We Are Part of a Bigger Story



Sometimes, it helps to step back and get a little perspective.  When the anxiety of the present moment starts to feel overwhelming, it helps to put today's dramas into a bigger context.  

There were very few glimmers of insight in last night's presidential candidate's debate.  In the middle of ninety excruciating minutes of accusation and animosity, there was one helpful, constructive comment.  A Muslim American woman named Gorbah Hamed told the candidates that Islamaphobia is on the rise in this country and asked, "how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?"  I thought it was the best question of the night, asking the candidates to connect national policy and campaign rhetoric to the lived experience of particular Americans.  The two candidates gave starkly different responses. Donald Trump used the question to imply that Muslims in this country are hiding and protecting terrorists such as those who perpetrated the attack in San Bernadino, CA.  

Hillary Clinton's answer began this way:  "First, we've had Muslims in American since George Washington."  

That one sentence went by in a flash.  I doubt it will receive much comment as the debate is analyzed in the days to come. But I don't want to forget it because it reminded me of the power of the Bigger Picture.  We are, and have always been, a nation composed of people of different religions, people from different cultures and countries of origin.  The American story is, in part, a Muslim story.  

Dan and I saw Part One of Tony Kushner's epic play, "Angels in America" at the Round House Theater in Bethesda on Saturday.  The production marks the 25th anniversary of the play, evocative timing for us.  We were married in my home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 3rd, 1993. Immediately after our wedding we drove to New York so that I could attend a retreat that was required as part of the internship I had that year.  I like to say that I spent my honeymoon alone in a Passionist Monastery, but that's not entirely true.  After the retreat, I met Dan and my maid-of-honor Helena Hedman in New York City.  The highlight of our weekend together was seeing Part One of "Angels in America" at the Walter Kerr theater where it had opened just a couple of months before.

It was one of the most memorable pieces of theater I've ever seen.  The plot revolves around two couples whose lives and relationships are coming apart:  a Morman husband and wife who beginning to acknowledge the husband's homosexuality and a gay couple, one of whom is becoming progressively more sick with AIDS.  But the story does not stay small--the characters include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg and scenes take place in the world of reality and fantasy, from New York to Antartica. The show is three and a half hours long, culminating in the arrival of an angel who crashes through the roof of the theater and announces, "The great work begins!  The messenger has arrived."

Twenty-five years later, it wasn't that last scene that made the strongest impression on me, but the first.  The show opens with a funeral for the grandmother of Lewis, the partner to the man who is sick with AIDS.  An elderly rabbi (played memorably by Meryl Streep in the 2003 HBO adaptation of the play) gives the eulogy, admitting at the start that he didn't know the deceased personally.  But he continues, saying that he knows the kind of person she was, an immigrant who brought an ancient culture with her when she immigrated to America.  She worked the earth of the Old World "into the bones" of her children and grandchildren.  He concludes, 

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is. 

Collapse and chaos threaten to overwhelm the characters in Kushner's play.  Lest we forget, by that point over a million Americans were infected with HIV and effective treatment was still a ways off.  By 1993, the disease had killed almost 150,000 people. But by placing that story into an epic context with visitors from the past and visitors from heaven, Kushner insists that we do more than grieve or rage in response.  We must link our story to the Great Voyages of our ancestors.  We must recognize that we are living out not only our own little dramas, but also the Great Drama of our country, our time.  We understand this chapter better when we understand the ones that came before.

But part of understanding our history is recognizing that our lives also matter.  That was a powerful assertion for a gay man to make in 1993 and it still feels bold today.  I admire Gorbah Hamed and every other Muslim American who will stand up in the presence of these candidates and the rest of us and insist that the story of this election and the story of our country includes the story of their lives.

Does Integration Require Intention?


I think intention is over-rated.  The word certainly has its appeal--an "intentional community" sounds much more important than a community that has come together through luck and circumstance.  I vow, on a fairly regular basis, to be "more intentional" in my prayer life or my relationship with my spouse or or with my eating habits.  This usually means that I'm going to Try Harder to Do Better in these areas.  But I know what happens to all of those good intentions. They don't last long.  Intention is taxing.

