While the polarizations in our politics, churches, and families are overwhelming, we can find hope in the exemplary witness of St. Francis.
What does Daryl Davis, a gifted African American musician, have in common with hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members? Daryl started to answer that question when he was approached by a fellow in the audience (we’ll call him “Joe”), who was impressed by Daryl’s performance one evening at a jazz club. Joe complemented Daryl on his playing, and as they conversed, Joe happened to reveal that he was a member of the KKK.
Instead of responding out of fear or judgment, Daryl responded by intentionally choosing to see and assume the goodness in Joe, affirmed Joe’s willingness to offer the compliment, and proceeded to intentionally connect in an ongoing way with Joe as a friend. After some months, Joe agreed to Daryl’s request to introduce him to other Klan members and leaders, and Daryl went on to build personal relationships with hundreds of Klan members. As a result of their ongoing friendship with Daryl, some of which spanned many years, dozens of them renounced their KKK membership.
“Love your enemies.” When Christian crusaders were battling with Muslim forces in the Holy Land, St. Francis made a similar choice to the one that Daryl made when he was face-to-face with Joe on that night in the jazz club. Francis sought out his “enemy,” built a personal relationship with the commander of the Muslim forces, Sultan Malik al-Kamil, and intentionally chose to see, affirm, and connect with goodness in him. The positive effects of that encounter are still felt to this day.
While the polarizations in our politics, churches, and families are overwhelming, we can find hope in the exemplary witness of Daryl and St. Francis. While they seem to have been born with natural abilities to communicate in polarized contexts, the vast majority of us need to actively work at it. Most of us need only pan to the tumult of the last family gathering or tussle over a political conversation with a friend to appreciate our ongoing need for better formation in dialoguing across polarities. A number of Franciscan, Jesuit, and Mercy institutions guide retreatants in the Healing Divisions™ process to equip them with the many techniques and stances that promote constructive dialogue on highly charged issues.
Marjorie, a participant of a recent Healing Divisions™ retreat, shared a visceral experience with actively choosing to see, affirm, and connect with the goodness of the other. Marjorie recently returned from overseas, and has reintegrated with her local Kiwanis club. She recalled how much the community enjoyed the concerts that Kiwanis used to plan when Marjorie was an active member years ago, and the entire committee discerned that it would be a valuable event to bring back for the community.
The leadership assigned Marjorie the task of planning it, which Marjorie was happy to take on. She started jotting down her ideas with regard to venue, potential bands to feature, and fundraising at the events. Marjorie also had her hands full with caring for her elderly mother who was recently hospitalized. In her small town, Marjorie happened to be standing in line at the local grocery store and actively tending to her 3-year-old daughter, when she noticed that one of the leaders of the Kiwanis club was in line behind her. The Kiwanis leader acknowledged his awareness of Marjorie’s mother’s needs, that Marjorie has a lot on her plate, and then shared that he and another one of the leaders took the first step in reaching out to the city to reserve a specific park space for the event.
Marjorie was stunned and angry, but didn’t respond in the moment. She was so upset by the incident that she struggled to sleep that night. When her scheduled reminder to “review the Healing Divisions™ skills” went off the next morning, her attention lingered on the encouragement to assume, affirm, and connect with the goodness of the other. She realized that in the heat of the encounter, she had forgotten to try applying this practice to the situation from the day before that had caused her so much stress. As she contemplated that the Kiwanis leader is likely coming from a good place and is acting out of a desire to serve her and the community, the tension she was holding in her mind and in her neck, almost totally dissipated, and she reached out to plan a meeting with all the stakeholders so they could move forward on the same page.
Nearly everyone can benefit from this formal training to help us become equipped with responses that echo those of Daryl, St. Francis, and Marjorie. If you or your community are interested in gaining concrete tools for healing communal divisions and engaging this way of being as an Advent formation process, more information is available at Healing Divisions.