Thursday, December 13, 2018

Hospitality of our hearts and minds

This month, Richmonders from many parts of the city celebrated twenty-five years of work for honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility by the Hope in the Cities network. “It was launched in perhaps one of the worst racialized locales: Richmond, Virginia – given its Confederate history – a city that became the capital of racial contempt and enslavement with a racial war to prove it,” said Rev. Dr. Paige Chargois. “But where else in America could such work have become more significant or productive!”

Senator Tim Kaine sent a message in which he recalled his words eight years ago at the launching of my book, Trustbuilding: “Racial discrimination remains with us, and we will continue to need the help of Hope in the Cities to conquer our lesser instincts.” He wrote, “While I am saddened that this observation holds true today, I am heartened by Hope in the Cities’ work to confront our lesser instincts…This commitment has spread across the world where activists work to create more peaceful, just and equal communities.”

Recalling the first public walk through Richmond's racial history, Kaine said,"In an age of heightened bigotry, my advice to you is to keep on marching as you did twenty-five years ago."

What lies behind the depth, dynamism and durability of this movement in Richmond? The answer can be found in the lives of many of the individuals present at the celebration. In different ways, each of them made choices to step beyond their fears, pride, privilege or hurt and to reach out to those who are different. Audrey Burton, an African American community activist, told how she and her husband, Collie, built a friendship with a man they had suspected of racial bias, the senior assistant city manager, and opened their home to people of all backgrounds.  

Audrey also enlisted her friend Paige Chargois. “Hope in the Cities resonated with me for several reasons,” said Paige. “Most importantly, it had moved beyond simplistic approaches to more serious efforts of racial reconciliation. The challenge of reconciliation is brokenness. To reconcile, a relationship must be broken from its old way(s) of relating superficially – or with historical bias – then put back together in a different, healthier, and lasting way. Without disruption, the work of racial reconciliation can become superficial or placating at best, non-existent at the worst. 

“Within the work of racial reconciliation and seeking to end racism, we realized that we could expect to be wounded, offended, and diminished at times as we fought to make the work successful!”  As one of her former colleagues I can attest to some of the struggles!

The Hope in the Cities team determined that relationships were more important than projects, and over the years they have accompanied each other and many others in the wider community who needed support, often acting as silent partners without any demand for public recognition.

This accompanying role was highlighted in a letter from the chairman of Initiatives of Change USA, Alex Wise, who was chairman of the Museum of the Confederacy when he first encountered Hope in the Cities. He came to realize that “people like me were used to telling the story of the Civil War with blinkers on, and that this was contributing to the South’s racism and resistance to change.” He began to imagine a new museum where the whole story could be told from all perspectives. “Gaining the support of Hope the Cities was a key to our success.” Thanks to the trust Hope in the Cities had built, “we were able to gain a hearing and win the support of enough black opinion leaders to get the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar off the ground, and to help to change America’s narrative of the conflict that still shapes our nation.”

As Tim Kaine noted eight years ago, “Hope in the Cities focuses on the 'still small voice', not loud and flashy approaches, or neon signs…Listening is a lost art in this world. Hope in the Cities is creating a space where people can talk. It is incredibly important work…That listening thing is needed more than ever, and not just in racial issues."

Creating space for change requires us to create places of hospitality in our hearts and minds. For many of the Hope in the Cities founders like Audrey Burton and Paige Chargois it meant welcoming diverse groups to their homes. Hospitality means laying aside our preconceptions, bias and prejudices and learning to listen. Listen to the story of the other person, the other group; and listen to the voice of the Creator. None of the breakthroughs that have come through the efforts of Hope in the Cities could have occurred without the willingness of individuals to listen deeply to that inner voice.  

