Category Archives: Spiritual Tools for Conversations

Welcoming the Stranger in Rural America: Nurturing Cultures of Connection

What does racial justice look like in predominantly white, rural communities?

(Co-authored by Samantha Gupta and AJ Bush)

From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to the contentious presidential election of 2016, the legacy and present day realities of race and racism in the USA have reached an even broader, national focus.

While there have been organized responses to these issues in many urban areas, rural communities have been disconnected from such movements. For many — including community activists, pastors, scholars, and concerned citizens — 2016 was a “wake up call” to this reality as brightly colored electoral maps created visual representations of a “rural”/”urban” divide.

Although this was a “wake up call” for some, this was a clear, present, lived, ongoing reality for so many, many others– including people of color, undocumented community members, LGTBQ community members, and Muslim community members.

We know that electoral maps oversimplify the complexity of the people and the lives in every community– and in every state– and know that we need rural and working class white people to organize for more just, more safe, and more inclusive communities. Informed by this belief, the following questions have emerged in dialogue between pastors and organizers in urban and rural communities:

What do inclusive and just movements look like in rural communities– across history and today?

How do white folks in rural and working class communities understand their lives and struggles as related to racial justice?

What kinds of spaces and shared experiences can be created that help support the consciousness, dialogue, and action of white community in building a more just, more safe, more inclusive world in partnership with, and led by, people of color in their towns– supporting the power, health, and well-being of all?

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“Welcoming the Stranger” featured contemplative practices, group activities, and testimonies from community members of color.

Rural Race Dialogues: “Welcoming the Stranger”

Engaged by these questions, AJ Bush, a United Methodist Pastor in Gillette, WY invited colleague Samantha Gupta, a Unitarian Universalist community organizer and scholar of white identity from Los Angeles, California, to imagine what might be possible in her rural church.

During her time as pastor in a rural Wyoming congregation, Bush personally saw a need to engage church members and people in the community in conversations about “difference” and “otherness” — whether that be immigration, race, or religion. Sensing a disconnect from experiences and language of difference in rural contexts and many racial justice curriculums, Bush became interested in finding ways to create space for dialogue around these issues.

Combining their passions, Bush and Gupta held the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event on Dec. 4th, 2016 in Gillette, Wyoming.

The event was a public event, hosted by Bush’s church and entitled “Welcoming the Stranger: The Stories We Share.” The short, initial program was designed to nurture skills for openness and curiosity through the practices of self-reflexivity, self-compassion, and direct experience with difference. Self-compassion for one’s own experiences and identities, Bush and Gupta sense, is a bridge to compassionate curiosity, dialogue, and risk-taking for the “Other.” The audience focused on “regular folks in the pews” who sense the issues of exclusion and disconnection in their community, but feel unfamiliar (and even uncomfortable) with how to engage racial justice issues and take next steps.

There were three key movements during this introductory event:

  • Contemplative, compassion practices that centered people on their natural capacity for care and curiosity (informed by Gupta’s experience as a facilitator in The Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology ).
  • Group activity that simulated the experience of white ethnic European immigration and assimilation to the United States in the 1800 and 1900’s. In this simulation, each participant was assigned to family groups, given information about the prejudice their family faced upon arriving in the US due to their ethnic identities, and the difficult choices they are forced to make (and identity they are forced to give up) to survive. The activity was designed by Clare Fox as part of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles (AWARE-LA) as part of their annual “Unmasking Whiteness Institute” offered in California each summer.  Bush and Gupta adapted the activity to include specific histories and testimonies of European immigrant experiences in the Wyoming context.
  • A facilitated dialogue and reflection on the simulation experience, bridging white ethnic European histories of immigration to current, local and state-based stories of immigration by people of color. This component featured videos and testimonies of neighbors in their community who have recently immigrated or who represent a different racial/ethnic identity.

 

Nearly 30 participants joined the first "Rural Race Dialogue" event in Gillette, WY
Nearly 30 participants joined the first “Rural Race Dialogue” event in Gillette, WY

Feedback

Through this experience, participants were able to connect with their own family history and the experience of their family as “the other” as a bridge of empathy and curiosity with the experience of immigrants and those “Othered” in their community today. It also built empathy for such experiences, as participants could now relate to the loss and struggle of assimilation in their own family. In the words of one participant, “I begin to see that (our) identity had to be given up to avoid prejudice.”

In feedback, participants described renewed curiosity for the experiences of their own families (“This event made me wonder more about my grandparent’s experience when they came to the United States”), as well as for immigrant families in their town– reporting that they wished they had “more time” to hear more stories of local issues and imagine “possible action plans.”

Other participants appreciated the time to be in community with other people in their town who are also willing to engage difficult issues in new ways: “I appreciated getting people together face-to-face in a safe, respectful environment and being guided through a non-judgmental exercise,” one participant wrote. “This helped us focus on loss(es) as a way of feeling empathy for the stranger.”

