Unity Church of the Hills Board of Trustees member and former U.S. Marine artillery officer Clay Boykin is looking for more than a few good men. He wants as many men as possible to join him and others in the Men’s Fellowship Network.
Clay’s passion for the topic of male spirituality is reflected in what has become his personal mission: “My vision is to devote the next 20 years dedicated to empowering men to come together to help one another find and cultivate their spiritual male essence and raise their consciousness, so that together we can do our part to make this world a better place.”
His journey toward that calling began, strangely enough, in 2007 in the woods near Ocho Rios, Jamaica, as he had what he later would label a mystical experience. While on a vacation trip with his wife and her family, he took some time alone and sat under a tree, carving a piece of wood and reflecting on his life. It was then that he realized he was in physical crisis—he thought he might be dying—but with this crisis came a profound sense of peace and acceptance.
“I hesitate to say it was a near death experience,” he said, “but I leaned against the veil pretty hard.” The next day he walked with his wife Laurie Bell up a long hill and continued to feel this otherworldly sensation—changed perceptions, strange voices, odd feelings. “The whole thing was a sacred event, symbolic in many different ways and hard to put into words,” he said.
Back in Austin, Clay’s cardiologist immediately recommended emergency quintuple bypass surgery. He was 53 years old. As he recovered from the surgery, he visited his employer in New York, at Park Avenue and 32nd Street. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about the money. We’ll take care of you; just rest and convalesce,’” he said.
That visit included his first trip to the top of the Empire State Building. He looked down over the city and could see the window of his office far below. He said, “I thought, ‘Metaphorically, I’ve made it to the top. I’m at the top of the Empire State Building, and it’s almost killed me.’ That’s what we men do—we climb the ladder—and now here I am. I asked myself, Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What’s this all about?”
Returning home, he learned that the company had laid him off.
Finding himself unemployed for the first time in his life, Clay became desperate. The market was crashing, companies were downsizing, and his life became bleaker. In the meantime, both his parents passed away, four months apart. He was out of work for two years, including a stay in a residential treatment facility in Arizona for depression and addiction. Clay described this time as his “dark night of the soul.”
“That was the second time my life was saved,” he said. “The first was the bypass surgery. The second was being in a structured environment, where I could get my life back together.” He began reading Joseph Campbell, John Bradshaw, Richard Rohr, Viktor Frankl, Emerson, and others.
These experiences led him to the practice of visiting different churches in the area, a process he dubbed “churfing.” On January 3, 2010, he first drove under the UCOH arch and found, as so many others also report, that he felt immediately at home. “I sat there and experienced the unconditional love,” he said.
Clay was born in Midland, Texas, and soon afterward his family moved to College Station, where his father, a veteran of the World War II Battle of the Bulge, worked as an agricultural economist for the USDA on the campus of Texas A&M University. Clay’s grandfather owned hotels in West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and once even turned down a personal invitation from Conrad Hilton to merge their businesses.
Clay’s mother, a graduate of SMU, also worked on the A&M campus, for the Meteorology Department.
Growing up in College Station, and with both parents employed on campus, it was almost inevitable that Clay would attend Texas A&M after he graduated from A&M Consolidated High School in 1972. He applied for and received a Marine Corps scholarship, which paid for all his schooling, in exchange for a four-year commitment after graduation.
His choice of the Marine Corps was carefully and thoughtfully considered. “The Naval ROTC program started in 1972,” he said, “so I thought I’d go do that. I went into the Military Science Building, and there was a Marine major in his dress blue trousers and khaki shirt, decorated up to here, who came gliding up to me and looked me up and down and said, ‘You’d make a good Marine.’ He spit on his Corfam shoe, buffed it on the back of his trouser leg, turned around, and glided off. I thought, ‘I like that uniform better.’ So that’s why I went with the Marines!”
As a member of the A&M Corps of Cadets, his summers involved military training, including a cruise on board the USS Schenectady out of San Diego; jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia; and “Bulldog,” a six-week version of boot camp at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. “Bulldog was pretty tough,” Clay said. “The fear aspect of it wasn’t too bad, because we’d already been through all that at A&M. But they really took us to task.” During his four years in the Corps of Cadets, Clay also was a member of the famed Singing Cadets and once traveled with them for a three-week singing tour of Romania.
After graduating and receiving his commission in 1976, he was stationed on Okinawa, which allowed him to make visits to Hong Kong and China. Since leaving the Marine Corps, he has traveled extensively, much of it work-related, visiting Japan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Europe, and Israel.
He said that on September 11, 2001, “On a business trip, my coworker and I had just retrieved our bags at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland, when someone said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Like so many people, I first thought it was a small plane, but the energy in the airport was pretty odd, and I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ We got a cab to our hotel just as they were closing the airport.” He and Laurie had been married only a few months, and she naturally worried about his being halfway around the world. “I called and told her, ‘I’m in Geneva. I think that’s the safest place in the world.’ We were stranded for about a week with no way to get home, so my colleague and I took the company car and drove down to Provence for a few days.”
