I want to start at the end of this story, because it really does set the mood for what I want you to take away from this post. We have to start, not from where we were or where we wish to be, but from where we are.
I spent last week in New Orleans. Sunday was the last day of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly held there. The main purpose of General Assembly is to do the business of governing the UUA and telling them what the member congregations want them to do, where to focus, and to make changes to how things get done. It moves around the country to a city in a different region each year. This was a special year in that we were electing a new president for the UUA and, as an extra historical note, all of the candidates were women, ensuring that we would have our first female president.
Sunday afternoon, after all the business was done, I walked back to my hotel. It was about a mile through a slightly rundown area of town already quite expensive and ripe for gentrification. In fact, the historic building in which I stayed is rumored to be converted into condos by the end of the year.
As I walked, I saw someone pull up to an intersection in their car wearing a yellow t-shirt. I thought to myself, “It is good to see so many UUs in one place,” but as he drove past, I realized that the color was a bit off and that it didn’t have the black print. I felt a little let down, feeling something like, “Oh, he’s not one of ours.”
Almost as quickly, I got upset with myself. I felt I had let myself down. “Of course he is one of ours. Everyone is one of ours.”
My Take Away from General Assembly: Make it personal
See, all week, I heard about how we need to be where people are, working in the communities we want to serve and building relationships. A full week in which I found myself thinking, “This is what I keep trying to get across to people. This is Missionalism!” Every day last week, I heard versions of the same messages I have written, and I nodded along and shouted, “Amen!”
Intellectually, I embrace that message and spread it passionately. It was a small slip, and one I needed never admit to openly, but I messed up in the moment. I realized I have more work to do. I realized I was thinking in “Us vs Them” ways even when there was no confrontation. No provocation. Just me, wanting to connect and being sad. Sad that it would be harder than mutual recognition that we were already in a movement together. Disappointed that the man I saw wasn’t really wearing the label I thought he was; he wasn’t one of my people.
And thinking through that reaction was a revelation that I have more work to do.
Everyone is one of ours. More importantly, we need to try hard to be there for them; all of them. We need to be involved and concerned in spite of race, religion, or nation of birth; to be with people of wealth, health, athletic or intellectual ability, or lack thereof. We need to be there for the doctors and the waiters, the inmates and the law enforcement officers, the activists and the members of the armed forces. All the people are part of our vision of the Beloved Community. We all get there together or we’ll never really get there.
Our Ware Lecture was not recorded, as per the contract with the lecturer, Mr. Bryan Stevenson. I highly recommend his book, and you can get some of the excitement of the Ware Lecture by watching his TED Talk. I will give you his 4 point plan for making a real difference in the world though.
“How to Change the World”
He told us that we can’t make a difference until we make relationships. He said that we have to be ready to get proximate. We have to go where the people are hurting and be there for them, with them, in their struggles. In a previous speech at Harvard he put it this way:
“Get close to the things that matter, get close to the places where there is inequality and suffering, get close to the spaces where people feel oppressed, burdened, and abused. See what it does to your capacity to make a difference, see what it does to you.”
Change the story:
He told us that we need to change the way we talk about issues. We need to change the story away from fear and anger and all the things that separate us. We need to remember that these emotions can fuel division and feed oppression. People who oppress or who defend oppressors almost always have a narrative of fear that drives them. We can help address that by not letting fear lead us astray in our work and trying to alleviate the fears of others. We can focus on the conditions that drive people to do what they do rather than labeling them by those things; “thieves” and “killers” are sometimes victims of injustice and abuse, too, and while we need not ignore their actions, we need to remember their humanity.
His third point for radical change was that we have to remain hopeful. If fear is the engine of oppression, hope is the only way through it. We have to remember that the arc of the Universe has always bent towards justice, and not because this is inevitable but because there have always been people working for justice and they tend to make more gains than those working against them. I’ve written on hope for this blog before.
His last point may be the hardest, and that clearly is saying something: We need to be ready to be uncomfortable. We need to be ready to be in situations that are confusing and around people we don’t really understand. To have the impact we hope to have, we need to be ready to seek out growth opportunities, and those are rarely painless. We need to let ourselves own that discomfort and ask why we feel that way. Then, we need to seek out the next uncomfortable situation in another room where we don’t quite fit in, where we can assuage someone’s fears and share our hope and change the world.
“You are either hopeful or you are part of the problem.” – Bryan Stevenson
So, in that brief moment, I was uncomfortable, but I let myself be disappointed instead of hopeful. I let the negative emotions take over. There I was in his neighborhood, but my expectation of him was that he was already somehow on my team. I wasn’t there, in that moment, for him, but for my own ego. That’s not who I want to be.
We are all, ultimately, on the same team; our liberation and progress is bound up in the human race as a whole. We cannot get where we are going unless we all get there together. Either human beings have inherent worth and dignity or there is a pool of worth and dignity that we are all competing for. I know which future I hope for.
I don’t even know if the driver registered me as more than a possible obstacle, but I know that moment proves that as much as I grasp this message intellectually, I have work to do to make it reflexive. And I need to remember that when I see that others are still working through their own hang-ups. We have to bring everyone on-board, and they have to want to be there, so we have to treat them like teammates from the start.