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A Conversation with Rev. Djalóki Jean-Luc Dessables, Special Assistant to the President, Jubilee Housing, Washington, D.C.

With: Djalóki Jean-Luc Dessables Berkley Center Profile

April 1, 2018

Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student Deirdre Jonese Austin interviewed Rev. Djalóki Jean-Luc Dessables as as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Rev. Dessables is an ordained interfaith minister who currently works at Jubilee Housing as special assistant to the president. He is also an initiated Haitian Vodou priest, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, the founder of Konesans Consulting, and the co-founder of Wisdom Circle Ministries. In this interview, Rev. Dessables discusses the religious teachings and life experiences that inspire his housing justice work.

What does social justice mean to you?

The first thing I want to say is that the term itself, the expression, is quite new for me because I was not used to hearing it before I came to the United States. I moved here in 2012, so I’m still learning the culture. The language, English, is not my first language. It’s something I’m discovering. As I’m discovering, I’m learning that it connects to something I already had as a concept. So, I will mix what I understand it means here in the United States and what I understand myself. So what I understand it means in the United States and the Western world I will say, is a value that considers that all citizens of a nation, of the world, should have equal access to resources and to the benefits of society, and at the same time, I suppose, equal responsibility and accountability. And when I say equal, not mathematically equal, but equitable. And I believe that the concept exists and is so much of an issue because it is not applied. Current modern society is not in line with social justice, and so that’s where I go a little further for myself. 

I believe that there’s a fundamental paradigm issue, a worldview one. It’s not just what society does or doesn’t do. It’s about the conception of who human beings are intrinsically, in essence, and who we are with each other. I believe that the dominant worldview which runs the world right now which is mostly informed by the Western European culture, doesn’t have at its foundation a principle that all humans are of equal value. It considers that some are worth more and some are worth less, some are superior and some are inferior, and racism is one aspect of that. Patriarchy is another aspect of that or a system that places wealthy people over impoverished people is another aspect of that. And so, ultimately for me, it’s a spiritual issue. It’s about the essence of who we are beyond what we manifest, what we have, what we do in society.

Are there any examples of religious teachings or scriptures that inspire you?

Yes, I’m inspired by all the teachings of all the sages of the history of humanity, wherever they come from, whatever religion, whatever language, culture, etc. Humans are humans, and human systems are not perfect. There are systems now that I have issues with, like capitalism, or the hierarchical and oppressive form of the church, but I do find inspiration in some aspects of capitalism. One other thing I want to say is, I also see that in this culture, there’s a conception that there’s something that is religious, there’s something that is cultural, there’s something that is political, there’s something that is social, military, etc. I don’t see a difference between any of those things. What we call religion often are cultures. Let’s take the Christian religion, for example. If you think of an American Christian from New York City and an Ethiopian Christian from Addis Ababa, they are very different, even religiously speaking. Actually there may be more similarities between an American Christian and an American Muslim than between an American Muslim and a Yemeni Muslim. So for me, these cultures give forms to political systems, and politics is connected to religion. Our cultures teach us the “right” forms of social relations, how to deal with nature, agriculture, education, art, sexuality, and war. A lot of it comes in the form of religion. 

I’m inspired by the teaching of Jesus. I believe that many modern forms of Christianity have transformed his teachings by changing their cultural context. Jesus himself was not a Christian by many current Christian standards. He was certainly a radical activist for social justice; some people see him as a revolutionary. I’m inspired by the Dalai Lama. I’m inspired by Muhammad Ali. I’m inspired by Bob Marley, by Mohandas Gandhi, and by Nelson Mandela. More recently, I have been tremendously inspired by the women’s marches and movement against sexual harassment and gender-based violence, by the school students movement against gun violence, and by the emerging intersectionality movement, which feels like interfaith applied to social justice to me. For me it’s all both political, cultural, and spiritual. And something that will come up more in this conversation, I’m inspired particularly by all shamanic traditions from all over the world. I believe that modern religions actually come from shamanic traditions, maybe all of them. I believe that in the modern, dominant society, shamanism has been pushed aside, but it may have some answers to social issues that the powerful of the world now cannot, or will not address, and they are putting humanity and the earth in a very dangerous direction.

Are there any pivotal moments in your life that led you to do what you do now?

