Sunday, June 26, 2016, two weeks after the killings and maiming of lesbian gay bisexual and transgender people at Pulse in Orlando
A year and nine days after the massacre of nine African American people at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.
Thousands of Syrians fleeing their country looking for a safe harbor.
Political unrest within our country and others like England
And here all the unspoken challenges, physical, emotional, mental that very present in this room.
We are desperately in need of more beloved conversations, more tenderness, more kindness, more compassion, more love and acceptance
More as Buber, German philosopher would teach of I –thou conversations with our Self as well as with others. No longer the I –it conversations.
A conversation that comes from self love, connection and curiosity – a mind wanting to know what would happen when the threshold of fear is crossed when the xenophobia, fear of the other,
where we faced the questions
“are they really that different from me” and
“what would I be without that thought”
A conversation where we are as the Hebrew scripture tells the reader several times circumsizing our heart and not having sich a stiff neck
Human development teaches that we grow proximal to distal, I interpret that to mean I must begin here to know me, my values, my passions before I can expect to productively know or influence or be influenced by anyone else and can respond not react!
Before I became a rabbi I was and still am a executive coach, working with mid and upper managers. One company I work with the Center for Creative Leadership has built a reputation on the importance of self awareness as a primary tool of leadership. And a spiritual teacher of mine taught me to keep my vessel clean, notice the stuck places, and the places of yearning to be explored and allowing to continue the flow of life through me, like the blood through the heart, and to choose life and the learning that goes with it.
How do we do that – mindfully, kindly, compassionately and tenderly and knowing we are NEVER alone and trusting and making a friend of time.
The seven UU principles along with the Jewish tradition teachings I grew up with,
as well as other faith and spiritual traditions I have studied and practiced have teachings that direct us in the right direction for the health of our hearts-bodies-spirits and our community and the world.
And those principles are written because we are often-sometimes-occasionally distracted from our good intentions and these teachings and need something to keep us honest and bring us back to our core goodness. In writing this piece I see that all those principles are woven into my talk today.
Especially #7 Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
The phrase Beloved Conversations was created for a program by Dr. Mark A. Hicks working with the Fahs Collaborative Laboratory for Leaders in Faith and Learning a division within the Meadville Lombard Theoligical School when they developed a curriculum honoring our UU commitment to Standing on the Side of Love and Black Lives Matter that would help us do more than write and talk about racism and white privilege.
The intention was to create a setting where we can learn more about people of color and their challenges and our Selfs and have those beloved conversations where we listen to our inner voices and those of others that we thought were more unlike us and more different from us and build bridges to continue the healing that must be done.
As James Baldwin wrote: Not everything that is faced can be changed, And nothing can be changed until it is faced.
And I was asked to be a co-facilitator with an African American man I did not know who was a member of UUFB. I had a lot to learn about James and he with me…we were on the path together, we had to learn to have each other’s back. And as the white person, I had to learn to share responsibility to learn James’ skills and strengths and listen, listen, listen and trust. You see I can very bossy.
Before the 8 group sessions began the three the congregations gathered to meet each other and get some grounding information that gave us a heads up of what was next. I am offering you today these two ideas to consider.
The first is the Danger of the Single Story
In the TED talk, the Danger of the Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie a wonderful story teller from Nigeria warns us that if we hear only a single story about another person or country or situation, we risk a critical misunderstanding. And I think we all know moments in our lives when this has happened. There were many times in the eight weeks that my single story that I thought was complete was inaccurate and had been for years.
The rabbis teach that the word in Hebrew for truth, EMET, is made of three letters, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the middle letter and the last letter. So I learned that truth is more than the bit I can see, it is the whole story that I must learn in order to respond from that whole story, not just a piece of the story.
One of the many reflections Ms Adichie told was when in college in America, her white roommate seeing her listening to music on her ipod, asked “can I listen to your tribal music”, and Chimamanda responded ‘Mariah Carey?’
I remember many years ago experiencing anger that I did not know, confused about my narrow perspective and delighted to learn about Dr Margaret Lawrence in the book Balm in Gilead written by her daughter Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, author, educator, first African-American woman in Harvard University’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor, who becomes a doctor in 1940 and later as a child psychiatrist worked with Dr. Benjamin Spock as a women of color among white men. How did I not know this and who else did not know?
I am embarrassed to admit that I bought what the media taught me as the whole truth that in general African Americans were poor & uneducated and the ones I knew were unusual. Sometimes it takes a while to forgive and to gather all the pieces to the puzzle.
Each moment is an opportunity to have a beloved conversation with my friends, one of love and curiosity. And to forgive myself for my single story I bought from someone else.
Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, reminds us that “Intimacy between people requires closeness as well as distance. It is like dancing. Sometimes we are very close, touching each other or holding each other; sometimes we move away from each other and let the space between us become an area where we can freely move”.
To develop the dance of closeness and intimacy the Beloved Conversation participants gathered once for Friday evening and all day Saturday and then set up the 8 sessions over the next 5 months, we had intimacy of two hours together going through each week’s curriculum and then space to digest, ponder and act with what we were learning.
