Small Stones Interviews: The Rev. Kat Banakis

Kat Banakis is the Theologian-in-Residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois.


The Rev. Kat Banakis is the Theologian-in-Residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois. Her writing, preaching, and teaching explore how to be people of faith in this time and place. She is host and producer of The Holy Holy Podcast, an interfaith program on life’s large questions bringing together secular leaders with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian voices. She is the author of Bubble Girl: An Irreverent Journey of Faith (Chalice, 2013), which puts Christian systematic theology into an accessible, narrative form for personal and group reflection on how our stories are wrapped up in God’s story. Outside of St. Luke’s, Kat works in fundraising consulting for large non-profit organizations. She and her husband live in Chicago. Full disclosure: Kat and the Small Stones editors were college classmates.

Small Stones: We are picking people to talk to who are engaged in education at all sorts of different levels and worlds, and part of why you came up is because of the podcast work you were doing in the second half of last year, and because so much of what that podcast is, at least from my perspective, is very educational. And not in a way that’s didactic or anything like that, but it seems like it was educational for the participants, and it was educational for the people listening. It was a really great interfaith, intergeneration dialogue… and that feels very last-administration.

I’m curious, given that you recently had that role, how do you look at what we have happening now, in the civic world, that’s really invoking a lot of notes of conservative religious positions, too?

Kat Banakis: So Karl Barth is a mid-20th century theologian, and he talked about how when you preach, you always do so with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. And when I was putting together the first season of the podcast, I was really looking at, and to use a religious term, exegeting, my congregation, seeing that so many of the young families coming in had grown up in multi religious or non-religious households, and really for me to be a good pastor to my congregation, I needed to expand my aperture and purview of interfaith work. This was to be able to gain fluency, to be able to pastor to them, and also because I think that it is important in the public square to have interreligious dialogue.

But you also make a really good point that it was, to a certain extent, a situation of the time, in that there was this burgeoning—there’s always been interfaith work in the US, but particularly since 9/11, thinking about intra-Abrahamic initiatives has been very live. And so it was intentionally the sort of topics that bring people back to religion, broad topics, and then doing interfaith education around life issues, which as you point out, felt appropriate to the time, and creating a space for interfaith education around life topics.

Fast forward to the present, and—

SS: That’s not a whole lot of fast-forwarding!

KB: Yeah, yeah, but I think that in some ways, what that allowed was a base for how then we work together in the face of caring deeply about justice and ethics. In the immediate aftermath of the initial refugee ban, having a network of Muslim laywomen who I could reach out and tap into and find out how I could be helpful, which a year ago I wouldn’t have had. Relationships are built through relationships. I had to have done the interviews and had the luncheons with the Muslim laywomen in order to reach out to them to try to be of use. And so now, when we think about what does it mean to do religion and educate on religion, with today’s newspaper in one hand, it is a different tactical approach in that the religious left is much more visible than it perhaps was a year ago, though no larger, probably, if we were to do the stats on it.

The religious left has been around as long as the religious right, but there’s a lot more thought now around how we are meaningful participants in what I think is really a nationwide civics education. How does a bill become a law, what does the FBI director do, how much can be decided through E.O. [executive order] vs. the courts vs. anything else, and as we’re educating ourselves on that, what, then, is the appropriate witness of people of faith? Because part of what happens in the US is that when you get the separation of church and state, you choose what that means. For me, it means that it is the job of the church to critique the state. That we have the necessary moral obligation to speak on behalf of the widow, and the orphan, and the refugee, and those who do not necessarily have power in any given administration, and to look for where that shadow side of things is. And that, I think, is the civic obligation of religious institutions.

SS: I really like that, that shadow side. There’s something you said that I want to jump back to, but I think you just walked right into another question, so let’s go there first. I’ve been reading a bit about the Sanctuary Movement, which I was unaware of as a kid in the ’80s, but I’m starting to learn more about as time goes on. I’m wondering if you run into that, if you know people involved in that, what role that’s playing, and is that the Christian left, or is that broader?