Yes, there were. One, I’m going to mention it but I won’t go into detail because it’s personal, and it’s difficult to express in words. At age 11, I had what I think was a mystical experience. I was not in my body and not in my usual state of consciousness, and I felt that I was connected to everything. One thing that I can say is that I felt that everything is connected. What happens to one thing or one being affects everything. Even when we cut the branch of a tree, the whole universe is affected positively or negatively and, of course, there are degrees and I understood that. So from then on, I’ve been trying to come back to that state. I’ve been unable to, but this is always with me: That we are one being, one consciousness, and we don’t know it, so we harm each other and we harm nature. By doing that, we are actually harming ourselves.

Another pivotal moment was less spectacular. I was trained as a mechanical engineer in France and then I started to work in the corporate world. I was already multilingual; I spoke several languages. By birth I’m bilingual. I have two mother tongues: French and Haitian Creole. I learned to speak English, and Spanish. I also learned Wolof from Senegal although I’ve almost forgotten it. The reason I’m saying all this is because in the corporate world you have engineers, administrators, you have the finance people, you have the policy people, you have the legal and law people, you have the environment people, and they don’t understand each other. They talk to each other, but they don’t speak the same language and it’s a cacophony. And I was there and I felt that I could kind of understand everybody. And it’s like we’re trying to become excellent, we’re trying to become experts in what we do, but first, we should become expert at talking to each other and understand each other. That was in the corporate world. 

But then I realized that when I grew up and I was watching the world, that the situation that is in the world is that we are in a babel tower. We’re all talking and thinking the other is understanding, but we’re not really listening. When we listen, if we don’t go through the process of empathy, of trying to live what the other is experiencing, then these are just words and we don’t understand. Now, of course when it’s like that, we don’t care if someone is hurt. It’s someone else, and we don’t feel it. So I’m always, and even if I’m not consciously doing it, serving as a bridge and as a facilitator for people who speak different languages, from different religions, from different races, from different cultures, from different understandings, from different social backgrounds. 

That’s who I am. I’m Haitian, I’m Caribbean, and other people from other nations can say the same as what I am about to say. So Haiti, 500 years ago when the Europeans came, as they were committing a genocide to the Taino people, the native people that were there, they were also bringing Africans that they had put in bondage. Through all the horrors this created, there was mixing. The Creole people came from these origins. That’s what Caribbean people are now. I’m Creole. I have African ancestry, European ancestry, and native Taino ancestry. So we were the pioneers of this mixing of genes especially from around the Atlantic Ocean, but also from Asia, but that was 500 years ago. 

Right now, the mixing is not happening in the Caribbean. It’s happening in New York, in Washington, D.C., in London, in Hong Kong. When I consider the future 500 years from now, most of the population in the United States and in the world will be Creole, will be mixed. Now being mixed genetically doesn’t mean we will have achieved the mixing of cultures and wisdom and that we will be healthy as a human family, and so as a Haitian I feel a responsibility as we haven’t done well so far. There are things in my ancestral and current history and experience as a Creole that I want to share with the world, where we did well, and where we messed up. I want to give a chance of success to the Creole great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren. I see myself as the prototype of the future human being, in half a millennium. That’s a responsibility.

Could you tell me about your current work in Jubilee Housing and elsewhere?

At Jubilee Housing, I work as a special assistant to the president, which means a lot of things. It’s a small nonprofit, so everyone does a little bit of everything. And so, I’m also in charge of some projects. And right now, we are in an organization-wide culture change, like an evolution, an intentional one. So Jubilee Housing officially provides affordable housing for low-income families in Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C., but affordable housing, the way it is understood in both the federal definition and more commonly, is less than what we actually do. We do more than that, and we want to do even much more than that. First, affordable housing: the definition of low-income family is 60 percent of the average median income, and 60 percent in Washington, D.C. is high. There are many people in neighborhoods that are being gentrified right now. In this neighborhood [Adams Morgan] they are at much lower levels than the threshold of low-income. They can’t afford to stay where they were born and where they grew up, in their home, in their neighborhood, where their family has lived. And so we want to allow the people with the lowest income to be able to stay in the neighborhoods that are being gentrified right now and that means a number of things. And so we use the term justice housing, which is wider than affordable housing. 

Justice housing is based on three principles under a general umbrella. The three principles are: justice housing is affordable housing for people with the lowest income, so they have to be able to afford the housing in their place of choice or neighborhood. That’s the first thing. Second is that it has to be in a place that is welcoming, or where anyone would want to live. This means what we call a resource-rich neighborhood; you have access to grocery stores and quality food, transportation so you can go to work without extreme complication, education for your kids, healthcare, services for taxes, etc. And third, they have to have access to all the services and opportunities that they need to thrive and contribute to society. And so all that, we believe, goes hand in hand with the principle that we are of equal value which is the basis of equitability. And so, for example, if a human being is in prison for something they’ve done, that’s what they’ve done, that’s not who they are. And so no one is superior or inferior to anyone else. This is almost a revolutionary concept. It sounds basic and obvious but in the current society, it’s revolutionary, just as it was in the times of Jesus in the Roman empire.

