Category Archives: Hearts for Justice

Reflection on Healing the Heart of Democracy, Chapter 6

In chapter 6, Parker Palmer reflects on the role of classrooms and congregations in forming the habits of the heart that are important for a healthy democracy.  Not surprisingly, I find myself particularly drawn to his discussion of congregations.

One of the things that most struck me in that discussion was the way in which he talked about whether a congregation has the ability to truly listen to each other, in the sense of being able to really see and talk together about the differences between them.  Palmer writes,

My response to the requests I get to help. . . congregations “diversify” is simple:  “There is no such thing as a ‘homogenous white congregation.’  There are only groups of white people pretending that they have no critical differences among themselves for fear that their ‘community’ would crumble if they opened their real lives to one another.

It reminded me of what happened in the congregation I served for over a decade in East Tennessee before I came to Trinity.  About half-way through my tenure there, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay, partnered priest as their bishop.  That election was subsequently approved by the larger Episcopal Church, at a meeting of its General Convention.   The matter received a great deal of attention in the secular media, and everyone in my congregation was surely aware of what had taken place.  Our bishop wrote a pastoral letter to the people of the diocese, which the clergy were required to read to their congregations, explaining why he had voted against confirming the bishop’s election, even as the diocese’s delegation of lay and clergy representatives had voted in favor of it.  Clearly, it was a matter about which there were sharply divided opinions, often held with great passion.

It was not long after this that I noticed, as the summer drew to a close, that some very active members of my congregation were no where to be found.  I also became aware that certain friendships in the congregation were fracturing, because people suddenly discovered that when it came to the involvement of gay people in the life of the church, they held different opinions.   A number of people ended up leaving that congregation because they disagreed with what had happened, and most of them did not even care to have a conversation with me about it.  And, for a long time, I delayed having any sort of community conversation about it, because — being rather conflict-averse — I was afraid of what would happen.

Thinking of this in light of what Parker Palmer has to say about congregations and their role in forming people to participate in democracy, I find myself wondering about what sort of community we had in East Tennessee, given that all of us — myself included — had such a hard time finding a way to talk about something that was so emotionally charged, and yet so important.  And if that congregation, populated by people who had shared a communal life together for a long time, couldn’t have those difficult conversations, how are we to have them at a larger, societal level?

Trinity, of course, is a very different community in many ways from that congregation in East Tennessee, but also, perhaps, not so different.  At various points, we have had small conversations about how we live into that part of our mission statement that declares us to “have a heart for justice.”   It is a part of our mission that touches on the political and the societal, since having a heart for justice implies some level of engagement that acknowledges injustice and desires to do something about it.  But to a number of people, including myself, figuring out this area of our ministry feels a bit risky because it risks surfacing differences among our community with respect to what is just and unjust, with respect to differing points of view on matters of public policy.  And to the degree that these differences surface within our congregation, there is a fear that the integrity of our community will be threatened, that people whose views are “in the minority” might feel unwelcome.  In short, there is a fear that our community might fracture — just as my community in East Tennessee did.

And yet, particularly now, when we find ourselves in such a unique political era, it feels like there is an urgency to having these sorts of conversations, to finding the right way to engage as a community of faith with what is happening in our larger society.  It feels somehow important that we be able to have conversations that risk exposing differences among us, and it feels equally important to be able to surface these differences without it seeming unsafe, or causing some kind of break within the community.

This, after all, seems to be what Parker Palmer is aiming for:  building the capacity to have difficult conversations across differences that, instead of fracturing community at some level, instead lead us to deeper insight, deeper awareness, deeper capacity to come to decisions despite the differences between us.  I hear him calling congregations to be a laboratory for these kinds of conversations, recognizing that transforming our current polarized political culture must begin at the local level.

It seems a challenge to undertake — but perhaps it is a risk worth taking.

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Reflection on Healing the Heart of Democracy, Chapter 5

In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says,

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Chapter 5 of Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy brought these words to mind, as Palmer explores the significance and importance of public life.  He notes that public life is a vital layer of society that exists between our private lives and political life.  It is the place where we encounter the stranger, and learn to receive the stranger as a potential relationship, a source of learning, a cause for curiosity, rather than as an enemy.

