By Robert Rodi
It was a career milestone for Reverend Lola Wright. She delivered a talk at TEDx Chicago on May 1, which put the seal on her arrival as one of the city’s thought leaders. She used the opportunity to trumpet her success at Bodhi Spiritual Center, of which she is both CEO and spiritual director. “I have created, alongside incredible human beings,” she declared, “a multi-racial, intergenerational, queer-affirming, non-religious, pro-woman community in the most segregated city in America.”
Three weeks later, Wright’s triumphal pronouncement was rocked by a bombshell: after three years of holding its Sunday “celebrations” at the Vittum Theater in Noble Square, Bodhi’s lease on the space was not renewed. Just over two months down the road, as of July 31, the organization would be—not homeless, exactly; it maintained office and classroom space across the street from the theater. But there would be no place for its community—whose size can only be estimated, but is at least a few thousand strong—to assemble.
Wright, a self-described “change junkie,” refuses to be daunted. True, this was a significant disruption to Bodhi’s momentum; but “disrupt” is a word she uses frequently—and approvingly. She sat down and shot a video to reassure community members. “If you are an organization that is about transformation, but you do not evolve,” she said, leaning into the camera with a smile that seemed almost eager, “you are not about transformation.” It wasn’t her pithiest maxim—this is a woman who spins phrases like prayer wheels—but it did the trick, soothing anxieties over the loss of the Vittum.
But succeeding videos, in which Wright detailed her evolving vision for the organization’s next “expression,” were more challenging than comforting. “I’m imagining it could include podcasts,” she riffed; “I’m imagining it could include live events and experiences. I’m imagining it could include pop-up experiences throughout the city of Chicago, across the nation, perhaps even around the world.”
She seemed to be imagining almost everything but a new, physical location. In fact, Lola Wright was broadly hinting that Bodhi Spiritual Center might not need a replacement for the Vittum Theater at all.
Chicago Center for Spiritual Living was founded in 2003 by Mark Anthony Lord, a gay spiritual leader who had spent years working through the trauma he experienced as a member of the Catholic Church. His goal for the Center was to cater to people whom the big-box religions had failed—to, in his words, “heal their guilt, shame, overcome fear and get in touch with the love that’s already inside of them.” The Center originally operated out of an annex space of the now-defunct Transitions Bookstore, and succeeding years were charmingly itinerant, with residencies at Agassiz Elementary School and Apollo Theater Chicago, before landing a dedicated space in the United Church of Christ complex. Along the way, the organization changed its name to Bodhi Spiritual Center—though it owed no more to Buddhism than to any other faith or belief system—and picked up Lola Wright, who in 2004 wandered in, looking for a Sunday ritual for her family more substantial than going for ice cream.
“I attended for many years under the radar,” Wright says. “In 2006 I started taking classes here; then in 2009 I left. I was a community member who had really been served by this place, but I didn’t intend on coming back. In 2012, I returned to re-engage in the community. And one of the things that shifted for me: three years before, I’d left with a series of critiques about this place. And when I returned Mark Anthony Lord said, ‘I love the idea of you coming back; just know all the critiques that you had in 2009, remain unresolved. I just want you to be sober about that.’ And I really was clear with myself that if I wanted Bodhi to be other than it was, I had to get out of a transactional relationship with it. Like, ‘Bodhi has to do this to satisfy me.’ If there was something I wanted, I had to take responsibility for the creation of it—first in consciousness, then in form.”
Wright joined the staff as director of youth and family, which had been an area of specific criticism for her. Over the succeeding years, she served in other capacities, including executive director. In 2014, Lord left the organization; he’s now senior minister and spiritual leader at Unity of Naples Church in Florida. It seemed clear to everyone that Wright was best poised to replace him; everyone, that is, except Wright herself, who struggled with the decision to put herself forward. When she finally offered herself for consideration, the board said, “We’ve just been waiting for you to make up your mind.”
