Chris Heuertz looks at his hands, and sees the instruments of two separate realities. Two worlds. In one, Chris dines with friends in the comforts of his hometown, Omaha. He holds a nice glass of wine. He shakes hands and throws hugs, because Heuertz, this burly hippie-looking dude in sandals and salt-and-pepper ponytail, is the definition of a hugger. He listens intently and laughs heartily and strikes the impression of a man at peace with himself and in tune with his surroundings.
In the other, he holds in his arms the malnourished body of a dying 16-year-old boy. He feels the boy's labored breath. He sees the boy's eyes blink slowly. He sits with him as he dies, as close to family or friend as this boy has anymore. In this world, Chris, 41, and his 39-year-old wife Phileena — longtime leaders within an international evangelical organization on a mission to serve Jesus through the most vulnerable of the poor — walk the seedy streets of a South Asian red-light district, working with women and children sold into horrific lives by human traffickers.
Chris looks at his hands and struggles to comprehend how these two realities are one and the same.
“It is weird the worlds we've lived in,” he says, and then falls silent.
* * *
Phileena Heuertz looks up at the latest visitor to the Gravity Center and smiles brightly.
“I'm glad you made it,” she says, and gestures to an open space on the floor. A dozen other visitors sit in a circle, called for one purpose or another to this one-room office within the sprawling Mastercraft building, a former furniture factory in north downtown that's become a creative hub for Omaha's start-up community, a class that now includes this ambiguous new organization called Gravity.
Even in this long, labyrinthine building, it is not difficult to find Gravity. You follow the scent of burning incense, past the offices of photographers and designers and venture capitalists, into a minimalist office where Shepard Fairey prints of social justice heroes like Angela Davis, Aung San Suu Kyi and Woody Guthrie line the walls.
Just after 4 p.m., Phileena explains the guidelines. At the chime of a bell, you will close your eyes and focus on a sacred word of your choosing. Understand and accept that your mind may wander. When that happens, gently return to your word.
For the next 20 minutes, the room falls into stillness, sharing a practice called Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation built on the ancient contemplative tradition cloistered for centuries in monasteries.
In the age of noise and distraction, it is an invitation to silence and solitude. For the spiritual person, it is an exercise to deepen a relationship with God.
To Phileena and Chris Heuertz, it is the core component of the Gravity Center, an organization aimed at fueling a new activism and helping others “do good better.” It is a way to share the practices that sustained them in the face of unimaginable suffering and a failed humanity. It is the merging of their two worlds.
It might be the bravest thing they've ever done.
* * *
This spring, after 20 years of serving, building and eventually leading the international mission organization Word Made Flesh, Chris and Phileena Heuertz will move on. Their decision to focus entirely on the nascent Gravity Center concludes a chapter that's also the story of their relationship.
It began in 1993, when Chris, a student at Asbury College, a Christian liberal arts school in tiny Wilmore, Ky., made his first trip to India to volunteer for Mother Teresa at a hospice once known as the Home of the Dying. On his first day, he helped carry bodies to a nearby crematorium. In his first month, he saw 50 people die. In school he was a theology major whose idea of a fun time meant late-night debates over scripture and religious principles, but here he was left dumbfounded.
“I had seen some of the most graphic human suffering and I just couldn't comprehend it,” he says.
The following year he returned to India as Word Made Flesh's first on-the-ground missionary, helping to establish a pediatric care facility for AIDS orphans or children living with HIV themselves. This time he buried kids.
Back at Asbury, Phileena, a minister's daughter from Indianapolis, was finishing up her schoolwork. Apart from each other for the better part of three years, she and Chris wrote letters that now fill five binders on a shelf in their home.
Married in 1996, they spent the next several years growing the Word Made Flesh footprint, eventually being charged with directing the young organization. Enlisting the help of friends, they built teams in some of the most impoverished areas in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, tasking everyone involved, from staffers to interns, with finding sponsors to help fund their missions.
In 2002, they relocated the organization's international headquarters to Omaha, working out of a loft just south of the Old Market for the past several years. In what could be called their downtime, they've written four books between them and speak at conferences, retreats and colleges throughout the country.
“Chris and Phileena and Word Made Flesh were one of Omaha's best kept secrets,” says Taylor Keen, executive director of the Halo Institute, a business incubator through Creighton University. Keen met the Heuertzes five years ago through a mutual acquaintance and later found himself fascinated by their ideas for Gravity from the moment Phileena mentioned her interest in yoga. That two people from the evangelical community explored ideas outside of their own realm — from Eastern yoga to the contemplative tradition of Catholicism — resonated with Keen.