It does seem to me that as the years have gone by, Americans — and other westerners as well, I think — have become more and more preoccupied with safety and security.  Much of our national political discourse, it seems, is devoted to “keeping people safe”.   Our preoccupation with the need to be secure has, I think, encouraged us to see the world as something that we must be secured against, and therefore as a rather dangerous place.  It has also encouraged us to withdraw from public life, tending to remain more in private spaces with people we know and trust, rather than risk the dangers that lie “out there”.  With that has come the temptation to look at every stranger not as someone to be encountered and learned from, but as a potential enemy.  And that perspective, to the degree we adopt it, erodes our public spaces.

This makes me think back to my sabbatical of a couple of years ago, when we spent six weeks living in Florence, Italy.  Our life in Florence was very different from our life here, in the sense that we spent almost our entire days in public spaces.  And this wasn’t just a matter of going to museums and seeing sights.  Our main meal of the day was taken in a public space, time was spent in cafes, and we walked and walked and walked everywhere.  And this was not just something we did because we were, in a sense, tourists.  It was a way of life in Italy — everyone was out in public for large parts of the day, in all sorts of gathering places.  When we returned home, I became aware of how that stopped, of the much smaller amount of time spent in public spaces here compared to Italy.

Since returning, I have taken up the “hobby” of trying to learn Italian.  It is interesting to note, in light of my experience in Italy, that the Italian language has no word for “privacy.”   Modern life has required the concept to be made more important, and so the Italians have simply borrowed the word from English.  But all of that is an indication that privacy, in the American sense, is not really a natively Italian concept.  Perhaps that is not surprising in a society that lives so much of its life in public spaces.

Jesus does challenge us to think about how it is we view strangers.  Are we comfortable with strangers?  Do we tend to see them as interesting people to be engaged or as potentially dangerous people to be defended against?  And what is our relationship with public spaces?  How much time do we spend in them, and what kinds of interactions do we have there?

Palmer certainly believes that the cultivation of a vigorous public life in which strangers are welcomed is important to a healthy democracy.  Churches are one of those public spaces.  How do we, at Trinity, welcome the stranger?  When you see someone you don’t know at church, do you engage them, or do you trust that someone else will do that?  How does our shared life at Trinity become a model for our engagement in other public spaces?

As I close this reflection, mindful of the terror attack that took place yesterday in London, it occurs to me that the diminishment of public spaces, and the increasing suspicion of strangers that goes with it, is exactly one of the things that terrorists are trying to accomplish.    They make their attacks in public spaces, and as they do so, they are trying to make us afraid of those spaces.  If they are successful, if we do become more afraid of those spaces, then the terrorists move forward their goal of undermining the integrity of our public life, increasing our mistrust of each other, and, if Palmer is right, also undermining the strength of our democracy.

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A Reflection on Chapters 1 & 2, Healing the Heart of Democracy

We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

~ Abraham Lincoln

This quote from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, given on March 4, 1861, with which Parker Palmer ends his first chapter of Healing the Heart of Democracy, seems as timely today as it was in Lincoln’s time.   At its heart is an appeal to the “better angels of our nature” to refrain from becoming enemies, but maintain a relationship of friendship across the passion, tension, and diversity of American society — whether on the eve of the Civil War or in the world we inhabit today.   Ultimately, Lincoln seems to be saying, if we are to hold on to our Union as a nation, we must be able to keep hold of our friendship.   And friendship that is founded only in agreement on every point is not much of a friendship at all.  Rather, deep and abiding friendship is forged in exploring together not only places of agreement, but places of disagreement; not only in places where we see things the same way, but in places where our points of view different.   And there is perhaps no greater friendship than one in which friends come to understand the different ways in which their hearts are broken.

