Ken Whitt of Traces of God Ministries: “Keep learning. Keep growing”

The capacity of every person in the world to thrive, or even survive, (And many will not, and cannot, given the inequities present in an awfully unjust world.) the perils we face, at the moment, most intensely, pandemic, autocratic governance, fragile economic systems, and violent divides, depends absolutely on the two themes in the sub-title […]

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The capacity of every person in the world to thrive, or even survive, (And many will not, and cannot, given the inequities present in an awfully unjust world.) the perils we face, at the moment, most intensely, pandemic, autocratic governance, fragile economic systems, and violent divides, depends absolutely on the two themes in the sub-title of my book; spiritual resilience and sustainable communities. These themes are emphasized by close to everyone who is taking seriously the current and coming predicaments that confront humanity, the entire earth community and the whole creation.

My book identifies, repeatedly, these two themes, spiritual resilience and sustainable community. I introduce folks to different ways of pursuing them and offer the support of the community that is already forming, by way of my book, among friends, colleagues and readers.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Whitt.

Which Ken Whitt would you like to know more about? The parent of 4 and grandfather of 13; the executive director of a spiritual formation ministry; the pastor with 45 years of service with the American Baptist Churches USA, including national service in youth ministries, The General Board, The Board of International Ministries, the National Minister’s Council; or, today, convenor of The Baptist Resilience and Adaptation Community? How about some stories from the passionate outdoorsman, victorious in white water canoe racing; the artistic woodworker; or maybe the advocate of baking bread and cooking on a campfire? Please, don’t go looking for the songwriting and guitar playing musician — unless you are perhaps a child who loves animals. However, if you are a youngster, ask him if he will thrill you with a rendition of his hit song, “I’ve Got an Whale in My Pocket.” Academically speaking, Ken has his BA, in Sociology, Masters, in Theology and Doctorate, in Spiritual Formation.

Each and every one of these facets of Ken’s life is integral to the expertise that contributed to his new book, God Is Just Love; Building Spiritual Resilience and Sustainable Communities for the Sake of the Children and the Creation.

Let us simply add his experience as a writer to diverse audiences, often on controversial subjects. Ken wrote his first book in 2011, The Extraordinary Ordinary Uplifts Us Halfway to Heaven, available at He created over 2,500 manuscript sermons and a smaller collection of published papers and articles. These messages, on peacemaking, abortion, racism, homosexuality, health care, and many more always required weeks, or months, of research and always generated conflict. Extending such effort and taking such risks is simply what Reality, Just Love, requires of any leader who puts the interests of the people served above personal privilege.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

OK, let’s jump right in! Abandonment. Having a 100% disability after serving in the army, WWII, dad repeatedly, with mom at his side, went off to the VA Hospital in Buffalo to die. My brothers and I were left behind. I was between 5 and 7 when this crisis enveloped our family. I was decades into my adult life before I learned how paralyzing the fear of abandonment was; how it diminished my life and my capacity to love; additional decades for a large measure of healing to happen; then awhile longer to learn that the bottom-line gift that every person needs, to live an abundant life, is the experience of unconditional love. Then, the most awesome of all things awesome happens. We become this love. Being love we can love others fully, family, neighbors, strangers, even enemies, but especially in my world, the children.

My daughter Lauren is a foster care parent. I believe she inherited this passion for children from me. On a mission trip to Mexico, we passed by the Mexico City garbage dumb where hundreds of children barely survived amidst the trash. That experience cemented her vocational decision to be a caregiver of children. Supporting her family is one of the most important objectives of my life. Recently they received into their family a sibling group of three young children who had had two painful experiences with abandonment. Now they are on the adoption track! I count it one of the great blessings of my life that suddenly I jumped from 10 to 13 grandchildren. Not a day goes by without prayer for each and every one. I continually plot and plan the next way I can be love to each of them. And, by the grace of God, many other children as well.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

Between fifth and eighth grade I was a voracious reader. Still am. The library in Ogdensburg, NY was about half a mile from my house. Back and forth. Back and forth, each way carrying at least five or six books a week. They were mostly stories from history, heroes, Native Americans, biographies specially written for young readers. One about Harriet Tubman changed my life.

