In January, at a Martin Luther King, Jr., Faith Leadership Breakfast, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke in detail about how the Standing Rock protests catalyzed her spiritual and political calling. “It was truly one of the most spiritually transformative experiences of my life,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez, who is Catholic, began her remarks by saying that she has to contemplate how to talk about her spiritual life as a public figure. “It’s not something that I want to cheapen, or it’s not something that I want to use as currency.” Of her spiritual journey, she said, “I haven’t talked about it yet much on the outside. I’m very conscious of that. But today we’re in family.”
More than 100 people had gathered for the breakfast in a catering hall in the Bronx, just blocks away from Ocasio-Cortez’s new campaign office. Jonathan Soto, the interfaith organizer for her campaign, put together the event.
Soto said that they engage religious leaders and their communities in part to reach those who are economically and politically vulnerable. “Houses of worship can be an oasis in a desert like America where our public institutions have been winnowed down,” he told me. They can be portals for critical services for immigrants, the poor, and the working-class. Soto himself is the child of working-class Pentecostal ministers who moved from Puerto Rico to New York. Before working for the campaign, he was an associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Union Theological Seminary.
The Faith Leadership Breakfast was intended to lay the groundwork for a series of monthly gatherings with faith communities, beginning first in the congresswoman’s district and then expanding beyond it. I attended the breakfast with New York City’s chapter of Religion and Socialism, a national working group that’s linked to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). There were also representatives from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations, including Bronx Clergy Roundtable, Lab/Shul, New Sanctuary Coalition, Latino Pastoral Action Center, Micah Roundtable, and Union Theological Seminary.
The spiritual dimensions of Ocasio-Cortez’s own journey from Standing Rock to Congress are essential to understanding her political theory of change. Like many politicians on the left, she has been criticized for having insufficiently pragmatic plans. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), has famously referred to the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez’s signature bill, as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.” But, as Ocasio-Cortez made clear during her remarks at the breakfast, it is more important to her to build political commitment than to craft a pragmatic plan. This was one of the major lessons she took away from her experience at Standing Rock, a Native American reservation where indigenous protectors showed up to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by private oil companies.
As she tells it, Ocasio-Cortez had never planned to go to Standing Rock. It was late 2016 and she was scrolling through her social media when she saw that a woman she had met years ago was at Standing Rock, working as a harmony keeper with the Lakota Sioux. “Something told me to reach out to her,” Ocasio-Cortez said. She messaged the woman to ask if she needed clothing or supplies. In Ocasio-Cortez’s telling, her friend replied, “We need women at the camp. When are you getting here?”
Taken aback, Ocasio-Cortez did not respond for a few days. She had never been to North or South Dakota before, and she had no car or funds to get there. At the time, she was still working as a bartender and waitress, struggling to make ends meet. The conversation with her friend kept nagging her. Finally, she spoke to a friend of hers at the restaurant where they worked. They had organized politically together before.
Ocasio-Cortez narrated: “I said, ‘You know this sounds so crazy, but I think I might want to go to Standing Rock.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about doing the exact same thing all week.’ We both looked at each other and said, ‘Well, let’s go.’
“We had no plan, no resources, but we both felt the call,” she said. “And so, as what tends to happen, everything you need appears. And that’s what happened.”
Her friend’s aunt unexpectedly had a 1998 Subaru that she was willing to loan them. Friends chipped in through a GoFundMe page to pay for their gas and supplies that they could bring to Standing Rock. An old college friend offered, unprompted, to house them during their pit stop in Ohio. During their road trip from New York to Standing Rock, which they live-streamed on Facebook, they stopped in Flint, Michigan, where they clearly saw the intersection of environmental degradation and systemic racism due to the city’s lead-poisoned water. In Flint, they met with the director of the housing commission, who was also a local minister.
“It was so funny because each and every stop there were spiritual and faith leaders that we just happened to connect with. It wasn’t in the plan—there was no plan. The plan was just to show up,” she said. “As we were driving closer to Standing Rock, I felt in me a kind of magnetism … it was almost like a law of nature: This is where you are supposed to be.”
