10 Spiritual Leaders

10 Spiritual Leaders

For The Next 20 Years

Radha Agrawal By Hortense Mulliez; Marianne Williamson ©2018 Shelly Oberman Photography; Sean Sherman By Heidi Ehalt

We asked our readers to scout the spiritual landscape for emerging leaders who will help set our course for the decades to come. Your response was wildly enthusiastic, passionate, heartfelt, and all over the map (and the globe). Wow! What constitutes a spiritual path is becoming ever more diverse—and ever more likely to be led by women. In future issues, you’ll hear from more of your choices. We chose 10 (nine plus a wonderful collaboration of old and new) who represent your votes as well as our hopes for the spiritual future.

Radha Agrawal
“The single most important thing we can do as humans is create community.” —Radha Agrawal

Radha Agrawal

Transitioning out of her 20s, Radha Agrawal found herself asking, “Where do I belong?” Despite a thriving career and social life, Agrawal felt isolated by the norms of nightlife—until she flipped the script and created Daybreaker, a morning yoga class followed by a dance party before work. The values espoused included wellness, camaraderie, self-expression, mindfulness, and even mischief.

What started as an idea around authentic connection and community struck a chord with her generation that craves meaning and a like-minded tribe—and evolved into a movement with events happening in Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo, and elsewhere. Agrawal says, “Belonging is more important today than ever because isolation is an epidemic. Despite the hundreds of ways to ‘connect’ online via social media, people are feeling more alone than ever before.”

Now Agrawal is sharing what she’s learning about community-building in her new book, Belong: Find Your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life. “My community is what makes me feel alive. They have given me wings in my quest to make the entire world feel like they belong.” —ALMA TASSI 

Nadia Bolz Weber
“Whenever things are finally being talked about that have to be the truth, I get a glimmer of hope.” —Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber

After being raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, Nadia Bolz-Weber spent a decade in the world of addiction and stand-up comedy. Her return to Christianity—as a Lutheran minister and the founding pastor of House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver—was, according to Bolz-Weber, “ten times better than leaving Christianity in the first place.” 

Her progressive approach to religion is opening the doors for many to return, as she says, “to some sort of reunification with their primal symbol system.” Bolz-Weber, who felt called to leave her congregation this past summer, is focusing on exploring what people who have left Christianity yearn for in the symbol system of their childhood. She insists, “The only way to heal from fundamentalism is to discard the dualistic thinking it gave you.” She believes deeply in Grace, and that each of us is worthy, not because we earned it or are virtuous in any way, but because we were born, and that belief is the root of compassion, both for ourselves and for other people. Her new book is Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, due in January 2019. —Kalia Kelmensen

Dianna Cohen
“All the cleanup in the world is not going to make a difference if we don’t also create source reduction.” —Dianna Cohen

Dianna Cohen

Dianna Cohen studied biology before she became an artist, so when her art installation made from plastic bags began disintegrating, her science training inspired her to look deeper into plastics. She then became aware of the immense amount of plastics in our oceans, and realized that, in addition to cleaning that up, we must eliminate the source. In 2009, she cofounded the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which has grown into a global alliance to end the dangerous cycle of plastic use. 

Now nearly 10 years old, the Plastic Pollution Coalition is supporting global initiatives “toward a world free of plastic pollution.” Cohen explains, “We need to stop siloing things—as if clean air and clean water are separate from anything else. We need to change that to a more holistic perspective, where we are looking at the whole picture and making decisions that are thoughtful and conscientious and looking ahead to supporting life on the planet.” —KK

Angel Kyodo Williams
“We are trying to belong and to be and to reconcile with a world that is changing so rapidly that it defies some people’s comprehension.” —angel Kyodo williams

angel Kyodo williams

As a child, angel was bullied and abused; as an adult, the Reverend angel Kyodo williams is leading a paradigm shift in how social change is done. Ordained in the Japanese Zen lineage, williams believes that we will only change society when we are willing to look within and create change there first.

The founder of the Center for Transformative Change and author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love & Liberation, the Rev. angel insists that the only way to cope with the divisiveness and hatred that is rampant in our world is to “find where it lives in each of us, because that’s the source that we have control over.” She believes that learning to “conflict well” will be how we can bring opposite ends of the divide into meaningful conversation. As a leader in the field of transformative social change, she believes that as our next step, “we need to slow ourselves down and remember the pace of the human spirit, the pace of human evolution.” —KK 

Dawn Lemanne
“I encourage my patients to change or expand their metaphors and use all the tools available.” —Dawn Lemanne

Dawn Lemanne MD

Dr. Dawn Lemanne is a Stanford-trained oncologist (and contributor to S&H) who points out that cancer is found everywhere in nature: “Our bodies tend toward cancer, not away from it, and when cancer eventually arises, we need outside help from expert teams who have learned so much in the last few decades about how to cure cancer.” Lemanne also notes that “every cancer is unique and constantly changing, and every person bearing such an affliction is also one of a kind. So if you have cancer, copying what you heard may have worked for someone else is like picking last week’s winning lottery numbers— it is unlikely to work.”

