Spring Letter from Michael Lerner

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope this finds each of you as well as you can be.

What a year this has been.

While the whole world wallowed in the anguish of the pandemic, the Forbes list of millionaires increased their net worth from $8 trillion to $13 trillion. There are now 2755 billionaires—up 493 from last year.

While the United States freed itself—and just barely—from the predations of an authentically pathological leader, more than 40% of the country remained in his thrall, following him blindly into a world of alternative facts and false narratives.

While the pandemic and its many sequelae occupied the headlines, the global polycrisis continues to unfold: two dozen global stressors—social, environmental, technological, and financial/economic—interacting with increasing unpredictability and force.

In the midst of it all, Commonweal continues to thrive. We are thriving because this is our time. The world wants and needs beacons of light like Commonweal. We’re here to serve. And we are stronger and more vital than ever before.

More on all this later in my letter.

Losing Mimi

We lost Mimi Mindel, one of our core Commonweal staff members, on March 30, 2021. Mimi passed a day after a joyful Passover seder with her beautiful family. Mimi was such a radiant, unforgettable member of our Commonweal and Cancer Help Program community. We really can’t imagine Commonweal or the Cancer Help Program without her.

Managing Director and Commonweal Cancer Help Program Coordinator Arlene Allsman wrote:

“Mimi said YES to life and its many pleasures and adventures. And when her time came…Mimi went out quickly with no lingering drama, surrounded by her loving family as she would have wanted it.”

Oren Slozberg, Commonweal’s Executive Director, wrote:

“Mimi left so suddenly. One day she is playing ping pong, and the next day she is gone. I talked to her Monday night, when she was in the ICU at Marin General; I told her that I would come visit. She said, “Oh no, I won’t be here: I’m not planning to stay here that long.” She passed at 2am. Commonweal holds people. This place has held thousands as we faced cancer, or growing up, or being human. Mimi held us. In an unapologetic, direct, and loving way. With deep compassion that permeated every one of the dozens of Cancer Help Programs she staffed over the last 30 years. She was like my work Jewish Mom, and a close friend. And she was that for many of us. Mimi will be with me every day when I walk through the main doors of Commonweal, and see the hundreds of paper cranes surrounding where she would be.”

Janie Brown, our colleague who directs the Callanish Cancer Help Program at Callanish in Vancouver, BC, wrote this about how Mimi participated in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats:

“How can one describe someone who takes up no space in a circle, and yet fills the room to its edges? Like love itself, really. So intimate and so spacious. I, too, felt held by her but with a hold that gave me so much room to be myself, and express myself just as I am. Such a gift and a way of being to aspire to.”

Rachel Naomi Remen wrote:

“Dear Mimi, Thank you for being so human, so quirky, so filled with imperfections and foibles and so easy to love. Loving you has helped me to love myself exactly as I am and enabled me to love others in just this same way.

I have no question that you now sit at God’s right hand and will manage His affairs with the same dedication and humor and delightful originality and eccentric wisdom with which you managed ours. Doubtless His art gallery is far more impressive than ours ever was but it will be more welcoming, more original, more thoughtful, more creatively displayed and more humanly approachable because of your touch. I would imagine the great artists whose timeless works you will now curate will love you and appreciate you as deeply as the local artists whose works you brought to life on our gallery walls. Hopefully God will not ask you to answer the phone at His front desk.

We miss you terribly here. I hope you know that. We will love you forever. I hope you know that, too. We are so grateful for the gift of your humor, your perspective, your generosity, your love and your ability to make us laugh no matter what. You made us all better human beings. I hope you know that. And we will keep paying it forward. I hope you know that, too.

With Endless Love,

Mimi’s memorial will be held at Commonweal at her family’s request. They have asked that donations in Mimi’s memory come to Commonweal.

We have set up a Mimi Mindel Memorial Cancer Help Program Scholarship Fund for those who want to create a living memorial for Mimi. She loved the Cancer Help Program with her whole heart. I know for certain there is no way she would rather be remembered at Commonweal than by making it possible for those who come after her to share the extraordinary experience that she had when she came 28 years ago as a participant, and which she continued to have as a staff member for all the years that followed.

Mimi’s passing is a teaching. A teaching about how to leave. Passover celebrates freedom. Mimi celebrated Passover with her large beloved family. She left on her own terms, “as if she had scripted it,” many of us have said to each other. I like to believe Mimi has gone home. That I’ll see her on the other side. That she will watch over us. I like to believe that Mimi is free.

May we be so fortunate. Mimi knew that love heals. The whole Cancer Help Program is based on that simple truth. Love heals.

So as Mimi would say, “Love, love.”

