or download the MP3
Viv Allen © 22 January 2017
Only through love can hatred come to an end – Buddha
The reason I chose the topic of ‘conflict’ for my talk was because I read a story in the UU magazine that interested me. It was written by a gay woman Gail Geisenhainer about when she was a new member of a Unitarian congregation and long before being ordained as a Unitarian minister. She was apprehensive about whether the congregation would accept her. These are her words.
Please don’t think the transition was smooth or swift. These were not imaginary super-heroes, they were human beings. And this was the mid-1980s. During the worship service on my second or third Sunday, a woman stood during Joys and Concerns to announce that all homosexuals had AIDS; all homosexuals were deviants who could not be trusted with children, public health, or civil society. All homosexuals should be quarantined, packed off to work camps to provide useful labour for society and keep their filthy lifestyle and deadly diseases to themselves.
As the member spoke I slowly sat upright from my customary slouch. I tucked in my arms, looked furtively around to see who might be glaring in my direction, and tried to remember if I had parked my truck facing in or out in the parking lot. In its journey of covenant, this congregation had just stumbled onto an important crossroad. But as Joys and Concerns continued, not one person made reference to the call to quarantine all homosexuals. The pulpit that morning was ably filled by a student from the local seminary. At the end of the sharing, the seminarian made a brief comment to assure us that not all the sentiments voiced this morning represented the whole congregation, and that was that!
Now I was at my own crossroad. I left quickly after the service. But what about next Sunday? Would I go back? Why on earth would I go back? That would be…………well, you fill in the word—dangerous, stupid, foolhardy, looking for trouble, probably hurtful. But back I went. I was in the throes of learning my first lessons of being in covenant with a congregation. When we convenant to walk together through all that life brings, it means that when things get ugly, we don’t walk away! But our convenants call us to abide and work things through.
The next week, the regular minister was back. The service began as usual. I tensed up when Joys and Concerns came around. Someone announced something like a birthday, I can’t fully remember. But I vividly remember that, one by one, folks stood up and awkwardly announced that not everything said last week was right, or true, or representative of who we were as a Unitarian congregation.
The crossroad had been engaged. The direction the congregation would take was being chosen. This congregation would not get stuck in conflict, mired in name-calling, or diverted from its gentle, steady trek toward building the Beloved Community. Our aspirations were unfolding, one voice at a time.
The congregation had passed a test. One among them had used language that depersonalised and endangered others. She tried to create a class of less-then-human persons toward whom violence would be acceptable. The congregation gently refused to follow. But an even more extraordinary and wonderful thing happened. The congregation also refused to depersonalise or dehumanise the original speaker. They did not start calling her names; ‘That homophobe!” “That gay-basher!” None of that happened. While the speaker tried to turn homosexuals into objects to be manipulated, the congregation never referred to her in a way that was less than embracing and respectful of her full humanity.
Later, in that same church, I opened the hymnal to find the words attributed to the Buddha, ‘Let us overcome violence by gentleness. Only through love can hatred come to an end. Never does hatred cease by hating in return.”
What a great story I thought – what a great topic for a discussion within our community about how we would deal with this type of conflict. Although I still want to hear your opinions about how we would deal with a similar situation as this after my talk, while writing this talk my thinking moved in a different direction. I also want to talk today about potential conflict within our community – how to identify it and deal with it.
What conflict? – you are probably asking. I am not suggesting that there is any specific conflict within our community at the moment which is why now is a good time to discuss it when there are no obvious issues arising. I want to talk about how we need to be able to quickly identify conflict in order to deal with it quickly. The word conflict is often defined as a disagreement through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. You may be thinking that I’m going to talk mainly about how to resolve conflicts, strategies and helpful hints. No, I want to talk about a different type of conflict that can arise within individuals.
Hang on – isn’t conflict something that happens between two parties – yes it is – but sometimes the other party doesn’t know about this conflict because it has never been identified – this type of conflict is hidden. You may have another word to describe this, maybe hidden issues or concerns but they I also see them as potential conflict.
It’s inevitable that there will be some amount of conflict or widely differing opinions within a community such as ours. We come from different cultures, backgrounds, countries and families. Clashing personalities or opposing viewpoints can actually bring new thoughts that had not been imagined before and if this arises can relatively easily be resolved. The type of conflict you have to worry about is the unspoken resentment that can erupt in an outburst, or even more deadly, that resentful people just disappear without saying anything. In the story I read Gail could easily have walked out and not returned had not the speaker said that not all the sentiments voiced this morning represented the whole congregation.
Writing this talk reminded me about an old conflict that arose within this church that has troubled me ever since and that I’d hate for it to happen again so I thought I would include my concerns in this talk. I joined this congregation around 21 years ago when it was larger and very settled with long term joint ministers Max and Linda. Sadly Linda died and Max didn’t want to continue alone. We carried on very successfully with a mix of lay led and visiting ministers until a few years later we employed a full time minister from the US. From my perspective everything went well, the new minister was well-received by the congregation, gave great sermons and our congregation was happy and growing. Suddenly, the minister resigned and returned to the US without any explanation leaving us in the lurch. I was surprised and disappointed but assumed we would just return to how we were before he came. No, this didn’t happen – half the congregation left pretty quickly. There were no arguments, no outward conflict – they just left and didn’t come back.
The Management committee did everything they could to try and resolve the problem – we had an outside mediator brought in to try and resolve things but in hindsight – all of this was within the group that remained NOT with the ones that had left. Over the years I’ve bumped into some of the people that left and asked them why they disappeared. Most said to me things like – Oh there must have been something wrong with us for the minister to have just up and left like that – so I didn’t want to stay around. Even now I think it’s really strange when I think there was something going wrong with his life – maybe not us.
Anyway – whatever the problem was – it was a conflict or issue that had never been uncovered. A hidden conflict that may have been simmering for some time. The only solution that I have come up with is that we need to do more listening to each other and to form stronger bonds now so that we are prepared for whatever conflict may arise.
I refer back to what Gail Geisenhainer (the woman whose story I read) said; When we covenant to walk together through all that life brings, it means that when things get ugly, we don’t walk away! Our covenants call us to abide and work things through.
Unlike the orthodox, Unitarians see humans as righteous and sometimes noble. Yes, they can falter, show anger or be unkind. Whether you call it walking together, being in fellowship or having a covenant, the hardest part for the individuals and the community they are part of is when people falter, when they lose sight of their better selves.The community is called on to act for the common good, with love. How can we remember what we have in common as UUs? How can we get help when we need it? How can we reach out as a fellowship when we lose our way? Covenants look nice hanging on a wall in good times. The words are eloquent. However, covenants are really written for hard times when hope and inspiration are needed. Covenants are a reminder of good intentions and commitments.
Whether you are a humanist, liberal Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Sufi, agnostic, or another life-affirming belief, you are welcome to walk together here. We walk together even when we are not agreed, with compassion, and firm in our covenant.
I’m keen to hear what you think. But before we start the discussion I’m going to finish with a short story that I like.
A man walking in the desert approached a Bedouin. “How far to the nearest oasis?” he inquired.
The Bedouin did not respond. “I said, how far is it to the nearest oasis?” the man asked, a bit more loudly this time and enunciating his words very carefully.
The Bedouin still did not respond. The man shook his head in frustration, turned, and began to walk away.
The Bedouin called out, “It will take you three hours!”
The man spun around to face the Bedouin. “Couldn’t you have told me that when I first asked?”
“No,” replied the Bedouin. “I couldn’t answer until I knew how fast you walk.”