I think design is under-rated. I learned this first as the parent of toddlers. I had no idea how to foster in them the intention to (for example) gently handle breakable things.  So I got them plastic plates and cups and put the breakable things out of reach.  I eventually realized I could apply the same principle to managing myself.  If I want to read more, I need to put a book next to my bed and leave my laptop on my desk in my office.  I want to give money to my church so I set up automatic payments from the checking account at the beginning of each month and stop thinking about it completely.  I've worked hard to design my daily routines so that running, praying and writing all happen without a lot of intention on my part.

Maybe that's why I like Columbia, Maryland so much.  Jim Rouse, the developer who planned this community, had all sorts of good intentions about what would happen here.  People of different races and ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds would live together in harmony. People would feel connected to nature and to their neighbor.  Rouse designed the community with these intentions in mind.  Single family homes were built near townhouses and apartments.  Bike paths wound their way through everyone's back yard and opaque fencing was prohibited.  Mail kiosks required everyone to leave their homes to get their mail, increasing the chance that they'd bump into their neighbor and have a chat.  

Jim Rouse required all the developers who built and sold homes in Columbia to sign a non-discrimination agreement (this was before the Fair Housing Act of 1974).  And he directly marketed his development to African-American families in Baltimore.  But he didn't require the residents who moved to Columbia to make any declarations about their intention to help build a mixed, open community.  The design was supposed to take care of that.  People didn't need to have a big commitment to Rouse's vision--they could come to Columbia because they liked the housing stock or the pools or the location or the schools.  They would then find themselves living in a mixed community and would come to value it as they experienced it.

Does that model still work?  Can design sustain integration--or does it need intention?

I've been thinking about that question ever since I attended two talks this past Tuesday by Rob Breymaier, the Executive Director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.  On Tuesday evening, Breymaier gave a talk entitled "Sustaining Racial Integration in Housing in Columbia: Exploring the Model of Oak Park, Ill.," sponsored by the Columbia Association.  On Tuesday morning, I got a preview of that conversation at a less formal conversation with Breymaier sponsored by Leadership Howard County as part of their "This Just In" series.  Both talks were well-attended and included lots of questions from the audience.

Oak Park, Illinois, was an almost-completely white community 40 years ago, but nearby neighborhoods Chicago were "turning over" at a rapid rate.  Over the course of just a few years, entirely white neighborhoods would become entirely black due to "block busting" which took advantage of the fears of the white residents of the city after the riots of 1968.  Oak Park decided to respond to these changes with a proactive effort to build an integrated community.  The Housing Center, founded in 1972, was a big piece of that response.  Its focus is rental housing which comprises 40% of Oak Park's total housing stock.  The Housing Center offers free apartment referrals, assistance to property owners and managers, as well as support and training of private realtors.  

Rob Breymaier summed up his work this way:  convincing white people that it is okay to live in racially integrated neighborhoods.  They help people generate the intention they need to help Oak Park remain integrated.

Breymaier was absolutely certain that their work is as necessary now as it was when Oak Park began its effort to integrate.  "Without the Housing Center, Oak Park would remain diverse," he said, "but it wouldn't remain integrated."  He pointed out the example of several other communities that had "re-segregated" after they backed off from their intentional efforts to manage and sustain integration.  "We know that everyone carries implicit racial bias," he said.  "Racial segregation is essentially the manifestation of lots of people's implicit bias."  The good intentions of various individuals do not sustain integrated neighborhoods.

The CA-sponsored talk on Tuesday evening ended on a provocative note.  Breymaier put up an image of Columbia from the Cooper Center's amazing Racial Dot Map:


In these maps, each race is represented by a different color:  blue for white, green for black, red for Asian, yellow for Hispanic, and brown for other races.  Clearly not every neighborhood in Columbia is equally mixed.  Some areas are mostly blue dots (while) and some are mostly green (black) or red (Asian).  If you know Columbia, you will immediately see the neighborhoods with a lot of rental housing--they are the ones with a lot of green dots.  Rental property is almost 35% of all the housing stock in Columbia, I'm told.

So after showing those maps, Breymaier asked the obvious question:  Could Columbia (or Howard County as a whole) benefit from an organization like the Oak Park Housing Center?  Which is to say, if some organization isn't tasked with convincing white people to rent an apartment in Columbia, will we end up with a segregated community? 

I find such an idea bizarre.  There are some really affordable, attractive apartments in Columbia that would give a renter access to all that this community has to offer.  Housing can be really expensive in this area.  Doesn't the market supply enough of an incentive to move here?  

