Entertaining Strangers
Douglas Taylor

This week I spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday up in Niagara Falls.  I was attending the Annual Spring retreat for the ministers and religious educators from all over the Saint Lawrence District (which includes all the Unitarian Universalist churches in New York State except for New York City and long island.)  It was good to be in the company of colleagues, I always find that refreshing.  The topic for the workshop portion of the retreat was continuing education along the lines of diversity training and anti-oppression work.  Now, workshops on this sort of thing can be transformative and life-changing … the first or second time to do it.  Unfortunately, it can also be tedious and annoying after you’ve been at what seems to be the same stuff a dozen times or more.  It was so nice to find a new approach offered; a new path into understanding the complexity of engaging with people and communities of people who have a fundamentally different identity from your own.  Really, what multiculturalism and anti-oppression efforts are based on is the ability for me to meet and engage with people who are in some way different from me.  It is about recognizing and honoring each other’s differences!  We should be great at this, don’t you think?  We Unitarian Universalists are all about honoring individual differences. Unfortunately the work of really honoring and welcoming those who are different is not easy to ‘just do.’  It takes an almost radical component that seems to be in short supply these days.

I want to share with you the opening exercise we did during the workshop.  The leader called it the “Culture Toss” game.  She handed out papers that had twelve empty blocks, each labeled with a different identity category.  For example, ‘gender’ was one of the identity categories:  That I am male is a defining feature of my identity.  Race/ethnicity, culture, language, sexual orientation, denominational affiliation, highest values, and roles were all on this list.  What roles do you fill that give definition to your identity.  I fill the roles of father and husband, minister, and friend.  These roles help define who I am, help determine my identity.  We were filling in on this paper the specifics of our different identity characteristics.  We had, if you could imagine, twelve categories, and we were given about ten minutes to fill it all out.  Some of that was easy: gender: male, sexual orientation: straight, race/ethnicity: Irish and mixed northern European, language: American English.  Some of it was harder to for my culture I wrote down: New York/New England almost middle class liberal.  For vocation I put down both parenthood and ministry.  There was a category for possessions.  What possessions give some definition to my identity?  I finally wrote in: my guitar, my books, and my socks.

So, with our charts filled out, we were then asked to cross out four of the twelve.  Find four identity categories you could live without, or rather, that you would be least troubled to lose.  Well, it took some of us a while to wrap our brains around that.  I can imagine what it might be like if suddenly it became illegal to be Unitarian Universalist or to speak English.  But take something like ‘gender,’ how could I lose being male?  Would that mean there would be no more men?  The leader helped clarify by saying, “Maybe it means that it is no longer acceptable to be male or to be white.”  OK, so I started crossing out my four categories.  She didn’t give us enough time.  After ditching my possessions and my defining habits (no more singing loud in public or drinking coffee), I decided I could stand to learn a new language anyway.  Well I had three and time was up, so I quickly scanned my paper and decided (I’m a little ashamed to say) to cross out Unitarian Universalism.  Now, let me explain.  I figured Unitarian Universalism is already an unacceptable religion in many people’s eyes, and if it became illegal to be Unitarian Universalist, I figured we could continue to meet in private or we could slowly take over a nice Methodist church.

Well, it turns out that was the easy part.  Imagining four identity categories of my own choosing removed from my life was the easy part.  Now we turn our papers over to the person we’ve been paired up with and they get to remove four more identity categories.  The only consolation is that while my colleague is taking away my culture and my sexual orientation I get to do the same to him, (except after I’m done, he is not allowed to be a “him” anymore!)  Now I was asked to sit back and imagine my life without these foundational identity markers.  It’s illegal to speak English, Unitarian Universalism has gone underground, the New England liberal middle-class is dead, people avoid me if I start to sing loud in public and they whisper if I’m seen drinking coffee.  My books are gone and stores just don’t sell crazy socks anymore.  I can still be a white male, but I have to be in the closet about my heterosexuality.  The one loss that hit me the hardest was not being allowed to have my vocations: ministry and parenthood.