Commonweal and COVID

What a year this has been. A year filled with so much pain and suffering, loneliness and loss, depression and despair for so many. A year filled with the quiet heroism of everyday people working to alleviate the suffering they find all around them. And a year in which, let us not forget, many people rediscovered more beautiful ways to live—freed of the need to do the many things life before the pandemic seemed to require. A year for walks in nature. A year for introverts. A year for getting to know neighbors and those close by. In the midst of all the sorrow, the beauty…

* * * *

It has been an extraordinary year at Commonweal. Times of great loss and suffering are times when our work is needed more than ever. Under Oren Slozberg’s leadership, Commonweal is now home to more than 40 programs and fiscally sponsored projects. Our principle programs moved online with immense skill and agility.

  • The Cancer Help Program gave birth to SANCTUARY—an adaptation of Cancer Help Program into a virtual environment. Arlene Allsman has now guided three of these month-long retreats to completion. Working with six participants in a weekly program over a month, we see a similar kind of transformation as we did with Cancer Help Program alumni. SANCTUARY provides an affordable and more accessible version of Cancer Help Program. We plan to continue SANCTUARY even when the in-person programs recommence, hopefully this fall.
  • Healing Circles Global (HCG) is a prime example of Commonweal’s program adaptation to a COVID world. Born of the Cancer Help Program and the Healing Circles Langley program developed by Kelly and Diana Lindsay on Whidbey Island, HCG is now co-directed by Diana Lindsay and Oren Slozberg. In March 2020, when it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, HCG started six healing circles via Zoom. An unthinkable idea before COVID, but necessitated by the realities of sheltering-in-place. Since September 2020, HCG has been offering hundreds of healing circles, as well as healing circles training to the general public.

Circle participants come from 34 states, 6 Canadian provinces and 21 counties, and circles are now conducted in French, Hebrew, German, and Serbian. In less than 12 months, HCG has become an international movement, expanding to new communities beyond cancer such as circles for medical providers, caregivers, people of color, LGBTQ+, and women. In 2019, HCG trained about 30 people a year to lead healing circles. In the last five months, HCG has trained more than 250 people to lead healing circles.

  • The New School (TNS) at Commonweal likewise moved smoothly online with Kyra Epstein’s gifted guidance and continues to offer a rich array of learning opportunities for friends across the country and around the world.

Kyra writes: “The New School is thriving, with a full line-up of virtual programming this spring and summer. In a new series of three monthly events, we co-present Roots of Resilience in an Age of Crisis with Real Foods Media, exploring the interconnectedness of land, seed, and water systems with a leading group of thinkers and doers, hosted by author and food activist Anna Lappe. Another new virtual series of five events explores the Healing Circles lineage: the Widening Circles series is co-presented with Healing Circles Global and features luminaries like Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, as well as Michael Lerner and many others. Our host Irwin Keller is busy as well, with conversations about West Marin’s radio history, technology and the human spirit, and others. Steve Heilig is hosting events with doctors and artists and everyone in between, and another new TNS host, Ladybird Morgan, brought an indigenous circle of women elders together to explore their work in social justice, environment, and community-building.

Our growing audience for events, videos, and podcasts is reaching around the country and world, and we’ve reached a new milestone: our audience has listened to podcasts and viewed videos approximately half a million times each over the years.”

  • Anna O’Malley, MD, and James Stark in the Commonweal Garden have been integrating online webinars with safe small gatherings as state and county guidance allows.
  • The Collaborative on Health and the Environment, the Resilience Project, the OMEGA Resilience Funders Network, and many other Commonweal projects have moved on line.

What we’ve learned in all these different initiatives is shared among us. If we wanted a single four-word summary, it would be: COVID brought Commonweal on line. We’ll go back to our in-person meetings gratefully, but we’ll never give up the reach and potential that our online presence has given us.

Healing, Resilience, Justice

When Oren speaks of Commonweal now, he uses three key words to describe our work: healing, resilience, and justice. I like that. My phrase will always be “healing ourselves and healing the earth.” That has been the vision that has guided me. Oren’s phrase drills down into the three core themes of our work.

We can’t heal ourselves and heal the earth without resilience. And we can’t create real resilience without justice.

Oren’s creativity and gifts are remarkable. He co-leads a national network of retreat centers, the Retreat Center Collaboration, funded by the Fetzer Institute—a four-year effort to understand and connect retreat centers and their allies across North America. He is also shepherding a new Fetzer-supported project, American Life Corps, using a model of human development inspired by The Nordic Secret: A European story of beauty and freedom, by Danish Philosopher and comedy writer Lene Andersen and Swedish Social Theorist and Entrepreneur Tomas Björkman. The plan is to work with the Retreat Center Collaboration partners to host six-month retreats for young adults (22-24 years old) using this renewed model that emphasizes human development to address modern day challenges.