According to the historian Philip Boobbyer, Frank Buchman, the initiator of the Initiatives of Change movement which birthed Hope in the Cities, once said, “If you break the power of your instinctive actions and reactions by obeying the Spirit, you are on track.”  Susan and I have benefited recently from reading Listening to the God Who Speaks by Klaus Bochmuehl. It contains a wealth of insights about the guidance of the Spirit, which, according to St Bernard of Clairvaux, “admonishes the memory, teaches reason and moves the will.”  Bochmuehl highlights the "liberation" of listening: liberation from the "dominant cliches," the "clamoring voices of our culture," and a "return of creativity and spontaneity." Those who listen to their inner voice become "spiritual resource people, constant sources of inspiration rather than irritation." 

At this season of new birth, what could be timelier than to make our hearts and minds places of hospitality for the Spirit? I am reminded of the final verse of a carol that I wrote for our eldest son’s first Christmas:  

Tonight, across the world, ‘midst hunger, hate and war,
In each heart He’s knocking softly at the door.
Through pain and darkness there shines a light
For all mankind to share.

Top photo: Rob Corcoran and Mayor Walter Kenney in the late 90s by Karen Greisdorf. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The key to a new beginning

Recently I was in a retreat with colleagues in a committee leading a History & Reconciliation Initiative at St Paul’s Episcopal Church. This initiative has done ground-breaking work in uncovering and documenting the church’s central role in Richmond’s slave economy and in promoting the "Lost Cause" mythology.

We came together to assess progress and to look at the challenges facing us as we build on what we have learned. What might this mean for St Paul's and for Richmond's need for racial reconciliation and equity? We also recognized the need to strengthen our own teamwork and to do our own healing work (we are a group of capable and strong-minded personalities), and to support the necessary teambuilding and reconciliation within the congregation so that we might be an authentic model for the wider Richmond community.

We found ourselves meeting under a portrait of the late Dr Syngman Rhee, the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). in 1950, he escaped from North Korea through winter snow, joined the marines in South Korea and later  came to study at Chicago and Yale. He served as a campus minister at the University of Kentucky, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr, and devoted himself to reconciliation between North and South Korea.

Syngman was a friend and mentor. I recall him saying, “One stick does not make a strong fire. If we are going to carry on a vision for justice and peace we must learn to be a team. However brave and talented I may be, without a container or framework, compassion and commitment can become wrongly directed.”

I also remember him telling us that the most powerful lesson he learned from King was the idea that "the oppressed have the key to a new beginning.” 

He said, “This touched me deeply because I considered myself oppressed. I had turned my back on Korea." (His father had died at the hands of the communists and he never saw his mother again.) "But the oppressed have the choice of revenge or of forgiving and working for a new society for everyone.”

Teambuilding is intimately connected to forgiveness. Jean Vanier writes in Community & Growth:“A relationship is only authentic and stable when it is founded on the acceptance of weakness, on forgiveness and on the hope of growth... If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed.”

I have spent most of my working life in efforts for racial healing and justice, often in highly polarized situations. But my most challenging and painful experiences have not been in addressing conflicts around issues of race or politics but with my own team, close colleagues and friends. In some of these circumstances I felt let down, obstructed or unfairly judged. Others may have felt similarly about me. At times the stress impacted my health. Ultimately, I was always faced with the need to accept my part of the responsibility for the breakdown in trust.  

But we have long memories. Despite my decision to let go of a resentment or disappointment, there is sometimes a temptation to revisit the experience, to unpack the wound, to look at it again and to indulge in self-pity or self-justification.

Richard Rohr writes in Breathing Under Water that “to surrender ourselves to healing we have to have three spaces opened up within us – our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body." What opinion am I unwilling to reconsider? To whom have I closed my heart? What am I defending?  

Our families, communities and nations are divided and torn apart by individuals and groups who feel oppressed, wronged or wounded. There are no winners in these cycles of blame. But as Syngman Rhee reminds us, we can all choose to be part of a new beginning.   


