Karen Ziegler

Karen Ziegler is on the board of the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South, and she was elected as secretary in July. She is the core organizer of the weekly protests outside Senator Tillis’ Raleigh office, Tuesdays with Tillis, and does most of the media and speakers strategies for the weekly events. She is a retired minister from the Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBTQ+ church, and a retired nurse from Duke and the VA Medical Center. She taught in the medical school at Duke for 15 years.  She is active in the Triangle Insight (Buddhist) meditation community and is deeply committed to connecting spiritual practice and activism. Karen has welcomed me into her home several times, and we’ve had conversations throughout the summer about strategy for movement work.

The Resource Center for Women in the Ministry in the South is a non-profit organization based in Durham, North Carolina, that works to support women and LGBTQ+ spiritual leaders in the South as they do their spiritual and liberationist work.

CS: How would you describe your work right now? How have you chosen to focus on social movements/social change?

Karen ZieglerI retired from full-time work as a nurse practitioner about a year and a half ago, and part of why I did that is because I was feeling increasingly drawn back to activism.  I gave myself some time to figure out what form that might take, and then after the election I just really knew: I have to find what I’m good at, and do that. I have to give what I have to give, the best of what I have to give, and that was when I started giving dharma talk lessons and preaching a little more, because I know how to do that.

And the Women’s March on Raleigh was so hopeful, and watching all of those women on television in DC and all over the world made me so encouraged. I love marches, AIDS marches, gay marches, anti-war marches.  I love and have always loved them. I feel so empowered by being with that many people in the world so passionate together. So I kept checking: when’s the next march gonna be? Because MoveOn kept saying “put in your zip code,” and I kept putting in my zip code, and I just knew someone else would step up and do one at Tillis’ office, and no one did. So finally, about simultaneously, Nancy Jacobs, who’s the head of an Indivisible group, and I said that we would host it. And so we’ve been co-hosting a rally at Tillis’ office ever since then.

There are some parts of it that feel very familiar to me and I feel good at, and there are other parts that are really difficult and I really don’t know how to do them. But that’s also a familiar feeling, and I feel like that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep doing it. It feels a lot like pastoring a church, seriously: there’s a certain number of people who come every week, and I try to get to know them a little bit and figure out how to make it nourishing for them.

CS: How did you choose specifically the dharma talks and rallying outside Tillis’ office?

KZ: Well, in the case of the dharma talks, I spent so many years preaching every Sunday at the gay church that I pastored in New York. And I know that I know how to speak about these things, things of the soul, and connecting them to what is happening in the world and how we can respond. I think a lot of it came from other people doing dharma talks, and they’re great meditators and great people and I love them, but I actually have a lot more practice talking in this way. And it really was the election that made me feel like I really need to dig in and do what I’m good at, so that’s what made me start doing that.

And then, the Tuesday with Tillis, I think both Nancy and I—and I had never met Nancy at that time—were thinking, “well, somebody’s got to do it.” Neither of us intended to do it every week: that just happened. We both just realized at a certain moment that there was interest in doing it every week. And for a while MoveOn was really supporting that Tuesday thing, with a lot of emails and invitations.

CS: What was it about the election that made you make that shift?

KZ: Well, I think it was just core shock and I knew that it came from disinformation, fake news—I didn’t know that it came from Russia at that time. I knew that it came from a tremendous amount of racist backlash towards Obama’s election. And I have lived through this before when Reagan was elected—although this is so much worse than that—but when Reagan was elected, it really seemed like the end of the world to us at that time because it was a sharp right turn. And also, I remember laughing at people who said that Reagan would get elected; he was a clown to me, and I never thought that he could get elected as president of the United States. And I felt that way with Trump, too. I felt it’s the only thing that needs to happen for evil to take hold is for good people to do nothing, and I just felt like I have to do everything I can, I have to get everybody I know to do everything they can, because already there’s a spread of such—I only can call it evil—such hate, racism, the point of view that we are not our brother’s keeper, that we don’t have to take care of each other.

