between-our-steps-05-31-17-doubleLast weekend, I was at an event where we were looking at potentially controversial issues, and we started with a time of reflection based on objects on the table. These objects were designed to engage the senses of touch or smell. One table had a small container of coffee beans, another herbs, so people could experience the fragrance.

On our table was a container of playdough. While this does have a scent to experience, most of us focussed on the feel of the malleable substance in our hands. We experimented with what we could form. For me, this was a reminder that the world is malleable. People are malleable. Change is possible.

One of the most powerful moments in the day came when a seventy-year-old man told the story of his journey from distrust to acceptance and active affirmation of the LGBTQ community. He acknowledged a time when he supported barriers to full participation, and said aloud what many knew: today he actively affirms openness.

The stance he took in the beginning was common for a man who grew up in the fifties. What was important was the story of transformation. The opinions he was taught or picked up were not carved in stone. His view of the world and humanity were malleable.

When I was part of the United Church's racial justice committee, we were looking at publications of the church. There were a couple times when we had the chance to review materials before publication and asked for words or pictures to be edited to be more inclusive.

Once, we came across the story of a multi-racial family where a comment seemed to support a position blind to colour and race. When someone voiced the wish that the comment had been edited out, the diversity trainer in the group said something like: "No; this could be treated as a teachable moment."

The comment had brought her to tears, as her family was multi-racial, but still she did not want it buried. She explained that there could have been a bracketed comment from the editor which would ask questions about colour blindness, raise the possibility that seeing and appreciating racial diversity is a more inclusive position.

At this point, I was reminded that I don't want to edit the world; I hope for transformation.

The difference is that editing the world just buries the ideas and opinions, the beliefs and attitudes that undergird injustice, that support discrimination, that reinforce stereotypes and barriers. If these are never spoken or surfaced, they can never be addressed. They will still exist under the surface, and they will still actively work against movements of affirmation and openness, even if they are never said aloud.

The writer and diversity educator Glenn E. Singleton teaches a process he calls "courageous conversations on race." It takes courage to enter a space where each person's view is laid out for everyone to look at and examine. Once spoken, once in the open, attitudes can be engaged, addressed, challenged.

Sometimes, when we hear words of stereotype and prejudice, we can mirror them back to the person, who then realizes that is not what they want to believe. Sometimes, we enter a conversation about how their opinion came about, and we hear a story that helps us understand where they are coming from. We can then share why we have a different opinion.

An open conversation can be hard to enter because if it is truly open, either person could be changed. Both might be shifted in the experience.

When someone puts a prejudicial comment or joke or word on the table, it can be hard to decide what to do. In the middle of a difficult pastoral conversation, I have ignored the comment so I can address the immediate pain. The experience does stay with me though, to be addressed in some future discussion.

At other times, a quick action is possible. The Toronto Blue Jays immediately challenged Kevin Pillar and suspended him, making it possible for him to see himself in a new way and publicly apologize.

When all we do is make it impossible for people to express their views, we never let them change. When it is safe for people to examine long held ideas, we find those people are malleable.
Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.


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