The business travel was part of his work with Motorola, Inc., which he joined in 1980, straight out of the Marines, working first in production, then in marketing. During that 22-year affiliation, at one point he ran the operations for the Power PC, the product of a consortium among Motorola, Apple, and IBM. In the corporate world, he continued to give expression to the notion of “servant leadership” that he had learned at A&M and in the military.
“When it comes to leadership, it’s very common in the business world to feel like you have to wake up running or be eaten,” he said. “It’s all fear-based. My approach was to find something we could all aim at and run toward it, a subtle but important difference. Looking back on it, I know I was bringing Spirit to the organization. I never used ‘the S-word,’ but what they needed was someone to wrap their arms around them and love ’em … help them get to their next place, help them see and connect to something bigger than themselves.”
Two years after his position in New York was eliminated, and soon after he began attending UCOH, Clay was finally hired for a part-time position at OfficeMax. He was soon hired by and ran an Austin printing company for six years. He recalled hearing, just before he re-entered the working world, Rev. Steve Bolen relate a new take on an old Bible verse: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I don’t have to build a condo there. “I laughed, and that was a breakthrough for me. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s about choice! I can choose not to be in this place of fear and shame and guilt. I can choose to look at things differently.’ This is when my energy changed.”
One of Clay’s many talents is his ability to visually represent relationships between concepts. He said, “I was hit by a car in 1963 and had a pretty severe concussion. I had trouble in school after that, because my notes didn’t make sense to me. I learned to draw things that helped me remember. Since that wasn’t considered the ‘correct’ way to do it at the time, I had to hide my scribbles. My way of learning is not so uncommon now, but back then it wasn’t okay.”
Often Clay sits in church on Sunday mornings, sketch book in hand, making sense of the concepts by diagramming their relationships. “I reach a point where all the pieces fit, and I feel like the universe is all in perspective—everything’s in its place for this moment,” he said. He has used this superpower in the business world, as well as to help friends both find themselves and understand concepts he wants to communicate. (Here’s a two-minute video example.)
His relational diagrams and illustrations cover a multitude of subjects, culminating in a fascinatingly complex work he calls his personal mandala. It’s a complicated and artistic compilation of smaller lists and drawings covering everything from the Mayan calendar to Vedic texts, Egyptian pyramids to the zodiac, ancient Greek culture to climatology, and quantum physics to Unity’s twelve powers. “I generally knew what a mandala looked like, but it wasn’t until I read The Power of Myth where Joseph Campbell described it that it dawned on me that the images and diagrams I had been drawing for years were a form of mandala,” he said.
Clay and Laurie have no children together, although she has two daughters from a previous marriage, one of whom is Emily Bell, noted singer and songwriter in the Austin music scene. Her other daughter, Cary Bell, is an indie film producer-director, presently working on a documentary series on the border in South Texas. Clay and Laurie immediately shift into “grandparent mode,” though, whipping out photos and anecdotes, when they describe the 18-month-old whom they have “adopted.”
“We keep him half a day and overnight once a week,” Clay said, with a big smile, “and we call him our ‘fairy godson.’ He’s intelligent, bright, fun—he has brought such joy into this house. I pull down all my guitars and play for him.” (Clay has played guitar since the ’60s, influenced primarily by the style of Leo Kottke.) When asked what makes him laugh, Clay displayed more pictures on his phone and said, “This little boy! It’s definitely this little guy that makes me laugh.”
A year after his arrival at UCOH in 2010, Clay became a prayer chaplain. A year after that, he and the other male chaplains began to form the Men’s Fellowship Network, a constellation of men who come together every Monday evening in an environment of acceptance and connection. Clay’s servant leadership style shone through as he discussed this group. “We have a framework, not a structure,” he said. “It’s a network, rather than a group; we have a gathering, rather than a meeting; we hold conversations, rather than discussions; these are big differences.”
Today, in his “semi-retirement,” the Men’s Fellowship Network has become a calling for Clay. Collectively over the past six years the men have invested over 20,000 man-hours in the overarching topic of male spirituality. He currently maintains the email list of over 450 men, 150 or so in the Austin area. He manages the website, which contains 300-plus pages of material related to male spirituality and has visitors from over 140 countries. And he’s putting the finishing touches on a book about the whole process, designed to help others replicate the resounding success the idea has had at UCOH.
“When we gather on Monday night, there are usually at least a thousand years of cumulative life experience sitting in that circle. We learn from one another. I’m just the facilitator,” he said. Concerning the website for the network, he said, “Almost half the visitors are women. I figure they’re either trying to find a spiritual resource for their guy, or they’re stalking us!” He laughed. “Actually,” he said, “one woman told me that her reason for frequenting the website was to begin to learn about the strong male essence which was a part of who she is. It never occurred to me how far and wide the ripples from our spiritual circle of men could spread.”