Thursday, July 10, 2008

Relationships and Stereotypes

This week, in addition to enjoying vacation and seeing friends from seminary, I've also had the opportunity to see one of the women with whom I traveled and studied in Spain, and one who was on staff at ORL at UCLA with me. I love both of these women dearly and spending time with them is a taste of comfort and familiarity. I think the last time I visited I described it as "putting on an old worn in sweatshirt", or something along those lines--warmth, comfort, and familiarity.

It was good to see both Rachel and Chai, to hear what they are doing and how life is for them.

Thinking about our time together also made me think about the ways I was introduced to them and the amazing women they have become and the ways that each of them and my relationship with them has challenged me to confront stereotypes. With Rachel I knew her and spent time with her first and foremost as herself, as an exchange student in Spain, living with my senora's sister and mother. We walked to and from school together twice a day, almost every day for 5 months. We roadtripped across Spain, into Gibralter, and into Portugal together. We confronted culture shock, language fatigue, and homesickness together in our international journeys. It was later, after we came back to the states that she joined the Army. All of us who had grown to know her well knew it was a perfect fit for her character and work ethic, and talking with her now, it's easy to see how successful she is and how at ease she is in her role in the Army. That said, I have had to confront some of my biases about folks in the military. Having known her prior and already understood her character and respected her as a person, I couldn't make snap judgments about her decisions or motives and I even had to re-examine some general bias I had about folks in the military. To me it's a sign of how relationships make all the difference for changing one's perspective on something.

Chai is another example of this learning. She was my roommate for two weeks and my RA colleague for 9 months. We talked and shared, laughed and cried together. I knew her first, before I knew the title of "feminist" she would later claim for herself. Prior to my second year in college "feminist" was sort of a bad word--it had all sorts of ugly connotation. I think my high school definition of it would have been something like "man hating nazi lesbian". I am not proud to put those words in print, but the truth is what it is and my views were what they were. I have come a long way from that definition and those hateful stereotypes, but part of that progress is due in large part to people like Chai. People whom I knew as people first, people whom I respected and admired first, and then was forced to deal with my misconceptions and stereotypes. Chai has taught me what it really means to be a feminist (someone who believes in, promotes, and advocates for gender equality and justice, among other things...), along with 1000 other lessons about advocacy, justice, passion, commitment, and openness. Again, a lesson in the power of relationality.

The third lesson is actually about how someone else's experience with me did something similar for them. Also in Spain, I had the chance to get to know T. She was in our same program and she, Rachel, and I started spending time together early on. T is opinionated (which may even be an understatement in some cases--so much so that she will readily admit this to you and say it with pride) and is very convicted about her beliefs. It was early on in our stay, there were 3 or 4 of us out at a local tapas bar having blood sausage (not something I NEVER recommend) and probably sangria. I don't remember the content of the rest of our converation but at some point it came out that I was a Christian. T literally had drink come out of her nose. She was shocked. She immediately began to refute my claim. "You can't be..." We went back and forth about how I actually was a Christian and her disbelief. Turns out she knew Christians to be narrow-minded, bigoted, "Bible-thumpers" and I didn't fit any of her categories. Again, she had come to know me, and like me, and only later learned that I was one of "them". It didn't fit with her preconceptions or her prejudices, so she had to do a reframing and re-evalation of what she believed.

So, these days, I am a huge advocate for the power of relationships--both for myself and for others. You can see, after reading just a handful of examples, why I am so tied to my belief that meeting people of the "other" and respecting them as individuals first and foremost leads to tremendous transformation in our lives.

I guess the final piece (at least for tonight's post) is how this came true at annual conference this year. Every year at annual conference we have legislative sessions where we break out into smaller groups (sort of like senate sub-committees) and look at legislation/resolutions that have been proposed. We have discussion, can make amendments, and then vote concurrence, non-concurrence, or no recommendation. This year, considering the General Conference stance against same-sex marriage and the California ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, a group of folks had asked for time to be set aside for us to discuss the pastoral implications and responses we could/should take. There were a variety of ways this happened, including a panel of presenters (on both sides of the issues), debate on the floor of conference, and discussion groups that took place within the legislative sessions.

I had not attended legislative session earlier in the week (sorry Bishop), but was committed to this conversation and was interested in what would be shared, so I asked to join my father's group. Now, he and I have had this discussion many times over many years and we are both clear about where the other stands. But we were also joined by 3 men we did not know. Well, one young man had done Bible study with my father the days prior, but the other two were new to their small group. So, the five of us sat together and first we were asked to do Bible study together. We studied the passage about the different types of soil on which seed can be sown. Through Bible study we found the similarities between us--how we have each felt like we were "rocky soil" at times, or that the growth of God's seed had been thwarted by the weeds in our lives. We established common ground as Christians, but also simply as people. Once we finished the Bible study, we had the discussion about same-sex marriage rights and the pastoral/prophetic role of the church. This post is already long and I don't have my notes with me so I won't elaborate now, but our discussion was thoughtful, caring, and insightful. And I am fairly convinced that we would not have had such a civil discussion had we started with our point of (possible) disagreement instead of the Bible study which established us as people first. Yet another way where relationality makes all the difference in the world.

No comments: