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Seeking Light in Dark Times: Conversation with Bishop Doug Fisher of Western Massachusetts

Where do we go for hope in dark times? In this special conversation with Bishop Doug Fisher (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts), we talk climate action, radical empathy, compassion, and baseball. Plus Bishop Doug offers five strategies for hope in the winter darkness.

The Right Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher is the IX Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Bishop Doug was rector of Grace Church, Millbrook , New York for twelve years before election to the episcopate. Prior to that he was Pastor of Holy Innocents in Highland Falls, New York and Chaplain to United States Military Academy at West Point (1997-2000), and Chair of the Standing Committee for the Diocese of New York. You can read about his official biography and many accomplishments here, but I invited him onto the program because he is one of the most compassionate and common sense people I know.

You can read his official bio here, but I invited him onto the podcast because we share many years of friendship (17 to be exact, as we figured out in the podcast). Bishop Doug was my close collaborator and partner in establishing Millbrook Community Preschool, a regionally recognized early childhood education center that is still going strong 16 years after its inception. He roped. me into more years of writing and directing Christmas pageants that I care to remember (although my favorite year will always be the sheep that said no -- a story for another time). Bishop Doug buried our beloved dog, Osborne, was a role model and friend to our family, and ignited my youngest daughter's passion for the Yankees (mission accomplished). Through all the years, he has impressed me with his ability to see beyond and ahead of the turmoil and issues of the day to a place of hope and equity. And he backs up his words with actions. So I am delighted to share this unique conversation that I hope will bring you light in the midst of the dark winter.

At first glance this conversation is a bit of a departure from my usual podcast interviews. We do talk about connections and STEM and STEAM, but in a broader context. There are also a number of books that we discussed that you can find here. I do hope that you enjoy this episode and that you find ideas to bring into your new year.

Note: What follows is the complete transcript from my conversation with The Right Rev. Dr. Doug Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

[00:01] Dr Diane: Wonder, curiosity, connection. Where will your adventures take you? I'm Dr. Diane, and thank you for joining me on today's episode of Adventures in Learning. So, welcome to the Adventures in Learning podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Diane, and today we are so fortunate because we have one of my favorite humans on Earth on the podcast. With us we have Doug Fisher, who is the Bishop of Western Massachusetts, with us. And I've known Doug since I first went into his office when we moved up to Millbrook, New York. Gosh, it's got to be going on 13 years now, but welcome to the show.

[00:46] Bishop Doug: Actually longer than that.

[00:47] Dr Diane: Oh, gosh, I tend to lose time here and there, but yeah, my babies were three, so you're right, it is a lot longer than that. We're talking like 17 years.

[01:02] Bishop Doug: Yeah. Our friendship is a great blessing in my life.

Let's meet Bishop Doug Fisher:

[01:04] Dr Diane: Well, in mine as well. So, Doug, welcome to the show. I'm so glad you're here because I feel like it's a really timely place for us as a people and a country to have some of the conversations you and I have had over the years about connection and joy and hope. And I'm hoping that maybe this hour will bring people a little bit of happiness in a time where we've got a lot of darkness. So I guess I wanted to start by asking, how did you get to where you are today? I like to start with all of my guests to sort of share, how did you wind up where you are? Give them a little bit of background.

[01:42] Bishop Doug: Sure. Well, certainly a lot of my background is faith and being engaged in church and being engaged in community action. And so I was the chaplain at West Point back in the 1990s, the Episcopal chaplain, and I was really moved by their stories and their commitment, their ability to really sacrifice for one another. That was really impressive to me. Then left there, I came to Millbrook for twelve years and again really engaged in the community. We had three young children at that time, too. And to say that sports and coaching was a big part of my life is the truth. And coaching is kind of a way of life in a lot of ways. So I just loved being engaged with those young people and meeting their parents on the sidelines. And around the time that we started a Latino faith community at Grace Church, there were a number of people, Latino people, who were moving into the neighborhood, who were working in all kinds of jobs, and we gathered them together to find out what they needed. And they wanted a faith community, and many of them, too, were undocumented and they wanted help learning English and getting documented and I spent time with them. And then in 2012, I was elected Bishop of Western Massachusetts. And that's been a wonderful challenge and a lot of new situations every day.

