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Praying for Peace--Together


The Kittamaqundi Community has made a commitment to pray for peace during the Lenten season, the six weeks which precede Easter.  This means that many of the individuals in the community have made a personal commitment to pray for peace every day, on their own, however and whenever they pray.  But we've decided to establish some times when we can gather at the church and pray for peace together.  There's no agenda for these gatherings, no "service" per se, just an opportunity to be in the same room as other people who are holding the same intention.

We had the first of these gatherings last Tuesday night.  Three of us sat together for most of an hour and said nothing to each other.  It was a profound and surprising experience of community.

One of the people who came last night said that she woke up that morning with the intention to pray for peace on her mind.  She was delighted that she had remembered and sat down to pray.  "I could not think of how to start," she told me with some embarrassment.  "I started wondering if I should pray for Assad to resign or pray for him to join the peace talks.  And then I thought of our own country and all the political vitriol.  I tried to think of how to pray about that but I just found myself getting all worked up.  Finally I had to stop and get ready for work."

"I couldn't wait to get here tonight," she said at we lit a candle and sat down in our rocking chairs.  "I knew it would be easier if we did this together."

Sitting in silence with a group of people who are staying present to that moment--or at least making an attempt to do so--is noticeably different from sitting in silence by yourself.  Why?  It might be that a group exerts a kind of subtle peer pressure on each participant.  We don't want to get up and leave because it would disrupt everyone else in the group.  We don't want to look at our phone because we might get a critical look from a person sitting near us.  Certainly one of the hardest parts about prayer or meditation is just getting ourselves to show up and stay with it, and other people help us do that.

But there is more to it.  I have spent 20 minutes in silence by myself each morning, pretty much without fail, and miss the time when something interferes with it.  But as much as I like my alone time, I know that it has a thinner quality than the time I spend in silence with a group.  The best analogy I can think of is praying alone is like singing alone, and praying in a group is like singing in harmony with others.  Except, none of us is saying a word.

Humans are social animals, and we cue each other emotionally all the time.  We catch fear and anxiety from each other.  We can make each other yawn or laugh.  Could it be that we can help each other get quiet and listen for the voice of God?  Can we catch that intention, that openness from each other like we catch so much else?

To Do: Get to Know a Muslim


Last Monday evening, I got in conversation with another woman in my congregation about how disgusted we both were that President Obama went to speak at the mosque in Baltimore. We both agreed that by going into a building that requires women to cover their heads, the president was giving tacit support to a culture that is oppressive to women. “Can you imagine him speaking at the church of a group of polygamous Mormons? Imagine the outrage!” I said. “Can you imagine if Hilary Clinton was the president? Would they require her to wear a head scarf in order to walk into their building?” my friend responded.

Let me be clear: this conversation did not express my actual views. My friend and I were part of a skit, playing the role of people who have an anti-Muslim bias. Our skit led into a discussion about how to speak up when you’re part of a conversation that exhibits cultural insensitivity or cultural stereotyping. Monday’s workshop was part of the on-going conversation happening in our congregation about white privilege and understanding cultures different from our own.

Even though I was play-acting when I got on my rant about Obama, it was an unnerving experience. It was easier to come up with anti-Muslim things to say than I would have imagined. I found myself getting mad, not just because I was acting, but also because I called out something in myself that really does feel this way.  It was a good reminder that I need to move beyond myself and my own feelings if I'm ever going to figure out how to live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural world.

I consider myself a strong feminist, the daughter of a feminist and the product of a “long line of strong women” as my mom likes to say. My mom made sure I understood that rules and laws that purport to “protect” women are usually designed to control women. For that reason, I would never join a group that required me to cover myself up. I don’t even like school dress codes for this same reason.

But I’ve come to realize that wearing a headscarf can mean something different to the woman who wears it than it means to me. That doesn’t mean that I have it wrong—it just means that I know my own experience, but I don’t know another person’s experience.

This sounds obvious now—but the fact of that matter is most of the time, I universalize my experience. That’s part of following the Golden Rule, after all. If I’m going to “Do unto others as I would have them do unto me,” I have to assume that most of the time, people like what I like and dislike what I dislike. So, since I want to be recognized for my contributions, I need to recognize the contributions of others. I would not want to be treated unjustly so I should not allow my government to treat anyone else that way.

But there are real limits to the Golden Rule. We rely on culture to give meaning to many activities and behaviors. When we encounter a different culture, we have to do a lot of listening and learning before we make judgments.

The way I’ve moved beyond my knee-jerk response to a headscarf is by participating in the Daughters of Abraham book group founded by Ruth Smith, a long-time member of my congregation. That group has allowed me to build friendships with a number of Muslim women who have been willing to speak personally and thoughtfully about their experience. In addition, we’ve read some books that have allowed me to walk alongside someone else’s story. Most helpfully, we read “A Tender Struggle” by Krista Bremer, an American (nominally Christian) woman who is married to a Libyan Muslim man. She writes beautifully about standing by her young daughter as she decides to wear a hijab for the first time. That essay helped me to understand why (and how) a woman (or a girl) might make her own personal choice to wear a headscarf.