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Liverpool and Richmond: partners in healing


Hope in the Cities can trace its roots back to a relationship with Liverpool that began in 1983. Alfred Stocks, the city’s chief executive (city manager) and other Liverpudlians committed to the principles of Initiatives of Change invited us to bring an interracial group from Richmond to meet with local officials. As described in my book, Trustbuilding, Liverpool had experienced the Toxteth riots just two years earlier and was also still recovering from vicious political warfare after Trotskyites had taken control of the city council and had bankrupt the city as a protest to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies. In this polarized atmosphere Alfred Stocks was one of the few people trusted by all sides. 

The Richmond group had never worked together before and there was a history of deep distrust among several members. But a remarkable transformation took place during that shared experience in Liverpool. As one person said, “We came back a team.”

Over the years the relationship with Liverpool grew. In 1993 Gerald and Judith Henderson came to Richmond for three months to help with preparations for the landmark "Healing the Heart of America" conference, which included Richmond first “walk through history” and the inauguration of what is now the historic Slave Trail.

This month we spent two days with the Hendersons. Liverpool has changed greatly since the 1980s. It is far more international. In 2008 it was declared Europe’s “Capital of Culture.” A remarkable slavery museum tells the story of Liverpool’s leading role in the transatlantic trade. It was during a visit there that my colleague Tee Turner met John Franklin, a cultural historian and senior manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. John has become a close collaborator with Hope in the Cities.

An hour’s drive from the city we visited the home and workshop of the sculptor Stephen Broadbent who specializes in public art. He remodeled Bridge Street in Warrington with a "River of Life" following a bomb blast that killed two young boys. His "Reconciliation Statue" stands in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, site of the former slave market. Stephen and an official delegation from Liverpool were present in Richmond in 2007 for the unveiling.

We also visited Hope University, Europe’s only ecumenical university, which has grown dramatically under the dynamic leadership of Gerald Pillay, the vice-chancellor and rector. I first met Pillay in South Africa in 1995 when he was teaching at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. His forebears were brought from India to the British Colony of Natal. He told the Guardian newspaper: “One of the powerful ways that people like us could articulate the liberation story was through theology, because in South Africa theology was a living discipline, not an ivory-tower discipline...Theology and my interest in Gandhi drew me into the promotion of equity and change.”  He has carried this same philosophy to his work in Liverpool. Impressively, 98 percent of graduate students were employed or further education six month after graduating.

Pillay invited Initiatives of Change to help develop a "School for Changemakers" on the campus. During a previous visit in 2011, I led a lively discussion and a trustbuilding workshop with students. 

Sadly, Gerald was in South Africa when we visited this time as his mother was very ill, but his wife, Nirri, a law professor, showed us the immaculate campus. She joined us for lunch with Omnia Marzouk, a distinguished doctor recently retired from a senior management role at the UK's busiest children’s emergency department. Omnia's family is from Egypt and her father was ambassador to Australia where she spent her teenage years and studied medicine. She has served as President of IofC International and we have worked together on many projects over the years. 

The Liverpool-Richmond relationship is an example of friendships and partnerships that have endured over many decades and the unique global network of trust that is Initiatives of Change.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Notes from the road in Britain


We are mid-way through a month of travel in the UK, visiting family and friends. It’s our first extended visit since 2005.

We are delighting in the beauty of the British countryside and the multitude of historic sites which seem to appear at every corner of the towns and cities. So far, we have visited three UNESCO World Heritage Sites! 

The color and texture of the cloud formations and the soft late afternoon light are unlike anything we see back home in Richmond, Virginia. We enjoyed hiking in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District with drystone walls and stunning views over the passes.

British B&Bs have improved immeasurably over the years with very comfortable beds and immaculate ensuite bathrooms. (Today we are comfortably ensconced in a wonderful Airbnb overlooking Loch Tay in Scotland with cows and sheep grazing outside our window.) But be warned, most Airbnbs do not offer breakfast! And curiously, we often found it difficult to find regular restaurants in country towns which are dominated by pubs and by tearooms that only open at 10am and close at 5pm.