“When I see anyone who challenges the foundations of their own roots, I find that very inspiring,” he says.
Not everyone is so receptive. Late last year, Phileena presented at a breakout session during Urbana 12, a massive Christian missions conference that brought 16,000 college students to St. Louis.
With Chris in the audience, she spoke of their service together over the past two decades and how in that time they saw so many of their colleagues teetering on the edge of burnout.
They teetered themselves.
For Phileena, it happened following a 2002 trip to Sierra Leone after a horrific civil war. She and Chris encountered children whose limbs had been severed with machetes, young boys who had been forced to become soldiers, girls stolen from their homes to be war brides.
“We had seen what we thought was the worst of the worst,” she says. “But when we got to Freetown, we saw how far human brutality could go. It just felt like I had very little to offer the world.”
When they returned home to Omaha, a friend asked Phileena if the things she saw ever made her doubt the goodness of God. Phileena broke down.
For two years, she had a spiritual crisis, until she and Chris attended a talk by the Rev. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and one of the leading figures behind the recent revival of the Christian contemplative tradition.
It was a turning point.
“I like what a priest once said to me,” she says. “'The opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty. Faith in its very nature embraces mystery.'”
Onstage in St. Louis, Phileena shared her experience, which eventually led her to a once-unthinkable conversion to Catholicism.
If you're on a spiritual journey long enough, she said, at some point the practices that sustained you will fail. On her journey, the contemplative life offered her direction.
As soon as the discussion opened to the evangelical audience, things got ugly.
A young woman accused Phileena of disguising Hinduism as Christianity, arguing that the Centering Prayer was meditation by another name. A young man shouted, over and over, that all the answers were in the Bible.
“It was mutiny,” Chris says.
Over the shouting and accusations, Phileena heard something else, something she knew intimately: fear. At one time, she would have leveled the same questions as her critics.
“At the same time I wanted to get as far away from it as I could,” she says. “It can be really hurtful. I wanted to get away, but I had to take it on the chin. I felt that vulnerability of my faith being attacked. All happening in a few minutes.”
* * *
If they've lost any allies in the transition to Gravity, the Heuertzes have also strengthened other friendships and gained new supporters. The interfaith nature of their own relationship — Chris jokingly considers himself “an orphan of evangelical” — points to where they're going with Gravity.
“I've never seen a married couple be so healthily dependent on each other but be so independent in their own identities,” says Danielle Powell, Chris' former assistant at Word Made Flesh and a close friend of the couple. “That is a really beautiful thing to see.”
In the years ahead, the Heuertzes see Gravity as a conceptual gathering place for people of all backgrounds and vocations. They envision multiple prayer and yoga sessions throughout the city and conferences that bring together experts from a variety of disciplines to address major social issues. Retreats, books and speaking engagements will help pay the bills, as will donations (the organization recently received its nonprofit status).
“I think they're really embarking on something that no one has done before,” Keen says. “I think they can change the way people think about religion.”
If there's a guiding principle to the center, it's a lesson the Heuertzes learned the hard way: that people who serve others, whether a missionary in India or a social worker in Omaha, often don't take the time to take care of themselves. They burn out — physically, mentally, spiritually, they can't go on.
The Heuertzes want to help others avoid that fate.
“What we're hoping to do is build off the work we've been doing for the past 20 years,” Chris says.
* * *
Over the past few years, when they were in town, the Heuertzes often could be found at House of Loom, the downtown nightclub with a streak of social consciousness, where regulars refer to themselves as a community. So it makes sense that on this late winter evening, friends and family gather there for a celebration of Chris' most recent book, “Unexpected Gifts,” in which he writes about the challenges of forming, maintaining, and in some cases leaving, a community important to you.
Just about everyone who knows the Heuertzes shares a similar story of meeting them. How the couple makes you feel like “the most special person in the world,” as one friend puts it.
When someone asks Jared Spence, a 24-year-old fashion writer and stylist, how he knows the Heuertzes, his eyes find the couple across the room. In typical fashion, Chris darts from group to group, introducing people to each other. Phileena, meanwhile, sits on a couch, and appears to be in a deep conversation.
“They're the best people I know,” Spence says.
It is almost hard to comprehend, friends say, how these two people who have witnessed some of the most unimaginable suffering, who have attended more funerals than weddings, could have anything left to give to people with relatively little to complain about.
“I never have to worry about them not being there,” Powell says. “That doesn't make you want to take advantage of them. That makes you want to make them proud.”
“I think that's one of the things they do inadvertently,” he says. “Their presence reminds you to do good, to give back. So I try. I'm no Chris and Phileena, but I try.”
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