You know, I think I am beginning to be able to imagine what it might have been like to be a slave.  My language and my culture are gone, my religion is crushed, my family is broken up and sold off to different places maybe, I have no possessions, and I certainly can not sing loud in public!  And all of that has not even touched on ethnicity and skin color.  Anyone who thinks racism is all about skin color just doesn’t get it.

The point of this exercise was to begin to understand what the experience of being oppressed might be like.  The point was to stretch my understanding and open my mind up to what it might be like to be someone of an oppressed culture.  The point was opening people to differences.  The basic critical component to honoring and welcoming those who are in some fundamental way different from you is in your ability to understand their experiences.  It is to be able to put yourself inside their shoes and walk around in them for a while.

The story of Passover for the Jewish people is the story of freedom and liberation.  Passover is celebrated every year and during the Seder meal the story is told again.  And the piece of it that touches the experiences I had this week with the Anti-oppression work is the way the story of Passover serves as a reminder of Jewish identity, a reminder of the ways in which that identity can be lost, and the powerful call to therefore be hospitable.  “Do not ill-treat the stranger in your midst,” God says.  “Remember, you once were strangers in Egypt.”  Michelle Medwin, the Rabbi at Temple Concord, was the columnist for this week’s religion article in the Press & Sun Bulletin.  She wrote about the meaning of Passover.  She writes, “We are told to see this story as if we, ourselves, were slaves.  This teaches us to reach out to the stranger, rather than be fearful of him.  It also reminds us that we must reach out to those who are oppressed.”  (Saturday, April 23, 2005, 5B)

There is one word that is particularly vital to understanding people who are in some way different; one word that allows for the hospitality toward strangers to be real and authentic.  It is more that just remembering.  The word I’m moving toward now came up in the children’s story and in the reading and a few times while I was describing my anti-oppression workshop experience.  The word is imagination.  As Einstein said “Imagination is more important than intelligence.”  Imagination is the critical piece of recognizing and honoring differences.

There is no way to fully understand another person’s experiences.  You know your own experiences.  Someone may be able to tell you about their experiences but you can’t fully understand them the way we like to think we can.  In a very real way we are each isolated within our own experiences.  I can only know what is going on from my perspective.  You can tell me what you see and experience, but I have to filter what you tell me through the only connection I have with the world, and that is my own experiences.

And that would be a dire scenario if that really were the end of the story; but all is not lost.  There is hope through imagination.  Imagination builds a bridge between what I know of my experiences and what you share with me of yours.  There has been some very scholarly philosophy grown up around ideas like this.  I recall one author whom I was assigned to read in seminary, David Tracy.  Tracy wrote about Analogical Imagination as the critical component to understanding one another, the base work of communication with any depth.  This is why so much of religious language is built upon metaphors.  I have an experience and then use analogy to help you imagine what my experience was like.

Imagination is the critical piece for all this.  Now, here is what I don’t mean by ‘imagination.’  I don’t use the word in the sense of ‘imaginary.’  I don’t use the word to mean making things up or making conclusions based on little or no facts, as in “You’re letting your imagination run away, you’ve an over-active imagination.”  Instead I mean imagination as the ability to deal creatively with reality.  It is the ability to imagine new possibilities based on, though beyond, what we already know.

We are each different.  Modern American Unitarian Universalism is certainly structured around the recognition of that truth.  Each one of us is a unique individual.  We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.  We vest a great amount of authority in the individual religious conscience, proclaiming that you and you alone can discern, through your own free and responsible searching, what is ultimately true and meaningful.  However, from the reading this morning, Sacks reminds us that: “the challenge of the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” (p 60)  The challenge is for us to have imagination enough to get outside ourselves enough to see another person’s perspective.