A Yankees Fan in Red Sox Territory?

[03:22] Dr Diane: So how did a Yankee adjust to Boston Red Sox territory? I've got to ask that question.

[03:28] Bishop Doug: Well, I hope they've adjusted to me. They knew I was a Yankees fan when they elected me. And there's some kind of fun traditions that have developed along the way. So the Episcopal Church, we have what's called the Diocesan Convention. Every year, it's a big convention. Several hundred people. I start it off by saying a very solemn prayer, and then I bang the gavel. The 121st Diocesan Convention Diocese of Western Massachusetts is now open for business, and they all, as one, stand up and sing Sweet Caroline to me.

Could It Be?

[04:05] Dr Diane: I love it. One of the things that I remember from your time in the pulpit of Grace Church is you would often ask things like, could it be? And you used that as your rhetorical device to get us to think beyond black and white and to really stretch our imaginations. How does “could it be” relate to the situation we're currently facing as a country?

[04:31] Bishop Doug: That's a great way to put it, because I think we've gotten wired into partisanship. We've gotten mired into everybody taking sides, everybody calling each other names. And so I think Jesus is the ultimate. Could it be that Jesus would look at the situation and say, could it be there's another way to go about this? Or as Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, says, could we follow the way of love? Could it be that we don't have to be stuck in a very divided country? Leave open possibilities?

[05:12] Dr Diane: What are some ways that you've worked to sort of bridge that divide in your diocese in Massachusetts?

[05:19] Bishop Doug: Respecting every human being, respecting their opinions, their decisions. Not that you might agree with them, but to respect that they could have that. And then always to point to the common good, not just what's good for my side, but what's the common good, what's the needs of this neighborhood that we can address and find different ways to do that? So one of those ways which is really taking off in Western Massachusetts is this ministry we have for veterans. And it's a real simple concept. It's lunch, free lunch for veterans once a week or once a month, depending on what church it is. Right now, we're in 13 different churches, and a lot of those veterans don't need the food. They don't need free food, but they're there because they want companionship. They want community. Others of those veterans literally sleep under the bridges on the Connecticut River. And so it's bringing them together. And that's something we can all agree on, left and right can agree on, you know, that our veterans really made sacrifices in their life for our country. And a lot of them have a tough time adjusting to life without the service because they need community. And this creates community. And we can all agree on that, no matter who we are voting for.

[06:46] Dr Diane: That makes sense. Barry and I were out in Arizona recently, and we did a lot of hiking, and we were observing lots of different people in the national parks. And one of the things that struck me as we were hiking is that sense that it's hard to love something that you don't know and don't understand, that people have a really hard time with abstraction and that the people who were there in the parks are going to leave those parks with a greater sense of connection to the land and connection to the environment, perhaps, and then might be able to go forward and to love and to protect it. And I'm wondering if it could be that one of the things we need to do is help people start seeing each other not as abstract us versus them, but as who you are.

[07:41] Bishop Doug: Exactly. My friend Mariann Budde, she's the bishop in Washington, DC., she said this great line. It says, you are a totally unique expression of God's creativity. It's a great line. You are a totally unique expression of God's creativity. And to value that in each other.

Addressing Climate Change

[08:00] Dr Diane: I think that makes a lot of sense. And I was also thinking just in terms of the environment, just kind of going back to that for a moment, we've got this huge problem in front of us. I hope that we could all agree that climate action is probably one of the big things that we're going to have to address moving forward. And I'm just trying to think about ways that maybe we can come together to start taking what looks like a huge insurmountable problem and breaking it down into something that is more real, more tangible to us day to day. And how do we address that?