KB: It has been an active part of what I’ve known as the religious left for the last ten to twenty years, particularly in some of the more agri-heavy areas of the Pacific. I know of a number of congregations in Oregon that have been doing it for years and years, but it [the present day] has provided a shot in the arm or jolt of life to congregations nationwide, and a real rallying point and raison d’être for communities that may or may not have cared about immigration in the past, but are seeing this as a moment, as an opportunity, and as a public witness to their faith. The religious refugee ban is being challenged in court up in the Seattle area by some leadership of the Episcopal church, which is stating that their job is to care for refugees, and the ban prevents their ability to exercise their purpose, which I think is just—isn’t that cool? It’s just such a cool use of platform and definition—and resources.

SS: Many of us—it sounds like you’re pointing to all these wonderful moments where the religious left is really hitting rallying points and doing some really phenomenal work, but simultaneously, we’re seeing this sort of—I hesitate to call it aggression, but that’s’ what it really feels like—from the conservative right wing of Christianity. And we’re seeing it legally, and we’re seeing it culturally, and not to have you speaking for all Christians by any means, because that’s ridiculous and impossible—

KB: (chuckles) Yeah, high bar.

SS: —but I’m curious about what that looks like from your perspective. For example, in Texas, they may be able to prevent adoptions to non-Christian families, and I’m sitting here going, “Wait a minute, and how do you define Christian, and isn’t that a little illegal?” I guess I’m just wondering, sitting here as someone who’s not affiliated with a church, I see that and am horrified, and wondering how to parse it, and I’m wondering what your experience is of seeing that cultural shift and those things happening from the religious left. Is that something that comes up, or is it more like, ‘Well, we’re over here, and we’re going to keep doing the work we’re doing?’

KB: You know, because I’ve always been a part of a religious identity, it’s an identity I’ve always held (which I realize is redundant), but I think of it in the way that I think of my citizenship. Which is to say that if I’m in Europe, there are things where I’m like, “I am not that ugly American. I so do not do that! That is not part of my identity.” And yet, I am American, I pay my taxes, this is my citizenship, this is where I hold my passport, and I am proud of that. I am proud of what we have done, and the place where I was born, and that my great-grandparents chose this country. In the same way, I bear the mark of a multi-faceted worldwide religious tradition. There are aspects of it and expressions of it that I find repugnant and abhorrent and quite frankly sinful interpretations of the tradition, but it is also mine. And to an outsider, I am a Christian, and to an insider, I am a different flavor of it, and there are times when I am certainly embarrassed of it, and there are other moments when I’m quite proud of it. The political left, not surprisingly, shares a number of hallmarks with the religious left, which is that there are many multi-faceted messages on the left, whereas the right tends to stay on message with a very few number of things, right?

SS: Why do you think that is?

KB: Well, why do you think that is on the political left?

SS: Do you want the long answer, or the short answer?

KB: Right! It’s the same thing. And in the same way, very, very conservative, to-the-right religious people have a lot in common with one another, whereas religious left [people] have a lot in common with one another, regardless of the religion.

SS: Well, walking back towards that, to the other place I was thinking of going a little while ago, this sounds like a conversation and a question that has been asked of Muslim people, really since 9/11—I mean, probably earlier, but it’s really ramped up—the sort of, ‘Well, are you going to defend the latest terrorist attack? Are you going to disavow all these different things?’ And it’s interesting, to me, anyway, to be sitting here asking you a question that the Muslim laywomen you were working with probably have a lot of experience answering, and that’s actually where I was going—you said you were able to reach out because of the podcast work that you had done to a group of Muslim women to say ‘How can I be helpful here? How can I be of use?’ I’m curious what that looked like.

KB: I mean, on a very basic level, sending an email and a Facebook message of ‘This is horrible. I need you to know that I don’t support it. What is happening in your communities that I can mobilize my community towards to be supportive of you?’ And the answers were everything from ‘Please show up at O’Hare to protest’ to ‘Thank you for your prayers’ to ‘Please preach on this.’ It is helpful to be able to put a face with a name and to be able to offer support that has a face and a name.

