Can Hearing Each Other’s Stories Begin to Bridge What Divides Us?

Can Hearing Each Other’s Stories Begin to Bridge What Divides Us?


A Reflection

As an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church, my call is to bring my specialized skills as a pastoral psychotherapist to the church – and extend the reach of the church into “the world.” I was recently at a deacon’s retreat with Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton where our lively discussion led me to further reflections.

The conversation turned to differences within the New York Conference and to the bishop’s call as peacemaker to minister to all its members – those who might identify as traditional or conservative, and those who see themselves as progressive or liberal. My mind went to how easily differences become fixed, and how many people simply avoid those from different “camps.” And, of course, to the current political reality with parallel divides.

Rev. Thea Crites

I asked whether others present had had a conversation recently with someone on a different “side” of one of the powerful current topics – whether a political or religious conversation. Too often we come away from attempts to talk across these differences feeling stunned, disconnected. In our own denomination, those from traditional and progressive camps speaking on some loaded topic – LGBTQIA rights, for a prime example – can sound like we come from different worlds. We wonder how we can be from the same church, or even how both can be Christian.

The bishop asked what we see “out there,” away from parish life, that could inform the conference. Thinking over what I hear from clients who talk about religion or church, one thing people are looking for is experiential spiritual practice, like contemplative prayer and meditation. There are many people who keep their distance from church because it doesn’t seem open to their experience, because they feel they’d have to sign on to a lot that doesn’t make sense to them, or who have been harmed or devalued by a church.

The second impression I have is that for many people, it is not apathy that keeps them from the church. Passionate feelings, commitments, experiences, values come up when religion or religious institutions come up.

After a traumatic death in his family, one client stopped attending church because he was in a rage with God for allowing the death. He is almost ready to return, and imagines he’ll feel a sense of communion there with the person who died, who was devout.

A jazz musician who loves the communion she feels when her band is swinging, wishes church felt like that deep harmony among people. But to her it does not.

For a depressed man, listening to Gospel music is the one time he feels fully alive.

After hearing a Muslim holy man, a woman now views people as precious beings, and has become a pacifist. The man, after decades of one day at a time sobriety depends on a deepening relationship with a higher power, has a powerful experience of being bathed in a white light and filled with a life-altering sense of assurance.

People tend to be passionate on the topics of faith, church, and religion, one way or the other. Our discussion turned to ways to create room for nontraditional religious or spiritual seekers in churches. Two topics, the conflict within the church and the unheard passions so many people carry around about religion and God, came together as I remembered an intervention I conducted in a particular parish many years ago.

As a consultant, I witnessed and heard about fierce battles in a small local parish. Personal insults were lobbed in committee meetings. I remember one shout of “You’re no Christian!” across the sanctuary during worship. The level of personal antagonism was out of control and it created a toxic environment. The issue at hand was whether same sex weddings could be performed and openly gay individuals could be ordained. Newcomers would be appalled; their first visit would their last.

In that setting, after spelling out the norm of civility and basic respect for one another, I tried an intervention. We began testimonial times during the sacred time and space of worship. I carefully instructed the congregation in how this would go and asked for two volunteers each week.

The testimony would be of religious experience – an experience of the presence of God – whether a conversion experience, a powerful life-changing numinous experience, or a much simpler one like the warmth felt singing a particular hymn that brought an individual to a spiritual place. There would be no description of where these experiences brought the testifier. There would be no conclusions of political or doctrinal conviction out of this experience, just on a personal description what the experience was and how it affected the testifier personally.

There would be no cross talk, no commentary from anyone else about the testimonies except for what we all hopefully could agree on, celebrating God’s presence in an individual’s life. A time limit was set.

People were eager to testify. They wrote out statements, initially perhaps in a competitive way, but as they focused on the content, competition fell away.

One woman – again, carefully disguised – spoke of drifting through life without much purpose before she came across an evangelist at a revival who spoke about divine law, about righteous living, and a God who laid out every part of life and how it was to be lived. This had turned her life around and she felt great joy in shaping her life in every way possible according to God’s law of righteous living. You could feel the passion, the gratitude, the life changed as this woman talked, regardless of your own personal take on a law-focused religious life.

Another man talked of finding deep meaning, seeing the face of God, in service to the poor. Another spoke of the perception of God in nature, and now finding that awe everywhere in life.

This small parish did not instantly turn around with new faces filling the pews. But the feeling in the place began to shift. One person who seemed deeply entrenched, in the ”traditional” position said to someone who was more progressive, “I don’t agree with your position, but I want you to know that I love you!” – and he meant it! Next I heard, “We could be more open here, but the conference would never accept same-sex weddings” – blaming the favorite bogie-man instead of each other. Definite progress. It was a warmer place and a feeling of love based in roots predating the antagonism came through.

What happened there? I believe that many people have beautiful, passionate, religious experiences or longings that they have a natural desire to express, celebrate, and share. There is not enough space made for this in the local church or other religious settings. The passion, unheard and unappreciated, gets displaced onto positions on church policy or politics where it hardens. Then the positions feel like they represent the truth or falsity of a person’s faith or connection to God. I believe that the fuel behind fixed battles in religious circles – when people lose the basic sense that we all come from a reverent place in that we love God – is unheard religious passion.

I also see this theologically. We know that the Holy Spirit works in the here and now, within human beings. Hearing one another is one way that the Holy Spirit is shaping how God is present in this moment, in this time. We lose the power and the new truths of how God is moving now when we forget to ask about, listen to and celebrate, fellow journeyers’ stories about God.