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Lions Roar : January 2018
That, for example, she once did the books for Queen Lati- fah’s record label. That at one time williams owned a Brooklyn cybercafé bankrolled by filmmaker Spike Lee and singer Tracy Chapman. That the second Black woman to be ordained as a teacher in the Zen Peacemakers lineage owns a parrot named Mitra (“friend” in Sanskrit), whom she thinks of as a spiritual friend even though his most dharmic statement is “Do you want to go poo-poo?” There is also the fact that this queer feminist, who writes in her 2016 book Radical Dharma about using love and Buddhist practice as a solution to injustice, also listens to classic hip-hop music, in spite of its often misogynistic lyrics. And that this Zen priest believes she may have an advantage over the real-life Buddha, because he had to leave his palace and go out into the world to learn that life is suffering. “He was shocked by it,” says williams. “But for me suffering was a given. Suffering was my practice.” Growing up in Queens, williams endured years of physical and emotional abuse by a babysitter. Her next stop, Brooklyn, was worse, as the neighborhood kids did not take kindly to her looks or bookish demeanor. At home, williams was a latchkey kid whose father and stepmother both worked, making her a vulnerable target for her building’s pedophile doorman. In fairness, williams—who declines to give her birth name— has some good memories of growing up with her firefighter father in the culturally diverse LeFrak City housing develop- ment in Queens. Her sensibilities were strongly shaped by a place where racial and social differences were a given. “Same- ness,” she says, “was never my gig.” The Buddhist lessons she would one day teach were present throughout her life. At age sixteen williams went to live with her paternal grandmother, just around the corner from the home of her abusive ex-babysitter. Rather than living in fear, she decided to confront the woman. The day she did, Williams encountered “a human being who was wounded and complex” and who, years earlier, had been far too young to be entrusted with a child’s care. “It was a real, dramatic experience of connecting to someone’s humanity and being able to see into people’s suffering,” williams now says. Looking back on her childhood, she says, “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, and I wouldn’t trade any of it. Had I not I experienced what I experienced, I wouldn’t be able to see the world the way that I see it.” REV. ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS sees the world from a multitude of angles, starting with her viewpoint as a Black, queer woman who had a traumatic childhood. Williams is also an activ- ist whose politicization can be traced back to Freedom Summer ’92—the inaugural event of the Third Wave Direct Action Cor- poration, created to mobilize women to become more socially and politically involved—where she worked on a cross-country voter registration drive that helped Bill Clinton get elected. Then there is williams’ perspective as a Buddhist priest. Rather than renounce the world of politics, political engage- ment, and activism, she has chosen instead to interweave them into her path as a bodhisattva. “You make an actual vow to hear the cries of the world,” she says, “to step into the experience of awakening to the suffering of the world, and the desire to bring an end to that suffering.” This past summer, williams and three other prominent Black clergy were arrested in Washington for protesting the Repub- licans’ attempt to repeal Obamacare, which they viewed as an assault on the poor. Even before that, williams was a regular visitor to the national capital—marching to Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, leading a busload of Buddhists to the People’s Climate March, and joining a group of clerics marching for better health care. “I’m trying to spend my days bridging the disconnect at some of our country’s most intractable and comprehensively impacting intersections,” she says. The intersections williams speaks of include race, the environment, economic disparity, and a host of other intertwined issues that she feels prevent people from reconnecting with themselves, each other, and the planet. “Love and justice are not two,” her website proclaims. “Without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.” Williams is founder of the Center for Transformative Change, which is dedicated to “bridging the inner and outer lives of social change agents, activists, and allies to create social justice for all.” She is a member of the Auburn Senior Fellows program, a group of prominent faith leaders committed to advan- cing multi-faith movements for social justice. The Auburn group, The Washington Post writes, “is quietly seeking to bring together a ‘Religious Left’ to counterbalance the decades-old Religious Right by supporting liberal politics with the imprima- tur of faith.” She also works with the Green Leadership Trust, which presses for the inclusion of people of color and indigenous people in environmental issues, and Stand, an organization that pressures companies and countries to alter their environmental approaches. No wonder she calls her life a “mash-up” of the spiritual and the political. “Buddhist thought,” she suggests, “has been rad- icalized by liberatory frameworks that are most clearly articu- lated in Black, radical, antislavery traditions and in feminism.” PHOTOBYJOSIAHWERNING/CTZNWELL LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 48