Parker Palmer invites us to recognize that rage — which so often seems to characterize our public politics and conversation these days — is really one of the masks that the broken heart wears.   If he is right — and I believe he is – then the anger that convulses today’s America and that seems to further polarize us into our various camps is really coming from a profound broken-heartedness.  As Palmer points out, the source of that broken-heartedness is not the same for everyone.  That which breaks my heart, for example, rejoices the heart of someone else, and vice-versa.  But the source of the broken-heartedness is, perhaps, secondary to the broken-heartedness itself.  Palmer, it seems to me, is inviting us to get in touch with the ways our own hearts are broken, and from there, to engage the broken-heartedness of others.

As a priest, I like to think that I know a bit about broken hearts.  One of the privileges of being a priest is that, over the years, I have had many people share their broken-heartedness with me in the privacy of my study.  And often, I have found myself face to face with people who seemed to have no heart-break at all but who, in the privacy and safety of our conversation, revealed a depth of broken-heartedness that I would never have suspected was there.  Rage is not the only mask that the broken heart wears.  Very often, the various broken hearts I have witnessed and sought to minister to belonged to people whose hearts were broken because their life was unfolding in ways they had never imagined, and the result was their image of what their lives would be like was not coming true.   In some cases, their hearts had broken because they could not be honest with others about who they truly were, because who they truly were was not “acceptable” according to prevailing social norms — and, indeed, often to the prevailing norms of the church of which I was a representative.  In my experience, there is almost always a secret dimension to broken-heartedness.   The pain of a broken heart is kept hidden behind some other form of behavior, because people either don’t know how to express it to openly, or they are afraid to do so.

Parker Palmer suggests that we find ourselves today living out a politics of broken-heartedness — and yet, we cannot quite bring ourselves to acknowledge that.  We work hard to keep the brokenness a secret, and so we fail to meet each other at the level of the heart, failing to recognize that the anger we see in others comes from a much deeper place.

Palmer makes a distinction between hearts that are broken open, and hearts that are shattered.  Shattered hearts can be put back together in some sense, but they always remain fragile — and, Palmer points out, generally have sharp edges.  People with shattered hearts, it seems to me, will have trouble participating in democracy in a healthy way.   But most broken-heartedness is not about being shattered — rather, it is a simpler, cleaner kind of breaking, a kind of mourning about what happens as life moves on and we feel left behind by that movement in some important sense.  Palmer speaks about this experience in his own life as he ages.  And so hearts that are broken in this way have the potential to be broken open in a way that is able to welcome and learn from “the other.”

People like me, and like Palmer, who have been accustomed to living in a privileged position in society simply because of the circumstances into which we have “accidentally” been born, have not had to be much concerned with opening our hearts to “the other.”  But people who historically have not had this privilege bestowed upon them — people who have never had it, or have had to work hard to obtain it and experience it as always provisional, always fragile, always at risk — they have had to learn over generations of heart-break to be open to “the other”.  It was the only way they were truly able to function in a society run by “other” people.    Palmer speaks powerfully about the way in which he learned this truth through his encounter with a black congregation in Americas, Georgia, in 1974.   These days, we all find ourselves needing to cultivate this habit of the heart — the habit of being open to “the other”, the habit of being hospitable to other people and other points of view.

It seems perfect in the season of Lent to contemplate my own broken-heartedness, and to use that to remind myself of the broken-heartedness of those around me.  But Palmer calls me to stretch myself to contemplate also the broken-heartedness of those outside my immediate “tribe”, to allow my own brokenness to open me up not only to those who are like me but especially to those who are not like me.   And, having opened myself in this way, to then be able to live in the tension of that in a way that is creative, rather than destructive.

Palmer’s five “interlocking habits of the heart” are all rooted in coming to terms with our own broken hearts along with the broken hearts of others.

  • To understand that we are all in this together
  • To develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”
  • To cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  • To generate a sense of personal voice and agency
  • To strengthen our capacity to create community

If we are truly to cultivate these habits, we have to begin by coming to terms with the light and shadows within ourselves, open ourselves to the light and shadows within others, and then do the hard work of integrating these two aspects of ourselves and all human beings. Palmer refers repeatedly to the way in which Abraham Lincoln worked to integrate the light and shadow in his personal life, to deal with his own broken-heartedness.  Palmer believes that this helped Lincoln to do the same for the country.  It is an insight into how our own personal work can lead us to work with others in creative, life-giving ways — even when those others see things very differently from ourselves.