But then I think of some of the community meetings I attended over the past couple of years in Oakland Mills where the Village Board and other neighbors talked about revitalizing our Village Center.  The "implicit bias" was quite explicit.  "Those people" in the nearby rental housing were charged with dragging down our schools and our property values.  The Board's revitalization plan was created with the clear intention of reducing the amount of rental housing--and in Columbia, less rental housing means a less integrated community.  Individuals (notably Reg Avery, a Columbia Association board member) spoke up for the value of integration, but none had an organization behind them.  My husband and I struggled to figure out how to speak up for our values in these conversations.  But who were we to say, "This isn't what Columbia is all about," when most members of the Oakland Mills Village board had lived in Columbia 30 years more than we have?

Maybe Jim Rouse's 50 year old intentions aren't enough to sustain integration in Columbia, especially as we redesign his original plan.  If the design Rouse created is losing its ability to sustain racial integration, then we will have to start generating some clear and positive intention to prevent segregation.  In order to do that, Rob Breymaier is clear.  White people need to talk to other white people about why integration is a community value, and talk about why segregation violates that value.  

Columbia may need that campaign soon.  This year's presidential race shows that our country needs that conversation now.  As a recent article in Washington Monthly put it, "white people who live in segregated white suburban communities are much more alarmed about demographic change (the browning of America) than white people who live and work in pluralistic communities."  Which side are we on?


A Door Just Opened


I don't know if it registered on the Richter scale, but I think there was a small earthquake in Columbia, Maryland last night.  At least, I felt the earth shake a little.  

We hosted an event last night at our church for everyone who is interested in helping us resettle a refugee family in our community.  We invited Lutheran Social Services (who contract with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to oversee refugee resettlement in our area) to send a couple of staff to give an overview of their "Good Neighbor" program and answer questions.  We announced the event to our congregation and figured we'd host 30 or so.  

But we are so excited about this project that we couldn't stop talking about it with other people we know.  Some of those people are connected to other congregations in the area.  They brought word of what we're doing back to their leadership or their Missions Boards and the excitement spread.

We planned for 30 last night, but 62 people showed up, including representatives from New Hope Lutheran Church, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, Bet Aviv, the Muslim Community Center, Dar Al-Taqua Islamic Center, and Sandy Spring Friends Meeting.  Luckily, we baked a lot of brownies.

There was a real sense of excitement in the room before we even began.  A few minutes after 7:00 pm I stood up and welcomed everyone to the event and to our community.  "There are some prominent voices in our state and in our nation who are saying "NO!" to refugees," I told everyone.  "But we feel compelled by God to respond to the desperate needs of millions of people in a different way.  We want to say YES!  We want to say WELCOME!"  Everyone in the room shouted back, "WELCOME!"  And we were off.

Don Link, the "Caller" of the Seeking Refuge Focus Group at our church spoke first.  He told the group of his struggle over the last year as he learned about the deep suffering of immigrants fleeing the brutal war in Syria. The situation overwhelmed him--the magnitude of the problem and the intensely personal pain that came through photos and stories. But his faith won't let him shut down or walk away when he feels overwhelmed.  Instead, he prayed and listened and in time, discerned that God was calling him to act.

In May, Don stood up in front of our congregation and read a short statement about his call. This kind of thing happens on a fairly regular basis at KC so we have a little ritual for the occasion.  We put a stole on Don and prayed over him.  And then we all considered how God might be calling us to respond to this crisis as well.  Fifteen of us ended up joining Don's team and many others got involved with the first action, collecting materials for "Welcome Kits" that Lutheran Social Services distributes to the hundreds of refugee families they are resettling this year.

After we had been meeting for a couple of months, it became clear that we were ready for the next step:  a "Level One" partnership with LSS, a one-year commitment to a refugee family that includes rent assistance, employment assistance, completely furnishing an apartment, providing help with clothing and food and transportation and all the other things a family might need.  

I don't think I'll ever forget the moment we made that decision.  We knew that it was a huge step for a small church like ours--we figured it would cost us at least $20,000.  But when we said YES to that commitment, we didn't feel overwhelmed at the thought of all.  Our YES released a kind of buzzing energy through our group.  We felt it physically--we practically danced out of the room.

That energy was back last night.  After Don spoke, our guests from Lutheran Social Service gave an overview of the program and did a great job answering our questions for about a half an hour.  Then, Art Spilkia led us in a powerful song which has become a KC favorite: "I Refuse" by Josh Wilson.  