They stayed at Standing Rock for a handful of days and left just before Christmas. What they saw at the reservation, according a live-stream video posted by Ocasio-Cortez on Facebook and reported on by TIME magazine, was a stand-off between heavily militarized private corporations and various indigenous tribes, who had united at Standing Rock to protect the land.
According to the conversation in the live-stream, Ocasio-Cortez and her friends were deeply impressed by what they saw: An organized but decentralized operation that was feeding and housing more than 2,000 people on the reservation. Everyone’s physical needs were met, but there was no central planning committee; instead there was a widespread culture of sharing everything in common, from socks to food. During the live-stream, Ocasio-Cortez described her memory of an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where an artist, Marina Abramović, sat in a chair and stared at whomever sat in the chair opposite her. Some people cried as a result of the intensity of unbroken, unmediated eye contact. “That’s the way everyone looked at each other at camp,” she commented to her social media followers.
Ocasio-Cortez and her friends had shown up expecting to engage in political protest, but what they encountered instead was a profound spiritual ceremony—one that was also political in nature. Every action that was taken, from chopping wood for others to chaining oneself to a large machine, was a “spiritual act of dedication to your values,” Ocasio-Cortez said in the video. One of the takeaways for her was that this massive encampment at Standing Rock was largely unplanned: It began with a handful of young people, most under 25, who established a tiny “prayer camp” on the reservation to stop the oil companies and issued a call to other tribes for help.
One of her most indelible memories, she said, was waking up every morning at six o’clock to a man who would wake up the entire camp, singing, cracking jokes, and repeating his mantra, “You are here for a reason.” She recounted, “It was so funny, you wake up every morning with a smile on your face and your feel that intentionality, that purpose, like you are part of something special.”
Later, she reflected at the Faith Leaders Breakfast that the experience left her with a sense that she was being prepared for something—but she didn’t know exactly what. “I remember leaving that camp and thinking, ‘Lord, just do with me what you will. Allow me to be a vessel.’”
Up until this point that morning, she had described her spiritual journey without any explicit reference to God or a particular religion. As she referenced the Lord, her words echoed many biblical verses involving vessels and Christian songs, such as “Lord Make Me a Vessel,” whose first line goes, “Use me Lord to do your will.”
As she was driving off the camp on Christmas Eve, she received an email from a group called Brand New Congress, asking if she would consider running for office. That was when she realized that this was what she was being prepared for. “I didn’t know if I would win. I didn’t know if I would lose, I just knew that I was being told to run,” she told the room full of religious leaders. She had no concrete plan at that time for how she would win the election, but—taking a cue from her journey to Standing Rock and her experiences there—that did not deter her from pursuing what she felt called to do.
The prioritization of commitments over plans is a key pillar in Ocasio-Cortez’s political theory of change. During the breakfast, she remarked that the real problem that befalls Washington, D.C., is not a lack of plans, but a lack of sufficient commitment to the poor, to working people, and so on. “When we have the commitment, we will make the plan together,” she said.
Her time at Standing Rock has also informed the writing of the Green New Deal, which she released along with Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) in February 2019. It is a non-binding resolution that roughly lays out how to phase out U.S. greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and massively invest in renewable energy jobs. The resolution, notably, calls for “obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples for all decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their traditional territories.” Such language, a rarity in federal policy, seems to be a direct result of collaborating with indigenous-led environmental groups.
Toward the latter half of her speech at the breakfast, Ocasio-Cortez turned to the event’s namesake, Martin Luther King, paraphrasing his observation that while our scientific and technological progress has advanced, our moral progress has not caught up.
“What we need to do is advance morally and ethically,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And that is what the frontlines of the faith-work is, that is what acts of faith are. Whether it’s criminal justice reform, abolition work, honoring our ancestry, fighting for a living wage, these are acts of faith.”
As the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez’s future lies wide open. When people ask her what her five-or-ten-year plan is, she usually responds, “I don’t have one.”
“People seem almost appalled,” she said. “The way I genuinely feel is that I don’t have a plan. I’m waiting to figure out what the plan is for me.”
Sarah Ngu is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has written for Vox, Vice, Jacobin, Sojourners, Religious Socialism, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Follow Sarah on Twitter (@sarahngu) and read their work at sarahngu.com.