A Path to Wisdom by Rev. Jane Thickstun

When I was studying for the ministry in Chicago, I took a class at the Catholic school called Training for Cross?cultural Mission and Ministry.  Only about half of the students in the class were from the Catholic school; there were also two Presbyterians, two Unitarian Universalists, including myself, and a bunch of Lutherans.  And only about half of the class were American; some of the nationalities represented were Hungarian, Guatemalan, Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, Australian, Indonesian, and Ivory Coast.  We also had a woman from Estonia and her small daughter join us for the field trip.

The most important part of the class was a week?long trip to a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota.  We went there to learn about those Native Americans, and to learn from them: what their lives are like, their culture, their religion, their history, their feelings toward white people and toward Christianity. 

And we learned about ourselves in the process.  We went there to engage in cross?cultural dialogue ? to put our traditions and beliefs into dialogue with the Lakota traditions and beliefs and perhaps to be transformed by the encounter.

The most difficult thing for me in this experience was also the greatest gift.  We were asked by our professor not to ask questions.  We were also expected not to talk about our experiences there while we were out on the reservation.  Early on, we had a visitor who had just met our professor and agreed to come talk to us.  She was pleased that we were interested in learning about her people, and she told us of her life on the reservation and in the missionary school.  When she would wind down, I felt a strong urge to ask a question that would encourage her to go on.  I knew that it would be hard for me to sustain a monologue for so long without some prompting, some show of interest, and so asking a question felt like the kind and generous thing to do.

But it was forbidden.  I had to squelch that urge.  I had to just wait and listen.  One time our professor helped her go on by just asking her to talk more about something she had mentioned.  The pace was slow, slower than I am used to, and I felt like a little girl again, when there was time to spare and no expectations, just an injunction to be quiet and listen.

In this experience of not acting on all my urges to speak, I found a path to wisdom.  I realized that this was a way for me to reach greater understanding and greater peace.  It was a bit like a deja vu, I felt like I had been on that path before and gotten off somehow.  Now I found myself like a child again, open to whatever presented itself, the pressure I sometimes feel to prove myself removed by the rule to just listen.  And I actually felt my heart open up.  I took in more of what was being said, I engaged with it more and found my comprehension increased as well as my interest.  As I listened to one man talk of the differences between Native American ways of thinking and of being, and  western “linear thinking,” I felt a reconnection with an earlier desire to live outside the framework of western culture, to experiment with different ways of thinking and of being.  I felt immense possibilities opening up before me, inside me.

What came clear to me was that in listening more deeply to others, I am listening better to myself, too.  I am better able to hear the voice of the divine within, that still, small voice that is so hard to hear sometimes.  It all goes together.  Listening, paying attention respectfully is a discipline, a way of being, that helps me be more authentic.

It wasn’t only the “no questions” rule that brought about this opening up within me.  That was just the most concrete example of what was a general tone of respectful listening set by our teachers.  I mentioned that we were also expected not to talk about our experiences there while we were out on the reservation.  Twice I was reminded of this when classmates gently and kindly pointed out that I might want to keep my voice down.  I was talking about a ritual we had participated in, and was oblivious to my surroundings, forgetful of the fact that respectful attention was expected in this situation as well.  I was grateful for the reminders of my classmates, and for the humility I felt as a result.

It happened twice because this is not the kind of transformation that comes easily.  Old habits are hard to break.  It is very much like quitting smoking, which is one of the hardest things I have ever done.  I have to keep in the forefront of my consciousness at all times the desire to change the behavior, so that I don’t fall into it automatically.  When the urge comes, I have to squelch it, say no to it.  Of course with smoking it is clear what to say no to.  It is less clear with talking, because the aim is not to quit talking altogether.  What I want to stop is the chatter, both internal and external, that keeps me from listening.  The mindless, senseless chatter that I engage in to seek connection when I am feeling disconnected.  The mindless, senseless chatter that ironically prevents my experiencing my deep connection with others and with the universe.

When we can stop the chatter for a moment, when we can instead listen, wait, observe, respect and let go of expectations and agendas, we can be more grounded and so able to be more aware of our limitations.  We can be humble, can see the greatness in our smallness, as we open up in love, no longer needing to assert the self, the ego, but able to let others in and hear their truths.  I  have had a feeling of being like the Russian doll that you open up and there is another one inside, then another inside that and so on, till you get to the core, the heart.  It is good to keep taking off those outside layers.

In seeking to know another culture we come to know not only the other, but ourselves.

Fred McTaggart, who wrote Wolf that I Am, set out to do a doctoral dissertation on Mesquakie Indian folklore, a project which changed in nature as he became acquainted with the people whose stories he sought.  He admits that he “did not succeed as a collector and scholar of Mesquakie folklore,” but that he did learn “something about the Mesquakies and their culture; mainly,” he says, “I learned about myself.” (p. 1)

McTaggart learned by listening, by observing, by respecting.  He came into the project, into the dialogue, with certain expectations.  But rather than doggedly holding on to those expectations, becoming frustrated in the attempt to realize them, and antagonizing the Mesquakie people, he was able to perceive little by little that his expectations were not going to be met, and he was able, little by little, to let go of them and be open to what was, in fact, being offered; something that was in reality far richer and more valuable than what he had sought.