At the time, I knew no African Americans. But, I knew what it felt like to get beat up because I was different. The city was 90% Roman Catholic. This was pre-Pope John the XXIII, pre-Vatican II. My dad was the Baptist pastor. Exclusion and hate ruled the roost. My experience of being a minority and the biography of Harriet Tubman got me to reading other books about slavery, genocide of First Nations Peoples and heroes like Albert Schweitzer and Florence Nightingale. I started asking my parents and teachers questions. Among other things, I learned about how the truth can be upsetting and that knowing the truth and speaking about it can make others uncomfortable, like my 7th-grade history teacher. But, I also learned to pursue it, no matter the cost. I also learned to be careful in how I presented the truth because the goal is always reconciliation.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

How long is this interview? Is there room for a lesson learned in Mexico in ’98?

“When you leave the comfortable and familiar behind, be prepared for anything. Be flexible and absolutely learn to laugh at yourself.”

After completing my doctoral dissertation, “Transformed by Mission,” I was invited to two seminaries in Mexico to teach a 3-day seminar, in Mexico City, and a series of workshops in Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada. Overall, a great trip, shared with my 12-year-old daughter, Lauren. We lost a day when our flight from Phoenix to Mexico City was canceled. We arrived at the airport in Mexico City two hours before the first session. In the taxi, I learned that the seminar had been condensed into one two-hour presentation. At the school, as I approached the podium, I learned they had not provided the promised translator. At the time, I spoke enough Spanish to make a stunted presentation but not enough to understand and answer questions. On the fly, I redesigned the seminar to focus on experiences of transformation shared from the audience; I did my best to understand their answers. I closed by sharing a deep experience of transformation from my own life and a summary of my thesis that travel for the purposes of service in other countries was one of the surest paths in the world towards personal transformation, understanding and peace.

There was strong applause from the audience and comments like, “I never would have thought of organizing the program that way to communicate your message. Well done? Muy bien.”

On to Mexicali. There was no translator this time either, but I had already translated most of my lectures into Spanish. The opening talk began with a specific part of my dissertation that was organized into 6 points. I began, “The first point is….” Translation: “La primera punta es….” La segunda punta es…” and so it continued through point six.

Later that evening, students and I were singing and telling stories around a campfire. (I impressed everyone with my skilled presentation of Spanish tongue twisters. “Pedro pintor Portuguese pinta pasajes para poder pasar por Paris. Translation: Pedro the Portuguese Painter Paints Pictures so he can travel through Paris.) It got late. One by one others left the circle until I was left alone with Servando. Servado spoke softly. “La punta es, la punta es, la punta es,” six times he whispered, “L punta es…” Suddenly my new friend could no long stop the smile from forming on his face. Servando looked me in the eyes and spoke again, “Ken, tienes que entender lo que dice, ‘La punta es,,,,” Translation: “Ken you need to understand what ‘La Punta es’ means. I can’t say it. Think about it…” In Spanish he added as a hint the word, “euphemism,” which is obviously the same word in English. It was not hard to guess.

Shocked disbelief, embarrassment, transformed almost immediately into hilarious laughter.

The next day Servando told the group about our campfire conversation. Talk about embarrassment! Then he added, “Ken wants you all to know that he welcomes any assistance you wish to offer towards improving his Spanish.”

Again the lesson:

“When you leave the comfortable and familiar behind, be prepared for anything. Be flexible and absolutely learn to laugh at yourself.”

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

The capacity of every person in the world to thrive, or even survive, (And many will not, and cannot, given the inequities present in an awfully unjust world.) the perils we face, at the moment, most intensely, pandemic, autocratic governance, fragile economic systems, and violent divides, depends absolutely on the two themes in the sub-title of my book; spiritual resilience and sustainable communities. These themes are emphasized by close to everyone who is taking seriously the current and coming predicaments that confront humanity, the entire earth community and the whole creation.