Bush and Gupta imagine this series of activities to be supportive to church leaders who would like to engage their congregations on racial justice and identity, and need ways to begin the conversation with congregants. For Bush, her congregation plans to facilitate a book study on race and identity development as a next step to mobilizing more congregants in local organizing efforts in partnership with communities impacted by local hate crimes.

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Chaplain Samantha Gupta and Rev. AJ Bush

Next Steps

Cultivating curiosity and compassion for self and other are important skills for healing/bridging the divide between and within rural and urban experiences of difference, race, immigration. For Gupta and Bush, this work is important as we strive to establish justice, mercy, and beloved community within our world. The two plan to continue doing this work in rural areas, and are interested in engaging with other churches/communities in the Midwest on these kinds of conversations/events. They are willing to travel and consult.

If you are interested in more information about these types of dialogues in your community, email ruralracedialogue [at] gmail [dot] com. 

RELATED PRESS and LINKS:

Special thanks to AWARE-LA, Dara Silverman, and J. Audrey for their support of this project, mentorship, and encouragement.

Tools for Allies: From “microagression” to “microresistance”

Wanted to share this incredible resource from Inside Higher Education, offered up by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

How do we show up when a hurtful situation so often lends itself to freezing? So much emerges: the feeling of the offense, the desire to say “the right” thing, the fear of relational or social fallout.

Not only is it hard to observe a microaggression– it is also hard to figure out how to respond in ways that both honor the target of the aggression and “call in” the aggressor into right relationship. This is difficult to do effectively without the conversation (1) forcing the target of the aggression to “teach” or “take on” the work of fixing the situation or (2) centering the group’s attention on the hurt feelings or defensiveness of the aggressor.

In light of that, I found this article and these materials (including a video of a panel on microaggressions and microresistance!) helpful. 

Some highlights from their post:

“Try Moving From Reacting to Resistance”

Learning about microaggressions has allowed you to see previously unrecognized hostility in your department’s environment. Right now, the way you understand your role in these interactions is “reacting to microaggressions.”

What would happen if you reframed your role? Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”? In other words, instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?

I don’t know how this sits with you, but I love this reframing of my own behavior. When I understand myself as actively engaging in microresistance, it has a different energy than reacting to microaggressions. It keeps me focused on the structural nature of the problem.

In other words, it’s not just one person acting like an asshole; what’s occurring in everyday interactions is a continual manifestation of privilege. As such, my words and actions matter to the higher-level goals of equity and inclusion. Microresistance empowers me and makes me feel that my daily choices contribute to the overall climate in which I’m embedded.

“Practice “Opening the Front Door””

Ganote, Cheung and Souza taught us a technique called “opening the front door” (OTFD) as a first step to engage in microresistance in the kinds of contexts you’ve described (such as faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings). It’s quite simple:

  • Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.

  • Think: State what you think about it.

  • Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.

  • Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.

Tools for Allies: #BlackLivesMatter

So many incredible writings by friends, colleagues and beloved strangers about how allies can be connected to the work of #BlackLivesMatter. I wanted to add some of these things here with links– hope this is a resource that keeps growing, would love to receive what other people find.

Writings, Resources and Tools from Across the Web:

From the Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) Campaign, a Ferguson Conversation Guide (Script) helping guide facilitators in a faith-based, principle-rooted approach to the difficult conversations about race and racism. If your community is talking about “now is the time to listen,” use this tool to help you get started– don’t make listening happen in isolation. Listening in isolation isn’t listening.

Challenge the “theological cop-out” of changing #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. Check out Rev. Dan Schatz compassionate, compelling and deliciously direct response to a community letter asking him to take down his sign. I read this incredible response in the SSL newsletter with article written by Rev. Mykal Slack listing ways for allies to address the national conversation of race and racism in their communities. 

An excerpt from Rev. Slack’s newsletter for SSL:

So my hope, going forward, is that we can all commit to doing a few things:

Acknowledge the discomfort. Acknowledging and understanding the ways in which racial disparities play out in our homes, schools, workplaces, and especially our churches is hard. It just is, and remaining silent about it won’t make it any less uncomfortable.

Listen actively. Most often, we can only see beyond our own lens not by talking, but by listening. Putting ourselves in positions to hear the stories of people who are most deeply impacted by racial disparities will grow our heart and head muscles, and at this moment in our nation’s history, we can’t afford not to listen or grow.

Understand the significance of #blacklivesmatter. Shifting the focus to #alllivesmatter erases the realities of systemic racism and, in order to deal with that problem, we have to be willing to face it head on. Rev. Daniel S. Schatz’s excellent response to a community member who requested that he take down the “Black Lives Matter” signage posted outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is most instructive and really well done.

