I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hot Springs Village on a recent Sunday morning. The audience was kind and went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I told them they looked a lot less scary than I once had been told by a Bible study leader. She claimed they were part of a New Age plot to bring about a one-world order over which the Antichrist would preside, so I should steer clear of them.
I never really believed that, just like I never believed my gay friends were going to hell. But I was intimidated by the audience for another reason: They were all older than me, and I respect my elders. They know a lot more than I do.
This particular church had a nice, open feel to it. There were rainbow flags in support of Pride month. I read that its "doctrine is love, the quest for truth its sacrament, and service its prayer." They affirmed several principles, as one might recite liturgy in another church; things like, "We promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" and "the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all."
These principles would be considered liberal gibberish by many people where I come from. Those adhering would instantly be tagged as Demon-rats, meaning baby-killers, gun-takers, gas-price-raisers; in general, radical left commie extremists. Not armed, but dangerous.
It would have been easy--and so I was tempted--to talk about caring for the poor and marginalized in this "woke"congregation. That's their jam. In many ways it is as Christian as any other church I've ever stepped foot in, if Christians are imitators of Christ. Their website is full of opportunities to join others doing just that.
Here a class collects donations for a food bank, there another refurbishes computers to give to those without resources in their community. Another group participates in the Village clean-up, stewarding the earth; still another organizes phone calls to local representatives, requesting action on gun issues in response to the murder of innocents in Uvalde.
I once wrote an essay called "There is No Them," in which I told the story of how our little community came together to search for a young girl who was lost in the woods. It is a theme that has stayed with me. I try as much as possible to reject the idea of "us versus them," and remind myself constantly that there is only us. All of us. Everyone is us.
Disciplining my mind away from binary thinking is like trying to keep a wild horse on a straight and narrow path. It must be human nature to automatically sort people into those who are with us or against us.
I call it "othering." If someone can make you see someone else as the "other"--who think or do things differently from you--they can get you to fear them, judge them, see them as less. Taken to its extreme, this can turn into things like bullying, insurrection, slavery, or a war, or holocaust.
My message to the UUs is not easy for any of us, but simple. "You guys are so good at loving people, especially the ones who believe like you and those in need who want your help. But who in here ever has coffee with a Trump supporter? Who cares about the perspective of someone staunchly pro-life? How do you feel about those who go on mission trips to evangelize other countries, or lead their youth groups to take a purity pledge?" There were a few groans and many looks of consternation. Probably several regrets that I was there.
I used my teacher's voice, although I need to learn this lesson as much as anyone else. "We all love people who love us. That's great, but it's not really a big test of our character, because anyone can do it. The true measure is more challenging, according to Jesus: How well do we love our so-called enemies?
"Your assignment, then, and mine, is this. Find the person or group of people who are hardest for you to love, and run toward them. Look for some point of connection, some centimeter of common ground. Start with genuine curiosity. Disarm by not arguing. Listen to understand and build a bridge wherever you can."
It seemed most were receptive to trying, but in a question-answer period after there were a couple people who challenged me about playing too nice. "Some people are toxic." "You can't negotiate with terrorists."
One lady asked me how I would go about this with the former president, and I had to admit I have no idea. There are situations in which it's not possible. But I also can't believe impossible is the norm in Arkansas. We can't let it be. No matter how divided we seem at the moment, we have to turn it around. We can't give up on each other.
I wrote earlier about the melancholy I felt watching Roe v. Wade overturned. And it is not because I want maximum access to abortion. I want human life valued--all human life--and ending a human life before it begins outside the womb is not something I can take lightly, nor do I think anyone should.
Something valuable is lost when we refuse to recognize the gravity of what abortion is. But that does not mean only the gravity of the potential life snuffed out. It means that those who believe abortion is wrong also consider the seriousness, the heartbreak, the utter desperation and desolation of many women who decide to end that life. It means humility and respect for the other's lived experience, whether or not we understand.
After the Supreme Court ruling, my social media was flooded with people who expressed disappointment as well as those who rejoiced at the news. The strangest thing I saw was those rejoicers who seem to have no concept of the suffering the ruling causes good people who are their friends and neighbors, who could be themselves or their daughters one day. Those mothers with health conditions whose lives will no longer be saved because that choice is gone. Those rape victims who get pregnant because of violent evil. Children having children in a cycle of poverty, with little hope of a better life.
One lovely young adult who I've known since she was born posted this: "Imagine being the kind of person who finds it sad that babies' lives will be saved." I read that with a sigh. I know her heart. I know in her spiritual imagination there is no gray. She's never met a person who had to face the decision, whose story doesn't fit the pro-life narrative she has heard in church all of her life. And so the issue seems simple.
But what if she read--here or on Arkansas Strong--the story by Greg and Sydney Adams about their nightmare of a pregnancy and the harrowing choice to end it? Better yet, what if she looked them in the eyes and listened? I have no doubt she would be touched; changed.
This young conservative Christian woman is not the enemy that her tone-deaf post makes her seem to some. Just as those who believe abortion should remain legal are not her adversaries. In conversation together, these clashing worldviews might come up with ideas to reduce the need for or number of abortions by improving conditions for all of us, things proven to work like sex education and better access to contraception. Maybe together we could find a win-win.
This is the world I long for. Where we start from a place of curiosity and kindness. Where a liberal can learn from a conservative and vice-versa. Where we may not get everything we want all of the time, but where the world gets more of what it needs because smart, good people work together to make it happen.
There is no them also means it's not someone else's fault when bad leaders and laws are chosen. It's not those other people's job to fix what's broken. We all own it. No one else is coming to save us. The bad news is also the good news: There is only us.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at [email protected]