For example, in the reading today, McTaggart wanted to see that book so bad, he could taste it.  He was doing a research project on oral folklore, yet he was distracted from the oral interaction by his desire to see something in print.  We don’t even know if the book actually existed, but it serves as a symbol of this white man’s culture and his aspirations to win approval in his academic community by capturing the native living oral tradition and locking it into a form that, because it is in print, no longer changes and adapts, no longer Lives.

In his fixation on the book, McTaggart is unable to be in the present, living moment, unable to participate in the live oral folklore possibilities in front of him that would only be revealed once he had earned trust through being patient.

He failed the test.  He sought to understand the other in his terms, but this “other” would only be understood properly in his own terms, and the Indian insisted on being understood properly or not at all.  Throughout the book, McTaggert continues to try to work for understanding from within his western, academic framework, and continues to find that it doesn’t work.  Gradually, he drops his preconceived notions and agenda and opens himself up to the Mesquakie point of view, and doesn’t get a dissertation out of it, but gets something far more valuable ? real understanding, not just of the other, but of himself.  He gains a new way of understanding the world, which he can use to deepen and broaden his own world view.

Engaging in this dialogue can be difficult because it often requires hearing pain and anger that is uncomfortable to hear.  I had an African American classmate at school who I felt very uncomfortable with.  She seemed to me to have a big chip on her shoulder, always angry and ready to condemn, interested only in the one issue of racism.  I had not thought of myself as racist in the least.  I grew up in a town that didn’t have even one black family; the few black people that were around were thought of as no different from anybody else.   I resented my classmate’s anger and wished she would just get over it.  The cross?cultural class helped me see that I had been ignoring the race issue, thinking it was already solved, at least within me. The class helped me see that even if I am not actually racist, I had not been anti?racism either.  That phrase hits home, “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the cause.”

I got the hint of it in reading Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog.  In it she uses the metaphor of a “good apple” to describe what most white people want the Indians to be: red on the outside, white on the inside.  By this she means that the only way they would be different from whites would be in the skin color, culturally they would be white.

Acculturation (if not obliteration) of the native Americans has been the goal of American policy and public opinion for a long time, but they have resisted to the best of their ability.  I have always been attracted to Native American cultures and languages, and felt their destruction to be a travesty.  I had no trouble understanding Mary Crow Dog’s anger at the attitudes, still in place, that cause it.  What I didn’t understand until I took that class was that I was doing the same thing to African American culture.  I see now that it is a form of racism to see blacks as no different from me, and to expect that they should not be.  I thought that Standard English should be used in schools so that those with black dialects or Spanish speakers could have access to all the opportunities America has to offer.  It didn’t occur to me that this might in fact maintain the limits on access to the opportunities to only those who spoke “proper English”.

In a little book called Reconciliation, Robert Schreiter says, “Reconciliation can only come about if the nature of the violence perpetrated is acknowledged, and its conditions for continuing or reappearing are removed.” (p. 22)  He points out that calls for blacks to move toward reconciliation “not only trivialize and ignore the sufferings that African Americans have undergone, but also ignore the source of the sufferings??namely, those who oppress and do violence to African Americans, and now call for love and integration, are members of one and the same group: white people.” (p. 19)

We can’t ask people to forgive and get along with their oppressor until their truth has been heard.  And hearing their truth requires listening and waiting with attention and compassion.  It is hard to listen to someone’s anger and pain, especially if it is directed at you.  That is why I wished my classmate would just get that chip off her shoulder.  I would listen to her stories of racism, amazed that it was still going on, but with that “not me” attitude, refusing to take responsibility, and not wanting to be confronted with her anger.  I realized later that I have to be able to listen to her anger, to understand her anger, and to be willing to suffer with her, which is what compassion is.  I have to listen humbly, and stop imposing my truth on her so that I can hear her truth that needs so badly to be heard.  And though I phrase this as a requirement, I also experience an eagerness to engage in the dialogue.  It produces a transformation that is liberating.  So I now look for opportunities to listen to African Americans tell their story, and I want to do more.  I want to be a part of the solution.

In 2002 I went to Birmingham, AL with a group of about 450 Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Birmingham has a pretty bad record regarding its race relations, but seems to be trying to overcome it and change its direction.  I visited a Civil Rights museum, across the street from the church where a bombing in 1963 killed four little girls.  The museum highlighted the civil rights movement in Birmingham, in Alabama, and in the country.  On Sunday, we ministers all put on our stoles and marched to the park across from the museum, where we had a ceremony that culminated in a reading of the Birmingham pledge, which we had all signed.  This is a couple of paragraphs affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person and pledging to work to eliminate racism.  It was written by a Birmingham resident, and is being used in cities around the country.  We were also reminded of our own ties to the civil rights movement.  In 1963 UU ministers were among those who answered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to come to Alabama.  Three UU ministers were attacked in Selma and James Reeb was killed.  He is considered a UU martyr.  The two ministers who were with Reeb that day were at our ministers convocation, keeping alive the stories.  We need to hear these stories, and the stories of those who are different from us.

