The Wisdom of the Fungi for Human Flourishing

Beginning in the summer of 2020, counseling students and faculty at the seminary began having conversations about developing a chapter of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of the American Counseling Association. In the midst of the collective response to the murder of George Floyd, students were searching for connection and a path forward to action. Since that time, the counseling students and faculty have continued to meet regularly and work together to shape the vision and mission of our chapter. 

Throughout our meetings, we felt what many do in the face of deep, systemic injustice: overwhelmed. In our conversations, many of us asked where do we start? How do we start? What does social justice work look like? Counseling students often seek out graduate training because of their deep desire to help others and to make a difference but encountering the enormity of pain and trauma can be daunting. Through conversation and connection, we arrived at our mission statement: 

“Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) at Seminary of the Southwest are committed to promoting human flourishing as a spiritual and sacred right. We believe social transformation starts by healing our own bias, challenging our comfort zones, and connecting with the experiences of those who are different than we are. CSJ aspires to serve the people of Austin by providing a brave, inclusive community and expert resources for reflection, education and informed social justice action.”

The statement is bold, courageous, and expansive. The students expressed a desire to communicate the sacredness of social justice work that, for them, echoed one of their intentions in pursuing their counseling degree at a seminary. They asked, what does it mean to have a social justice organization at a seminary? What contribution can we bring to this work? Their answer was in their commitment to human flourishing (Santos, 2017). 

The concept of flourishing appears in many disciplines, including ecology and anthropology, and goes by many names, including wellbeing, wholeness, wellness, fruitfulness. In her article on a theological perspective on human flourishing, Patricia Santos (2017) describes flourishing as connectedness with God, others, and creation. In fact, Santos invites us to consider that flourishing for all will only happen when we are driven from our interconnectedness rather than by our individual success. For many, the shift to emphasize on the wellbeing of the collective over prioritizing individual abundance is new and potentially scary. Changes in perspective can bring about positive progress but also represent the unknown. Similar to feeling daunted about the enormity of human suffering as a result of systemic oppression, it can feel overwhelming to reconsider one’s motivating forces. 

The newly formed organization, Counselors for Social Justice at the Seminary of the Southwest, sits at the juncture of a question: How do we go about social justice work? And an invitation: interconnectedness. As is so often the case, an example from Mother Earth is proving useful. The recent documentary, Fantastic Fungi (2019), unveils the magical world of fungi. Fungi are a powerhouse in the ecological system and their main task is to break down dead organic matter and return vital nutrients to the soil. Their life cycle can provide us wisdom on how to go about the work of social justice. 

First, fungi get to work where they are planted. They send spores out into the air, which are then carried by the wind to land, germinate, and grow. As they develop, they intake organic matter, absorb what is needed for their sustenance, and then release the byproducts back into the soil through their mycelium, which are cylindrical, thread-like structures that are similar to roots in a plant. The wisdom for social justice work is to labor where we are planted – our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our cities. We have been placed where we are by the winds of a loving God and where we are is where we need to show up for injustice. This can look like having intentional conversations with your loved ones, voting in local elections, being open to new relationships with neighbors, or researching the important social justice concerns facing your community. 

Second, fungi are intimately connected to others around them. As the fungi grow, they develop intricate underground networks with their mycelium. The networks of mycelium carry nutrients back to the soil, which feeds the plant and animal life around them, Fungi do not grow in isolation and it is in connectedness that they are able to carry out the work of decomposition in the ecological system. This is a powerful reminder in feeling overwhelmed in the face of polarization and injustice: social justice work is not meant to be carried out alone and, in fact, it is not sustainable in isolation. We are meant to “decompose” and transform suffering in the community. Getting connected in social justice work can look like joining a social justice-oriented book club, seeking out local social justice organizations, or finding ways to intentionally and relationally connect with others that are different from you. 

Finally, fungi decompose a little bit at a time in relationship with other fungi. Fungi are known to decompose items, everything from insects and leaves to large, dead animals. There is also research being done to see if fungi can help decompose nonliving objects, which may help with pollution. The challenge is that the process of decomposition by fungi takes time and persistence. What we could glean from the fungi decomposition process for our work with social justice is to settle into the work, knowing that it will be a process and “decomposition” happens in increments – but it will decompose. The process does work. There is hope. And the flourishing of all is a worthy endeavor. 

In sum, the newly minted CSJ chapter at the seminary is ready to harvest the wisdom of the fungi and move steadily toward human flourishing. We are grateful to be a part of a long legacy, past and present, of social justice advocates committed to the work of flourishing for the collective good. 

Questions for reflection: 

  • Where are you planted? What are the social justice concerns most important to those around you? 
  • Notice who around you who are already doing the work of social justice. What ways can you get involved?
  • What is one small step you can take today?

Santos, P. H. (2017). That All May Enjoy Abundant Life: A Theological Vision of Flourishing from the Margins. Feminist Theology, 25(3), 228–239.

This fall, Sowing Holy Questions reflects on pandemic re-entry, with emphasis on the theological, equity, and/or mental health ramifications of living in these times.

2 Responses

  1. The mission statement of Counselors for
    Social Justice is impressive. I agree that many of us have had to face our own biased
    opinions regarding other people & systems before we can help others! Best wishes for a
    Very successful future in your endeavors
    To promote healthy living & working together
    of all people in within their individual settings and with their various gifts.
    Carol Tomlinson

  2. I just happened upon your announcement and I was moved to write to say I am impressed by what you are doing in enlightening your students to look to the natural work of the world (“God’s work”) and all that it has to teach us. I am a Marriage and Family therapist with a Doctorate in Ministry and I recently read ‘Braiding SweetGrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of a Native Canadian Tribe nd it made me so aware of how important this perspective of looking at the natural world is in understanding of what we need in our lives and our counseling. I recommend it and wish you the best in your work with your students. Your sister in Christ, Anne Burton

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