Archive for April, 2012

Apr 11 2012

From Debate to Dialogue: Civility & the Transforming Power of Compassion

Published by under Minister's Musings

Last month, our School for Compassion took up the topic “How We Speak to One Another.” We borrowed from Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, where she writes, “During this step, we try to make ourselves mindful of the way we speak to others. When you argue, do you get away by your own cleverness and deliberately inflict pain on your opponent? Do you get personal? Will the points you make further the cause of understanding or are they exacerbating an already inflammatory situation? Are you really listening to your opponent? What would happen if—while debating a trivial matter that would have no serious consequences—you allowed yourself to lose the argument?”
          Here, then, was our homework: “If you find yourself becoming defensive or feeling a need to make a point and correct others in a conversation, attempt to shift to a place of asking questions rather than making statements. Express curiosity. Inquire about another person’s particular view and what informs it. Curiosity can open our hearts to be willing to see something from a different perspective than our own. Ask open-ended questions to shift from a debate to a dialogue.”

With this homework lodged in my mind and heart, I took myself to Mountain View’s most recent “Civility Dialogue.” This series of dialogues, sponsored by the city’s Human Relations Commission, seeks to change the nature of our conversations on hot-button topics from confrontational to civil, helping participants to find common ground, to honor the worth and dignity of those who hold opposing views, and to create hopeful solutions among divided members of a community.

         Each dialogue begins with a panel of experts or advocates on the topic sitting at a round table. A moderator asks questions that draw out the panelists’ different perspectives and experiences, as well as the hopes and fears that fuel their opinions. Then the audience breaks into small groups of ten to twelve. One of the panelists sits with each group as facilitator.

        On the night I attended, the topic was undocumented immigrants in Mountain View. The panel included Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, José Antonio Vargas, who “came out” in the New York Times Magazine last fall as undocumented. Vargas arrived from the Philippines to live with his grandparents when he was twelve. By his side sat Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen; Oscar García, the president of Mountain View’s Chamber of Commerce; conservative politician Don Barich; and Maria Marroquín, executive director of Mountain View’s Day Laborer Center. They spoke passionately but civilly to each other. Their differences seemed almost insurmountable.

          When we broke into small groups, José Antonio Vargas joined mine as our facilitator. In our circle were folks who were convinced that the majority of undocumented immigrants are criminals. A few said that Vargas should be deported immediately; one woman went off to speak with DA Jeff Rosen, a copy of Vargas’s NY Times Magazine article in her hand. She returned to confront Vargas with his “criminal” acts (fraudulent paperwork, which Vargas readily admits). I held my breath, expecting her to issue a citizen’s arrest in the next sentence.

           Others in our circle felt conflicted and confused about the whole topic, uncomfortable with both the longwinded passionate supporters of immigrants’ rights and the strident anti-immigrant voices. Still others wanted to lift up our common humanity, to undo myths about undocumented immigrants, and to get at the root causes of migrants’ desire to leave their homes and families and come to the United States, with or without documentation.

         Throughout, I tried to listen with “compassionate curiosity.” I vowed not to try to win an argument or even to enter into the debate, but rather to listen and to wonder about where each person was coming from. I was striving to empathize, even with those whose words made my heart race and my adrenaline pump. José Antonio Vargas modeled Karen Armstrong’s suggestions, asking questions rather than debating, demonstrating a sincere and respectful interest in what each person had to say.

          When I finally offered a few thoughts into the circle (in response to the woman who seemed intent on having Vargas arrested), I felt able to speak from a more grounded place, rather than from my own fear.

         I watched the former police officer in our group, who had complained about undocumented immigrants’ “criminality” and disrespect for the laws. (By the way, DA Rosen says that the proportion of undocumented immigrants in county jails exactly matches the proportion in the population, rather than their being disproportionately represented. That’s a good fact to know—but there I go again: am I trying to make my point and be “right,” instead of leaving you more space to reflect?) I paid attention, too, to another man who had entered the room with the sense that undocumented immigrants thought they were “better than” U.S. citizens, “thumbing their noses at our laws.” I saw both these men grow calmer and quieter after their initial outbursts; I witnessed them listening deeply to Vargas and others in the group. And at the end, I saw each of these men reach out to Vargas and shake his hand, offering a sincere smile and a “Thank you.”