We hired a car on arrival and have covered several hundred miles in England and Scotland. The road surfaces here are far superior to those in the US; even on tiny country lanes (including some incredibly steep and winding ones) I scarcely encountered a pothole. Also, it is nice to drive in a country where people do not pass on the inside lane and trucks do not ride on the fast lane.

We must add a word about Britain's intrepid cyclists. This seems to be a rapidly growing sport and we were awed watching scores of bikers climbing almost verticle passes often hemmed in by tour coaches and campers and without the protection of dedicated lanes. 

I am reminded of Britain’s love of dogs. The owner of a pub in the Yorkshire Dales had an enormous St Bernard which sprawled across the area in front of the bar so that customers had to step over it to get to the tables!

As soon as we crossed the border into Scotland we were impressed by the vast reforestation projects visible on previously bare hills. This is obviously a growing industry in Scotland and must be helpful to the climate. Equally noteworthy are the number of windfarms.

Britain is experiencing some of the same challenges and need for trustbuilding as the US. There is considerable anxiety at the ineffectiveness of the central government and uncertainty over Brexit. Despite fierce opposition to immigration from the far right, it is nice to see the increasing diversity of the country in many sectors and to hear black British speak with broad regional accents. Just yesterday the country celebrated as Dina Asher-Smith smashed the 200m record to win gold in the European Championships having won the 100m a few days earlier.

We were hosted in Leeds by Peter Vickers, godfather to our eldest son, Neil. Peter heads Vickers & Sons which specializes in the development and manufacture of lubricants for the textile and marine industries. For generations the family has run the business on principles of integity, teamwork and responsibility. Peter's father was a good friend of my dad who came from a trade union background. They worked together to overcome class warfare in British industry.

We were inspired by our visit with Elizabeth Carson, at 90 still spry and keen of mind. Although she lost her house to a freak fire last month, she is amazingly cheerful in her temporary flat and she took us to dinner with neighborhood friends in the historic town of Haddington, near Edinburgh. Would that we all could be so resilient in the face of adversity! Her steadfast faith on God’s practical guidance for daily life and her care for others is an example for us all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A trip down memory lane



A highlight of this week was a visit to Hill Farm, about an hour and a half drive from my sister’s home in Wenhaston, Suffolk.  My mother worked as a land girl there during World War II. In the mid-fifties our family spent several years in a cottage on the estate which was owned Peter Howard, the journalist and leader of MRA (now IofC). I had not set foot on the farm for sixty years and looking across the rolling fields many memories came flooding back.

The farm was a perfect playground for my brother and sister and me. We rode the massive Suffolk Punch draught horses and the milk wagon down to the gate, burrowed tunnels into the haystacks, helped with the harvesting and sledded on the slopes. We attended the school in the neighboring town of Hadleigh.

The Howard children, Philip, Anne and Anthony were in their late teens and early twenties. They were like older cousins to us and they involved us in many games and pranks. They taught us how to play cricket. Our cottage, "Corrie," lies at the foot of a hill below the main house. I recall Philip climbing in our bedroom window and reading The Hobbit.

The main house itself is a 16th Century listed Tudor building with an unspoiled view across the hills. Today it serves as a holistic “inner guidance” retreat center run by Jo and Dominic De Rosa. They specialize in an approach to addiction which they call “quantum sobriety,” based on meditation and Jo’s own experience of going from addiction to freedom. As well as five-day retreats they offer monthly meetings, online courses and day workshops. They offer healthy food, much of it grown in the grounds which Dominic manages.

Back in Wenhaston, there is ample evidence that my sister has inherited my mother’s green thumb. Every inch of her garden is bursting with produce and flowers, and my brother-in-law tends their flourishing allotment a short walk away in the village. However, the extended period of unusual heat and lack of rain has turned everyone's lawns brown. 

On Friday we head north to begin an extensive driving tour. First stop is Leeds, Yorkshire, to visit our friend Peter Vickers who is godfather to our eldest son, Neil.