So one other thing we do which connects with interfaith, multiculturalism, social justice is that we have this community. The community is residents, the staff, the volunteers, and supporters of Jubilee Housing. This includes donors who give money or give their time or access to information and opportunities, people who will advocate for more fair laws and policy, CEOs, executive directors, public, nonprofit and corporate employees who work to create a more equitable society. All these people constitute our Jubilee Housing family and our community. We consider that all these people have equal intrinsic value. And so to heal the brokenness, because I am also among those who believe that violence and exploitation and oppression in the form of racism, classism, sexism, etc. are often caused by broken relationships, the healing happens at the relationship too. When you have oppression, you likely have oppressors, and oppressed, and many people navigate between both positions, though some benefit more, and others suffer more. Everyone has some work to do to undertake personal transformations, but another big part of the work and transformation happens at the interface between people, at the relationship. 

Broken relationships are healed through restorative relationships. And so what we do is we create, and this is something we are doing right now, and we are involving the residents in the thinking and the design of what we do. So, it’s just beginning; we didn’t do that before. We want to be able to get people from different circumstances, and bring them together to engage in authentic restorative relationships. Like for example right now, one of the things I’m doing is meals. Residents invite people into their homes and make a meal, simple and family-style, and the resident family is in charge. Then we invite someone from a government agency, or someone from some bank. We invite them to exchange and to get to know each other and to share their life stories, on the basis of equality in value, with the hope, the plan, later that the first connection that is established will allow them and us to go deeper in the conversation and address the tough questions. So first, we want them to become comfortable with each other and then we want them to become uncomfortable and address what makes us uncomfortable. And beyond that when we really are committed to stay together; even in the discomfort, now let’s work together. You want to talk it out and then you want to work together to change the systemic and structural causes that have taken us where we are now, so that’s Jubilee Housing.

I saw that you did your research and you found Wisdom Circle Ministries. We’re not advertising much, especially right now. We are in a transitional phase and we don’t do much publicly, but we are still active, and we’re discerning the next phase for us. So Wisdom Circle Ministries, I’m a co-founder, and all the founders were interfaith ministers. For some people interfaith is an objective—it's an end. For us, it’s a start—it’s the beginning. And we believe that if there are some cultures and some populations that have developed spirituality, some teaching, some religion, that’s a potential treasure for other human beings because that religion has helped them survive the hardship of life through generations. You have Christianity here, you have Buddhism here, you have Daoism here, you have shamanism here, you have Judaism, etc. They’re all gems. They’re all riches that humans can produce and humans can benefit from, not just the Jew benefiting from Judaism and the Muslim benefiting from Islam. There’s something in each of them that’s good for human beings. There might also be something in each of them that’s not so good for human beings. We want to put all of this together and find ways to preserve what is good and get to another level where all humans can have access to all of the wisdom that humans have produced. When I say wisdom, it’s not just sacred scriptures that we can read, but it's practices and personal transformation, actual transformation, human spiritual transformation. 

You had a question about world peace, and I think it’s connected. We believe that when we really use all the wisdoms of different places and different times in an interfaith manner, it creates two things. First, we understand the other better. When we understand the other better, we understand ourselves better. When that happens, the need for violence is dissolved because we become more comfortable with our frailties and defects. We see that all humans are frail and defective. We’re more comfortable with our vulnerability. When we’re more comfortable with our vulnerability and our defects then we can tolerate the others and we can build together. So, we believe in world peace and more than world peace, human evolution. We reach another stage of operation where it becomes normal and people don’t have to be forced by coercive laws to be nonviolent. It’s going to become "of course I want to be nonviolent because it’s better for me and for my children."

What’s your faith background?

I grew up Catholic and went through all things Catholic. A part of my family’s very Catholic. Now, bear in mind what I said earlier. When I say Catholic, it may mean a lot of things, particularly in Haiti, when people say Catholic. Do you know the saying about the religious distribution in Haiti? We say that—the number may have changed now—but at some point they were 60 percent Catholic, 40 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou. And so my parents were very Catholic. They actually met in the Catholic Church. Especially on my father’s side, it was very much combined with the African shamanic tradition which is Vodou. So I had all of that when I grew up. Then I went on a quest for exploration, even before I knew interfaith existed. I was a Rastafarian for years. I did transcendental meditation. I was in Senegal for nine years. Most of my friends were Muslims, so I used to pray with them and went to the mosque. I’ve studied Zen Buddhism and Daoism. I’m influenced by Chinese Daoism a lot. Judaism is very inspiring to me, especially the Kabbalah and numerology. I was initiated as a Vodou priest in Haiti, and ordained as an interfaith minister in the United States. And through my studies, I’ve been very interested in quantum physics as a spiritual science. 