[08:40] Bishop Doug: Right. On numerous levels. I think again, to go to spirituality, St. Francis has a great prayer about Brother Son and Sister Moon. It's a whole prayer about the fact that we are related to the Earth, that we don't conquer the Earth, the Earth isn't here for us, that we are part of God's creation, and how to love and respect all of that nature that's around us. And another dimension, too, is I've been blessed with three grandchildren and blessed, the latest one being born three weeks ago. And when you talk to people about that, people are just thrilled. This is just wonderful to be a grandparent. And it is. It's a great thing to be a grandparent. But when I look at what our Earth could be when they get to be my age, when they get to be in their 60s, what's going to be here? It could be radically, radically different. I'm coming to you from Massachusetts, where it's been said there's going to be a day when people in Boston say, remember when there was winter in New England?

[09:47] Dr Diane: Wow.

[09:48] Bishop Doug: Yeah. So in terms of coming together for the common good, whether we physically have grandchildren or not, we should focus on the fact that what are we passing on to these next generations? And can we, again, being physically a grandparent or not, how can we be a good ancestor? How can we pass on an Earth that's livable and thriving to our grandchildren?

[10:21] Dr Diane: Right. And I think sometimes that starts locally. I can't necessarily make rules for the entire country. I can do what I can within my own life and my own space while advocating for broader changes. And maybe that's kind of how you make it less insurmountable, is to look at it from a two pronged approach.

[10:44] Bishop Doug: Right. Another part of my job is that I'm the chair of a committee that's called Socially Responsible Investing for the Episcopal Church. So another approach to many things, but certainly to climate, is to have shareholder resolutions that make companies accountable to their customers. And being accountable means addressing issues that impact our environment.

How does "could it be" play out in Western Massachusetts?

[11:14] Dr Diane: That makes a lot of sense to me. So I was going to ask you also just in terms of some of the things that you guys are doing in Western Massachusetts, I know that you've been very committed to what you call the Jesus movement and was wondering if you could describe a little bit about what that means.

[11:34] Bishop Doug: Yeah, well, the definition of our church comes from Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop, who's known by most people as the Royal Wedding Preacher. And Michael gives us this definition. He says, we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement that's out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream that God has for us. And there's many branches of Jesus hope and as many branches of faith, as we work alongside our Jewish and Islamic brothers and sisters. But in terms of hope, in terms of could it be, for some people, the world isn’t, out there they really live lives of quiet or maybe not so quiet desperation? And how can that be changed? Again, to go to your point about could it be and other possibilities, another area that I work on is gun violence. There's over 400 million guns in our country right now, many of which don't even belong on our streets. Going back to my West Point experience, the people who went there, who I'm friends with to this day, are in the Army and say an AR15 is meant as a weapon of war. It's not a hunting weapon. It's not even a self-protection weapon. Ghost guns, all kinds of things like that. To say, could it be that it can be different than what it is right now.

How do we navigate a path out of the pandemic with hope, gratitude, and joy?

[13:10] Dr Diane: That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that over the last two years, particularly as we've been in a time of pandemic, as we've come out of one of the greatest divides I think this country has ever known, as we're coming to a racial reckoning as well. I think people are coming out, at least it seems from my observations, with a sense of desperation and of not feeling grounded or moored. And I'm sort of thinking, how do we navigate a path from here? Where do we go?

[13:45] Bishop Doug: Yeah, where do we go? Some of it goes back to in terms of hope, goes back to starting a starting point of thanksgiving. I think people start at a point of deprivation. There's something I don't have and someone else has or whatever. So for myself, in terms of spirituality, I really try and ground myself in thanksgiving, even to this point of practice I have when the alarm goes off to wake up before I even get out of bed, I say to myself, five things that I'm thankful for, five things that I'm thankful for. And I think that grounds us in something. And then when we're grounded in that, other things become possible. There's some theologians that said thanksgiving helps to take away fear, helps to take away anxiety, and it helps us to imagine things that we didn't think were possible, but it comes out of the groundedness of being blessed.