          And I felt a change in myself, too. I would not have appreciated so deeply what was happening for others in my small group if I hadn’t listened twenty times more than I spoke. I wouldn’t have understood the nature of my own fears and responses if I had leapt in to convince others of my position. I wouldn’t have been able to still the rapid beating of my own heart and really hear others if I hadn’t had this practice to guide me.


         Karen Armstrong suggests applying this compassionate approach to transforming debate into dialogue on the smaller issues in our lives—the arguments we might be willing to “lose.” The Civility Dialogue gave me the chance to dive into this spiritual practice on a topic that feels hugely important, life-or-death for some of us, and morally loaded for our country, for our faith, for me. It was a great preparation for Justice General Assembly in Phoenix this June—and a wonderful way to grow my own compassion.


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Apr 05 2012

From Brokenness to Transformation

Published by under Minister's Musings

From Brokenness to Transformation:

A Theological Reflection first offered to a PACT Interfaith Clergy Gathering

by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones


In mid March, the PACT (People Acting in Community Together) interfaith clergy gather to discuss the crisis of unequal and unfair wealth distribution in this country. We facilitators have statistics about how the current income gap between the richest and everyone else is now higher than it has been since the 1930s, with the top 1 percent claiming 23.5 percent of national income. We have graphs that show how “good policies” in the 1950s through the mid ’70s (such as minimum-wage laws, civil rights legislation, and an ethic of civic engagement) intentionally “lifted all boats.” Every section of the population in that era did demonstrably better for a while, from the poorest to the richest. Since the late ’70s, “bad policies” have intentionally benefited the wealthiest at the expense of all others. The very poor, and peoples of color, have been particularly hard hit.

          But before we get to the numbers and graphs, we want to start with why this matters to us. What does our faith say about getting involved in turning this situation around? Rabbi Joel Fleekop from Congregation Shir Hadash shares part of his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Father Eddie Samaniego from Most Holy Trinity Catholic parish speaks specifically about the sins of Bank of America. His parish recently divested its millions of dollars from the big banks and moved them to local ones. I offer this reflection, personal and poetic, uncertain and incomplete. Humbly, I share it with you here:


Mine is a wrestling faith—striving through the night with an unknown Source, clasped in the embrace of forces larger than myself, always with that echoing cry, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

          So when Rabbi David J. Cooper from Piedmont reminds PICO interfaith clergy last month of the story of tsimtsum and tikkun olam,[1] I am grateful … and the wrestling begins again.

          Here’s a Unitarian Universalist retelling: An exiled Jewish teacher in the fifteenth century, Rabbi Isaac Luria imagines a time before time when God is everywhere and everything—limitless holiness but with an urge, a need to create. But where? There’s no room for such creation! So God, in a gesture both brilliant and generous, contracts God-self—a holy contraction called tsimtsum. At last, room to work in! Now God handcrafts vessels—mysteriously, because of course God does not have hands—and God fills them with more of God-self, bright sparks of creative potential. Then God—in a risky … or is it playful? … mood—flings these vessels out into the newly made universe. But the Holy can never be contained, even by something God has made, and so the vessels shatter, scattering shards and shooting sparks everywhere.

          From the beginning, the myth says, the whole of our world, and we humans, are made of stuff both broken and divine.

          When I look at the income gap, created intentionally by policies that favor the wealthy and powerful, I see shards of fear and greed on the one hand, shards of want and despair on the other, and shards of isolation and longing throughout. Shards splintered again and again, slivers of those original vessels. The task of tikkun olam, healing the world, putting it all back together, seems daunting, at best.

           I pick up my own shards—loneliness, overwhelm, heartbreak, feeling not enough. Fingering those sharp edges, I long for a cracked yet glimmering wholeness—the vessel reconstituted, and the light shining through the cracks. But the broken edges scrape and burn. I doubt they can be repaired.

And then, miraculously, the embers of those creative sparks begin to stir in the dust, in the air all around us. Always, always, they whisper, God is everywhere, in the sparks, in the shards, in the longing, in the lure. Isn’t that the meaning of the story?

“Gather the spirit, harvest the power, our separate fires will kindle one flame,” we Unitarian Universalists sing.[2] We have been singing about tsimtsum all these years!