As spiritual director, Wright took over addressing the Sunday celebrations that had become the cornerstone of Bodhi community life. She’s naturally theatrical, grabbing the mic from its stand and working the stage like a panther, punctuating her points with grand, expansive gestures. But any danger of grandiosity is undercut by her chatty, conversational style, and by a willingness to illustrate the travails of seeking personal transformation with self-deprecating examples from her own experiences on what she wryly calls “Planet Lola.” This deft weaving of revival-tent intensity and standup-comic relatability wasn’t only disarming; it was a distinct advantage in persuading first-time visitors to become regulars.
Wright’s personal charisma wasn’t all she brought to Bodhi’s top spot; take her encouragement of its musical growth. From its beginnings, the organization had attracted musicians, but under Wright the Bodhi band really began to flower—due to such strategic moves as hiring celebrated jazz and funk vocalist Typhanie Monique as music director. Under Monique’s successor, Ameerah Tatum (who in addition to heading up a sextet of singers, also wields a cowbell like a sonic Howitzer), the band has consistently raised the roof with material from sources as varied as Katy Perry and Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a reflection of Wright’s own fierce connection to music. “My spiritual awakening didn’t come from going to Catholic school,” she confides; “it came from A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album, ‘Midnight Marauders.’”
Wright’s most significant contribution has been the expansion of the organization’s demographic palette. As she noted in her TEDx talk, any given Bodhi gathering covers the generational, racial and sexual spectrum. When I asked her how she managed this, her response was surprisingly simple and cleanly persuasive: “People have to be represented in leadership. I have been very diligent about making sure that we don’t just have a diverse population of people in our consumer base, but that they’re actually represented at every level of the organization.”
One of her most visible additions to the leadership staff is executive assistant Jaye Ratio, through whom the introduction of non-gender-specific pronouns for non-binary individuals (they/them/their) became standard practice at Bodhi. It proved a learning curve even for an organization that was founded on LGBTQ inclusion. “Not just straight people, even queer-identified people, if they were of a certain generation, couldn’t get it,” Wright says; but she remained, as ever, determined. “There are big, strategic efforts that we can make to have that be a priority, and then there are micro-level choices that are highly intentional that demand or provoke that.”
Wright’s boldness and idiosyncratic style drew attention; and some of it, at least initially, was professional. Tyler Lewke of Blue Lotus Temple says, “I run a pretty large network of Buddhist temples across the United States and Asia, and the big discussion, to summarize it, is that the dharma is free, but the rent is not… So I walked into Bodhi, frankly, on a mission just to explore how various leaders manage that tricky combination. And I was mesmerized by Lola. I thought that her ability to ask for money and to have that frank and honest conversation with people, was the most courageous way I’d ever seen it done.” Lewke’s exploratory mission ended up turning into an ongoing relationship with the community. “I thought, ‘I’ve gotta stick around. If they’re able to have a money conversation like this, what other conversations are they having?’ And I’ve just continued to find her breath of truth to knock me over every time. [Lola] is just the straightest, most direct and honest communicator I’ve witnessed in a very long time. She’s a white, female Barack Obama, frankly… She has the same skills that he does.”
Jessica Malkin, CEO of Chicago Ideas, knows Wright only through her work on that organization’s brain trust; but she echoes Lewke’s assessment of her. “She has a vulnerability about her, and an openness that I think is just chemical. It’s something that few people embody; but when they do, it means they have the ability to architect and host dialogues, conversations that a lot of people just can’t. It’s just sort of a natural gift that she has.”
Wright’s initial reflex on learning of the coming loss of the Vittum was to re-create the same model elsewhere; and she began negotiating with other performance spaces in town. But it wasn’t an easy sell. “Everyone that we have talked to,” she explains, “said, ‘We don’t want a weekly commitment. We want to be open to programming, and if you’re here weekly, that gets in the way of that, despite the fact that you think it’s great for us to have recurring income’—’cause that’s sort of been my pitch.” And there was another roadblock: “People don’t want anything that even sniffs of religion in their space. And currently our entire website is like, ‘Bodhi Spiritual Center!’ ‘Prayer!’ ‘Sacred Circles!’”