I had never worked closely over eight weeks, with someone so different and yet so much like me. James had grown up in the ‘corridor of shame’ in segregated schools, attended SC State and during the Orangeburg massacre had seen his best friend killed. He became a beloved and successful coach, worked with developmentally delayed children and then administrator in the school system. And he is a father and grandfather and married to Jean and as he has told the story, a victim of racism as a mixed race couple. I grew up in a white working class community outside Boston, hub of learning, and there were no people of color in my community until I graduated and the only people different were if a different faith – until I married and had children and even then they were all white. Not until college at 45 did I become friends with people of color.
As I listened to James I noticed the covering of my heart, dissolve the illusion of separateness and I began to get a grip of what it was like to grow up in SC as a person of color. How every breath was challenged when he moved outside of his community where his parents had protected him and his siblings. Listening to him beside me talk was more real and impactful than reading and watching movies.
And I had to relook at my feelings that arose when I heard years ago bell hooks, acclaimed intellectual, feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer talk about the white Jew. As a Jew I am a minority, grew up knowing about the holocaust and experiencing the fear of being a Jew when I stepped outside my Jewish community. And I am white, educated and accepted as part of the establishment, even though I was not Christian. I got away with a lot that people of color do not. I am beginning to understand that living in America as a white woman I can pass as acceptable and can understand more why some light skinned people of color choose to pass.
James & I, together our job was to create a safe container for the group, reminding them of their covenant with each other. And sometimes we had to inject our own story. James told about being in the car with Jean and being pulled over by a policeman and James’ challenge to the officer or a young person in the next car calling out ‘hey I see a zebra’! One evening I told of being in Disney World with my partner Diana. I wanted to hold her hand and felt uncomfortable with the public display of affection. Then I saw a Black family getting out of their car and I thought they cannot hide, they are out, then I can be out too and I grabbed Diana’s hand and we walked hand in hand through the park.
All the stories that were shared stimulated compassion within the group and linked us together and brought us into a different level of intimacy then when we began.
Audre Lorde has written “When I use my strength in the service of my vision it makes no difference whether or not I am afraid”
The danger of the single story was the first lens the creators wanted us to use and the other powerful compass to our work comes from Harvard’s Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey and their work “Immunity to Change”.
They tell us that we are conflicted being comfortable and not wanting change and yet we have dreams that demand moving into uncomfortable place. And we have all these mechanisms in place to avoid altering our comfort and same-old-same-old patterns, hence Immunity to Change
The one time we were all together our faciliatators put us through an exercise called the Big Assumption –where we looked at our vision for what we want to change and acknowledge our competing comittments that keep us in place and not moving forward for all kinds of reasons.
– for example, we want to be on time for work but we are too comfortable snuggling up -Like I want to loose weight, cannot seem to adjust my diet, or I want to speak up and if I do others might see me as loud and brass. Or I really want a relationship and I am shy and introverted to let people I know I am in the market. Or I want to build a friendship with an African American woman and I do not want to intrude or what will I say will I feel awkward.
We also have assumptions about white people and people of color and we are not interested in testing those assumptions. So we stay in the same patterns. Beloved conversation helped us to explore some of those assumptions by readings, discussions, videos, exercises such as the walk of privilege. If any of you had watched Tim Wise, white anti-racist activitst, you know he can really stir up your emotions in his truth speaking.
For our first homework assignment we were asked to heighten out sense of awareness of the sacred in our life, and slow down long enough to watch a snail on the porch. Or wash the dishes instead of placing them in the dishwasher. Do things differently like changing the driving pattern to work. Notice sensation of someone smiling at you. These were all exercises to make us aware, make us be mindfully awake, sensitive to our emotions, physical sensations of life. All this to bring us into awarenss of our thougths and feelings, getting to know ourself in a kind way. For only through kindness can we change, a change that is life long.
My white privilege and single stories and assumptions are meant to stimulate you
Nothing happens in isolation from another
Everything is interrelated, interconnected, interwoven
When I became a member of UUFB I joined the welcoming congregation committee, and when I walked into my first meeting and looked around the table and faced my first single story & big assumption –only gay people would put all their energy into a gay topic had to dissolve! I met my straight allies who were willing to do something about homophobia & transphobia.
Beloved conversation moved me to action
to experience we need to know each other, I am always saying we need allies, all of us…interfaith-interreligious movements are essential to making change happen,
we need each other and only together can we make change,
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has written, Faith is taking the first step even when you cannot see the whole staircase
And when I decided to face my own internalized anti-Judaism and began the Jewish Affinity group I thought either no one would be interested or only the UUFB Jewish members, I was wrong on both accounts.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia wrote
We have come a great distance, AND there is still much more work to do in America to finally build a true democracy that respects the worth and dignity of each and every human being. The stories of ALL enslaved people should empower us all to seek our own liberation from injustice and do what we can to build a Beloved Community in our nation and around the world.”
And where else to begin but here in a UU congregation.
Closing word: We are One:
if we are only in our head
who are we
if we are only for our body
what is our purpose
if we do not integrate our whole being
we are dead
if not now
because vulnerability is a strength
choose life!! adapted from Rabbi Hillel’s quote