Widen the circle. We cannot adequately address these issues within the confines of our own understanding. We have to go out and build relationships that can broaden our viewpoints, whether that’s by offering deeper learning within our own faith communities or by partnering with other communities and organizations who care about these issues. And however we widen the circle, we must do so giving primary voice to people of color in shaping the nature of the conversation and the collaboration.

Timothy Murphy of Progressive Christians Uniting’s response to the hashtag #AllLivesMatter as a “theological cop-out.” This article was featured in Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) newsletter and I thought it was so good it should be quoted here:

“Right now the United States is reverberating with the shouts of voices and the steps of marchers demanding justice for unarmed Black citizens killed by police officers. If you use Twitter, you may have seen the hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. It is carried on signs and declared in chants. I’ve got a theological newsflash for you: this proclamation is the gospel.

“Good news only can be declared in light of a problem. And the problem is that in far too many instances, our society’s actions reveal that Black lives don’t matter. Extrajudicial killings, police harassment, and intimidation of Black people is a this-worldly anti-gospel. #BlackLivesMatter offers itself as a succinct, holy antidote.

“Some people are put off by such specificity – don’t all lives matter? Isn’t all life sacred? The result is the counter-hashtag popping up everywhere as a critique: #AllLivesMatter. It tries to universalize the answer. While it is a “true” statement, it is also completely irrelevant and contributes nothing as a response to Black oppression. It actually obscures the problem. It forgets that the gospel always addresses concrete problems. The problem is not that everyone is a target of the police; hands are not reaching for weapons when persons like myself, a white man, interact with them. #AllLivesMatter drains the specificity out of the good news. A generic gospel is no gospel at all.”

CLUE-LA’s newsletter also featured writings from Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, author of Justice in the City and board member of hte organization. Read his “Lament for Eric Garner” for your next community prayer.

From my own community, Rev. Rick Hoyt of First Unitarian Los Angeles wrote a compelling response from Los Angeles. You can read more of his writings on his blog here or check out the faith community’s response at their Facebook here. The response below is excerpted from the church Facebook page:

“… What we do know, is that what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness, is not the circumstances of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. But the accumulated circumstances of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And the circumstances of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill, unarmed black man shot by police in South LA this summer. And the circumstances of Amadou Diallo shot 19 times because New York City police officers mistook his wallet for a gun. And the circumstances of Oscar Grant killed at Fruitvale Station in Oakland when he was on the ground with his hands behind his back being subdued by other officers.

“Because what really lies at the foundation of our anger and sadness is not even the white cops and the black men, not the police abuse and the unarmed citizens, but an entire culture of racial fear and prejudice and guilt.

“Our anger is not about Darren Wilson, whether he personally is a tragic or a culpable figure. Our anger is not about Ferguson. Our anger is not about police procedures, and Grand Juries and the facts of this case.

“Our anger is that we have inherited a culture that is founded on the unequal treatment of human beings based on the color of their skin. And that unwanted inheritance is constantly re-made and perpetuated unwittingly by our every action. We participate in that hateful legacy through our choices of where we live, were we work, who we socialize with, where we spend our money, and what we say, and who we vote for, and where we give our attention.

“This is what Christian theologians call “Original Sin” – a spiritually unhealthy life cirumstance that we are born into rather than choose for ourselves. The evil inheritance of racial fear and prejudice is so built-in to our institutions and systems and structures that when we notice it we are instantly overwhelmed by our inability to change its course and so we mostly choose not to notice it but nevertheless keep on re-making it, day after day. And some days, horrifically some one person like Michael Brown gets crushed beneath it, and every day, just as horrifically but more quietly, an entire community of people gets crushed beneath it.

“We feel guilty, so we soothe our pain by blaming others. We feel prejudice and justify it with myths and stories. We feel fear and make ourselves brave with guns….”

Read more of his response by going here Post by First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles.

Stay tuned for more, or share your own ally and spiritual activist tools. Will continue adding to this or blogging more specific pages of resources as I find writings that can assist spiritual activists with language, prayer, conversation and action tools to address communities of privilege with the grief work and transformation work needed to take real action– to risk their comfort, security and ideology in the creation of a world where the idea that #BlackLivesMatter is an obvious, embodied reality.
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Gratitude is good medicine.

(Image: Gratitude Practice at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm’s Sustainable Vocations 2012)

Jaipur, India – January 9, 2014

Daniel and I were scheduled to lead a workshop this week at a Jain conference on nonviolence and sustainability.  Our workshop would be held on the second full day of the conference, after long and exhausting hours of podium and panel-based lectures and presentations.

The night of our workshop, we located our small room in the basement of the center, loaded our short Powerpoint of photos, and began moving the conference-style seating into a circle– much to the alarm of the audio visual assistants. As people entered, we smiled, introduced ourselves and welcomed them. Even a Tibetan monk came to attend, a man who had once served alongside His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We knew we had done something right.