Wright is a believer that this kind of feedback, which might be taken as negative or discouraging, is actually a gift, in that it forces you to accommodate and adapt. She responded by pulling away from overtly spiritual branding—to the point of removing the word itself from the Bodhi Spiritual Center’s name. “I firmly believe that there is a way to retain the essence of what we do and the power of what we do, and evolve linguistically in a way that actually speaks to more people. Bodhi is a Sanskrit word that means ‘to awaken.’ If you know anything about spiritual tradition, you’re basically saying, ‘spiritual center’—without saying, ‘spiritual center.’ But if you don’t know—gotcha!”
An even more profound response to the lack of interest from performing venues, was to question whether a weekly gathering was even serving Bodhi’s community. There was sufficient evidence to make an argument to the contrary; principally the group’s finances. “There are thirty people who are underwriting sixty percent of this operation,” Wright says, “while there are thousands of people enjoying this operation.” The cost of putting on each celebration was $100 per seat, per Sunday. And increasingly, seats had been going empty; not because Bodhi’s popularity was waning—rather the reverse. Bodhi had begun sharing the celebrations on Facebook Live, and then streaming them on their website; with the result that they were reaching a much wider audience—but also that a lot of regular attendees now chose to watch from home. And there was an additional downside to that, as explained by Abigail Sutkus, Bodhi’s coordinator of community engagement: “People online aren’t giving at even the level people in the room are giving.”
And people in the room weren’t giving much. Just a few weeks before the Vittum pulled the plug, Bodhi had run a three-week fundraising drive called “100 x 100,” which asked its community “for your partnership in raising $100,000 by taking your one hundred percent responsibility.” The drive was successful; but the loss of the Vittum made the victory pyrrhic.
While Bodhi continued to look for a new space, some community members urged Wright to consider building a dedicated space—a Center for Consciousness that the organization could own and inhabit. Wright has professional experience in both real estate and finance—and had put that expertise to use for Bodhi before, successfully suing United Church of Christ to recover the $750,000 worth of capital improvements that Bodhi had made in the facility (and which prompted the organization’s move to the Vittum). The idea of a Bodhi building was initially attractive to Wright, until she gave it more serious reflection. “I actually feel very confident in my capacity to raise the amount of money that a building like that would take,” she explains. “But I have a complete unwillingness to go to my networks outside of this community to raise the necessary funds, only to see the giving levels that exist in this community continue. I have a big, fat no to that. What—so you can sit here and get fat and happy while I bust my tail in my relationships to give you a place you’re unwilling to contribute to? No!” The Bodhi she wanted to see was less bricks-and-mortar, and more cloud; less CEO-driven and more egalitarian.
And it seemed increasingly clear that there was one radical way to turn in that direction. “I was attracted to Bodhi because it wasn’t church,” she explains. “And as I’ve evolved personally, I have desired Bodhi to evolve more and more away from that paradigm.” Which meant: no more weekly celebrations. It was a break with a tradition that, Wright realized, had become a chokehold. “We’ve seen innovation in every industry. We’re exploring artificial intelligence, robotics, flying cars, immunotherapy. Religious constructs haven’t shifted in the last thousand to two thousand years. But it’s not because there isn’t something wanted.”
The epiphany made Wright feel almost physically lighter. “What we’ve been doing feels like ‘Groundhog Day,’” she says. “I’m ready for something new and different; and I think our supporters are, too. They may not even know it. I think there’s just an itch.”