[14:54] Dr Diane: I think that makes a lot of sense. One of my pandemic reads that ultimately became very life changing for me was The Book of Joy. I don't know if you've seen this one.

[15:04] Bishop Doug: Sure, I read that. Yeah.

[15:05] Dr Diane: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Absolutely loved that book. And it absolutely changed the way I was thinking about the world around me. It sort of slowed me down, got me stopping to think and to really take that time, as you say, for gratitude. Actually. I don't know if you've seen it with your grandchildren, there’s now a Little Book of Joy that Rafael Lopez illustrated, and it's just beautiful. It's designed for kids, and it has an unnamed Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dalai Lama as children, and they find their joy and it connects them across the world. And it's truly just a lovely book about building compassion, building empathy as an action verb. And I think you're absolutely right that if we can look at the world from a point of view of gratitude because there's always something to be grateful for. Even on the darkest days, I woke up, that's something to start the day off being grateful for. I was thinking about The Book of Joy and thinking about sort of the light that Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama had set as well. And I think that some of the people that I've seen who have the greatest joy in life are the ones who spend the most time in a state of gratitude. They're not the richest people. They're not the people necessarily with what we would consider the most Instagram followers or the best jobs, but they're people who stay grounded in finding some joy in whatever is facing them.

[16:40] Bishop Doug: Yeah, exactly. Another friend of mine, he went to heaven a couple of years ago but he was another bishop, John Tarrant. He says, we're always talking about abundance and having more. He says, when is it just enough? You know, just, I'm thankful because I've got enough.

Living with mercy, compassion, and hope -- or empathy as an action verb?

[16:57] Dr Diane: I think that makes a lot of sense. You know, I just referenced empathy as an action verb. It's something that's come up with a number of the authors that I've had on the podcast recently, and it's something I've been toying with in my brain in terms of how do we take that concept and make it relatable for kids and for adults? And I'm wondering if it's something that you've run across. I know that you always used mercy, compassion, and hope, and I'm just wondering how that would fit in with that idea.

[17:27] Bishop Doug: Yeah, well, again, I think it goes to not only Brother Son and Sister Moon, that we're related to the Earth, but that we are all related to one another, and so to be impacted by that. And Jesus is the one who's constantly pointing out what's around us, you know, who is around us. Jesus talks about love a lot, but more often than love, he talks about, see, pay attention, stay awake. And I think that's a big part of empathy is that people are seen, to be recognized, and what are we doing for them in terms of the common good and how much we need them. So empathy, I think, is grounded in thanksgiving, and it's grounded in being aware, just being aware.

[18:24] Dr Diane: What's something that brings you hope these days?

[18:27] Bishop Doug: Yeah, you know, a number of things bring me hope. Conversations like this bring me hope that there's people talking about things like this. I see what community can do for folks. You know, it's my hope coming out of COVID and all that time of isolation is that people won't take community for granted anymore. Community only happens when it's intentional, right? You and I chose to be a great church and to be in community with each other. Sure, you make that commitment. I think that after two years of missing community, that people will enter into it more and more. Examples from my own life. It's a silly little example, but these guys I went to high school with, so we've been friends forever. We always used to go to the St. John’s/Georgetown basketball game at Madison Square Garden every year. And then when I got elected bishop, there's been years I've missed just because my schedule is so busy. Well, after COVID, I'm never going to miss the St. John’s/Georgetown basketball game with my buddies. It's just community is that important. So you see what gives me hope. I think that desire for community definitely gives me hope. And I think, too, you know, St. Paul has got this line that may be difficult to hear, but he says that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And so we've been through this common suffering, and we endured it. And that can form character. And character gives hope that things can be transformed.

[20:26] Dr Diane: I like the idea of transform, too. It sort of does give a sense of hope that it's not always going to be the way it is now, that there is a chance to make it better. Especially if you think about our children, our grandchildren, other people's children and grandchildren, and kind of circling back to how do we leave the world a better place for them?