SS: Well, and support that comes with a history of openness and dialogue and respect. You’re not just this random person showing up.

KB: Right, and you’re not just, like, Googling “Muslim ally.”

SS: Were you able to preach on it?

KB: Yeah. I preached on it in regards to some hate symbols that were coming up in the schools and libraries in the town where I work, and so I talked about combating hate and racism as a matter of religious wisdom and biblical wisdom and what that looks like when you’re in elementary school, because I think that’s a really different take. But you know, when you do a really good children’s sermon, the adults learn the most.

SS: What does that look like in elementary school?

KB: What were the examples we used? When people are saying mean things to other kids in your class, standing next to them and maybe if you’re early in elementary school, sometimes it means holding their hand when they’re willing to have their hand held, we gave a whole series of examples of basically standing by someone as a witness in love and solidarity, which may or may not be verbal.

SS: We did some posting on things like that initially, awhile back, about the pushback on the bystander effect, and if you have any resources or used any resources, we would love to put that out there. I think that’s something that, based on our traffic, that people are interested in. What was the response of the kids?

KB: The kids’ response was kind of mixed, but that’s kind of par for the course.

SS: You know, I was looking over some of your podcast episodes in preparation, and there was something that stood out for me in one of the last clips that you did. Rev. Jennifer Butler and you were talking about how to deal with difficult conversations, and she was saying things like, “How do we model civility?” and “Our role in society is to call folks to their better angels,” and I sort of look at the front page today and am like, “Wow! You’ve got your work cut out for you.” I’m curious, as we’re going forward—you posted that in December, but I’m not sure when it was recorded—

KB: It was recorded in, like, August!

SS: Oh, wow, okay. Interesting. So, I mean, it felt like a really appropriate response to where the national conversation was. I’m wondering what you’re thinking—is that still the job of clergy right now? And how do you even begin?

KB: Well, sure. Yes. Modeling goodness and civility, fine. What I think Jennifer touched on is that part of religious higher education is being able to be involved in high conflict situations and not take it personally, and part of being able to be a good political advocate requires that as well.

SS: Which you would know about.

KB: Yeah, yeah, that too! She was speaking particularly in regards to watching the election and how that was not humanity’s better angels. But what I have been touched by in this calendar year has been the acts of mobilization and what we’re seeing happening in different branches of the government, which are perhaps more involved than they have been at different points in the past, and faith communities as a place to have conversations and to give people hope across issues. I think those things are still happening, and hopefully will continue to do so. And I think that religious traditions at their best often have a really strong history of disagreement. You’ll get the base text, and then you’ll get commentary on it, and then you’ll get commentary on the commentary, and then you’ll get commentary on the commentary on the commentary, and they’re not always nice to each other, but at the end of the day there’s deep respect and deep understanding that we’re coming from this tradition and we break bread together and we pray together and we raise our babies together, and that’s how disagreement should happen. That’s how policy should happen. And, so, I am hopeful that that can return. But it takes time and it takes patience, and any of that takes more than 140 characters.

SS: Yeah, I mean, what occurs to me in terms of a modeling is what’s been going on with Moral Mondays in North Carolina, right? I’m blanking on the name of the preacher who’s been leading it—

KB: William Barber.

SS: Yup. So, that’s been interesting.

KB: And the work of different religious communities in support of the ACLU and church groups being part of the Climate March and the Women’s March and all of those—and mosques and synagogues and all of those—yeah.

SS: So what’s next? And I sort of mean that broadly. I’m curious whether your podcast is looking towards a second season, and as you said you touched on a lot of interpersonal, interfamily issues in the first season, and I can’t help but thinking, “Oooh, I’d love to hear you step towards the political.”