And I’ve seen, living in New York in the 70s, there was deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals on a mass scale in New York. And it was a horror because all these fragile, mentally ill people who had no business being out on the street were just living in the street. People were saying “oh, they should be free to live on the street,” and yeah, they were free to live on the street, but they were completely unemployable, and it was a horrible thing to watch. And also, first from being a pastor, and I knew a lot of people who lived on the street then, but also from being a health care provider for all these years, I heard the stories of people who ended up on the street. And reading—I’m always learning, just understanding, the consequences of unregulated capitalism, and how the rich are getting richer and richer and richer at a dizzying rate of increase. And also after the inauguration, understanding that all of these cabinet choices were chosen to deconstruct every single one of the parts of the government and institutions.

When the Iraq war started, I remember going to anti-war marches and feeling like George [W.] Bush was the crazy driver of a truck, and I was in the back of the truck screaming, because anyone could see that the Iraq war was totally nuts. And you could watch that go on, and not be able to do very much. You could go to marches, but I was working full time—I wasn’t really doing very much. Now, I can do stuff on a daily basis that tries to get at some of the ignorance and delusion that many people are under.

CS: What kinds of tactics have you been using on a daily basis?

KZ: I’m trying to be open to whatever seems to be called for, because I don’t always know. I just know that I need to act. So this thing about veterans [the previous Tuesdays with Tillis event had centered veterans’ need for health insurance], I tried to really listen to as many people as I can, and I really appreciate that people give their suggestions, I try to pick people’s brains. It seems like every day, I would come up with something. And a lot of the time it would end up in a dead end, but sometimes, I felt like I was getting somewhere. Like, I took out ads on Facebook, and I tried to experiment with different demographics, like whether it was possible to reach out beyond my own little like-minded silo to veterans who thought differently, and if it was possible to educate them about what is happening with the bill. And I learned a lot from that. I did reach people, but I reached a lot of people who I realized are not very educable: they’re too fixed on their right-wing beliefs. But then also I try to build this community of resistance on Tuesday, and I try to keep my eye on the ball, because there’s so much out there, like the sit-in [there was a sit-in of the federal building in Raleigh scheduled for the day of the interview], and another action on Friday.

But anyways, I try to every day move this a little forward. And sometimes I feel like I’m going in circles, but even when I’m going in circles I’m at least learning something.

CS: How do you see your spiritual work and your activist work speaking to one another? 

KZ: I think that anyone who is connected with something larger than themselves has to see that we’re all connected to one another, and we stand or fall together. So to me, there’s no such thing as individual salvation, like “I’ve got God, and fuck you,” you know? When I was in the church, it was easy, because almost all of the Bible is about justice for the poor. If you really study the bible, almost every single page, and eloquently and passionately—it’s great. “Thou hast scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” “thou hast filled the hungry with good things and the rich thou hast sent empty away”—beautiful things. This is why I love Rev. Barber [the leader of the Moral Mondays movement in NC], because I think that he’s the most eloquent about the Bible and what it really says. It’s easy in the church, when it’s right there and in the Scriptures.

It’s a little more challenging not being in the church, and being in a spiritual tradition, Buddhism, which is—there are a lot of great activist Buddhists—and it’s not right there like that. There really is a whole strain of Buddhism which is “isn’t it great to have this peace and bliss that we get through meditation.” Well yeah, but there’s also this tradition of the bodhisattva, where you’re getting close to enlightenment, and then you decide that you’re not going to be enlightened until everyone is enlightened. And I always thought that was a special vow that people took, like the priesthood. But then I realized that the more you are awake, of course you’re going to say, “I’m not going on until everyone can go on”—that’s a part of what awakening is. So that’s kind of the theological struggle I have with Buddhism a little bit. I’m having trouble understanding why all my Buddhist colleagues aren’t out there. I do think they go together.  As you become more awake and become more connected to love,  you inevitably want to advocate for people who are vulnerable.

But my own personal thing is, I just feel so blessed—there’s no other word for it—and I feel like I really want to use what I have, materially and in every other way, to help make the world less hostile to people to whom it is now very hostile. And it’s really that image of being in a truck, that it’s running over people or driving off a cliff. So even though I’m in the back of the truck, and I don’t even know if my voice can be heard, I am just determined to scream as loud as I can and to get other people to see: “we’re headed off a cliff; we’re going to run over people,” and maybe if everyone in the truck screams loud enough—anyways, that’s my image.

But the other spiritual struggle is, I’m not in charge of this. I’m not doing this. This is not my burden to bear alone: I’m not God. So my role is to just try to be a channel of love, whatever love wants to do. And love is so much bigger than me. So a lot of times, I really just get out of the way. And I learned that as a pastor, because I was so young and didn’t know what I was doing, so I had to say to God “show me what to do because I can’t do this,” and open my mouth and hope something comes out. Surrender.