Quantum physics offers the possibility of reharmonization and reconciliation with science and what we call spirituality and religion because it gets at the essence of things. One of the first things that quantum physicists will tell you is that matter is not really material. And so I go a little further—they won’t say this—and say matter is spiritual. And so right now, I have a respect and admiration for all religions and spiritual systems. Some people say they are spiritual and not religious. I’m definitely spiritual. I wouldn’t say I’m not religious. I’m pluri-religious or multireligious, or meta-religious. And now, shamanism is a very important aspect of my spirituality. But again, it’s not just traditional shamanism. It’s a modern shamanism with an outlook toward the current state of the collective consciousness where we are right now. I think we are evolving collectively at an accelerated pace, even though we still have a long way to go to reach a level of collective spiritual maturity.

How does your interfaith work work with your Jubilee Housing work?

Right now, my interfaith basis is mostly present in my role as a facilitator and a bridge between people of different backgrounds. Like our residents, we have many immigrants, and we have many African-Americans, and so it’s more the multicultural aspect of interfaith that I feel is at play. But in our reflections and when we discuss with each other, I find myself coming back to interfaith principles. We’re not trying to force them on people, of course. There are choices and boundaries, so the interfaith proper is kind of in the background, but it’s more about dialogue with classes and nations and languages too.

Can you share some of the things you think young people should learn about religion and its effects on society?

I think, it depends on what you call young people. I think the people less than 20 have a lot to teach us older folks today. I think this is the generation, you know, there’s this saying in the new age circles that “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I think they are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and we are the ones who’ve prepared the way for them. I don’t have a general broad thing to say that we older people can teach young people. It depends on the cases, but I think they have a lot to teach us. I think what the older generation usually sees as the impatience or they try things and they don’t know it's not going to work. That’s how we learn, and I don’t want to change that. That’s how I learned. One thing, maybe I would tell young people, is that things are often not what they look like at first sight. And the same with people. If you want to receive respect, you may want to offer respect.The etymology of the word respect is, look again. This means it takes time, intention, and work to know something, or someone. The more you think you know, the less you probably know. This is true at any age.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? Are there any questions you wish I’d asked?

I’ll add something. I said shamanism has become important in my thinking and in the way I understand the world and in particular. Another question you asked is if there’s been a shift. There’s been a shift. Let me read what I wrote. I said, “I am exploring a shamanic perspective applied to capitalism and consumerism seeing it as a religion that worships a Power-Money-deity, which is an unhealthy spirit that is disconnected from the source of life, and needs to feed itself on the concentration of profit in the hands of a few by excluding, exploiting, oppressing, and killing others. Shamans around the world have known how to deal with unhealthy disconnected spirits for ages, just not maybe at the scale of this one.” And so, I think that the dominant capitalistic society is putting humanity at risk, the earth at risk, and everyone in it. How do we stop this? We don’t know how to stop this with the conventional modern knowledge. It has a life of its own and the way to approach this from a shamanic perspective is to engage it as a spirit, a deity, a Power-Money-deity, and to understand capitalism as a religion, which is based on the worship of the Power-Money-deity and a system of hierarchical castes. The highest caste, which is the favorite of the deity, is the caste of the wealthy cis-hetero white males. They receive the most privileges from the deity in the form of power and money, at the expense of the other castes, which are sacrificed to the deity by attempts to disempower and impoverish them 

The problem, from the shamanic perspective, with those kinds of religions and deities is that they are not connected to the source of life. In order to survive and grow, they have to feed on other forms of life, and right now they’re feeding on human life. The Power-Money-deity is a bloodthirsty one. There are ways to address that and to heal those spirits, or at least mitigate the damage they do. First, you cut their source of feeding. Either they starve or you try to help them to reconnect with the source if they want. When spirits are connected to the source of life, they don’t need to feed on human blood. And so it's an analogy, and I think there might be something there to explore for the benefit of the world. I’m actually working on a book on the subject.

A Conversation with Rev. Djalóki Jean-Luc Dessables, Special Assistant to the President, Jubilee Housing, Washington, D.C.