It was the last night of my groups’ work hosting a weekly night at a rotating homeless shelter called the Robes Project. It was a night like any other and I was doing the usual overnight shift. I often arrive early and help work the dinner shift as well, cooking food, then eating and hanging out with the guests. There was the group of guests and volunteers who had finished eating and started playing Scrabble. Another volunteer was playing a guest in chess. There was the group of guests reading the newspaper. Some people were still eating dessert. Two guests were speaking in their native Sierra Leonean pigeon English. Music was playing in the background and laughter could be heard in the air as many of the books we brought for the donated library sat there, unread. Suddenly one guest, a very distinguished man with a nice black blazer, well-wrapped scarf, and reading glasses, stood up and declared, “Excuse me, excuse me, everyone. I have an announcement to make.”
He was a type of father figure in Robes. He could talk to and with anyone, and he could feel just as comfortable reading to himself in the middle of all our noise, like a father might feel at home in the evening in his favourite chair, drawing comfort from the fact that his children were happy, playful, and alive. This time he made a rare move and took centre stage before all the guests and volunteers.
“I’ve received permission from Olivia and Crispan to make this announcement. As you all know, tonight is the last night for the volunteers here. From now on our Friday nights will be spent at another hosting community. We have been so richly blessed by you and we want to say thank you. The food was amazing. The way you talked to us, laughed with us, played games with us, brought books for us—we were treated so well, and we want to say thank you. The conversation, the love, the joy—it was just amazing and overwhelming. Simply the best. Thank you so very much from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you. May the Good Lord, in all his wondrous workings, richly bless you this day for what you have done with us and for us. May you be richly blessed in all you do wherever you go in Jesus’s name.”
At that moment, the place erupted in applause. Applause is a weird thing to get used to. Some famous people do. I sometimes have to diffuse the energy, so I just jumped in and applauded as well, thanking the guests, too, and thanking the other volunteers who allowed me to participate in this work of learning to relate to the guests. It really was a beautiful moment.
Here is the strange thing: the guests were specifically calling attention to our work over and above the work of other church groups and community groups that host the shelter on other nights. This floored me and blew my mind. They were not saying “Thank you for caring for us when no one did.” No. They were saying “In caring for us, thank you for loving us over and above what was required.” They were saying, “we are cared for a lot by many others, but it is not like this. We are not always loved.” Do you see what I’m saying? I guess, I was surprised because most of the community groups hosting were church groups, and I stereotyped the churches and expected that they would all simply love all over the guests.
I was wrong. Apparently, we were the only people who created a library. However, instead of it being the kind where you return or swap the book, you could keep the book. We were the only ones who brought games. We were the only ones who actually called up the Robes administration (or other hosting groups) to find out what the guests ate throughout the week so that we could cook something original. When my group decided to do the Robes project this year, we decided one thing—we were going to cook the best food ever, food we would cook for ourselves, our families, and our friends. And it makes sense to me because the guests became our friends.
So every week, without a doubt or an aberration, multiple guests told me that we cook the best food.
“The food here is amazing.”
“This is just like home-cooked food. It’s so hearty.”
“We all look forward to coming here every week.”
“I’ve been waiting for Friday just for the meal. We always know it’s going to be good.”
“Uhhh, I’m so sick of pasta and apple crumble. I know I’m gonna get something good tonight! I can’t wait!”
Second helpings and plates were commonplace. I’ve even seen thirds and fourths. People really loved it, whether it was lamb stew, Moroccan chicken, vegetarian curry, or Belgian waffles. To them it was always good. Take it from me, it was goooood. The experience of doing that and the amazingly wonderful time the guests and volunteers had reminded me of why I like my group—they are spiritually intelligent. And just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you’re spiritually intelligent (this explains my surprise at finding out our night was seen as special among all nights of the week for the rotating shelter, even though they are hosted by churches). You can be non-religious and highly spiritually intelligent, and you can be very religious with little spiritual intelligence. This experience reminded me of that truth. This reminded me of that.
I should probably define or explain spiritual intelligence. But let me backtrack to emotional intelligence. We all remember or have heard of the traditional Western understanding of intelligence. I still see it in schools today. This person is smart. That person is dumb. For a long time rational or logical intelligence was the only recognized form of intelligence—IQ. Then Professor Howard Garner was the first person to explicitly articulate the still controversial idea of multiple intelligences in the 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Though some disagree, people began to realise you can be intelligent in many different ways such as kinesthetic intelligence, musical intelligence, social intelligence, linguistic intelligence, etc. Then another wave of ideas and books were birthed when Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence (the first use of the term is usually attributed to Wayne Payne’s doctoral thesis in 1985), argued that emotional intelligence (EQ) is at least as important as IQ. Emotional intelligence deals with being aware of people feelings as well as being self-aware of our own. It involves being able to “read” people and situations and enables empathy, compassion, and response to the pain or pleasure of others. You can cultivate and grow EQ throughout your life; it is not static.