CS: What made you want to be a pastor?

KZ: When I was in college I was a premed student, and I was kind of helping to lead this anti-Campus Crusade, Christian group. There was Campus Crusade—“accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior”—and there was those of us who were more interested in a social justice way of interpreting scriptures. So I was in that, and my chaplain said “have you ever thought about being a minister?” And I had never thought about it, because I hadn’t seen one woman who was a minister. But the next day, I dropped organic chemistry and physics, and took ethics and old testament instead, and then I majored in religion.

Meanwhile, I went to an MCC church in Boston, and I had never been to a gay church before. My lover at the time and I went, and she and I just kind of got it sitting in the church: “oh, God loves gay people.” And it was a huge thing for lesbians and gay men to understand how deeply they are accepted in the largest way. So then it doesn’t matter if this person, or that person, or my mother, hates me: I’m okay exactly as I am. And I really saw that, what a beautiful thing it is to help people come to that level of feeling within themselves. So that was why I was drawn to it. And then I started working in an MCC church when I got out of college, and then I went to seminary. That was so I could be a pastor to gay people, to help them come out, and I did.

So the first time I fell in love was with a woman when I was 19. I was this girl from the suburbs in Philadelphia who grew up expecting Prince Charming to come sweep me up on a white horse. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, and that’s what I expected. But I had made a decision that I didn’t want to live in the same white world that I grew up in—I didn’t have any idea what that meant. And I met this woman at a church retreat, a Black woman who was at the retreat, and we just fell in love. It was the last thing I expected, was to fall in love with a woman, and I had somehow managed to survive the 60s without being in the Civil Rights Movement. But I really got radicalized then around racism. So I also wanted to be a pastor because in the tradition of liberation theology, there’s so much powerful stuff to use in talking about racism.

CS: So, how do you think this is similar and different from when Reagan got elected?

KZ: It’s hard for me to do this fairly because I didn’t know as much as I know now, and I’m not an historian. But it seems so much more dangerous to me. Because Reagan was an asshole, but he didn’t dismantle the government. He didn’t have people around him who were busy trying to just take apart all the institutions that keep people safe. He dismantled the safety net I think, but he didn’t do it to the extent that people now want to. And you know, what’s happening now is the result of a very long process of consolidation of power by a certain group of people, and we hadn’t gone through that yet. Plus he [Trump] is nuts! So that’s how it’s different; it’s much scarier to me, and more urgent.

And the other thing is, back then, we were just sticking up for our rights. We understood then that gay men and lesbians and trans people, or LGBTQ people, all were so vulnerable, and we had to fight for our lives. And then AIDS came along and we had to fight for our lives with AIDS. But even though we did talk about racism and feminism and about class, we had a pretty good analysis going on, we still stayed pretty much in the AIDS activism, LGBTQ activism. Whereas now, I don’t think there’s a place for that. I think everyone has to fight for everybody. I won’t support LGBTQ organizations that just talk about LGBTQ issues. I don’t think there’s a place for that now. I don’t think we understood that then: we didn’t understand intersectionality and the coalition politics that were possible. Then again the Black community was not as open to talking about AIDS at that time, there’s a lot of homophobia there, and now it’s more possible to cross different lines.

CS: I’m just thinking of NC Pride and the No Justice No Pride organizations, and there’s so much racist control over which issues are considered LGBTQ issues. It’s like if it affects white LGBTQ people it’s an LGBTQ issue, but if it doesn’t, then…

KZ: It’s ignorance, It’s disheartening. But there are so many great coalition organizations now, and I’m really excited about Repairers of the Breach [Rev. Barber’s new coalition-based organization], and I’ve really liked working with the NAACP in North Carolina. So I feel fine about sending these organizations money, but not the ones that have plenty of white men to support them.

CS: What trends do you hope for, in resistance and movement, and what have you seen that worries you?  

KZ: I’m very encouraged by how many white people I know—including myself—who have done more and more in recent years to learn more about African American history, and done workshops from the point of view of anti-racist work, like the Racial Equity Institute and Organizing Against Racism. I’m really encouraged by how there is a groundswell of understanding that racism is at the core, and unless we get to that, unless we do some truth and reconciliation as a country, there’s no hope for us. But I think there are more people that realize that. I don’t think it’s a majority of Americans, but I think it’s more and more people. And who knows how quickly that consciousness could spread? Some things just happen overnight, you know.