The part of Obama’s speech at the mosque that has stayed on me was this: “Most Americans don’t necessarily know, or at least don’t know that they know, a Muslim personally. And as a result, many only hear about Muslims and Islam from the news after an act of terrorism, or in distorted media portrayals in TV or film, all of which gives this hugely distorted impression.” 

This is how anything changes: forming a connection with a person who is different from you and listening to them talk about their experience. Slowly coming to the recognition that their experience is at times different from your own. Getting curious about those differences. Asking questions and allowing someone to ask you a few in return. And somehow in the process, building a world where you can both live and grow.

Meanwhile, Back at Oakland Mills High School...

ImgresAt last week's walk out, the students at Mount Hebron High School called on their high school to "start the conversation."  At Oakland Mills High School, the conversation is already underway.

Last Friday, my daughter Rosa participated in an all-day workshop for student leaders, an event held each year at the end of the second term.  About 25 students participated--members of the elected Student Government Association as well as other student leaders from organizations such as Alpha Achievers, Delta Scholars and the National Honor Society.  Rosa said there were even some "random freshmen" in the mix.  The group ended up being pretty representative of the amazing diversity of this high school where no racial or ethnic group has a majority.

The day focused on "cultural proficiency", something that a number of Howard County Public School teachers and staff have been trained in over the past several years.  Ms. Florida, Rosa's SGA Advisor and leader of the day, told the kids that the staff have decided that it is time to involve students in the work that the staff have been doing for several years now.  This wasn't the first time the student leaders at OMHS have been introduced to this material, however.  Two years ago, when Rosa was a freshman and my son Isaac was a senior, this annual leadership training day was also guided the kids through a conversation about race, ethnicity and leadership at the high school.  Both kids thought the conversation was great two years ago, and Rosa said this year it was "even better".

Here's a brief summary of the day as Rosa described it.  The morning began with an ice-breaker:  each person shared a fact about themselves that other people may not be able to guess just by looking at them.  That conversation lay the groundwork for an exercise led by one of the school counselors.  She asked the students to guess some things about her based on their perceptions of her.  Sometimes the students were right, and sometimes they were wrong.  "For example," Rosa said, "we guessed that she came from a middle class family but actually she was raised by a single mom who worked full time.  People thought she listened to country music but actually she likes hip hop."

From there, the discussion moved to the "cultural proficiency continuum", a description of the range of people's response to cultural difference.  On one end, there is "cultural destructiveness" and the other, "cultural proficiency".  The kids provided examples of behavior or interactions they had seen in Oakland Mills and in the wider community that illustrated each step on the continuum.  Later, the conversation continued using the "World Cafe" method of small-group discussion.  Questions included, "What kind of place would you like OM to become?" and "How can we challenge ourselves to take steps to get there?" 

The part of the day that made the biggest impact on Rosa came after lunch.  Ms. Florida has asked the principal of OMHS, Dr. Shortridge, how he would like to be involved in the student leadership day.  He responded that one of his favorite things to do is "sitting down and talking with kids", but he doesn't get to do that nearly enough.  So at Ms. Florida's invitation, Dr. Shortridge sat with the kids and had an open, hour-long discussion about what they had learned that day and the things they thought would make the school a better place for every student.

Rosa said, "You could tell that he really does like talking with kids because he was very perceptive and wanted to ask a lot of questions.  He really made an effort to understand what we were saying.  Everyone appreciated that.  It made them more comfortable talking."

Rosa noted that in general, the students were very appreciative that Oakland Mills is so comfortable with its diversity.  No one in the circle had noticed a large amount of racial bullying or comments.  But that doesn't mean they didn't have suggestion for improvement.  They noted that GT and AP classes at the school are more white than other classes, and that leads to less mixed friend groups because people tend to talk with other students in their classes.  The kids also noted that the staff of the high school is significantly less diverse than the student body.  In particular, there are very few African-American men teaching at the school.  A couple African-American students commented that this made it more difficult for them to relate to their teachers or find a faculty member with whom they could confide.

As the day was wrapping us, Ms. Florida asked the group whether they wanted to have more of these kind of conversations--and the students were universally in favor of continuing.  Ms. Florida told the kids that she had already blocked out some days on the calendar to do just that.

"No one wanted to leave," Rosa said.  "They had to push us out the door."

Reflecting on the day, Rosa said, "I was impressed by how much other people had to say about these things.  I feel like I learned a lot by listening to other people.  For example, I haven't ever really paid attention to the fact that most of my teachers have been white--and I realize that's because I'm also white.  

"Teenagers do talk about racism, but we always talk about it in terms of other people--what other schools are doing or what is happening in some other community.  It is harder for teenagers to talk about their own feelings, especially with each other.  Conversations like the one we had on Friday don't just happen on their own.  But once we get started, we can learn a lot when we hear about the different perspectives we all have."

Bravo, Oakland Mills.  Let's keep this conversation going.

Start the Conversation

I love to think, talk, read and learn about the dynamics of community--why it matters, what it does for us, what makes it work better and what damages it.  Events in this region have given me a lot to ponder this week.  I'm ending the week more convinced than ever that empathy--the ability to identify with another person's experience of the world--is the basis for a moral life.  

