Being Socially Engaged in the World

by Mark Votava

the_palette_knife_people_living_tight__really__abs_abstract_art__abstract__32c72d6af963b7a1875205e334808628My experience with church has not been a good one. I have been constantly sickened, disillusioned, and bored with what I have been presented with as “church” in North America. I think there is some beauty to the idea of God in the world, but what we have created of that expression with very little community and contemplative spirituality is disheartening to me. A church without a rootedness in community and contemplative spirituality is very shallow, hypocritical, colonial, and lacks the mystery that is so essential to the vulnerability of love.

  • A new way to be the body of Christ together

I have been drawn to the phrase “the parish” or the “parish imagination” to describe a new way to be the body of Christ together in everyday life. The word parish was initially used by Catholics to describe the geographic place where people lived who went to a particular building for a service. If you did not live within the proximity of the building you were not encouraged to go there for a service. The parish meant the local, geographic place where you happened to live in proximity with others.

  • Local, geographic place

I grew up Catholic, so this is a familiar concept for me, but I want to reframe the parish as the local, geographic place of a particular neighborhood in which we happen to live as neighbors with one another. Let’s not think of the parish as a building or a service, but as a particular place where we become rooted and practice becoming neighbors in everyday life. This is the place where we do not shun proximity anymore. We get out of our cars and we put away our cell phones long enough to encounter friendships face to face in everyday life.

  • Crying out to be loved, seen, and valued authentically

This is not a ministry, a program, a lecture or anything else that we try to make the body of Christ into. It is simply the risk of living in a place, not above it, so we can learn to love others well together. Our neighbors are crying out to be loved, seen, and valued authentically. We are the ones called to do this together in everyday life!

We are the body of Christ touching others with our love without any words, but with deep listening.

  • Unity, compassion, and authenticity

Let’s stop our boxed up ways of “prayer” and “worship” and “church,” getting out of our dualistic thinking and upwardly mobile ways, and learn to find our spirituality in our love for our neighbors. “Church” as we know it needs to be reimagined in the twenty-first century as having everything to do with loving our neighbors together in everyday life. To do this we must live as neighbors and work together as body of Christ to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength as Jesus taught us to with unity, compassion, and authenticity.

  • Our addiction to money, power, hierarchies, buildings, and rules


We need to have the courage to follow Jesus with courage and lay aside our addiction to money, power, hierarchies, buildings, and rules. Maybe God is trying to tell us to stop going to church and learn to be present together as neighbors, learning to love, listening deeper in the world right where we live. Maybe this is the new movement of the “church” in the twenty-first century world. It feels a lot better to me as someone who will never go to church again in my life because for me it is not authentic.

These church systems keep me from deep thinking, finding my true self, exploring risk, connection, and solidarity.

  • Are we afraid to be neighbors?

Just as Jesus had trouble with the religious people of his day, the Pharisees, we need to challenge all the ways in which the church does not show love together in the world. Are we afraid to be neighbors? Have we become twenty-first century Pharisees in our own world of “church” as we know it? I am convinced that the “church” has done so much damage in the world because we have gravitated more toward the spirit of the Pharisees rather than the spirit of Jesus.

  • Is spirituality really about rules or about love and compassion?

Are we motivated by love or by the fear stirred up by modern day Pharisees? Is spirituality really about rules or about love and compassion? I can’t stand rules, but love and compassion are so beautiful and healing to me. I am on a path of transformation leading me deeper into the place I live in community, in the parish.

We need a new imagination for our lives today.  

  • Being socially engaged in the world

 What I do resonate with is “church” as living in a particular place in community with others, being present as neighbors, being socially engaged in the world together, practicing hospitality, deep listening, and seeing God in the face of my neighbors in everyday life. There is so much life here as I have been rooted in my neighborhood of Downtown Tacoma for over a decade. Community is my priority more than money, possessions, power, influence or anything else. My relationships here are teaching me not to be a narcissist, to be kind and compassionate.

  • Learning to live in the present moment

I am learning to live in the present moment and to see all of life as a gift. There are so many unexpected gifts in community, in the parish. I want to explore with my life a parish imagination within me in the place I live. May I align my dreams to that imagination.

  • Express our love without words

 We need desperately in the twenty-first century to be the church instead of hold onto our addiction of “going to church” or else nothing will change in our times. In our local community we have the opportunity to be the church together and express our love without words. This is a whole new way of life together. This gives me some hope into the future as I try to figure out the meaning of life in the world which can be difficult.

  • The sacredness of place

 As Sarah Bessey states so eloquently, “In our world of globalization, technology, and mobility, we’ve misplaced the sacredness of place.”

  • Dare greatly with vulnerability

There seemed to be a sacredness to place, to the earth, to the land we walk on that has been ignored in our time. Can we live in the questions that foster deep meaning within us leading to the unexpected gifts of community in the particular place we find ourselves in the world? Can we dare greatly with vulnerability to embrace the parish imagination in the twenty-first century?

Why are we afraid to be neighbors in everyday life?

My new book The Mystical Imagination: Seeing the Sacredness of All of Life (2015) is finally done! It is available on kindle and paperback!

“Our crowded, overly-consumed, hyper-active, digitally-addicted lifestyle is draining the life out of us. We are desperate to transcend the chaos and find a better way to live. We need a mystical imagination. Get ready to be transported into the depths of meaning as Votava breaks open the contemplative path and shows you how to live your life to the fullest.” Phileena Heuertz, author of Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life and founding partner, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism

My first book The Communal Imagination: Finding a Way to Share Life Together (2014) is available on kindle and paperback also!

“Inside everyone there is a longing for community, to love and be loved. We are made in the image of a communal God. But in our hyper-mobile, individualistic, cluttered world… community is an endangered thing. And community is like working out – it takes work, sweat, discipline…  without that our muscles atrophy. Everybody wants to be fit, but not too many people want to do the work to get there. Mark’s book is sort of a workout manual, helping you rediscover your communal muscles and start building them up slowly. It is an invitation to live deep in a shallow world.”  Shane Claiborne, author and activist