However, few of my friends have ever talked to me about spiritual intelligence. The idea started popping up around the late 90’s and one 2001 book, SQ: Connecting with Our Spiritual Intelligence by Danah Zohar and Dr. Ian Marshall, considers spiritual intelligence the most important intelligence. While IQ and EQ mallow you to play within the boundaries, SQ allows you to play with the boundaries and question and criticise the status quo, why things are the way the are, or the meaning of our ways. It allows you to imagine new creative possibilities—the way real faith should be. Spiritual intelligence looks at the big questions and asks them. Why am I here? What is it all for? What should I do with my life? What purpose can I serve? It asks the tough questions about values, existence, meaning, and purpose, allowing you to transcend, at least in thought, the physical and material. Spiritual intelligence deals with the sanctifying of every day experience and the inner life of the mind and spirit and its relation to the world. It’s really just the adaptive mental capacity to deal with nonmaterial things like purpose and meaning, reflect on it, and integrate it into your life such that it affects your understanding of meaning, your awareness of things (whether causes or purposes) bigger than yourself, and peace.
Did you catch the recurring theme in there? It’s the use of reflection and questioning. Unfortunately many religious groups or institutions stifle this type of questioning, criticism, or imagination allowing for little spiritually intelligent growth. Because of the importance for reflection and questioning of the status quo, you can be an atheist with a very high SQ; on the other hand, you can be a staunch religious person and have a very low SQ.
What I love about my group that works to host a night at the rotating shelter is that they are so spiritually intelligent. Though it’s rare that they reference God or Jesus in a meeting, every thing we do—whether a type of service, a pub get-together, or a meal—is pushing us to develop our spiritual intelligence. It’s one of the few experiences I’ve had of being in a group in which people are not encouraged to believe the same things. And for all the critics who say this is untenable or impossible, let me tell you—it works. The only foundation we share in common is love. And love is not a belief.
I have some amazingly spiritually intelligent friends who are not religious, and I’m thankful for them. They care for the sick, host weekly community dinners, give money they don’t have, live in uncomfortable places and spaces for the sake of someone besides themselves. They serve in the military, they teach, they clean buildings, they quench fires, they do a myriad of tasks, and their lives (not just their jobs) are infused with spiritually intelligent actions.
Spiritual intelligence is living and thinking with your soul. Everyone can do that regardless of having a religion. But what does that mean? Dave Tomlinson talks about spiritual intelligence in his book How to be aBad Christian. Some of the qualities he lists are below:
Being centred or grounded
Dave lists three ways of cultivating spiritual intelligence. First just make a commitment to go on this inward-outward journey (he calls it an inward journey). I always remind my friends that spiritual intelligence is an outward intelligence as well. The journey starts with questions and reflections but it doesn’t end there. First, you have to commit to start.
The second important thing is to participate in spiritual practices.
To yourself – what are you feeling but ignoring, what thoughts are you pushing to the back of your mind
To other people – friends and family whose concerns or needs you tend to bypass or overlook, strangers who pass by unseen by you
To situations – circumstances in your life that may be saying important things to you or about you
To the world – big things, little things, things of beauty, things you may not have noticed, details that pass you by, unawares
To God – who is present in all these other ways seeking to enrich you and guide you
Last is a hugely important step without which the first two steps don’t mean anything: you have to find a community to go on this journey with you. I know people for whom leaving their church was a spiritually healthy move. I have a friend for whom leaving her church did her faith well because she was in a place that was toxic for her faith. I wish all religious places were about the business of growing spiritually healthy and intelligent people, but we are not. Still, I never want to make the mistake of thinking that it’s a journey that can be done alone. If you venture out from a tough community, find another one that you can work with, one that welcomes and accepts you in love, one that honours and respects you, and one that is concerned about you and your spiritual growth. You have to travel with people that will affirm you and encourage you and also speak truthfully to you, empowering you and enabling you to grow.
No church or religious group or institution is perfect. And there are some amazing examples of church groups that do help to cultivate your spiritual intelligence. I travel around and go between religious groups, but I can tell you that Borough Common, my group that hosts the rotating homeless shelter is a wonderful community of people. They let you ask any question you want, critical or unchallenging. They let you probe who we are as a people, where we are going, and what we are doing. Most importantly, they let you believe what you would like and in the process they love you unconditionally. They are not perfect in any way and you’ll see that when you visit. But I love that I, first, belong. First and foremost, I belong.