What put this much-lauded physician on our “spiritual” list is that she represents cutting-edge doctors who also empower individual patients to best participate in their own healing. Got breast cancer? “No food after dinner. Wait 13 hours or more (not 12!) before ingesting calories the next day. Water or black coffee or tea is fine.” In one study, risk of recurrence was one-third lower following this simple fast. —STEPHEN KIESLING 

Listen to interviews with our spiritual leaders on Essential Conversations with Rabbi Rami at

Carrie And Parker
“Great resourcefulness lies within us and between us . . . if we are willing to trust ourselves and each other.” —Carrie Newcomer and Parker J. Palmer

Carrie Newcomer & Parker J. Palmer

The collaboration began in 2004, when Carrie Newcomer asked Parker J. Palmer to write liner notes for her album, Betty’s Diner. Palmer’s books—especially Let Your Life Speak—had become important companions on the spiritual Newcomer’s journey, and the elder Palmer was already a great fan of the younger woman’s music. As the two began sharing their creative struggles, they found more and more spiritual and artistic resonance, forging the kind of friendship that comes from a shared vocation. They wrote a song-and-spoken-word event called Healing the Heart of Democracy: A Gathering of Spirits for the Common Good, combining the titles of one of his books and one of her signature songs. Next came What

We Need Is Here—words naming a core belief that animates both: “it’s possible to live ‘in the light’ as long as we do not try to blink the darkness.”

Their new project is The Growing Edge, which offers an online gift of a sanctuary—based on Circles of Trust—for listening sincerely to one’s true self. —MEGGEN WATT PETERSEN 

Sean Sherman
“We found a path of positivity through understanding, which is based around foodways.” —Sean Sherman

Sean Sherman 

“We are barely getting to the point of healing,” says Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef and founder of The Sioux Chef and the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. To speed the process, Sherman’s mission is to revitalize Native American cuisine and reclaim an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible. Embedded in his work are pathways for addressing racism, food insecurity, damage to our earth and water supplies, and our growing disconnectedness. 

Sherman’s vision is to restore a more authentic and wildly varied concept of precolonial foods, sharing ancestral wisdom while also creating contemporary, bold-flavored dishes. His is a path of positivity and resourcefulness, showing us how much we have outside the back door that is green, tasty, and sustainable. He reminds us to pay respect to food and to appreciate its great value in helping us realize how connected we all are with each other, the elements, animals, and plants. He encourages people to be thankful for everything and seeks not to complicate, describing many recipes as easy: “Some of the best things in life are kept simple.” —MWP

Rebecca Soffer
“There is something exceedingly healthy and healing about having a solid belly laugh on a daily basis.” —Rebecca Soffer

Rebecca Soffer

When the writer and community organizer Rebecca Soffer endured the sudden loss of both her parents in her 30s, she felt a need for a place for others like her to connect and share stories—without the confines of what grieving should be or the typical platitudes often said about death. Along with her fellow cofounder Gabrielle Birkner, Soffer launched Modern Loss, a place where, as she describes it, “people (can) let their hair down and share candid, narrowly focused accounts from the long arc of loss: the good, the bad, the ugly, and honestly, sometimes, the hilarious.” 

Through hundreds of published stories, live storytelling events, a deeply engaged social media community, and now a book, Modern Loss: Candid Conversations about Grief— Beginners Welcome, Soffer has unleashed a wellspring of the many facets of grief. She says, “I’d love to believe we’ve done our small share in moving the needle closer to a point at which we’ll eventually all be able to approach this topic with the same comfort level as when we chat about, say, the latest movies or a bad date.” —AT

Haemin Sunim
“For me, the most interesting Buddhist teaching is that psychology equals cosmology.” —Haemin Sunim

Haemin Sunim

A Zen Buddhist monk living in Seoul, South Korea, Haemin Sunim picked up a hefty academic pedigree from UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton. But his worldwide appeal comes from his talent to reflect on the mundane. He says, “At first, I thought that a spiritual life could be found in studying sacred scriptures, meeting with gurus, and sitting quietly in meditation. But now I see that it can be found in everyday activities, as long as I approach them with kindness, mindfulness, and wisdom.” Out of that kindness came The School of Broken Hearts, which offers counseling on anything from divorce to job loss to death in the family.

With his new book, Love for Imperfect Things, Sunim confessed his own struggles in accepting himself—from his height to his accent when speaking English and even the challenge of being famous. However, he reminds us all of why we need to love ourselves: “We are worthy of being loved not because of what we do well but because we are precious living beings. Even if you don’t achieve the perfection the world demands, your existence already has value and is worthy of love.” —AT

Marianne Williamson
“I grew up in a generation that did not separate spirituality and politics. We read Ram Dass in the morning and went to an antiwar protest in the afternoon.” —Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson

Now considering running for president and with the launch of a new book, A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution, Marianne Williamson came out on top of our reader poll. When asked about leading in the poll, she said, “When you have a career that lasts over time, you feel like you’ve been in an ongoing conversation with a certain part of the culture. It’s like a lot of us have grown up together. The history of contemporary spirituality in the United States is one of maturation. A culture, a subculture, a civilization, a movement matures just like an individual. Because all that they are is a collection of individuals. Related to that—and I think it’s particularly nice, separate, and apart from the fact that it happens to be me in this case—is that America is claiming its own spiritual voices, and particularly those of women.” 

You can read the rest of our conversation here. —SK

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