Oren brought our longtime colleague Victoria Santos into Commonweal with her new Center for Healing and Liberation. He brought Rahmin Sarabi into Commonweal with his new Democracy Project. I brought Stanley Wu into Commonweal and the Jenifer Altman Foundation as coordinator of the Resilience Project and its sister OMEGA Resilience Funders Network. Oren elevated Stanley to director of the Resilience Project. He also added Rahmin, Victoria, and Stanley to our leadership team with Arlene Allsman and Vanessa Marcotte.

It is usually the leader who follows a founder who really gives lasting shape to an organization or, as I prefer to think, a community. Oren is far more gifted in thinking systematically than I am. He also has a profound gift for bringing people together. The number of Commonweal projects has essentially tripled under his leadership. Arlene Allsman and Vanessa Marcotte sit at the heart of our leadership team with Oren. They, in turn, are surrounded by this expanded leadership team.

I can’t begin to tell all the stories of our 40 Commonweal-based projects. Fortunately, Kyra Epstein is publishing monthly newsletters to keep you up to date. If you don’t receive them now you can sign up on the Commonweal website (www.commonweal.org).

My Work

I continue to dedicate myself to Commonweal and the Jenifer Altman Foundation.

Broadly speaking, the projects that I lightly guide include the Cancer Help Program, SANCTUARY, Healing Circles Global, Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, The New School at Commonweal, The Resilience Project, and the OMEGA Resilience Funders Network.

In truth, the only projects that require my focused attention are Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (in a major website rebuild), the Resilience Project (its national/global reach), and the OMEGA Resilience Funders Network. Hence three of the seven projects I so lightly guide.

I’m developing a new project called COVIDStrategies, which will be a website and learning community devoted to the long-term lessons of COVID as they relate to the global polycrisis. Building resilience to the polycrisis is the heart of our work with the Resilience Project and the OMEGA Resilience Funders Network. COVIDStrategies takes this one step further with a selective look at the pandemic. Core topics are integrative therapies for COVID, especially for long-haulers; repurposed drugs; controversies such as the one surrounding ivermectin; and analysis of the social, political, and financial context. COVIDStrategies fits neatly into the Resilience Project and OMEGA Resilience Funders Network with a strong overlap into our work in Healing Circles Global and Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies. We’ll let you know when this site is ready. You can find the website, a work in progress, at covidstrategies.org.

* * * *

At a personal level, I recovered well from my AAA (abdominal aortic artery) surgery nine months ago. I then developed small hernias and abdominal wall separations along the incision line. I will likely be having surgery around the time you read this letter.

This was not what I hoped for. But challenges like this are common at my time of life. All the work we’ve done in healing throughout the past 44 years has prepared me well. This surgery is far less extensive than the earlier one and I hope to be on the mend soon.

The good news is that this new challenge takes me deeper into the heart of my work in healing. I am able to be grateful for the suffering even in the midst of the suffering. In all the spiritual traditions, the gift of suffering is its capacity to take us deeper, and to find the pearl beyond price in our broken bodies and hearts.

We Can’t Do This Without You

Dear friends, Commonweal differs from many nonprofits in the extraordinary role that individual donations play in our work each year. Your support provides the glue that holds Commonweal together. We literally could not do it without you. That is not a figure of speech. That is the flat-out truth.

We embrace with deepest gratitude your gifts to specific Commonweal programs. We’re also so grateful when you choose to support all our work.

There are several ways you can consider giving:

  • A recurring monthly contribution makes a real difference. If you can afford $20 a month, that gives Commonweal $240 a year. That is a big deal for us.
  • Your annual or biannual contributions to Commonweal continue to be the lifeblood of our work. • We are profoundly grateful to those of you who include us in your estate planning, or when you choose Commonweal for memorial contributions.
  • Finally, we love creative ways of supporting our work—donations of appreciated equities, vehicles, boats, real estate, and other things of value that you are ready to liberate and would like to see put to good use. Please contact me, Oren Slozberg, or Arlene Allsman with your thoughts and questions.

When you make a gift to Commonweal, you join your energy with the collective energy of a community of service that has come together at Commonweal for more than 45 years. Your contribution makes you an active participant in our work.

Let us continue our part of the Great Work—together.

With love and gratitude,
Michael Lerner

To make an online donation go to: www.commonweal.org/support/

Check donations can be mailed to:

PO Box 316
Bolinas, CA 94924

If you would like to support a specific program, please indicate the program name on the check.