When a relationship bond is broken, how hard is it to repair? We recently learned about the unexpected consequences of community discord with a new study publicized in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The report showed that 911 calls for police assistance decreased by 20% city-wide after incidents of police brutality were exposed on the news. These police attacks were committed against black males and for months after, people refused to call the police for crime related concerns. And the majority of calls - a whopping 56% - were lost from predominantly minority communities in Milwaukee. What makes this so unnerving is that while calls for 911 assistance went down, the rate of homicides in the city reached a seven-year high.
We should ask ourselves, how pervasive is the breakdown in trust beyond that of the police and community relations. Police shootings and highly publicized incidents of police brutality may be the most visible – but where else is the community trust broken; where else is society in pain? Certainly, many feel alienated from the government, as evidenced in the current political campaign. Financial institutions are deemed suspect after the mortgage market collapse. Those who lost their jobs are worried about immigrants taking what work is left. Some in the religious right don’t trust those from the LGBT community. Communities refuse to build affordable housing for fear of who that may attract. And the list goes on.
I wonder how many other types of 911 calls are we missing? How many groups and individuals are suffering but are afraid to reach out because they feel alone or alienated or that no one cares? How many opportunities to build community are lost because the bonds of trust are frayed?
Trust is built through truth, tolerance, reliability and mercy. And so, I must ask what role I can play in fostering trust. How can I help to create an atmosphere where people feel safe in reaching out or are willing to take the first steps to build community? I can strive to embody the qualities listed above in my relationships. I can take personal responsibility for building trust with those around me and I can call out actions that degrade trust when I see them on display – at whatever level they occur.
Trust and community are fragile and seem to be broken at many points in our country. Perhaps, we are hearing a 911 call from a society in pain and we are needed to become its first responders.
Roger, a friend of mine, told me how he and his partner volunteer at an overflow homeless shelter during the winter months. This requires the volunteers to take a four-hour shift over night while the guests are sleeping. Roger related how staying up this one night a month can sometimes throw off his schedule for days while his body tries to catch up on lost sleep. And because of this, he would find himself getting anxious in the run up to his appointed night. He also would find himself, at times, wondering if it is all worth it and should he just quit. It isn’t as if the task itself is difficult. According to my friend, on most nights the only noise is the sound of snoring or the pater of feet shuffling to and from the bathroom. There may be an occasional argument, but that is the exception. For the most part, the nights are quiet. And it was on one of these quiet nights that Roger says he found the grace of the moment. Instead of feeling stressed, Roger decided to treat his shift as a vigil on this particular night. He decided to use this time as a time to pray; as a time to reflect on all of the homeless souls under his watch and to envision how each of them is a child of God; to search his own heart in order to find how he has been blessed this night, this day and throughout the week. Instead of treating this as an obligation to suffer through, Roger decided to treat it as a time of grace.
This story struck a chord with me. I find that when I am faced with a task I don’t particularly want to do, I get downright crabby about it and even a bit resentful. In my mind I start to pick apart all that is “wrong” with the situation: how it may be poorly organized; how it is an unnecessary imposition; how the person “forcing me” to do this begins to be seen as an irritant or sometimes worse, as an opponent. I guess you could say these moments don’t bring out the best in me.
But now, Roger’s story has provided me a new way to view these times when I face a task I don’t want to do or when I’m forced to deal with someone I don’t like. What would happen if I simply decided to seek the moment of grace in these situations?
The Chinese Taoists teach us about Yin and Yang; that there is a light and a dark side to everything in the universe and that everything contains within itself the seed of its opposite. So, in a stressful situation there is a seed of serenity. In an unpleasant encounter with someone is the seed of a relationship. In the unwanted task is the seed of freedom.
Maybe another way to say this is that in every encounter, there is a seed of God and we just have to look more deeply to find it. We have to find its moment of grace.
A long-time friend Eileen Flanagan is a Quaker, an author and an environmental activist. She was preparing this week for a pivotal meeting with the Philadelphia power company (PECO) to convince the utility to purchase solar power from rooftops as a way to reduce reliance on coal and to create new jobs. Eileen reached out to her Facebook friends for spiritual and emotional support prior to the meeting.
I thought and prayed a bit before I responded, and then I suggested that she should surrender. Well, not quite that directly. My actual response went something like: “This isn’t about anything you do or say. Detach from the outcome and trust your inner teacher.” What I was trying to convey is this: If you are truly doing the work of God, then you must surrender to his will and be content with the outcome regardless of the level of success your actions may bring.
Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work as hard as possible; that we shouldn’t practice our due diligence and prepare; that we shouldn’t plan and strategize. The struggle is real, but at some point we need to let go and get our egos out of the way. Our fear of failure is nothing less than our lack of faith.
Perhaps we do have faith in God but it is faith in ourselves that is lacking. We may fear that we are an inadequate vessel for the work we are called to do. Or more likely, we are unsure if the call we hear is our own ego or the gentle whisper of God.
If we truly want to follow the call of God, we need to let go; to listen deeply and to allow God to work through us. I know, this is much easier said than done and that some spend a lifetime trying to achieve that goal. Richard Rohr advises that we are never separate from God; that the separation is an illusion and we need only awaken to that of God within each of us. And, once you acknowledge the call of God from deep within your soul – then you also awaken to the reality that the call is a call to act. It is not enough to know the call of God; we must become the agents of God here on earth. God calls us not only to himself alone, but also to the service of each other. And that’s where the value of leadership begins. We must surrender and become servants in order to hear the call of God, but we must be leaders to act on that call. We must be humble and acknowledge that our success is not ours, that it is God working through us. But then – we must lead fearlessly. We must walk forward with a resolute understanding that it is not a miracle from God that will bring about peace, justice and the Kingdom of God – it is our actions – working on behalf of God.
That is not to say that everything will work out all the time, or even most of the time. After all, we are engaged in a human struggle where the thoughts and actions of others will determine the result. Others need to also be willing to do the work of God. And, often times they don’t. They don’t hear, they don’t believe, or they are afraid to act. Their response is ultimately not our concern. Our focus is on our response to the call of God. And that is what I was trying to say to my friend Eileen. If you have done everything you can possibly do, then the only thing left is to surrender and through surrender we can become fearless in our action.
I can hear the wind chimes that are attached to the eaves of my garage ringing. Usually that means the wind has shifted to the southwest bringing a change of weather with it.
I wish the wind would shift in America and bring with it an enhanced sense of community. It just seems like we are in such an angry place right now, even as many key economic indicators are on the rise; some at historic levels. More people are working, incomes are increasing while poverty is dropping. But, that good news is overshadowed by the sour mood prevalent across the land.
There is so much hate. Here are some examples of what I mean: hate crimes against Muslims have increased dramatically since 2015; security officials used guard dogs to quell protests in North Dakota over an oil pipeline; water is withheld from a Milwaukee prisoner who dies of thirst; and then there are the multiple shootings we’ve witnessed this year. We can’t lose sight of the nearly 40,000 incidents of gun violence in the United States year to date, of which over one-quarter resulted in fatalities.
I’m sure you are wondering what all these incidents have in common. In my mind, they point to a lack of respect for the dignity of a human being. They say we have lost sight of our sense of community and humanity; that we have arrived at a place where it is acceptable to treat our neighbors with disdain and hate them because they are different from us.
But we should not be surprised. We can pretend we are, but we should not be. After all, these tendencies have been part of our culture since the beginning of our American experiment. Our ancestors captured Africans and enslaved, beat, and abused them for economic gain. They attempted genocide of Native Americans, even trying to wipe out the American buffalo in the process in order to access land and the riches that would bring. We’ve had Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, opposition to school & housing integration, mortgage redlining, exclusionary zoning and racial and economic segregation that goes on to this day.
So the ability to treat other humans as objects is not new to us. It was there before this presidential campaign. Perhaps, the level of vitriol in this election season has simply turned up the lights, allowing us to see the darkest parts of who we are and who we have been. I am not saying that we are a “bad” people. What I am saying is that until we accept both the good and the bad of who we are, we cannot begin to heal. The same light that shines on our demons can also be used to shine on our angels.
All social change begins with a personal change of heart. And so, if we want America to embrace community, to honor diversity and to respect each individual, we have to make sure it begins with our individual actions.
Here is a three step exercise to help begin a transformation of heart.
1. Spend 10 minutes reflecting on the idea that you are God’s beloved. What does that mean to you? If you are God’s beloved – how should you treat yourself?
2. Spend another 10 minutes reflecting on the idea that your family members and friends are also God’s beloved. Knowing that – how should you treat them; especially in those moments when they just might be getting on your nerves.
3. OK, here’s the tough one. Think of the person you may despise the most. Spend 10 minutes with the idea that they too are God’s beloved. While you may not get to the point where you love them, or even like them – consider how you can see them in a new light and how you can think of them differently knowing that God loves you and God loves them in exactly the same way.
Do this three step exercise every day, keeping real people in the front of your mind for each one. And then who knows, after some time maybe you will start to hear the wind chimes ring in a new change of heart.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.