[20:48] Bishop Doug: Yeah, exactly. Can we be good ancestors?

[20:52] Dr Diane: And I do like the notion of ancestors. That was something that definitely struck me a lot when we were in Arizona, was just that palpable sense of ancestors and sort of holy space, and I don't know that we necessarily pay enough attention to that.

[21:10] Bishop Doug: Yeah. Thich Nhat Hanh, great spiritual leader, after his mother died, he was having a hard time with that. His mother appeared to him in a dream, and he just had this really vivid dream of her, and he recognized that we are all united. He's united with his mother, who's on the other side of life. But the next day when he did this walking meditation in Hanoi and it was raining, he saw this muddy footprint, and he said, that's not my footprint. That's our footprint. It connected it to all who have gone before.

[21:51] Dr Diane: I'm glad you brought up Thich Nhat Hanh, actually, because he's another one who has formed sort of a huge part of my reading this year. [Note: some of the books that formed my reading included Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, and You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment]. I think that the world opens up and connections form when you're ready for them. And so I was going to ask you, who are some of your biggest spiritual influences or your heroes, people that guide your thinking?

[22:13] Bishop Doug: Yeah, well, someone for the longest time was Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk and wrote 63 books (Note: some of the books include No Man Is an Island, Contemplative Prayer, and The Seven Storey Mountain) And he defines God as mercy within mercy within mercy. He also has this great notion of what he calls the true self. And he says the true self is ultimately always found in God, and everything else that we kind of put on ourselves is a false self. The true self is genuine in God. But someone who's been a real spiritual mentor to me recently is Greg Boyle, and he's a Jesuit priest. And he's spent his entire ministry, 40 years working with gangs in Los Angeles. And he's written these books. Tattoos on the Heart, Barking to the Choir, and other ones. And he tells these stories about the gangs, which are sometimes just heartbreaking. I mean, he's done something like 400 funerals for young people who died through gang violence. And at the same time, he's got stories in there that are really funny about his engagements with them. And he's always invited to speak at college campuses. And wherever he goes, he always takes at least two or three former gang members with them so that they can talk to their experience. But he also has some really rich theology within his books. One line, as he quotes St. Paul who says to put on Christ, and Greg Boyle says, no. He said, actually putting on Christ is the easy part. He says the challenge is never taking him off. Can we bring that sense of spirituality and compassion to every place that we are? The other thing that he says, which is I really meditate on this line a lot, he says, God protects me from nothing, and God sustains me in everything. As Christians, Jesus, God's son, dies a horrible, awful death. He was not protected from that. But God sustains me and everything. So whatever we're going through, God sustains us, God gives us hope.

The elephant in the room -- how do Christians in particular stand up and serve as allies when the people they're facing off against, in many cases, are also shrouding themselves in Christianity?

[24:46] Dr Diane: So you're talking about Christianity and God sustaining. And I'm thinking about some of the situations hitting the country right now in terms of antisemitism, racism. I'm thinking about the rights eroding for LGBTQ+ members of our congregations as well. How do Christians in particular stand up and serve as allies when the people they're facing off against, in many cases, are also shrouding themselves in Christianity?

[25:21] Bishop Doug: Yeah, certainly to live our values and to witness to our values. And Christ was about uniting people, not taking them apart, not having one population over another. That's antithetical. And so to have those conversations in love. So here's what we stand for, and to constantly look for ways to raise our own consciousness and awareness. As a white man in the United States, I've got all kinds of privileges that others don't, and to recognize that. So in our diocese, we've been called sacred ground communities. So it's over 80 of them. It's very important discussions about race. And again, it's about awareness, some things we're not even aware of. And Jesus says, stay awake. Look, see, to hear those stories and to be connected in that way. And so much is about building relationships. Right? Right. Until a year ago, at our cathedral, we had a rabbi in residence. He died during COVID, not of COVID, and I sat shiva with his family over Zoom, because COVID was so bad at that time. He would teach courses in the Hebrew scriptures. He would preach just being connected so that instead of creating images of other people, we know the people.