KB: Well, thank you for the shout out on it! Yes, there will be another season. And I think what you’re asking about is just what we’re trying to figure out, because the first season’s [episodes] were all taken from the top faith questions of Gen X and Millennials, as studied by a sociologist at Notre Dame. And then we got through those, so we’re trying to look towards what are going to be some meaningful topics while still being timely and of-the-moment, so [we are] hoping to do some more around that, probably in the next six months to a year. What I think will remain the same is doing the interfaith dialogue as part of it and the narrative as part of it, so all of that is super fun. I will say, the one challenge of it is scheduling people, given different people’s High Holy Day seasons. You know, like, can you all be together?? Not [during] Ramadan!

SS: Which is a moving target!

KB: They’re all moving targets! They all move! So that’ll be fun. In terms of what it means more broadly as we look at the 2018 elections and the groundswell of interest in policy and the interest of people who are running for office, I think that in the best case scenario, what we can hope for is that this is both a nationwide civics engagement but also an opportunity for people to be public about their own faith understandings and identities. Of, ‘I’m running for office not in spite of the fact that I’m religious, but because I am. It’s because of my faith that I’m compelled to seek office, on behalf of my fellow citizens.’ And I hope that more people embrace that, with a positive as opposed to a negative, especially in the center and left.

SS: Yeah, I was going to say we hear a lot of that, but again we hear it from that very narrow, very conservative field, that has a pretty restrictive view of, well, of a lot of things.

KB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think it’s important to remember that a lot of really interesting American social movements are tied to lay Christian women leaders. When we look at Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, she was a person of deep faith who was convicted by her faith to do something. When we look at the temperance movement, which you know, didn’t last, had its own issues, but it was really led by lay Christian women and some ministers who were concerned about the effects of alcoholism on women and children in abusive situations. And you know, if we look at the civil rights movement, and whole host of other social movements—

SS: Dorothy Day comes to mind.

KB: Oh yeah, her! (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah! So I think that it provides an ongoing well of motivation. Hopefully!

SS: This is all hopeful at this point.

KB: And you know, all of the religious communities have lost adherents and membership in pretty close parallel to civic engagement. When you look at Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone and all of those, it’s hard to parse out how much is rationality and people just being more thoughtful about it and how much is just people stopped joining things, because high rationality and really thoughtful atheism has been around since the Enlightenment. So I am also hopeful that this renaissance of connectedness between people is not a blip, because there’s something pretty—I am biased, in that in Christianity we place a lot of emphasis on how God became human and what that means—but I think that there is something important and powerful in incarnate and embodied interactions between people. And that’s part of what is holy and takes place in religious communities, and I hope that that keeps going.

SS: Yeah, and I can’t argue with the power of that, even as we conduct these interviews completely at a distance so far. There’s definitely… so, my kid still thinks that one of the Women’s March slogans was ‘BIKE PATH!’, because people were saying “Stand up, fight back!” and it sounds close, and we took the bike path to get there. And my toddler still remembers that—every once in a while she’ll start going, “BIKE PATH!”—and you know, that was three, four months ago. And she remembers it. That experience of being with other people is something that sticks. I certainly wouldn’t argue with that at all.

I think that really the last thing that I’m curious about that we haven’t touched on yet, and, I, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember if you guys have found a new congregation or if you’re still with the one you’ve been with for a while, you and your family. But what’s the response and reaction been on a sort of congregational level? How have people been doing?

KB: Yes, I’m still at the same congregation in Evanston, and you know, I think it probably depends upon the congregation. I will say there has been, I have experienced, a palpable need for one another, and a need for a grounding in why we do what we do since the election that I didn’t experience before. And I don’t know what it would be like to be in a far right congregation.

SS: I guess I’m asking very specifically, though. I mean, yeah, I wouldn’t even expect you to know what the Methodists down the street are feeling. In your particular branch, in your flavor—that’s interesting to hear that part about community, because I think that a lot of us experienced that shortly after the election, and in some ways, the Solidarity Sundays stuff, Women’s March, was a response of a lot of people who didn’t have a place to go to like you and other parishioners did. Are people who were members of your church prior, are they joining the movements that are coming up? Integrating them? Or are they doing things through the church and communities they’ve already been linked to?

