The Graduate Theological Union watches over Berkeley from high on “Holy Hill,” a quiet block on the border of suburban North Berkeley and the UC Berkeley campus. Here, four of the nine theology schools that make up the GTU-Episcopal, Franciscan Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and inter-denominational Protestant-rub elbows amid stretches of green grass and spreading trees. Their students can be found buying a quick international lunch on Euclid Avenue, the steep block between the GTU and UC Berkeley, or stretching out on the wide, green lawn of the Pacific School of Religion with their current reading assignments.
Green lawns of Pacific School of Religion
My school, the Franciscan School of Theology (FST), is one of the four seminaries on the union’s central curve of LeConte Avenue. A single building the size of a large home, painted a happy yellow and edged with gardens, which in a former life was a Jewish fraternity house. Now the gardens have statues of St. Francis of Assisi feeding the birds.
Statue of St. Francis of Assisi
Two more Catholic schools-Jesuit and Dominican-reside two and four blocks away. The Baptists and the Lutherans study a short car ride away in opposite directions, and farthest of all, the Presbyterian school is tucked away far over the Richmond bridge, in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County. At all of these places, largely unbeknownst to the rest of the Bay Area, future church leaders are preparing themselves for ministry or for academic careers in theology.
When I first came to Berkeley to begin my master’s degree at FST, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Bay Area and especially by the flora of Berkeley, so distinct from my native Maryland. But the presence of a theological union in Berkeley seemed odd. After all, Berkeley is not the most religious of places, in the conventional sense of the word. Stability, order, and tradition are not its strong points. Student cooperatives and organic gardens are common; walking into stores in a bike helmet with one pant leg rolled up is considered normal; local organic produce, fair trade chocolate, and bulk quinoa is a fairly average grocery list. Oh, and bizarre clothing is unremarkable. The dogma and doctrine of “Berzerkeley,” as some call it, is to be yourself-and the more your Self defies convention, the better.
So institutional religion, like other institutional things, is not at the top of Berkeley’s list. And anything with as much hierarchy as the Catholic Church would hardly seem to stand a chance. Thus it doesn’t surprise me that almost no one in Berkeley seems to know the GTU exists. Some residents say, “Oh, I’ve heard of that”¦” with a confused look when I tell them where I study.
I came to Berkeley from a place where religion was very public, institutional, and obvious-I was a mission volunteer for two years on the south side of Lima, Peru, where large statues of Jesus and Mary were common in public parks, and the churches were the center of community life. But Berkeley’s main street, the pungently named Shattuck Avenue, has no churches, synagogues or mosques. The central, domed structure with the arched windows and the great flow of humanity pulsing in and out of its doors is the downtown BART station.
Downtown Berkeley BART station
Every morning and evening at rush hour, students hurry up the hill from the BART to the UC Berkeley campus, while street vendors sell flowers and jewelry, musicians sing or play on the sidewalk for change, and canvassers stop whoever they can to beg donations for the environment, civil liberties, gay rights. Homeless men and some women sell Street Spirit: Justice News and Homeless Blues on the corners, moving slowly, wrapped in coats.
My first part-time job in Berkeley was at the front desk of a yoga studio. I quickly learned that while there are no churches on Berkeley’s main street, there is yoga-no fewer than three studios in the downtown stretch of Shattuck itself. Donation-based Yoga to the People in Shattuck Square insists that yoga is accessible to everyone, every body, regardless of ability to pay.
Funky Door Yoga, where I worked, is a Bikram studio farther south on the main street, which turns up the heat for those who want to purify their bodies through sweat and exertion. The temperature of a Bikram class is over 100 degrees and humid-not for the faint of heart, or those who are prone to fainting!
My introduction to yoga in Berkeley taught me that while the town’s main street is almost devoid of “religion,” it is far from lacking in spirituality. Berkeley yogis throw themselves into their practice with as much discipline, determination, and delight as any monastic devoting herself to her prayers, and in the process they find centering, peace, renewal, joy, energy. Turning to their most basic selves, their human bodies, they touch a spark of the divine.
To me Berkeley’s spirituality is in its body. Organized religion may have faded into the background, and yet Berkeley is keenly aware of the connection between bodily health and wholistic well-being-not only of the person, but of the person’s bodily environment, the earth. Organic and fair-trade foods sell faster than packaged products in this town, and environmental activist groups thrive. For some, organic local food and caring for the earth may be a fad, the “thing to do” in Berkeley; but one senses that underneath the sometimes shrill protests for the rights of the environment, there is a real consciousness of the way all of our wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of our planet.
Deep down I suspect that many, if not all, of the Berkeley residents who honor the earth and their bodies by bicycling and buying local, organic food have glimpsed something of the wonder that St. Francis felt toward nature. They have sensed in the planet that sustains our life the same intuition of the divine that moved the saint from Assisi over 800 years ago. Intuitively they have realized that human bodies and the body of the earth are one and that both are at the center of our most sacred experience-the experience of being alive.
A town has no choice but to find its spirituality in the body when every day on its main street one walks past one or five or ten homeless men (and occasionally a woman). Bodies in need of basic care stand, sit, or lie to the side of your path with cardboard sign or empty cup in hand. The presence and the bodily need of the homeless confront you in Berkeley. There is no avoiding them. They beg for a response from your spirituality, your way of being human in relation to others.
The question of homelessness is a spiritual one. As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows, the homeless in Berkeley remind us of the effects that greed and economic injustice have on people at the most concrete level, the level of their bodies. Through the economic crisis and the wave of foreclosures on homes, selfishness and disregard for others have resulted in bodies without homes on a national scale. A spirituality of the body affirms the sacredness of each person’s flesh, the right of each body to a basically dignified life; and challenges the supposed right of powerful people to satisfy their unbridled material desires without considering the physical wellbeing of others.
I am no longer surprised that the GTU has found its home on “Holy Hill” of North Berkeley, or that classes are offered there with names like “Theologies of the Body,” “Theology of Desire,” “Christ, Krishna, Buddha: Embodiment of the Divine.” The atmosphere of Berkeley pervades the theological schools tucked away in its hills, and the town’s spirituality seems to move in the classes there, the conversations, the dialogue around God and the body that is so vital in the Christian tradition today.
It is no secret that the Catholic Church is struggling with questions of the body, gender, and sexuality in relation to God. As a Catholic woman, I am grateful to study in a place where spirituality is so linked to the body, a place that encourages me to claim the sacredness of my body and to ask questions about the roles of male and female bodies in our society and our church. For if Berkeley considers anything “holy,” it is the body; and the message of Berkeley to its theology schools is that no matter what the issue, no body can ever be cut off from the realm of the divine, because the body itself is an intimate place of human encounter with God.
A town with many homeless and religions that teaches care for the poor. New Age organic foodies and mystics who see God in nature. Bodies that pray with breath and motion, minds that study the ancient Christian absurdity of God becoming flesh. I think there may not really be much difference between them all.
In the end, I think the Graduate Theological Union may be right at home in Berkeley.