This kind of listening is the heart of cross?cultural and interfaith dialogue.  As Unitarian Universalists, we often find the need and the opportunity for interfaith dialogue within our own congregations.  Our theological diversity challenges us to engage in dialogue that can enrich our own search for truth and meaning.

Because dialogue goes two ways.  Diana Eck, in her book,  Encountering God, says, dialogue is a “process of mutual testimony and mutual questioning,” in which “we not only come to understand one another, we come to understand ourselves more deeply as well.  It leads to what John Cobb calls ‘mutual transformation.’  Dialogue does not mean that we will agree, but only that we will understand more clearly and that we will begin to replace ignorance, stereotype, even prejudice, with relationship.  It is the language of mutuality, not of power.” (p. 19)  Eck uses her dialogue with other faiths, particularly Hinduism, to clarify and deepen her own Christian faith.  I have found my dialogue with Christianity and with other faiths to be a valuable way to deepen my own faith, my own theological viewpoint.

More and more, we are confronted with the fact of religious diversity, in the world, in our cities, and in our own congregations.  We can chose to make sense of this diversity in a variety of  ways, and Eck identifies three possible responses.  “First, there is the exclusivist response: Our own community, our tradition, our understanding of reality, our encounter with [the Ultimate], is the one and only truth, excluding all others.  Second, there is the inclusivist response: There are, indeed, many communities, traditions, and truths, but our own way of seeing things is the culmination of the others, superior to the others, or at least wide enough to include the others under our universal canopy and in our own terms.  A third response is that of the pluralist: Truth is not the exclusive or inclusive possession of any one tradition or community.  Therefore the diversity of communities, traditions, understandings of the truth, and visions of [the Ultimate] is not an obstacle for us to overcome, but an opportunity for our energetic engagement and dialogue with one another.  It does not mean giving up our commitments; rather, it means opening up those commitments to the give?and?take of mutual discovery, understanding, and, indeed, transformation.”  (p. 168)  To elaborate on the difference between the inclusivist and the pluralist views, Eck says, “If we are inclusivists, we include others into a worldview we already know and on the terms we have already set.  If we are pluralists, we recognize the limits of the world we already know and we seek to understand others in their own terms, not just in ours.” (p. 169)

It can be hard to make that leap to understand someone in their own terms, because often it means accepting something about ourselves that is hard to look at; hard to see.  When my class was at the Lakota reservation, I got the sense that the Native Americans were telling us how the missionary efforts had hurt them.  I felt I was different from my Christian classmates because I didn’t believe in mission.  I wanted to say, “not me!  I don’t believe in missionary work!”  I refrained, and I understand now how a defensive attitude like that interferes with the ability to participate in dialogue.  I thought that my rejection of mission brought me closer to them, sort of like “you and me against those missionaries,” but in fact it amounted to removing myself from the dialogue, and failing to acknowledge my responsibility as a participant in a system that oppresses them.   It prevented me from hearing their pain, and so from investing emotionally in their situation.

Attempting to understand a different perspective can enrich us without necessarily changing our own beliefs and values.  No matter how I look at it, the term “mission” implies a superiority of one faith over another, while interfaith dialogue assumes equality of the faiths.  I consider that not only the cultures but the religious faith of other people is as valid as my own, and I feel we need to be as open to learning from them as we are eager to tell them of our own faith.  What has been important for me is that in attempting to understand, I was in dialogue with missionaries both in books and in the class.  I tried applying that listening, attentive, respectful attitude and I found good, intelligent, caring people engaged in missionary work.  In the process, I have gone far in replacing my ignorant and judgmental stance with relationship.  This relationship enables me not only to understand the “other” better, but also to understand and develop my own point of view more clearly, and more deeply.

This congregation has a proud history of being an integrated congregation.  The phoenix rising from the ashes is the symbol of the commitment to allowing everybody in, and not excluding anyone.  But we need to take it to another level.  We need to commit to being an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, multi-cultural congregation, where we not only have our own umbrella and say you can come, if you want to be like us, if you want to think like us, if you want to believe like us, fit into our culture.  That’s what we have been doing. And the challenge now is to listen, and accept and allow other cultures to begin to define who we are, so that we’re not just inclusivist, but actually pluralist, in Diana Eck’s terminology.  And our Diversity Team has been established to help us in this work.  A bunch of us—the Board, the Diversity Team and the staff—participated recently in the Multi-cultural Training that took a whole weekend and was intense, and very good. And we’re inviting the whole congregation to join us in this work.  It’s good work.

By listening to our neighbors in the church, mosque or synagogue down the street, in the African American community, in the soup kitchen, or in the pew next to us, we can grow in understanding and compassion; we can come a little closer to achieving a view of reality that transcends our particular perspectives. If we can be quiet and listen, if we can respect the other even in and especially in their difference, we may be transformed in the process.   It is a path that can be difficult and painful, but it is a path to wisdom.