The powerpoint no one would ever see.
The powerpoint no one would ever see.

As a result of last-minute planning and a desire for all workshops to be represented, another organization walked in—we were now supposed to share the one-and-a-half hour time slot with new partners. Their presentation would be on Oki do Yoga and Meiso Shiatsu. Ours on authentic youth leadership for culture repair. To make matters more complicated, our shiatsu friends spoke predominantly Italian—a whole group had come (25+ people) from Italy in support of their Master teacher, Yahiro, who had a long-established relationship with this Jain community.

It quickly appeared our room would not be large enough to accommodate.

“We need to lay down…” said the leader of the workshop, in broken Italian, “… this is a practice-oriented workshop.” Of course, Daniel and I felt the same way about ours. Maybe this could be resolved after all.

However, we noted the 25+ concerned and disappointed looks on the faces of the Italians that had followed him to the workshop space and quickly discerned that it was unfit for their workshop plans.

The organizers of the conference soon appeared. We were to shift to a new space. Daniel and I grabbed our belongings and our power point and made the announcement.

As we arrived in the new space, we were informed we needed to shift to another new space. We gathered our belongings again, making our way through an uncovered dirt lot to a large, drafty room in the basement where sounds of construction made their way in from overhead.

This room satisfied the Italian group, many of whom quickly laid out mats and invited the workshop attendees, approximately 45+ people at this point, to lay down on their backs. Their workshop would be an experiential one, with Italian therapists and students of Shiatsu Yoga offering short treatments to conference-goers. People giddily laid down—including Daniel—to receive a treatment from a number of the kind, Italian faces that sat waiting on the ground.

Twenty minutes in to the workshop time and the organizers pulled me aside whispering, “Would you like to go back to the other room for your workshop and just split the two up?”

Of course not.

I was steaming. The monk took a chair in the corner to watch. So did I. I was frustrated by the moving and going, the re-arranging, the Powerpoint that would go unseen by poor planning. I felt my frustration gurgle within me, wishing I didn’t feel angry, wanting to push it away. I didn’t want to be touched.

I sat and watched near the monk and other individuals unable to lay on the ground. With gentle kindness, people began holding the hand and head and backs of those on the ground before them, listening to the Italian instructions from their leader. Instructed to feel for the beat of the heart and imagine with loving kindness the life that they now held, the room became relaxed, despite the ever-constant sound of construction just beyond the concrete wall.

In the kind, healing stillness, one person fell asleep, gently snoring. I was gestured at by the therapist-student, Pradeep, to take her place for the final five minutes.

I reluctantly lay down, hesitant to give up my stiffness.  With deep intentionality, Pradeep holds my head, placing pressure on my forehead with warm hands. The Italian instructor asks the students to imagine each of us with a radiating light. I feel that intention from Pradeep. The pressure from my forehead, releases. I felt grateful to be released from it, despite my reluctance.

Upon completion of their session, the instructor and the translator (his fellow practitioner and wife), looked to Daniel and I to use the remaining twenty minutes of the allotted time to proceed with our workshop.

Daniel and I knew: this was no time for a workshop on culture repair. This was a time for culture repair.

At our request, the 45+ people circled up, seated on the ground. With assistance in translation to Italian, we spoke briefly on the way of Gratitude Practice in our work in the USA—that it was not about credentials, leadership role or obligation—but about feeling deeply what one was grateful for in that moment. That was all. Nothing to prove, nothing to impress, no one you are obligated to “thank”—just what authentically brings us gratitude in that moment.  And—most importantly—there is always time for it: this is the one thing that does not not get sacrificed on the altar of our rush, limitations or time restrictions.

Around the circle we went. One by one, people offering gratitude. It was the first time in the entire conference that each voice was asked to speak. Beyond podiums or workshop leaders, professional credentials or critical questions—it was simply people saying their name and offering up what was making them grateful in the moment.

Some cried. Some laughed. Some spoke Italian, Hindi or English. No one needed to translate.

The Tibetan monk, previously perched on a chair in the back of the room observing, now inched his chair to the circle, just before it was time for him to speak. He offered his gratitude for the seen and unseen people involved in this moment, for the unknowable “phenomenon” of this life.

Other people were grateful their daughters were with them on this trip to India. To be around like-minded or like-visioned folk. Some were grateful to say what they were grateful for.  At the end, people hugged one another, having shared a session of both—intentional, embodied touch and heartfelt gratitude, there was an authentic sense of having connected through experience. We didn’t need to “talk” about what Gratitude means or what it can do for building connection, we simply needed to practice it.

Hear this: Gratitude is a good practice, and a deceptively simple one: every voice is heard and every voice is from the heart. And it is always worth the time.