Very early Monday morning, I returned home, bleary and beat, from 2013 General Assembly in Louisville. I attended Ministry Days as well (thanks again, UUMA, for including aspirants this year), and so spent seven straight days in the hum and hustle of what I will call LUUieville. This six-block section of downtown, centered around the Convention Center on 4th St., included the Marriott, Fairfield Inn, Springhill Suites, and the truly megalithic Galt House Hotel, where many of us stayed. (It also included the Hyatt, which to my knowledge all 4000 of us pretended did not exist. Get with the program, Hyatt . . . and while you’re at it, stop air conditioning the sidewalk. UPDATE: As of July 1, Hyatt Hotels has reached a collective bargaining agreement and the global boycott led by UniteHere has been lifted.)
In LUUieville, one might observe tie dye, chalice jewelry, deep conversations about covenant and social witness, prolonged interactions with those asking for money, people strolling casually and people hurrying, and nearly everyone, young, old, well-dressed or completely casual, wearing large nametags around their necks. It was, to say the least, an interesting week–a time of friends and fellowship, of renewal and discovery, and of sharing stories and creating new ones. Perhaps most of all, it was a time for talking about when and where and how we tell those stories, and what our storytelling might mean for our movement. From Lillian Daniel to Eboo Patel to Bill Schulz, we heard the case, again and again, for stating our case as a people of faith.
Unsurprisingly, I came away with a few stories of my own . . . and also, a thought about that larger question of storytelling.
The idea with storytelling is that if we each speak from “I,” and from the heart, walls will fall down. And sometimes, they will–with a willing listener, brave and open storytelling may result in a long and enjoyable conversation, in which beautiful differences and lovely commonalities are discovered. I tell my own story, and then I respectfully make space for you to do the same. Then in sharing, we are transformed.
Cool, huh? (Everybody say, “aww . . .”)
I wish that were my message. It’s simple. It’s to-the-point. It’s warm and fuzzy.
Unfortunately, though, working across the lines of difference–across conflict–is more complicated than that. As a movement, we need not just to think about storytelling, but to challenge ourselves to go deeper with it. It is a powerful tool, but using it to bring love and wholeness to our communities is going to require more than our narratives and our mouths. Why? Because, for one thing, it turns out that story-driven interactions can entrench conflict rather than solving it.
Stories can help us to see one another . . . but our own stories, held too closely, serve only to blind us. (As I type this, Patrick Park is singing “Here We Are”—“We can’t see past our own sad stories/and forget how to listen.”) Case in point: one of my new friends, a fellow seminarian, and I began to talk together about a very knotty issue, and quickly found ourselves knee-deep in disagreement. The issue was close to each of our hearts, and felt tied to call, to authority, and in some ways, to identity. We started by trying to parse the issue itself . . . that was like digging a hole. Two holes. And not the kind that intersect in the middle in some sort of tunnel of love.
I have a story—my story—about this conflict. It is a true story, as best I know it—a relation of events that takes into account my own faults and foibles, and one that strives to be fair. And Sarah has her own story—a story which is also compelling, also full of emotion . . . and also, to the best of her knowledge, factually accurate. Again, what we have here is one situation. Two people. Two stories. And both are true.
Both contain lessons, demand action, even inspire outrage. Viewed from either side, the issues themselves become blurred, muddled and half-obscured by the strength of emotions involved. This is true because this particular conflict isn’t actually issue-driven; it is story-driven. Our own stories—the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell each other—can drive us deep into uncompromising territory. Into the place where battle lines are drawn, because they seem like the only rational option.
Fortunately for our budding friendship, Sarah and I recognized this. Later in the week, I saw Amy Carol Webb sing a song in which I recognized myself—here it is.
We both laid our shovels down, and started again, and this time we didn’t talk about “issues” or “truth” or try to label what “we” believe. We started somewhere else: with the hard work of attempting to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.
To really build relationships—to forge community across entrenched lines of difference–we need to have not just the passion and energy to tell our own story, but the compassion and creativity to tell another’s. Even when we have to really reach for it. Even when we don’t quite get there. I tried this, last week, with Sarah–tried sitting silently, eyes closed, to see the situation as she does, to feel what she feels, to tell a story from a different place.
In one sense, this failed—I didn’t fully enter Sarah’s story; I couldn’t even fully speak to her pain. It was enough to broaden my view and open my heart, however. It was enough to help my clenched fingers and clenched jaw turn loose of the “truth” they’d been harboring. It was enough to open my heart to whatever comes next.
Being ready to tell another’s story takes guts. If we don’t take this leap, though, it is likely that in those situations where difference is what we perceive most acutely, we will end up with a heart problem. We can speak, but without truly listening. We can act, but not in partnership with those who disagree with us. We can share who we are, where we come from, and what we feel, but to stop there is to insist that our own perspective be heard and honored even where others’ are not. Perhaps, then, the most important question we might ask isn’t, “how can I tell my story,” but “how else could I tell this story?” Perhaps not, “what is the truth,” but “how might [this crazy-sounding thing that I’m hearing] make sense?”
In this week of lessons, there proved plenty of time to think about these questions, including on Saturday, when I attended a rare UU communion service. Late in the worship, during a silent, standing ritual in which we received bread and wine with only a shared gaze, a man began to talk. He had been talking for most of the service, turning the sermon into a sort of call-and-response routine, but I wasn’t aware of him during the communion–I was deep in reflection. A woman stepped forward, quietly requesting that the man refrain from talking during the ritual (I didn’t hear her, either).
The man became angry, struggled to gather his belongings, and left the room in a dramatic scene, as the officiant bearing wine passed by. Another minister began to sing. The assembled body of people began to sing, too. The door swung closed behind the man. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Eventually the service ended, closing the book on assembled UU Christianity for another year.
That of course isn ‘t the end of the story, however. It turns out that people are angry. Complaints have been directed every which way. This is completely unacceptable, not UU . . . not Christian. What we need is a takeover of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF). What we need is an alternative to the UUCF.
Um . . . maybe. But how else could we tell this story?
The man has a mental illness, behaves differently, and should be met with love where he is.
The woman is grieving a loss and had hoped to find peace and solace amid the quiet reflection of the communion ritual.
The service was an example of our UU failure to live into the beloved community in the spirit of Christ.
The service was an example of a beautiful ritual that doesn’t fit all needs of all people at all times.
The service was simply what it was, and we are called to respond as we will, searching our hearts, bidding our hands, our feet, our mouths to do the work of love.
The man was unfairly persecuted during the service.
The woman was unfairly persecuted after the service.
No one was persecuted; sometimes it is painful to live within the confines of community.
Any of us could have done something.
We each could have done more.
On this day we failed.
On this day we triumphed.
On this day, we did both, and everything in between, and hopefully learned something that will allow us to live more fully, and to tread more gently, tomorrow.
This is a small example, but that’s exactly the point: we each deal with countless opportunities every day to challenge and change the narratives in our heads. Large or small, the questions we might ask are the same: How brave are we? How creative are we willing to get? How uncomfortable can we allow ourselves to be? Whose story is missing here, and how can we tell it? How else might we tell the story?
We must become storytellers, all right. Not autobiographers, but narrators and sharers of that vast rainbow of experience—the minority perspective, the voice of the one who angers us. Using not just our mouths, but our ears and perhaps above all, our hearts, our movement might dream to tell a tale not just of ourselves . . . but of what is possible.