I don't want to live like I don't care
I don't want to say another empty prayer
Oh I refuse to
Sit around and wait for someone else
To do what God has called me to do myself
Oh I could choose
Not to move
But I refuse

And then, Ann Ivester made her pitch.  As we sit in our safe homes, we feel so disconnected from the stories and struggles of refugees on the other side of the world.  We can't imagine what their lives are like.  We have never faced the kinds of decisions they have had to make.  But that sense of disconnection isn't really the whole truth.  After all, every refugee wants his or her children to be safe from harm.  We share this desire with the whole human family.  So tonight, Ann said, when we take a step to help a refugee family, we draw a thread of connection between our lives and theirs.  With this thread, we start re-weaving a fabric that has been torn, the fabric of human community.

And then we passed out pledge cards.

It didn't take long for people to fill them out--and they asked for more to take home to their congregations and friends.  We collected the cards (and the checks that were attached to many of them), prayed over them and wrapped the night up with a rousing chorus of "This Land Is Your Land".

Don counted the checks and pledges as soon as he got home and sent this email to the group:

Great job tonight, everyone!  God is good; God is here.

Quick Tally:

$4,825 checks in hand

$7,750 pledged (includes 1 month rent and $1,500 for mattresses)


$12,575  Wow!

Wow indeed.  Back when I was in college, I took a class called "The Mystical Experience" and read works by the Desert Fathers and Theresa of Avila and many others.  I was fascinated by what they saw and heard and felt.  The power of Divine Presence!  I so wished I could have even a taste of what they experienced.  I wanted to know God first hand--not just read about God and talk about God and think about God.  I had a sense that in order to know God like the mystics do, I would need to retreat to a mountain top or take a long, solo journey on foot.  

Turns out I was wrong.  I just needed to join a community that together says YES to God's call.

P.S.  We still need to raise about $7,500 more to fully fund this project.  Maybe you--like us--want to be a part of a positive response to the worldwide refugee crisis?  Please shoot me an email for more info OR send a check to the Kittamaqundi Community Church with "Seeking Refuge" in the memo line.  Our address is 5410 Leaf Treader Way, Columbia, MD  21044.  Thanks!

Their Own Alien: Thoughts on "Kind of Kin" by Rilla Askew

I didn’t quite finish “Kind of Kin” by Rilla Askew in time for this month’s Daughters of Abraham book group.  The truth is, I put off starting it because it was a Christian selection (the group is composed of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women, and each group takes a turn selecting a book that in some way represents their religion).  I have developed an aversion to “Christian fiction” after reading a few too many books in Jan Karon’s Mitford series and seeing movies like “Facing the Giants” in which Christianity is a magical forces that makes everything better for those who believe.

I shouldn’t have worried. People do good things and they do bad things and their motives for their actions are always complex and rarely pure.  The testimony of scripture is helpful and challenging but it doesn’t solve everything.  The book makes a good case for how the Christian faith can make a positive difference in a community, but it doesn’t do so in a simple, magical way. 

In fact, in this book Christianity mostly makes people’s lives more challenging.  It leads them to challenge the assumptions of their community and to stand up for strangers in trouble.  But behind all of their Strong Moral Positions is the question of how to care for the people we love.  Good material for my work on a “Spirituality of Us.”

The book describes how a number of different people—a Christian pastor, a politician, an overwhelmed mom, a born-again grandfather, a Sherriff, an oil worker and a 10-year-old boy—respond to a new law in Oklahoma that makes it a felony to harbor an illegal alien.  The book doesn’t attempt to represent both sides of the illegal immigration debate in this county—it makes a strong case against deporting undocumented workers and portrays anti-immigration forces in a fairly laughable way.  But it represents those who come to the aid of immigrants as having very complex motives.

One young woman has fallen in love with a Mexican man who is in the country illegally.  They have gotten married and had a child, but he hasn’t obtained legal status and is deported.  The woman’s grandfather has made connections in the Mexican community by occasionally attending a Mexican Pentecostal church.  Through his friendship with the pastor of that church, he eventually agrees to hide a group of workers who are at risk of deportation in his barn.  Another family member is fearful that immigrant Mexicans will take his job, and so he turns the grandfather in.  That man’s wife is personally overwhelmed and not particularly interested in the troubles of the Mexicans in her community, but she finds she has to take a stand when her family members ask her for support.

