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. 


Friday, July 27, 2018

Behind every opinion there is a human being

We've just concluded the forum on Addressing Europe's Unfinished Business (AEUB). Yesterday we heard Jo Berry, whose father was killed by an IRA bomb, tell how she met the man responsible for the bombing and how they have worked together to build peace. Two days after the bombing, she said, "I made a vow that I was not going to have an enemy. I wanted to understand the man who killed my father." Sixteen years later after Pat Magee was released from prison, Jo arranged to met him. He began by justifying the bombing as an act of war, but as the conversation went on it became more honest and emotional and Pat finally said, "I am sorry I killed your father." At that point, said Jo, "I felt my father became a human being, not a legitimate target." 

Two Romanian organizers of the forum, Diana Damsa, founder of the Centre for Social Transformation, and Simona Torotcoi, a Roma activist, described their very different experiences growing up and their paths to a new understanding. "I was brought up to believe that Roma were dangerous and unreliable and that I should keep my distance. I felt superior." At a forum in India she was faced with the question, "Who are the people you are afraid of and why?" She was challenged to acknowledge the history of hundreds of years of slavery and discrimination suffered by the Roma people. 

Simona grew up in a two-room house which was better than most of her relatives who lived in shacks near the rubish dump. At school she felt ashamed of being Roma and tried to blend in with the majority children, but as she grew older she became a strong advocate for equality and justice. She and Diana now work closely together as partners.

It is fascinating to learn how Richmond, Virginia, has played a small part in inspiring and encouraging the work of someone like Diana who spent several months in Richmond some years ago studying the Hope in the Ciites approach to dialogue and reconciliation. Yesterday I met with Olena Kashkarova from Ukraine who also interned in Richmond. She has developed dialogues with people of diiferent views about Ukraine's history, and also with people of different political persuasions in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution; and she co-founded a network of of facilitators. She told me that her Richmond experience gave her the courage to do what she is now doing. 

Earlier in the week we heard another remarkable story from Peter Sundin from Sweden who grew up in a racist family with Nazi traditions. "White power music was the only music played in our house." His mother worked as a cleaner and blamed foreigners "for taking our jobs." The family believed that the holocuast was a fraud. As a young man he was jailed for taking part in a brutal assault on an immigrant. His transformation over five years was supported by a friendship  with a police officer who today is his colleague. He has cut ties with family and friends and says, "I learned that behind every opinion is a human being." 

In the training track that Ebony Walden and I led there were several Roma participants as well as Ukranians, Swiss, French, Germans, a Sudanese immigrant and Muslims from various European countries. Over three days we worked intensively on questions of history, identity, and narrative; we explored experiences of being part of dominant and non-dominant groups in our countries; and the participants developed dialogue questions around their key concerns and began to consider how to build teamwork with others. 

Last night we were treated to a magnificent concert by two brilliant Romanian musicians. As the sun set over the mountains, five conference participants joined them in singing "The Whole Wide World's On Tiptoe, Waiting for Something New."