My book identifies, repeatedly, these two themes, spiritual resilience and sustainable community. I introduce folks to different ways of pursuing them and offer the support of the community that is already forming, by way of my book, among friends, colleagues and readers.

Equally important, my research and my personal search for spiritual resilience and community have connected me with hundreds of people and dozens or communities pursuing these goals in the United States and around the world. For example, I am a participant in the Deep Adaptation Facebook community and its professional affiliate. I recently did my second podcast with Dean Walker who offers globally his Living Resilience resources and community.

The next step I am looking forward to the most is holding in-person retreats where we will build community, learn resilience skills, including grieving well, and practice adaptation skills, like cooking outdoors, that will convince folks that they have the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Great question. Difficult to answer, because the book is full of wonderful stories, what, in the first chapter, I call golden coins. The first chapter is entitled, “The Children’s Story.” Chapter 10 is entitled, “The Cosmic Love Story.” That’s a BIG story!

Yet, the story I find myself re-telling most often unfolded in the midst of an intergenerational spiritual education gathering at a summer camp for families. We had hiked deep into the woods. We had experienced wonderment and given thanks for beauty. Then we played a game, well, sort of a game:

I spoke. “I have an idea. Let’s form a big circle, holding hands. Now, everyone walk to the left. Keep walking. Now go faster. Faster still. Keep going. Don’t let go! Faster. Faster! No silence in our group. The children are giggling. The teens are laughing. The adults are shouting to slow down. Suddenly, one of the grands let’s go. The circle flies apart. Some sit on the grass. Others crash and roll. What joy. What exuberance. What love!

We all sit back down in the circle, catching our breath, asking Grandma, Why did you let go?! I say: “Could it be that before the beginning God was laughing joyfully? Could it be that God the Father was just loving?”

Teenager, Felice, questioned me:

“Who was God loving? You can’t love if there is no one to love.”

I direct this question to the group, asking them who the Father might have been loving.

Suddenly I hear whispered: “Jesus.” “The Holy Spirit.”

I suggest, “What if God the Father, the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were like us, holding hands, running in a circle, faster and faster, generating more and more love, until there was so much extra love that it could not be contained in Heaven and had to explode forth and make a world (The big bang!)?

Shari announced that we had asked Felice to read everyone a story about what it might have looked like and felt like when God’s love burst forth from Heaven to make a world. Felice stood with the book in hand and began to share the words and the pictures. (Highly recommended here is the children’s book, Before the Beginning, A Child’s First Book of the Great Story, by JD Stillwater.)

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

“Aha Moments” are definitely a major feature of how my book came into being and how the urgency of what I had to share became more and more obvious.

  1. January 2018 — a sudden and overpowering awareness that I was to immediately begin learning everything I could learn about the intersections of spirituality and science. “Code Name God,” by scientist and Hindu Mani Bhaumik, was one of the books I was reading at the time.
  2. March 2018 — connecting personally with two world-class scientists, an astro-physicist and a biologist, who taught me to think more like a scientist.
  3. January 2019 — becoming aware that the underlying passion for writing my book was my love for my children and my awareness that they were facing numerous perils that threatened the lives and would definitely change their world. At this point, my science research shifted almost entirely to climate sciences, sustainability science, and other studies that inform us of the perils we face and the fierce urgency of our response.
  4. October 2019. No doubt — the biggest and most frightening aha moment came as I read William Catton’s, “Overshoot,” and Jem Bendell’s deep adaptation paper and re-built my old friendship (from the 1980s when we were colleagues in Massachusetts and our families were friends) with Michael Dowd. A couple of Michael’s great gifts are how well he is connected to experts and how willing he was to be present with me when things I was learning freaked me out!
  5. Early March, 2020 — my author’s draft was in the hands of the editor and publisher. But, I kept learning, growing, discerning. Because of covid 19, the predicaments humanity is facing suddenly became more apparent to more people. I suddenly came across books and articles on why and how civilizations rise and fall. I began to understand patterns that seemed frighteningly similar to what is happening in the western industrial world today. One of those shared dynamics between past and present is how most folks continue merrily along their way with no ability to read the signs of the times. Denial is rampant.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Reading this question, Peter immediately came to mind. He is a husband and father, a deeply faith-filled man, really smart and creative. However, the very idea of even thinking about how to spiritually nurture his children, that kind of responsibility caused Peter great anxiety. He had always assumed that job belonged to his church.