After days of soul-searching, scripture study and prayer, the local pastor decides that it is his duty as a Christian to give refuge to the young man who had returned to his family after his deportation to Mexico.  When the local sheriff, Arvin Halloway, arrives at the church, the result is a showdown that lasts most of a day and attracts media attention.  Church members and neighbors find themselves called to either stand by their pastor in support of his convictions or to stand with the Sherriff in support of the law.

I so appreciated Askew’s description of the reasons why so many church members decided to side with their pastor:

“Later some of them would say that they did what they did purely because Arvin Halloway told them they couldn’t.  Others claimed that they hadn’t really known anything about that law; if they had, they might have acted different.  Some said they’d just surmised that if the pastor of the First Baptist Church aimed to stand against the law (and here by the law they didn’t mean statute but officers), then, by gosh, that was good enough for them.  In the long run, there turned out to be a whole host of reasons—conscience, ignorance, rumor, the makings of a good show….”

The pastor takes a stand because he becomes convinced, through his reading of scripture, that God commands him and his congregation to do so.  But he only starts looking for Biblical guidance on the issue when he is asked directly by one of the members of his congregation to help an illegal immigrant.  And she only asks for help because that person is married to her niece and her niece showed up at her door, desperate and without any alternative.

These characters, even the ones who see themselves as responding to divine guidance, do not have pure motives.  But they do represent the way that people makes decisions, change their mind and are spurred to action.  Personal conviction plays a role.  Identifying as a member of a faith community can play a role.  But in the end, our love for particular people is what gets us moving.

That’s an important insight to bring to the immigration debate.  The conversation changes when it stops being abstract, about “illegal immigrants” in general, and becomes personal.  Askew writes about the young man being harbored in the church basement saying,

“There were rumors that the man belonged to that really good roofing crew out of Panola, and some even got it correct straight off—that he was Bob Brown’s granddaughter’s husband who had been, according to news reports, deported last fall.  The main unity to the rumors was how they all had the Mexican man qualifying as a stranger according to the preacher’s texts, but one with a local connection.  He was an alien all right, but he was somehow their own alien.” 

Talking About Love, Learning About Power


I started off my sermon this past Sunday by complaining about Martin Luther King Day.  It might have been a bad call.

My problem with Martin Luther King Day, I explained, is that I think it focuses too much on Martin Luther King.  I know that sounds like an odd complaint--the holiday falls near his birthday so it makes sense that we use the occasion to learn about King's life and to honor the work he did.  And that's exactly what our kids do in school beginning in Kindergarten.  They read stories about King's life and later, they read his "I Have a Dream" speech.  They hear him talk about his vision of what the world should be like.  They might even see a picture of him giving that speech to a huge crowd of people standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  

But here's what we don't tell our kids.  Those people did not come to Washington, D.C. to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. give a great speech about his vision for America.  They came to protest policies and conditions in the United States.  They came to pressure the government to enact civil rights legislation.  And they also called for the creation of a public works jobs program, an increase in the minimum wage and for home rule for Washington, D.C.  It was the largest protest ever held in Washington up to that point.  The size of the crowd was, in the end, even more eloquent than King's memorable words.

King was, without a doubt, a gifted leader.  But it was the movement that made the difference.  King was a part of a large, well-organized coalition of organizations that trained thousands of people in the tactics of non-violent resistance to injustice.  Because we so often lift up King without lifting up the movement, we have not passed on the organizing strategies that the movement worked hard to teach.  We teach our children and teach ourselves to admire King’s work instead of continuing King’s work.

I said all of this on Sunday as an introduction to the point I wanted to make about Jesus, so I couldn't spend much time making my argument.  To be honest, I didn't think that would be a problem because I thought everyone would agree with me.  But once I got talking, I could tell I had lost more than a few people.  "I was worried you were going somewhere I couldn't go," one man told me afterwards with a smile.  

So my King Day Complaint was still on my mind when I went running Monday morning.  I was listening, as I often do, to the podcast of the NPR talk show "On Being".  This week's show spoke to the issue of how we can tell the story of the organization that surrounded and supported King and his work--with much more eloquence and insight than I was able to muster on Sunday.  The topic was "Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement--and Rediscovering its Humanity".  The host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons and Lucas Johnson, civil rights activists from two different generations.  What first caught my attention was this comment from Simmons explaining the start of the Black Power movement:

And more and more, the understanding became that this is more than a moral issue. This is more than getting white Americans to love us. This is about us sharing power.

