The Power of Seva: Peace Project with Kate Foster Connors

Like so many yoga practitioners, I began my first teacher training with a desire to “help” others learn the benefits of yoga. This past February, I started my first church missions trip with that same mentality — that I was there “to help.” The amazing women who run The Center, a Baltimore-based organization dedicated to “Hands and Feet Missions” — a vision to inspire and equip churches and individuals to engage boldly with their neighborhoods — taught me that “helping” isn’t at all what I’ve been called to do.

I grew up with an understanding of what it meant to live a purpose driven life, a life inspired by serving the world with love, and helping those who were less fortunate than I. This same language was taught to me in church, reinforced in my home, and was eventually used to describe Seva (service) yoga — a practice that I was immediately drawn to. Knowing that I had received so much from my yoga practice and from my teachers, the next logical step was to help someone else receive the benefits of yoga. What I didn’t consider was how this idea of “helping” another was disparaging the process and limiting the relationship to that of a one-sided, power differential, rather than giving space for the complex relationship of connection and community that is truly possible in Seva.

It is true that when we’re paying attention, the people and situations we are meant to encounter come to teach and inspire us. The moment I began to listen to Kate Foster Connors, Presbyterian Minister and Executive Director of The Center, I knew I had better sit up and pay attention. She is inspiring both in speech and action. Her passion for creating community and inspiring others to live in a way that truly engages boldly with God and humanity, is instantly palpable. She is alive to the possibilities that connection creates — not only in nearby neighborhoods, but in the ripples that flow outward from her local work into the world at large. I’ve carried her words with me since the first night of the mission weekend: “You are not here to help. I’m going to ask you to erase that word from your language. You’re here this weekend to stay awake to and witness the ways that God is already present in every situation you’re going into. God’s presence is already in every situation — you don’t have to bring God in. Just witness, listen, and connect to the community you’re going into.”

I spent the rest of the weekend alive to this possibility. Freed to not have to show up to “help” anyone, I could show up and witness the ways that I could connect to another, through conversation, hands-on work, even playtime. And then I could remember that showing up to love one another is the deepest work of a lifetime. Because of this perspective shift, I felt my energy level and anxiety shift. Instead of feeling unsure of what I could do or depleted by the amount of work ahead of me, I was responsive and excited by the stories I was privileged to hear, and hold, both from the folks on the mission and the residents of the Baltimore communities. I was excited to dig my hands into soil and into trash piles so that I could be a part of the inspiring story of an abandoned field, known for housing local people who are homeless and drug addicted, being transformed into a garden space that is feeding the bodies and souls of countless residents.

Among our projects, we were tasked with keeping our eyes open for a “sacred object” — something that called out to us as a symbol of our time working in the neighborhoods that weekend — to bring back to the center to share with everyone in the group. In the far back of the abandoned lot we were cleaning was a pile of some of the worst trash — dirty baby diapers, broken liquor bottles, and used drug needles. I took on the job of cleaning this pile and was instructed not to scoop, because if I did, I could be stuck by an unseen needle. Instead, I had to pull one piece of trash at a time from the pile and place it carefully in a bag to discard. With not just a little anxiety and disgust, I began to slowly remove each item until I came to the bare ground. There at the very bottom of the pile, smudged by dirty and chipped in one place, was a beautiful stained-glass plate that, once I wiped away the grime, shined back at me with red, yellow, orange, blue, and green. It was magnificent — and in that moment it represented everything about my new understanding. If I’d moved in quickly to rid the space of trash thinking of all that I had to do to “help”, I’d have missed the opportunity to see how all the colors of God truly were waiting to be connected to, held by me and also holding me. In that slowing down, peeling away layers of fear and anxiety, a heart-felt connection with children and adults alike was formed and the presence of love living among us was revealed.

Meeting and connecting with Kate and the women of The Center was a push toward a way of thought that felt radical and life affirming. I know these ideas have been simmering within me for some time and this was just the push to inspire me to see the broad strokes that service truly is. As a teacher, I have worked to create something for students for a long time. This has led to me thinking that I constantly must be enough and do enough to create a situation that will inspire, nurture, and strengthen others. Kate’s words remind me: “God’s presence is already in every situation.” I don’t have to bring God in. Wow — that’s an exhale moment for sure. I can stop holding my breath waiting to fail at being enough, and simply step in to witness the presence of another human being and their powerful story — and then wait to hear and listen for the way I can share in that story with them. By removing this pressure, we create space for more connection, more unity.

This kind of understanding of service isn’t limited to church organizations; it is very much a part of the Yoga tradition, perhaps most especially in the spirit of Bhakti Yoga. In Bhakti Yoga, which is the practice of devotional yoga, our hearts open and the hard edges of the mind soften toward connection with the whole of life. The root of the word bhakti, bhaj, means “to share in,” “to partake in,” “to distribute.” This is the quality of “sharing” in which participants are giving from a heart full of gratitude, with the desire to connect at the center of all interactions. In Bhakti Yoga, we’re asked to practice Vandana, the practice of seeing the presence of the divine in everything and everyone. In doing so we get to see within the word “community” the way “unity” is living in that space only when we remember we are neither above or below any other human being. We don’t have to show up and bring some special power and strength. We just have to show up, stay present to the way the divine already exists and then connect to that presence in our self and in the people before us. When service, seva, is so inspired, then it is sustainable because it’s life-affirming.

Kate’s taking her mission into the communities of Baltimore that are still living within the confines of a history of red-lining. She’s going to the poor, the drug addicted, and the food impoverished, and saying with her actions: I want to know the heart of you. Because the heart of you and the heart of me are the same. We are both divinely made, and I am here to connect to that. I heard her mission loud and clear in the spirit of her presence and the work she’s doing. As we made our way into places that, on another day, I might have only seen as dark and degraded, she made me believe in the power of seeing the multi-colored dimensions that shine the presence of all that is divine into this world. It is with this divine love that I understand my role as a teacher–to partake in, distribute, and share in an abundant spirit of love that exists always and everywhere. As I give, so too I receive. The power of service, then, means there is no helping. There is only unified participation in an endless flow of love and connection, available if only we pause to be in connection with all the layers of humanity before us, trusting that our open-eyed, open-hearted, willing presence will be enough.