But here's the thing:  developing empathy requires community.  It requires, to use Bryan Stevenson's term, proximity.  And when we live in close proximity to people who are different from us, we're going to bump into them and bruise them.  We're going to say ignorant things.  We're going to get it wrong.  So a central practice of a healthy community has to be conversation about what it feels like to hurt.

Last week, when Howard County Public Schools were still closed due to snow, some teenagers got drunk and made a 30-second video of one of them spewing hateful, racist garbage.  I didn't watch the video, but I read a summary of the highlight in the press.  It was bad--and not in the least bit funny.  It was wrong of the kid to say what he said and wrong for him or his friends to post the video on social media.

Obviously the People In Charge should condemn the video and make it clear that hate speech will not be tolerated in our schools (they did).  There should be consequences for the students involved (looks like there will be).  But that can't be the end of our response.  Saying "this can't happen" isn't enough when this kind of thing does happen.  Kids--and adults--make racist statements, sometimes out of deep conviction, sometimes as a joke, sometimes to provoke a response.  Punishing the people who make such statements, throwing the book at them, might scare them away from saying such things in public again.  But it doesn't do much to build empathy, which in the end is what defeats racism.

The students at Mount Hebron High School seem to know that.  This past Tuesday, about 150 students held an organized walk-out from the school.  It was a student-run event from start to finish, but the principal of the school supported the event, allowing the students to leave class and leave the building without disciplinary consequences.  I was extremely impressed by what the students did.  They shared their experiences, including the deep hurt that racists comments have caused them.  And they chanted, "Stop the silence.  Start the conversation!"  If the school can take this challenge seriously, there is a chance that there could be some very significant change at Mount Hebron.  

A similar walk-out at Hammond High School on Thursday was also supported by the principal who said, "We’re going to be working with the student organizers to create small group conversations at lunch later this month."  Bravo.

This call for conversation was echoed in the Baltimore Sun's excellent editorial this morning entitled, "How Will Howard County React to Racism?"  The editorial points out that because of Columbia's deep and well-planned integration, "...Howard Countians regard themselves as possessing more acceptance of diversity than might be found elsewhere."  I saw this attitude reflected in a number of comments in the press and on line this week.  People talked about being "shocked" that people could say such things here.  "This isn't who we are," said one community leader.  But it is part of who we are as a community, and denying that won't make it go away.  

The only people who think that there isn't racism in Howard County are people who avoid all conversations about race.  As soon as we start talking, we'll start hearing it, sometimes out of our own mouths.  So while it is safer to not talk about it, silence stunts our growth as people and as a community.


Loneliness Is a Signal Like Hunger


There's a front page story in the Washington Post this morning with news that everyone already knows:  loneliness is bad for your health.  The article summarized work done by Steve Cole at the UCLA School of Medicine, published last year, that showed a clear connection between feelings of loneliness and a decrease in immune functions.  Another researcher, John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago suggests this response has an evolutionary basis for humans who needed a tribe for protection and successful hunting.  This was the part of the article that caught my eye:

The pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger — it’s a biological signal that something is wrong.

This is an intriguing statement in part because for a well-fed American, the "pain of hunger" is not something that we are that familiar with.  In fact, part of what Weight Watchers has taught me is to notice when I'm hungry and to notice when I'm not hungry.  It turns out, for many people, we have disconnected eating from feelings of hunger.  We eat out of habit, or boredom, or to give ourselves comfort or a reward whether or not we're actually hungry.  So a big part of establishing a healthy relationship to eating is re-connecting that activity to hunger.  

On the other side, I remember talking with a friend in high school who had struggled with an eating disorder.  She told me that she got to the point where she enjoyed feeling hungry because it signaled to her that she was not going to gain weight.  That's messed up too.

If we want improve our country's public health, we need to help our kids to have a healthy relationship to food, which means we need to teach them about hunger as a signal to eat.  We need to ask them, "Are you hungry?" and "Are you full?" and respond appropriately to their answers.  If you're full, stop eating, even if there is some food on your plate.

And what about loneliness?  The Post article suggested that is "a biological signal", stemming from our deeply rooted need for community.  If loneliness is like hunger, then it isn't necessarily "wrong" to feel lonely sometimes.  In fact, it might even be helpful.  If we are constantly around people, constantly interacting, aren't we in danger of becoming socially obese in some ways?  Extreme or chronic loneliness, like extreme or chronic hunger, is bad for our health, clearly.  But if it really is analogous to hunger, then occasional feelings of loneliness are not a reason to panic.  They are just a reminder:  I am a social animal.  I need to be in relationship with people.  I have an appetite for interaction.

If loneliness is a public health issue, if we want our kids to have healthy relationships with other people, we need to teach them about loneliness as a signal to reach out.  But just like eating when we're not hungry, don't we sometimes seek out other people when we're bored or anxious or unwilling to do something or feel something that we actually need to do or feel on our own?  Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same thing--and it takes some training to notice the difference.

“My Eyes So Soft”
by Hafiz, trans. Daniel Ladinsky

Don't surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,

My need of God