*Thin places: a Celtic term for those places where the division between earth and heaven collapse, where we can contemplate and experience the divine in the midst of our lived experiences.

I went to college in Baltimore, and some of my friends still live there. My friends see my Type-A self not picking up a surf board, and ask why I haven’t moved back to the East Coast where I clearly belong. “I love Oakland, man,” I explain. “Oakland’s like Baltimore, but with hope.”

I know people who go back generations on this soil, and I know people like me who have been here a decade or less all talking about how there is just something about Oakland. I’ve lived in cities with stores for tourists to buy souvenir t-shirts. Chicago locals will wear Cubs or White Sox caps and shirts, but they’re not the ones buying the Chicago Fire Department t-shirts at the gift shop in Sears Tower.

On the flip side, I have yet to convince a visitor to buy an Oaklandish shirt; it’s fools like me shelling out more than our paychecks can withstand to show some Town Love. (Or locally-grown Real Oakland hoodies.)

Now the people I hang with are usually also quick to say we’re killing each other in the streets and there are actually two Oaklands. There are the rich and the poor, but even moreso gentrifiers who don’t care about those who were here before them and longtime residents. One doesn’t care about the other, and the other doesn’t know how to love itself all that well. Which is why 40 organizations connect with each other and stand with each other in our shared work for peace, healing and justice through the Oakland Peace Center: there’s too much to do it alone.

But even when we are skeptical of city leadership, when we are not sure the police department’s relationship to its citizens will ever be healed, when we don’t know what will stop babies from killing babies, we have a sense not just of the resilience of the city but of its creative energy.

This land has generated visionary artists and radical movement leaders. This is the land of Julia Morgan and Gertrude Stein, of Fred Korematsu and Richard Aoki, of Huey Newton and Angela Davis (not to mention John Lee Hooker and MC Hammer). In Oakland, we really believe we will be the ones to make things better. (Those who don’t believe it don’t stay very long.)

The other day, I remembered a trip I made to the Scottish island of Iona about four years ago. Iona is described as a thin place: “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter,” says one article.

Thin places connect us with the Divine, which is to say, they challenge us to be our best selves. A lot of people think thin places have to be remote, and Iona sure is. Some people think they have to be meditative and quiet and peaceful. But that’s not really true. Transformation rarely involves the luxury of peace and quiet. Don’t get me wrong, lack of access to food and the constant fear of violence do not make for transformation either. I am not romanticizing Oakland as being without its profound and sometimes overwhelming brokenness, but I believe we’ve actually created some thickness in a thin place.

I can take a bus from Fruitvale station and end up in a redwood forest, far away from the highway sounds always outside my apartment windows. I’m very aware in those moments I’m in a thin place where I can listen to God or have conversations with a friend that go so much deeper than they would go anywhere else.

But I can also sit on the free shuttle downtown on my ride home and listen to a tale of abuse and survival and being constantly silenced and loving God but not trusting God if I actually bother to make eye contact with the schizophrenic woman in front of me who starts out our ride cursing and deriding me in the third person but thanking me for affirming her when she gets off the bus eight blocks later, without me saying more than three words.

I can listen to the lived experiences of the young poets I sometimes get to work with who have faced the worst of what this city has to offer. Because of their own resilience and a few other visionary Oaklanders who had their backs, they’re hustling and also giving back and mentoring the next generation of kids growing up in their neighborhoods.

I can sing and pray and shout and protest with deeply faithful people for the transformation of our city’s approach to jobs. Over months of people putting their bodies on the line and working out struggles with each other, stopping just short of throwing punches in planning meetings, see how a plan got passed. But also, relationships built, hope restored and people’s vision grown much bigger than the policy we were implementing.

There are plenty of places that do not feel thin to me when I walk the streets of Oakland. But I think we’ve made them thick with growing wealth disparity that “hollows out the soul.” I think we’ve made them thick with the loss of watching out for our neighborhood’s kids as if they’re our own. I think we’ve made them thick with the concentration of poverty and drug use and prostitution and sex slavery that dehumanizes the people affected by such devastating issues.

I think the palpable spiritual power of our forebears in this community is not an accident. Oakland has given the world some of its greatest visionaries, poets and change-makers because it is sacred ground, because it is a thin place.

I see it in the redwoods and in the urban farming that is reconnecting longtime residents to their own land. I see it in the deep compassion of Belinda and Keasha with Project Darries, and Marilyn Washington with the Khadafy Foundation, as they stand with people in deepest grief and work to prevent the violence that leads to such grief.

I see it in all of the partners at the Oakland Peace Center, all of whom are making Oakland a more obviously thin place.

I also think it’s no accident that so many of the most inspiring people and organizations I work with are practical or radical, but they have a profoundly compassionate and spiritual edge to their work. I believe there is more blending of the spiritual and the community transforming in social service and advocacy and culture shift work in Oakland than anywhere else in America.

Even my friends who hate religion keep articulating spiritual commitments in their work and vision without even realizing. I think they can’t help it—it’s in the thin air we breathe.

I look forward to the day when all of us recognize what is sacred about this ground, what is sacred about us as we walk this ground, and what is sacred about the others sharing this land with us. Then, this whole city will have the feeling of an Iona, of a thin place. It won’t be an easier place to live, but it will be a place where we can feel the transformation take root.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.

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4 Responses

  1. Pablo

    The article would make more sense if the author (whoever that is) would cite a few examples of visionary artists or poets from Oakland. The names mentioned hardly qualify as visionaries in the arts, literature, music, or even radical politics. Richard Aoki may have been an agent provocateur; Angela Davis ran for president a the candidate of the highly reactionary and irrelevant Communist Party; Huey Newton was just one of many people who built the Black Panther Party, and probably not its main visionary; Gertrude Stein insulted Oakland and is a mediocre writer at best. MC Hammer? he could dance, but so could dozens of other people in Vallejo or San Jose – so what.

    CL Dellums may qualify – but that has nothing to do with Oakland’s supposed proximity to the sky – it has to do with its location on a rail line. The most radical people to come out of Oakland are probably athletes like Bill Russell – again having nothing to do with an obscure Celtic term or the contemplation of ‘the divine.’

    Someone please name a visionary artist or writer/poet from Oakland.

  2. Ann

    Gertrude Stein’s quote: “There is no there, there” references her return to Oakland and finding the house she grew up torn down. It is not, as many believe, an insult to Oakland.

  3. FeistyAmazon

    I so miss Oakland. Last thing we did was Oakland Gay Pride..and cried cuz we knew we were leaving
    ..we could no longer afford the Oakland area and it’s been my home for 30 years…so in mid September we left for the rural midwest where we both now have steady jobs and are paying half the rent. But I so miss seeing my Dyke sisters of all colors walking down the streets..doing tenant improvements or union construction work on downtown buildings and hanging out at City Center for lunch and listening to live music there on Wednesdays. I worked on many of those buildings both when they were new and retrofitting older ones too: but after the bottom dropped out of the economy from 2008 onwards I could no longer get steady work in my field. I miss Oaklands culture, hanging out with friend on Piedmont Avenue or going to one of the many wonderful restaurants about town…


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