KB: Is everyone flying to DC for the marches? No, but some are. I think a mark of a healthy congregation is that you can disagree and still come together for something. So a specific commissioning for a political purpose that we haven’t discerned together over a long period of time could just really alienate people who are thoughtful on their own side of things.

SS: Sure, and who don’t necessarily come to church for a top-down structure or experience.

KB: Right.

SS: I can’t help but notice, though—at  least it seems to me like this is such an opportunity for people across the Christian spectrum to really live into the fundamental Sermon on the Mount-type tenets. We’ve got widows and orphans, refugees being thrown across the border, we’ve got people enriching themselves in high office, I mean in some ways I kind of look at the reaction from the far right like, “Don’t you see? How do you not see??”

KB: I mean, totally. Totally. It’s literally Biblical. I am grateful to Trump for winning the election because the US, there had been this sort of vague, nebulous Lululemon-esque spirituality of gratitude that also felt deeply empty to me and also super white and privileged, and like—

SS: It was meant to be consumed. It was built for consumption.

KB: Yeah! And whereas now, talking about widows and  orphans and healthcare and life and death; to me, those things matter.

SS: People are still buying t-shirts and selling t-shirts and the same people, you know, who are going to be protected are going to be protected, but in a lot of ways, I’ve had the opportunity to say what you’ve probably said yourself, that there were a lot of people dealing with these things before; it‘s just threatening now to everybody. Even a protected population may not be protected for that much longer.

KB: Exactly. Exactly.

SS: There’s a lot to lose, and it’s very, very visible, and this isn’t the interview to get into why 53% of white women voted the way they did, but certainly it probably isn’t completely unrelated.

KB: No, no. And if this is an opportunity for us as a country to take seriously the sin of racism, then great. Hallelujah. Let’s get on it.

SS: It’s about time. And the ongoing sin.

KB: Oh, yeah.

SS: It’s not trapped in the history books, but it’s so often discussed in that way, and I feel that a lot of the policy that’s being made assumes, if I give them more benefit of the doubt than I’m inclined to give them, maybe it succeeds because people assume that it’s an issue of the past.

KB: And the city of Chicago, it’s so live here. There are 77 neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, but in fact there are two Chicagos. There are 15 neighborhoods that experience all of the violence, rapid foreclosure, phenomenal unemployment, and then there are the other 62, or whatever it is, that have opportunities. And they are totally racially divided in this city. So being a minister in this particular geography, it is more evident than perhaps if I were elsewhere.

SS: And even if you were elsewhere and in a place with a similar situation, Chicago is so often the poster child for both the left and the right when they talk about these issues. The National Guard hasn’t shown up for you guys yet, but it wasn’t that long ago that it was being discussed.

I guess the final question that I have, and you might not have an answer to this, but we’re asking everybody this: What are you going to do next, and what would you say to somebody who asked you, “How can I help at this point? How can I come into your world and help you?”

KB: So what I’m doing next is that my congregation is developing an intentional look at addressing economic inequality in those 15 neighborhoods in Chicago, and how we can be part of the good work on the ground that is already happening there. And if somebody wanted to be involved I think that—Go to a religious community on your community’s day of worship and worship with people, and get involved with having your spiritual soul met some place where you are able to be renewed for the work that you need to do in the world. And, there are so many flavors and varieties of it, so chances are you can find a place that’s a pretty good fit. Part of what it means to be engaged in life in this country right now is also having action and the space for reflection, and what religious communities provide is that space for reflection, and so one is encouraged to find one. Because they are there.

SS: Well put. And that’s something I see people discussing a lot, like, ‘How do we keep this up for the long haul. What do we need to do for ourselves to make sure that we do?’

KB: And part of what happens in any sort of religious calendar is times for exertion and time for now, and you’re forced into a rhythm of feast and fast, and meditation and reading, and movement and stillness, that are intended for the marathon and not the sprint.

SS: It’s almost like people have been doing this for awhile.

KB: You would think! (laughs)

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