She approached the problem like “a design challenge,” and ideas started sparking. Finally, on July 21, after the penultimate Sunday celebration, Wright held a meeting in the organization’s office space—co-hosted by Sutkus and Bodhi’s board president, Eileen Rhodes—where she revealed the result. “Our intention is to do a live audience podcast one night per month,” she explained, “and then to record a podcast that drops once per week; to do classes and workshops in the same way that we do; to do events in the same way that we do… but all of those things are going to have a cost to them—except for the podcast, which is inherently free.”
Everything that Bodhi does will have an upfront price-tag now; members can choose to participate on a pay-as-you-go basis, or gain broader access by becoming a “Founding Contributor” through an annual lump sum. A roster of giving levels was provided, beginning at $3,600, each with its own slate of benefits. The announcement caused a discernible stir in the room, but before it could coalesce into resistance, Wright stressed that no one would ever be turned away for lack of funds. Some form of reciprocity was required, however—for instance, enlisting as a volunteer.
It was a codification of the directive Wright had given herself, when she returned to Bodhi after her three-year hiatus: no one would be allowed to make demands on an organization that they weren’t willing to take ownership of. There would be no more coaching from the sidelines. “What we’re not going to have anymore,” Rhodes amplified, “is people coming up and saying, ‘Bodhi should be this.’ Well, you’re Bodhi. So what are you going to do about that?’ It’s scary, and it’s exciting.”
The members in attendance seemed buffeted by the sheer scale of the change. Clearly many were expecting a softer reinvention. But Wright’s years of advocating openness to change and embracing accountability had prepared them for this moment. The prevailing attitude was best expressed by a member who said, “I was originally feeling a little resistant about the money, because I thought that this payment effectively buys me access into a community without any particular accrued or tangible benefits that I know at the end of the year I’m going to reap. But now I’m thinking about this differently; perhaps if I see this money as skin in the game, I’ll have an intention that’s clearly set, so that I work to reap those benefits. So really, I’m investing in myself.”
There was considerably more enthusiasm for the monthly live podcast, which Wright presented as being at rotating venues around the city and possibly even the suburbs. “If you could have a Tuesday evening that had music, meditation, a monologue, an interview, a comedy sketch, all in the realm of transforming and awakening,” she said, “that to me sounds incredibly compelling, and transformational. It’s like Stephen Colbert meets ‘SuperSoul Sunday’ meets Phil Donahue meets ‘In Living Color.’” Her effervescence didn’t diminish even when Rhodes quipped, “Does anyone know who Phil Donahue is?”
The following Sunday—Bodhi’s last at the Vittum—Wright introduced Tyler Greene, whom she’d just hired as creative director, specifically to facilitate the new monthly series. Greene comes to Bodhi with an extensive track record of managing and producing live events for both broadcast and podcast, including the launch of WBEZ Podcast Passport.
Wright concluded her valedictory celebration address by noting that, “Bodhi is not a Sunday experience. Bodhi has had a Sunday experience. Bodhi is an infinite idea and the universal mind that is a portal for possibility expressed through each of us. That does not change because Sundays go away. So I ask you, if you love this place, if this place matters, whether it is your first time, it is your final time to hold in the high altar of consciousness that places and spaces that affirm the wholeness of humanity remain available, that that actually matters. That I would be willing to organize myself such that that remains available for people. That’s what this place exists to be about. And I hope that you’ll choose to join us on this next iteration of the journey. Many blessings.”
And then the final Bodhi Center Sunday celebration played out with the entire staff and crew invited onstage to dance as the band threw down Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
In August, Bodhi Center cut its final ties with its old neighborhood by moving its administrative and classroom facilities to Reunion Chicago, an event space and project incubator at 2557 West North.
The first monthly event in Bodhi’s new iteration takes place on October 22 at Schubas Tavern, 3159 North Southport. Lola Wright will host, with Ameerah Tatum and the band; special guests will include artists from Chicago’s hip-hop, comedy and performance communities. “At the end of the day,” says Tyler Greene, “we want to wake people up to the world around them, and simultaneously calm them down so that they can be present to their lives.”