The analogy of eyesight applies well.  Depth perception is gained by having two eyes focused on the same object.  If you close one eye, it is very difficult to judge depth and distance.  A depth of understanding is gained by having more than one perspective focused on the same issue.  Listening to the perspectives of others will lead you to a deeper understanding of yourself and your world.

Imagination is the ability to envision new possibilities based on, though beyond, what we already know.  This is what is happening in the Seder meal when people retell the Passover story to remind themselves of what they already know and to imagine new possibilities.  Listening to another person’s perspective, entertaining another person’s ideas, helps you appreciate your own understanding at a deeper level.  By imagining it from another person’s point of view, you become open to new ways of seeing and understanding.

The presenter of the anti-oppression workshop shared a story.  She talked about a time during her chaplaincy as a student minister in a hospital.  She and the other student chaplains were debriefing experiences of their work.  The one person of color in the group began talking about who difficult it sometimes was to be a black chaplain in an otherwise surprisingly segregated hospital.  Other student chaplains, trying to be helpful, expressed their understanding of his situation.  “I understand what you’re going through. It is terrible.”  The woman telling us this story a few days ago, who had at that point had no training yet of the sort she was offering us, continued the story by telling us that she had looked at the man and said, “I have no idea what it must be like for you.  I have never had black skin.”  The man responded to her as if she were his best friend.

I don’t know what it is like to have a parent die.  I don’t know what it is like to get divorced.  I don’t know what it must feel like to walk into this church for the first time looking for a religious home.  I don’t know what it is like to be openly gay and learn that someone chiseled a message into the walk leading to the front door of my church saying that I should die for being gay.  I don’t know what it is like to be put in prison.  I don’t know.  I have never experienced any of those things.  I can, however, gain enough of an understanding of each of those, because I have experienced many other painful things and I know how to listen and I have a good imagination.

This is what it takes to dismantle oppression, but that is not all that this can do.  Using your imagination is what it takes to overcome otherwise insurmountable differences between people, but that is not all it can do.  Your imagination is critical to engage in religious dialogue of any consequence with other people of good will, but that is not all it is for.  I believe the imagination must be at the root of any relationship in your life.  Imagination is the ability to deal creatively with reality.  Reality always has troubles, and the quickest and easiest way to deal with trouble is usually unimaginative and unhelpful.

Stretch yourself, imagine a new possibility.  Listen to other people, entertain strangers in your midst, and stay open to the hope of new being bursting into your life in ways you’ve never imagined.

In a world without end,

May it be so


Reading:                        by Jonathan Sacks

The Dignity of Difference            (pp58-60)

Nowhere is the singularity of biblical ethics more evident than in its treatment of the issue that has proved to be the most difficult in the history of human interactions, namely the problem of the stranger, the one who is not like us.  Most societies at most times have been suspicious of, and aggressive toward, strangers.  That is understandable, even natural.  Strangers are non-kin.  They come from beyond the tribe.  They stand outside the network of reciprocity that creates and sustains communities.  That is what makes the Mosaic books unusual in the history of moral thought.  As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger”.

            Time and again it returns to this theme:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him.  The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 33-4)

It does not assume that this is easy or instinctive.  It does not derive it from reason or emotion alone, knowing that under stress, these have rarely been sufficient to counter the human tendency to dislike the unlike and exclude people not like us from our radius of moral concern.  Instead it speaks of history:  “You know what it is like to be different, because there was a time when you, too, were persecuted for being different.”

            Indeed, that is what the Israelites are commanded never to forget about their shared experience of exile and slavery.  They have to learn from the inside and always remember what it feels like to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger.  It is their formative experience, re-enacted every year in the drama of Passover – as if to say that only those who know what it is to be slaves, understand at the core of their being why it is wrong to enslave others.  Only those who have felt the loneliness of being a stranger find it natural to identify with strangers.

            (Sacks goes on to say) The human other is a trace of the divine.  As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it: “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.”  The Challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.