2] Christopher Heredia, “Compassion of the Castro,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 2, 2000, accessed October 10, 2015, http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Compassion-of-the-Castro-The-Rev-Jim-Mitulski-3236381.php.

[3] Jim Mitulski, video conference with author, Denver, CO, October 7, 2015.

[4] Jim Mitulski, “A Tribute to Father John McNeill,” Bay Area Reporter, October 1, 2015, accessed October 8, 2015, http://ebar.com/openforum/opforum.php?sec=guest_op&id=533.

[5] Mitulski, interview.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Justin Tanis, “Profile of Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski,” The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network, May 16, 2014, accessed October 10, 2015, http://www.lgbtran.org/Profile.aspx?ID=399.

[8] Kittredge Cherry and Jim Mitulski, “We Are the Church Alive,” in The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis, ed. Letty M. Russell (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 173.

[9] Jim Mitulski, “The Castro is a Sacred Place,” in Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism, ed. Winston Leyland (San Francisco, CA: Leyland Publications, 2002), 222.

[10] Ibid, 223.

[11] Ibid, 222.

[12] Martha Irvine, Associated Press. “Minister hands out marijuana in wake of Cannibis Buyers’ Club closure.” August 19, 1996. (Accessed October 19, 2015  https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=110&dat=19960819&id=Cg9QAAAAIBAJ&sjid=O1UDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7162,4818994&hl=en)

[13] Heredia, “Compassion of the Castro.”

[14] Mitulski, “The Castro is a Sacred Place,” 222.

[15] Mitulski, interview.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Jim Mitulski et al., “Queer Hymnody: Celebrating Lesbian and Gay Poets and Composers,” in Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, ed. Robert E. Shore-Goss et al. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013), 397.

[25] Mitulski, interview.

[26] Mitulski, “The Castro is a Sacred Place,” 223.

[27] Jim Mitulski, “Ezekiel Understands AIDS: AIDS Understands Ezekiel, or Reading the Bible with HIV,” in Take Back the Word: a Queer Reading of the Bible, ed. Robert E. Goss and Mona West (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), 154.

[28] Mitulski, interview.

[29] POZ magazine, Choosing Our Religion: Six Positive Believers On Faith, Hope and Survival, February/March 2001, accessed October 10, 2015, http://www.poz.com/articles/186_7116.shtml.

[30] Mitulski, interview.

[31] John J. McNeill, “Published Articles: My Spiritual Life.” The Owls Nest. Accessed October 19, 2015. http://www.johnjmcneill.com/articles.html.

[32] Mitulski, interview.

[33] Jim Mitulski, “Blurred Lines: Prayer and Spirituality” (video of sermon, Cathedral of Hope–UCC, Dallas, TX, May 28, 2014), accessed October 11, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQj15lKhvek.

[34] Mitulski, interview.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Jim Mitulski, “Blurred Lines: Prayer and Spirituality”

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mitulski, interview

[39] Heredia, “Compassion of the Castro”

[40] Mitulski, interview.

[41] Jim Mitulski, “John McNeill, Pastor,” in Sex as God Intended: Festschrift Essays Celebrating the Life and Work of John J. McNeill (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008), 204.

[42] Mitulski, interview.

[43] Heredia, “Compassion of the Castro.”

[44] Mitulski, “John McNeill, Pastor,” 200.

[45] Mitulski, interview.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

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