And the coalition work is very encouraging, Reverend Barber’s work is encouraging. And the number of people that are out there on the street, calling their senators, or talking with their friends about activist stuff, maybe even for the first time, or who haven’t done it for thirty years, that’s encouraging. And I think a lot of the people who are there on Tuesdays, they’re not activists, they haven’t really done activism in their life, but now that they can, they want to, so I’m encouraged by that.

There are two things that I’m worried about. I’m really worried about fake news—I mean real fake news. And this is something I glimpsed last weekend when I made my little foray into the veteran world, making little smoke signals: there’s a world of fake news out there. “Donald Trump is taking care of homeless veterans and he always has, secretly”—stuff like that. I think that was from Brietbart news or something like that. And people just believing that the reason we’re cutting Medicaid is not just to give the rich a tax break, which is the real reason, but to bring down the deficit. They really believe that. And I see why: because the bill was secret, and there was no discussion about that. But there are so many lies that people believe, and I think the base, even though Trump’s base is only 30%, is solidly behind him, and Fox News. If you ever listen to AM radio, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, there’s a vibration of hatred and resentment from them, and they just feed people’s hatred and resentment. And there’s that NRA video that we were talking about. So that worries me, and there’s a certain vibration that people feel comfortable in, and they feed that so it gets harder and harder for them to get out of that.

And I also worry about all of us being in our little silos and not being able to talk to each other. I feel like we’re all in so much danger now that everyone has to understand the good of the whole. So those people who were destroying property in DC: I understand their anger and I understand where they’re coming from, but it’s not helping. Anything that builds up the militarization of the police force is not going to hurt the people who are wearing black masks—it’s going to hurt Black people. So the more there are people destroying property, the more there’s going to be a buildup of the militarization of the police—there already is militarization of the police, and they will be able to say “oh, those bad resistors.” But if our resistance remains peaceful, I have hope that it can win the hearts and minds of enough people to tip the balance against the base, because that’s how it seems to work. That’s how Gandhi changed India, that’s how Martin Luther King won civil rights, to the extent that he did, that’s how it works. So I’m concerned about that, because people are going to get more mad—and that’s what Trump wants. The thing that Trump most wanted to see was that the resistance looked like it did, people in hoods smashing trash cans, because then he could just say “oh, those horrible people.” But if you had 100,000 people, women and children wearing pink hats, singing “God is love” or something like that, he can’t do much about that. He can’t get a militarized police against that kind of force. So I feel like the only way you can defeat hate is by love—that’s the only way. And it’s a very powerful force. But I think that the NRA video, and many other things, like the North Carolina resolution that it’s okay to run people over in the street, I think that passed, they have all the force. And any kind of irresponsible or violent behavior from our side—and it is our side, I claim them—it is irresponsible, we can’t endanger other people, we can’t buy into their game that we’re just bad, violent people.

Because I think it’s about either love and connection or fear, hatred, and delusion, and ideology doesn’t matter. They don’t get it that we’re all connected.

CS: How does the Resource Center support the work that you do? 

KZ: Mostly by connecting me with people who I become friends with, and really giving me a sense of community with some other people. It’s a limited role in my life, but it’s a cherished one. I have other communities. The Resource Center is very white, and it is what it is. But I really love Jeanette’s [the Executive Director of RCWMS] ability to connect people—she’s masterful at that. And that’s something I’m not so good at, so I really appreciate that. And I really respect how she’s kept it going for 40 years. She’s done it by staying flexible, and by listening to her own needs along the way. It’s a really great lesson in sustainability for a certain kind of activism. And it is a certain kind of activism, I think, at the Resource Center. It’s very straight, but nobody’s perfect.

CS: I want to ask you about sustainability: how do you practice that, and how do you keep going?

KZ: Well I think that it’s a razor’s edge that I’m on every day of trying not to get out of balance and trying to stay connected to silence, and a certain kind of stillness, from which I can listen to what I’m supposed to do next. I think if we’re not all into our own little trips or agendas, and our intention is to be a channel of healing in this world, then we are helped by that energy. I wouldn’t call it God, but there is a whole that holds us, I think. And I trust it; I really trust it.