We have been friends for about a year. I had become `a member of his church and we both joined a couple of small groups on themes like anti-racism and building community. He and his wife, Sara, now participate in the Beloved Community group that I lead, via zoom. He has studied the list of 100 things parents and children can do together to find hope and be love, found at the end of my book.

Last week Peter shared with our group a project he has undertaken on behalf of his children. Nothing like it is found on my list of 100. Peter told his family that he was beginning a project to collect, “Our Family Spiritual Stories.” He sent a list of questions to every adult member of his extended family that included:

Was there a major crisis in your life when you learned to trust God? Have you felt God’s presence as you encountered death?

Peter said that question about death was hard for him to write and that this was a topic he was afraid to talk about with his children, even with his wife. This is the answer from a very close relative:

Now, I’d like to share about my dad’s awesome last days with us. He became more prayerful those weeks, after he was diagnosed with cancer…. He was not one to say “I love you” to us, but in his last weeks, everyone in his life got to hear his weak voice say “I love you”. In fact, his last 2 days with us he kept whispering “I love you” almost every moment he was awake. That was a great last gift from God.

In my growing up years, I sometimes wondered if mom and dad loved each other. They rarely showed affection in front of us kids. But in those last weeks, their marriage became quite beautiful. Before he died, we noticed him become so over-filled with joy. A couple times his eyes opened wide as if he was seeing something amazing and he simply exclaimed “ohhhh”. He seemed overcome with emotion as he said “ohhhh” again. Then with a voice filled with awe he said, “The dance, so beautiful!”

We asked him what he saw, but he weakly said we, “wouldn’t understand”.

Around 3 AM he became unusually alert and I asked if he would like me to wake mom and he said, “I’d like that”. I woke my dear white-haired mom. There she was in her worn nightgown, well-worn hair net, and sleepy eyes as she sat next to dad’s head. Dad turned to her and said, “you are beautiful, soooooooo beautiful!” Mom just melted…. We put on an old Ann Murray cassette tape of love songs as they just sat and stared into the other’s eyes.

I watched from the foot of the bed, the last song played, ‘Could I Have this Dance for the Rest of My Life.’ How blessed to witness mom cradle dad’s head in her hands with her cheek against his, as they danced their last dance together! Dad then fell asleep most content and never awoke again.

Dad’s last words on earth were to his wife, “You are beautiful, so beautiful!”. I wonder if during those last days dad was given the grace to see mom with the overflowing love that God saw her. And to love each of his children and grandchildren the way God loves each of us.

Peter added,“I will never look at death the same way again. When my children bring up the subject, I will share this story with them. I will tell them all about God’s love and that when they come face to face with death, they will experience that love even more.”

The coming perils will bring us face to face with suffering and death, probably more death than any of us have ever experienced. We must tell the truth about the fear that dominates our cultures understanding of death. We must greatly diminish that fear and replace it with love.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Once upon a time (back around the 1950’s-1980’s,) politicians, the society as a whole, and economic leaders, especially large corporations, could have acted to significantly diminish the severity of our current and impending predicaments. Awareness of the climate crisis peaked during the first Bush administration, and action almost happened. Corporate opposition quickly mounted. Jimmy Carter tried to put the country firmly on the conversation road. Al Gore, deeply committed to environmental concerns, almost became president.

There is still time for some large-scale actions by government and business to reduce some suffering. The larger society could still make some choices to make sure that loses are evenly distributed among everyone in our country; still time to moderate the damage to the earth community as a whole and still time to improve the chances for some of the children to have meaningful lives.

There is always time to do the next right thing, but that “thing” is now far more likely to be determined and done by individuals and small groups. Smaller communities, guided by indigenous values, are far more likely to be the places where people learn to live harmoniously with each other and all of the creation.

