Spirit Centered-Activist, Advocate and Social Entrepreneur Aqeela Sherrills is the principal partner of The Reverence Project, a 3-fold initiative that is working to shift the social and philosophical construct of present world culture rooted in violence, shame, guilt and fear into a more balanced world view rooted in reverence, forgiveness, compassion and truth. He is the subject of multiple films/documentaries on gang violence prevention/intervention, a national and international speaker/consultant on peace-building efforts and is the curator of the Watts Arts Gallery.
XC: What is The Reverence Project?
AS: The Reverence Project, founded in February 2007 by former community activists, performance artists and healer/practitioners, is a 3-fold initiative that is working to shift the social and philosophical construct of present world culture rooted in violence, shame, guilt and fear into a more balanced world view rooted in reverence, forgiveness, compassion and truth. Through its multi-tiered, multi-partner, simultaneous approach, The Reverence Project is vested in three specific crossroads where a culture (e.g., the collective thinking of the people) has the greatest capacity for transformation:
1. Hosting Authentic Conversations
2. Truth and Restorative Justice Commission: Advocacy
3. The Reverence Fellowship: Wellness
The primary goal of the Reverence Project is to host intentional conversation about matters of the heart. The facilitator creates the context for these conversations through song, music and dance. The participants are encouraged to share their secrets, and to expose the things they feel most ashamed of in their personal lives, as an initiation into the practice of “beholding.”
The conversations are not meant to “fix” people or to solve their problems, but to re-define their experiences so that they are released from the emotional sting of past transgressions. The energy released from the metamorphosis of the experience that we’ve suffered from is the fuel for the Reverence Movement. In the Reverence Movement, the taboos of the culture must become commonplace within conversation, because we are not our experience. Our experiences only inform who we become; they’re not who we are.
XC: Why did you co-found this project? Who are your fellow co-founders?
AS: Raised in the Jordan Housing Project in Watts, California, I was once a gang member engaged in a war that cost more than 20,000 lives in Los Angeles County alone, between 1985 and 2005. I’ve witnessed many deaths and lost dozens of friends and family members to the criminal justice system. In 1992, I was instrumental in organizing a “peace treaty” between the Crips and Bloods in the 4 major housing projects [in L.A.], creating a domino effect throughout the city and across the country. In the 12 years that we sustained the cease fire agreement, gang violence and homicides dropped dramatically.
Today, as a direct result of my work, Los Angeles has the lowest homicide rate in over 40 years.
In 2004, after 16 years of working to end gang violence, my oldest son, Terrell’s life was tragically taken by a so-called “gang member.” [Terrell] was an aspiring actor and athlete, home on winter break from Humboldt State University. His death inspired the epiphany of Reverence in my life and catalyzed my efforts to launch a movement that sought to create a model for what peace looks like in urban war zones.
The co-founders of The Reverence Project include Lisa Sprinkles, Frank Escamilla, Sarah Cruse, Barbara Bosson, Jeanne Bonstelle, Orland Bishop, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Beth Solomon, Earl Katz, angel Kyodo williams, and Salomon Zavala. These were our initial partners in visioning our project initiatives.
XC: What is The Reverence Project’s relationship to The Reverence Movement, Watts Art Gallery, and Transformative Social Change?
AS: The Reverence Movement is a movement of the etheric energy of the heart. Etheric energy is defined as the electro-magnetic current that permeates the blood. It carries memory and is what we refer to as the soul. Reverence is the convergence of all the movements of the past. Whether it’s civil rights or environmental justice, at the root of these movements is a need to restore the vitality of the human spirit. Reverence speaks to the quality of attention that we hold for each other. It’s about bringing balance to the wound and the gift in our personal lives.
Reverence requires one to give new meaning to old ideas; it’s a shift in perception from seeing the glass as half empty to half full. It’s about compassion and love as a practice as opposed to an idea. It’s about standing in the face of judgment and knowing that your perceived vulnerability is your greatest strength. It’s about a “beholding” instead of drawing conclusions and judging. “Beholding” is about how we see, not what we see. By teaching the practice of “beholding,” the opportunity is created to shift the popular perception of those who have been disenfranchised and victimized by a media definition of peace, compassion and forgiveness without the ability to provide counter-images of love, strength, and prosperity in all aspects of relationship.
The Reverence Project, in partnership with the Watts Arts Gallery, hosts a series of indabas, facilitated by renowned healer and human rights activist, Orland Bishop. Indaba is a word from the Zulu tradition that means “deep talk.” The facilitator creates an intentional space for individuals to explore their deepest wounds and celebrate their awakening.
Complimenting the conversations is the vibrantly colored gallery. Throughout the ages color has been replete with symbolism. Vestiges of ancient lore appear in the rituals of the church, in mythology, and in the phrases of everyday speech. Art is the modern term for ritual, and ritual is about the restoration of memory through practice.
Images and colors have the capacity to sustain complex and authentic conversation and affect a person’s physiological outlook on the world. When one exposes the deep secrets in their personal life in such a space, the color and image association helps to sustain the awakened heart. The gallery also exhibits the original works of local artists. All proceeds from Watts Arts Gallery and Persnickety Gift Parlor benefit The Reverence Project.
Reverence and Transformative Change are essentially the same. To quote my sister angel Kyodo williams, “without inner change there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.” The Reverence Movement is an inner transformation. It doesn’t require a charismatic leader willing to martyr himself/herself for the cause. It’s not a boycott, march or protest reminiscent of past movements. Reverence, like Transformative Change is not fighting for or against anything. It’s being present to the gift of life and the capacity to love, create and be joy.
XC: This month’s newsletter theme is relationship and being in relationship. Can you share a few words on what it means to be in relationship with our past, particularly with our wounds? How does this relate to transformation?
AS: My mentor, Orland Bishop, says that we hold five generations of memory in our bones. Most of the belief systems and ideas we carry are inherited. Even though the belief systems are not relevant today, we still hold on to them out of conditioning—fear. My belief is that where you find the wounds in your personal life there also lies the gift of who you are in its dormant state. We must mine the wounds, surface them, dissect and analyze them, and take responsibility for our role in creating them.
This is very difficult for some of us to imagine, that we somehow played a role in our own wounding. It’s true. In most cases, it’s how we hold the experience in our hearts and imagination. Until we thoroughly understand our relationship to the experience, we are trapped by the shame, pain and guilt associated with it. This honest analysis and inquiry of the past allows us to metamorphose the given idea about the experience, giving way to transformation.
XC: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
AS: Yes, Transformative Change is a slow, organic process that should not be judged. Transformative change is a process which should be beheld—holding space for the highest possibilities and probabilities to emerge from the experience. Happy journeying!