When I heard those words, it suddenly occurred to me why we tend to talk more about King than we talk about the Civil Rights Movement.  It is a way to avoid talking about power, a topic we have little experience discussing or analyzing.

When I went through a 10-day training on community organizing with the Gamaliel Foundation back in 1992, the first thing I learned was this: if we are going to talk organizing people to make change, we need to talk about how people get and maintain power.  We have to talk about privilege and class and money, topics that most of us never really discuss.  Christians especially avoid these topics.  We talk about right and wrong as moral questions and then talk about the importance of standing up for what you believe in.  We pretend that good people change the world simply through the moral force of their own good lives.

Civil Rights leaders were not naive about this.  They understood that people in power rarely share power just because it is the "right" thing to do.  They begin to share power when it becomes clear that it is in their self-interest to do so.  In order to affect people's self-interest, a movement needs to organize people to march and sit-in and vote and boycott and go to prison. 

And here's the thing:  because those who participated in the civil rights movement learned about how to acquire and utilize power to make change, they had hope.  That's why it is so important that we talk to our kids--and talk to each other--not only about what King did, but how he did it.  As Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons said towards the end of the On Being interview,

So, you know, there are changes even though there are so many problems still. So I can never give up that, on the idea that we the people can organize and bring change. That I just – I know we can because we did it. And because we did it we can continue to do it. 

Can You Believe We're Related?

Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the official end of the Christmas Season.  I think I've just about recovered from the explosion of work and errands and entertaining and travel that knocks me out by the end of December each year.  How about you?

For many of us, Christmas and the whole "holiday season" brings with it opportunities to connect with our extended families, including people who we rarely see through the rest of the year.  Sometimes these visits and phone calls are easy--we can laugh together and tell the honest truth about our lives trusting that the other person knows enough of our "back story" that they will be able to get what we're saying without lots of explanation.  But other times, extended family gatherings can be so discordant, so uncomfortable that we are left wondering, "Am I really related to these people?"

You can look at those tough encounters two ways:  You can puzzle over what kinds of life experiences (or differences in brain chemistry?) can make people who are biologically related so incredibly different.  Or you can marvel over the deep connection you share as family members, a connection that cannot be obliterated by conflicting political views or lifestyle choices or understanding of what kinds of behavior are acceptable at a large family event.  

When I was a kid, I learned the song "Let There Be Peace On Earth (And Let It Begin With Me)" at Girl Scout Camp.  It included the line, "With God as our Father, sisters all are we...."  The idea was that we are more likely to seek peace when we see ourselves as part of the same family as the people we're fighting with.  It's a dubious assertion, given the number of families I know that are unable to make peace among themselves.  But I like the concept.  It's another source of wonder and amazement.  I have a connection to you that doesn't depend on my ability to understand you or relate to you or even like you.  We are related because we are children of the same God.

We love telling stories of making friends or finding connections in unlikely places:  a sudden sense of being known by someone with whom we were not able to communicate in words, a deep conversation with a stranger on an airplane, a deep feeling of sympathy with the pain of someone you don't even know.  Usually these stories are about the people involved--about the exceptional insight of the person we met or the wonderful coincidence of the things we ended up having in common.  

But I think these encounters point to something more than just the two people involved.  To me, these surprising connections are experiences of the divine.  I think we are empowered to connect to others because of our shared connection to God.  Cell phones work like this.  When I call you on your cell, I imagine that our phones are connecting directly to each other.  But in fact, our connect is made possible because both of our phones connect to a satellite.  

Perhaps it seems unnecessary to insert God into person-to-person encounters like this.  And when things are going well, when we connect easily with the people around us, there's not much need to analyze why or how this happens.  But when we have to work with, live with, make peace with people with whom we have no common understanding, shared interests or innate sympathy--the belief that God has a relationship with both of us, that God loves and values all of us, can be a game changer.

But we won't call on this divine connection in extreme situations if we don't first notice and celebrate it in all the "regular" connections that weave our lives together each day.  Try this:  next time you run across someone who bothers you, offends you, puts you off, say to yourself, "I'm related to her!" or "He's part of my family!"  Maybe that's a practice for a "Spirituality of Us"?