[27:06] Dr Diane: Right. Which gets back to what we talked about earlier, about empathy and being aware and really seeing what's in front of us, I think, and trying to understand actively.

[27:19] Bishop Doug: Exactly.

[27:21] Dr Diane: I think Maya Angelou, I may kill the quote, but I know that I've read the quote and thought about it, about once you know better, do better. And I think that's part of what you're talking about is being awake and being attuned to what you don't know and being willing to learn from that and to recognize that you sit side by side with other people in a supportive role and in an allied role. [Note: the actual quote — "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” — Maya Angelou]

[27:48] Bishop Doug: Exactly. And it goes through the kind of work that you do. Learning is lifelong. We're students forever. And then when you know something, you can't not know it.

[27:58] Dr Diane: Exactly. That's been sort of for me, one of the powerful things about education and about the opportunity to work with teachers is to be able, particularly looking at STEAM and STEM and at the various children's picture books out there. To say, I’m not saying don't use the books that you loved when you were a child, but look at all these other wonderful books that are out there that allow kids to see themselves and to see other experiences. And I think that when you can start incorporating those into what you're doing, it's a richer experience for you as the teacher. It's a richer experience for all of your class and ultimately builds those connections that lead to active empathy and compassion and hope.

[28:42] Bishop Doug: Yeah. And it's constantly reworking ourselves as teachers, right?

[28:47] Dr Diane: Exactly.

[28:50] Bishop Doug: We're always being transformed.

Light in the Darkness -- 5 Ways to Add Light and Joy in these Winter Months

[28:53] Dr Diane: So last question for you. We're entering into the winter months, and those tend to be sort of darker months for people as times of reflection and things like that. If you could offer people sort of a path of five things that might be good for them to do this winter, what would they be?

[29:14] Bishop Doug: I never thought of it that way. That's a great question. Well, I think one goes back to community to be intentional about community. And I'd say that I hope that that's the desire for people coming out of COVID at the same time people have gotten out of the habit of community. So it's intentional whether it's church or a service organization or to engage that.

The other thing that I've talked to even before with my churches all the time, is how to collaborate with others in terms of service projects. Again, the need in our neighborhood is so big, but maybe your church doesn't have to start a food pantry if another church across town and down the block has a food pantry. And I guarantee that they need volunteers and they need donations. So you engage that. You engage that.

So if you want five, I'd say one is community, another is service. I think another is just finding opportunities to laugh, to just kind of take that moment and see the humor in the life that we have. And maybe sometimes, just like, we can dwell on our problems, right. We all have that circumstance, right?

[30:44] Dr Diane: Sure.

[30:45] Bishop Doug: Something happens and we mull it over. We mull it over. Mull it over. What would happen if we did that with joy if something happens, instead of it just being that moment, to think back on that moment and what it meant to you and what it said to you, what part of your soul became alive when that happened? To kind of dwell on the joy moments as much as we dwell on the difficult moments. And then another one, I would say, is to spend time intentionally again in silence. That's just being quiet. But there are all kinds of spiritual teachers that can teach this far better than I can. But even just dwelling on your breath, just the fact that you're alive, our lives are always so hectic right. It's just settle down and just be aware of the fact that we're breathing.

[31:53] Dr Diane: Those are all wonderful options, and hopefully people will use them this winter and be able to find a way forward out of the darkness and into some greater light. Bishop Doug, thank you so much for joining us on the Adventures in Learning podcast. It has been such a treat for me to be able to catch up with you today.

[32:11] Bishop Doug: Thank you, Diane.

[32:15] Dr Diane: You've been listening to the Adventures in Learning podcast with your host, Dr. Diane. If you like what you're hearing, please subscribe, download and let us know what you think. And please tell a friend. If you want the full show notes and the pictures, please go to We look forward to you joining us on our next adventure.

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