Reverend Lola Wright is the Spiritual Director of Bodhi Spiritual Center, based in Chicago, IL. Lola’s story is one for the ages. I recently sat down with her to get a glimpse into her journey and how she “arrived” into the life she leads today.
Lola’s story is the epitome of Begin Anyway and will be sure to inspire many.
Your teenage and young adult years had a significant impact on your life. You grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb in a well-to-do family. But your ‘bubble’ was punctured many times through exposure to the realities of divorce, institutionalized racism, homophobia, HIV/AID’s, and your own teenage pregnancy. As you’ve said, you discovered that the ‘white picket fence’ was far from real. Tell us about how these early experiences continue to shape your career today.
As a community leader and provocative voice I am compelled to create spaces that are intentionally designed to gather people of varying backgrounds. I am devoted to ensuring that the community I lead is an accessible space. I resist homogeneous spaces. My commitment to equitable, inclusive, liberated spaces informs my social calendar, my professional commitments, my buying choices, my family design and my volunteer efforts.
Around this time, A Tribe Called Quest released “Midnight Marauders”—an album that spoke to you and changed your world. Your eyes were opened to the world around you and you thought your destiny was to become a rockstar. What was it that resonated with you so significantly?
Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest was unlike anything I had heard before. The rhythm moved my body. The lyrics flirted with my mind. And the freedom of expression was water. Everything I was starving for was delivered in a cassette tape. I listened to the tape until it was played out. A Tribe Called Quest offered a critique of society and an affirmation for anyone that didn’t fit within social norms. I identified with both of those tendencies. I never felt like I belonged where I grew up. I never felt like my family or friends really got me. And all of sudden I was exposed to an art form, a culture, a community that celebrated me exactly as I was and encouraged more of it. I was awakened to liberation.
In the midst of this teenage turmoil and awakening, you enrolled at college and soon after became pregnant. Your dreams of becoming a rockstar and traveling the world had to be quickly recalibrated, I would imagine.
I was moving through life directionless. I had a dream of singing on huge stages but I couldn’t see a path. I was lonely. My parents divorce and my family’s newly fractured state had me longing for connection and belonging. I couldn’t focus on my goals while feeling groundless and isolated. I had an unconscious commitment to recreate my experience of family. At 18 I did that, I got pregnant.
So, in spite of yourself, you were set on the traditional career path. You started a career in banking but continued to sing and perform in your free time. How important was it to you to continue exploring your passions while supporting a young (and growing) family? How did you make it all work?
For the first 7 years of my daughter’s life and 4 years of my son’s life I didn’t pursue music or creative expression. I retired that dream. I was driven by fear. I was run by a need to prove to my parents and their friends that I had not royally screwed up my life. And then it all came crashing down. Their father’s addiction and violence became so untenable that in 2002 I left. In 2004 I fell in love with an accomplished and world renowned jazz musician. The music awakened me. I remembered what I loved and he took me into the studio. We recorded a couple tracks and I was alive again. In December of 2005 I sang in an international jazz festival in Latin America with some of the world’s most elite musicians. I couldn’t turn back at that point. I knew I had to develop a career that demanded my full self expression. It took another 10 years but I got there.
Eventually, you reached your breaking point and knew that it was time for a major career change. What was that realization about for you? How did you know that it was ultimately time to ‘take the leap’?
I left banking and real estate a couple times. I usually got to a point of exhaustion or frustration that I’d move into a related but different aspect of the business. It would buy me a little time. And then in July of 2012 I hit a wall. I called my now husband and said “I may quit today.” We had a 12 week old baby, my fourth child and I knew I could no longer live a life of inauthenticity and entrapment. I decided in that moment that I would rather raise my children in a cardboard box than continue maintaining a lifestyle that was not worth living. I quit that month. I did not have a gameplan. My husband had just finished graduate school. I bet the farm.
Tell us about the ‘what the hell do I do now?!’ period after you officially left banking? You had some money saved and a sense that you were meant for something more; but no real plan or direction for what was to come. Where did you start? Was there an ‘aha’ moment?