Where there is the will there is a way. But so far, we have not demonstrated any collective will at all, and in fact, keep going backwards.

By the way, coming out of that facet of society and that we call “institutional religion,” I need to add that religion has been as deeply complicit in the destruction of life on this planet as the rest of the organizations that dominate our collective life. Religion is, I believe, the institution within society that should take moral responsibility for making certain that the commons, like the forests and oceans, are protected and the future is taken into account when decisions are made in any culture. In the United States, we have failed miserably and are as blame-worthy as everyone else for the moral failures of our society. However, blame will do no one any good. Loving action? That’s another matter.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership? The future does not need the kind of leadership that has dominated the past.

I have lived in the Hide-A-Way Hills neighborhood for close to two years, and I have been leading from the very beginning. I began leading when I first identified the fact that this is a community of “good neighbors,” who, for the most part, desire to be, “better neighbors,” but have not yet realized that Reality urgently requires that, with all deliberate speed, we become the “best neighbors” we can possibly be. This is my leadership mantra and action.

“Good Neighbors, Better Neighbors, Best Neighbors.”

Leaders see the big story, care about the well-being of all, and instill trust in the people around them so that the common good becomes the work of everyone.

We just passed through the Christmas season. In this season, when the covid crisis made it necessary to find Christmas joy in new ways, I built in my wood-working shop 27 cutting boards. My wife and I baked in our kitchen 27 loaves of bread. We delivered these to folks in the hills, and also in our two other primary communities; our extended family and our church.

Everyone loves a loaf of home-baked bread. Everyone can be a good neighbor. In such ways, everyone can lead by example in every community.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Taking care of yourself, body, mind and spirit, is job one. I once heard a nationally renowned pastor of a megachurch tell a group of clergy attending one of his book seminars about the work-life of the junior members of his staff. They were expected to work 85–90 hour weeks. I suggested to him, in private, that this was insane. He stared me square in the eyes and told me I would never be pastor of anything but a tiny back-water church. He was wrong. Oh, and a year later, his marriage was over because of adultery and he was out of a job.
  2. Job two is creating, building and sustaining your key relationships. The well-being of family comes ahead of job success. End of story.
  3. Expect failure along the way. Fall. Recover. Begin again. “You ain’t no kind of god
  4. Give thanks for this success. Reward the people who got you there. Nurture humility.
  5. Keep learning. Keep growing. If “they” won’t give you a sabbatical, quit and make your own extended learning events happen.

Can you please give us your favorite, “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Go with the flow. Trust the process. When you do not know, wait.”

Most leaders do not need to be told to act, so I do not include, “When you do know, act.” In my life lesson quote. I learned this lesson of going with the flow during a dozen so years in counseling as a recovering control addict. I am fully recovered now; except sometimes. My wife, Kathy, is the one who first detects the early signs of regression; and she lets me have it. I learned this life lesson, thank God, early enough in my life to teach it to my children. When they were all teenagers, they were forever quoting these lines to each other, to their friends and to their mom and dad. They really do live their lives by this life lesson; except sometimes. Then, I get to toss it out to them like a lifeline.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Yes. Christian ethicist, David Gushee. He was the first nationally prominent author to endorse my book. He ended up writing the preface to, “God Is Just Love; Building Spiritual Resilience and Sustainable Communities for the Sake of Our Children and the Creation.” He tells everyone that reads my book that the experience is like being taken care of at a high-end rural Vermont spa. Being embraced by love. I can’t imagine a greater tribute to me personally, nor a stronger affirmation of the book’s message. I want to tell him “Thank You” face to face and hand him a “God Is Just Love” t-shirt.

However, that is not why I want to meet David over lunch, maybe at that Vermont spa where he and I and our wives are recovering together from all this covid isolation. The bigger reason is that it is very possible that he and I need to be friends. I have this, “won’t go away” feeling that we need to help each other with future writing projects. It is very possible that the world needs our collaboration.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website for Traces of God Spiritual Formation Ministries: Sign up for our “Weekly Whittlings” newsletter.

Author’s Page, —

Email — [email protected].

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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