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Hearts for Justice: Coming Together to Confront Violence Against Women

This past weekend Trinity hosted its very first Hearts for Justice symposium on the topic of coming together to confront violence against women. Specifically, we looked at the reality of human trafficking and its place not only in our world but in our country, our state, our backyard.


Photo courtesy of Kristin Little

We came together with three powerful speakers to explore this topic. Dave Batstone, the founder of Not For Sale, Carissa Phelps, the founder of Runaway Girl, and Rev. Becca Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms. With two hours together, we explored the roots of trafficking, the speakers’ personal experiences, and the hope we can find looking forward.
There are currently 27 million slaves worldwide. The Bay Area is one of the top five locations for human trafficking in the United States. These individuals are forced to work for no pay, and they include both men and women, who have been bought and sold for sex. This is happening in California; it is happening in Silicon Valley; it is happening on El Camino Real; it is happening to people living in poverty and people living in wealth. It’s a kidnapping on a sunny afternoon in Oakland. It’s the stranger chatting to teenagers in Starbucks in Menlo Park. It’s the runaway who has no other option in order to survive. It’s the child who is vulnerable, and it’s the child who is abused and therefore expects abuse. It’s a cycle of violence that is incredibly difficult to escape. It’s not out there – it’s here.

Carissa Phelps photo courtesy of Kristin Little

Across the board we heard powerful messages of the cycle of abuse that is taking place. Young girls who are abused are increasingly likely to turn to trafficking. Addiction and violence go hand in hand. For some it’s being a runaway, being abused at home or in foster care, and for some it’s kidnapping. All result in situations of fear and danger that keep individuals from leaving or escaping their pimps. When a person is trafficked, regardless of the rationale, it is a violent act. As Carissa said, “The buying of another person is a violent act.” Those who purchase others for sex are committing a violent act.
Trafficking is a 32 billion dollar enterprise. When asked what’s missing to fight trafficking our speakers said “the economic legs.” Money needs to be put into prevention. Survivors need to find economic sustainability. We all need to be aware of where our dollars go. We need to find a different model. As our speakers said: “Let’s recreate, let’s reinvent, an economic model that lets us do justice.”

Rev. Becca Stevens photo courtesy of Kristin Little

Ultimately the question becomes what we can do. As Becca said, we cannot talk about rescuing without talking about housing. There needs to be somewhere togo – there needs to be somewhere to heal. That’s why places like Magdalene and Catherine’s Center are so important.  They create places of healing. They begin the process towards medical care, emotional care, and financial independence. They treat the addiction. They give space to peel back the layers of pain, abuse, neglect, and horror that are with these people every day. They provide places of hope.

David Batstone photo courtesy of Kristin Little

We are called to do more. Not just to feel good about raising awareness but to take our knowledge and turn it into action. At Trinity we are beginning a process of discernment about what that looks like. Dave Batstone said that every venture capitalist should be part of changing the world for good. Where we spend our money and how we spend our time should be about more than consumerism and meeting our needs–it should be about meeting the needs of the world. Every business in Silicon Valley should be participating in the solution. Every business should have a social impact, and we should demand that of the places we invest and support.

When we come together as a community we are powerful. We have to create safe  spaces where people are loved as they are. The reality is that trafficking is happening all around us and we are all called to take our part to end it. Each one of us in unique. Each of us have gifts to offer to prevent trafficking, abolish trafficking, or work with survivors. As Becca said, “We each need to find our place in the circle.”

We were called at the end of our time to “stay open, don’t close yourself off – we are all part of the solution.” Join us in discerning our next steps, in staying open, and in being part of the solution together. One of the gifts of our weekend was the opportunity to highlight ways to help. One of the easiest steps is to shop through Thistle Farms and Shared Trade, each of which supports survivors. To get more involved in finding solutions for trafficking, you can contact Rev. Elizabeth Riley to connect with Trinity’s effort. Also check out Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition to engage with Bay Area efforts both in prevention and working with survivors.

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