The story traces the arc of our oh-so-human lives: longing, contracting, shaping, flinging, shattering, scattering, luring, reconnecting. If I, if we, will fan the flames of our creativity and put even a few pieces back together—then, infused by the Holy, we will wrestle a blessing from the pain, and it will, somehow, be enough.                         

[1] Rabbi David J. Cooper, “On Tikkun Olam,” opening reflection at Land of Opportunity PICO clergy gathering, Hayward, California, 4 Feb. 2012.

[2] “Gather the Spirit,” words and music by Unitarian Universalist Jim Scott, # 347 in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

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Apr 04 2012

March 2012 Theme: Brokenness

Published by under Minister's Musings

The Theater of Microaggressions

by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones

  At a signal from the teacher, my friend steps into the center of the circle. “Welcome to the Theater of Microaggressions,” Professor Mark Hicks announces. A rustle ripples through the sanctuary; the title makes us squirm. “What are you doing?” I telegraph to my friend by widening my eyes at her. Isn’t she putting herself in danger?

Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay leaders have gathered at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. to learn about leading vital multicultural congregations. We have just watched sociologist Derald Wing Sue’s video about microaggressions—those unconscious insults and small putdowns that folks in marginalized groups receive day after day. Usually these words or gestures come from good folks who have no intention of doing harm. 

Two examples (notice: does any of this sound familiar?): (1) An academic adviser concludes a session with a graduate student with what is meant to be a compliment: “Your English is excellent!” But the Asian-American grad student winces. Born in the United States, he speaks English as his first language. (2) At a board meeting, men freely exchange ideas with each other. Their body language blocks out the only woman at the table. When she finally gets the chair’s attention and begins to offer her suggestions, no one looks her way. The man next to her reads something on his phone as she speaks.

At the conference, the video stirs our discomfort. But next we listen to a recording of a gay men’s chorale and a black Baptist choir from Dallas singing Labi Siffre’s affirming “Something Inside So Strong.” My friend—herself a lesbian of color—stands taller, and we all breathe easier.

Finally our teacher Mark sets up the “Theater of Microaggressions”: My friend will play the role of the only person in her family who has no gift for math. Her parents and siblings are all famous mathematicians. With her aptitude for literature and the arts, she is the “different” one.

A group of volunteer actors circles her. As they pass by, they look her in the eyes and deliver their assigned lines: “Why aren’t you good at math?” “You must be so proud of your brother.” “Say, are you adopted?” and so on. Inevitably my friend’s posture slumps; she looks down, her eyes glistening. The circling group moves faster and faster. They no longer meet her eyes; they sound almost apologetic as they repeat their lines over and over. The tension in the sanctuary rises. When will this game stop? Should we intervene? What should we do?

Just when we can stand it no longer, Mark breaks up the improvisation, says “thank you” to his actors, and pulls my friend to him in a hug. “You are smart and you are beautiful,” he reminds her. All of us take a deep breath.

“Microaggressions,” Derald Wing Sue teaches, “are unconscious manifestations of a worldview of inclusion and exclusion, of superiority and inferiority.” Microaggressions often target people of color, women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, or people with disabilities, although (as the exercise showed) any kind of difference can prompt these signals that it’s not OK to be just who we are. The perpetrator doesn’t mean to be, doesn’t want to be, prejudiced or condescending, but no one has ever helped this person to examine what lies beneath her or his unconscious actions. “If we are to become a fair, just, and humane society,” Wing Sue suggests—if we are to heal this brokenness in our lives—then we’ve got to “make the invisible visible.”

Through this exercise, we conference attendees feel in our bones just how damaging a lifetime’s worth of such words or gestures might be, even for folks with “something so strong inside.” We testify about our own experiences of microaggressions. We recognize the times when we have used such words or gestures. Our empathy deepens. We wonder how to change these patterns in our congregations. We wonder how to teach our children to be strong. How can we teach them how to respond when they receive one of those daily slights or when they see someone else receiving one?

“Every negative experience takes seven positive experiences to turn around,” Mark tells us. Seven positive experiences to knit together the broken places in our spirits and to remind us that beneath and beyond and through it all, we are whole. We have work to do!

So come then, my good people, join us this month as we “make the invisible visible” and take the next steps on our journey toward wholeness!


P.S. You can watch Derald Wing Sue’s video about microaggressions and learn more about what each of us can do to stop them at And you can listen to Labi Siffre sing “Something Inside So Strong” at   


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