We had no money saved up. We went into foreclosure. We were juggling debt obligations and struggling to keep the basics intact. There was no plan. And, I felt alive. I started messaging friends on Facebook. I generated hundreds of conversations. I wanted to connect with friends that inspired me. One chat thread caught my attention. A friend from Bodhi Spiritual Center asked me if I would be interested in the Director of Youth & Family position at Bodhi. In the depths of my soul I felt a huge YES.
You accepted the position at Bodhi. Within your first year, you went from Director of Youth and Family to Senior Director of Business Operations to Executive Director. You also became a Reverend – a true baptism by fire! Even though your new career seemed so different from your previous, I would imagine you found a lot of overlap. In what ways did you rely on what you learned in your professional experiences up to that point?
I always knew that each job I had was an apprenticeship to something greater. I always had a sense that I wasn’t where I was ultimately to be and yet I had no idea where I was going. I did my very best to learn as much as I could in each role and develop my skills and my network. When I got to Bodhi it was clear that every prior position was preparing me for this opportunity. I had experience leading teams. I had experience selling and communicating. I had experience managing budgets. I had experience navigating transitions. I had experience managing real estate holdings. I had experience inspiring people to take action. My skills and experience was highly applicable.
We hear from many people about how important failure was to their ultimate success. Do you recall a significant stumble or rejection that fueled you? What lessons do you continue to learn by embracing and learning from your perceived failures?
I don’t relate to the context of failure. I really see that every challenge has been a gift that has prepared me for my next version of Self.
What’s the best piece of wisdom you’ve gained through your experiences that you would share with someone else considering a major life change? Any advice you wish someone had given 25 year-old Lola?
“Listen to your still small voice.” You have one. We all do. Gather feedback and guidance from those you trust and then listen to YOU. You know what is right and best for you. Honor your internal integrity. And trust that in every obstacle there is a unique gift for your development. You are on the planet at this time and space for a unique and holy purpose. Keep breathing and take one step forward. You are worth it. And the world is waiting for you.
Tell us a little more about Bodhi and your role there? What is the make-up of your congregation and can anyone come to a service?
I am the Spiritual Director of Bodhi Spiritual Center. Bodhi is a non religious community that appeals to people that identify as spiritual but not necessarily religious. We offer an incredible experience of community that offers really yummy bite size tastes or a full on feast. As our country navigates profound cultural shifts in community and the ways we gather, Bodhi offers a contemporary, relevant and progressive space in Chicago and online for explorers. I have not found a place on the planet that offers the incredible weaving of humanity that exists at Bodhi. The most unexpected encounters occur at Bodhi. People connect that would typically never cross paths. We are an intergenerational, multicultural dynamic and engaged community. We offer Sunday Celebration Services, classes, workshops, special events and volunteer opportunities. All are welcome. Sunday mornings and evening classes are my absolute favorite offerings we provide. People walk away inspired, mobilized and lighter. We are a community that invites curiosity, wonder, inspired action and generosity. We support people in waking up to their inherent power and purpose. We are a constant reminder for people that they are whole and holy. There is nothing wrong with you!
What have you learned as a Reverand and spiritual guide that helps you balance the pressures of overseeing an organization, your family, and enjoying some personal time? Any daily practices or intentions that you rely on?
All we have is this now moment. Just right now. Anxiety, frustration, fear, impatience is always a projection of an interpreted past or a future not yet here. When I remember that I am responsible for who I am being right now I can take a breath and put it all in perspective. Breathe, Practice, Repeat—one of my favorite t shirts I own! Begin with a simple daily meditation practice even if it is only 5 minutes. Imagine your day before it begins and allow yourself the opportunity to see all of the incredible ways you’d like it to unfold. Appreciate everything and everyone you meet. Walk in expectancy that good is always coming your way. You are a magnet for all things good. Trust that you are right where you need to be. Remember to breathe. Stopping say yes to the things you don’t want to do—biggest waste of energy. Surround yourself with people that raise you up.
Lastly, if you could have a cocktail with anyone, living or dead, who are you grabbing a bar stool with and what are you sipping on?
Mary Magdalene—what really went down with you and Jesus? (sauvignon blanc) Or Cornel West—let me just pick this man’s brain for forever! (cappuccino) Or Oprah—give me your most honest feedback?! (mint infused cocktail) Or my husband, Nathan Wright—breathing, appreciating each other and dreaming. (cabernet sauvignon) Sounds like heaven!