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Practicing Reconciliation — A Reflection

Excerpted from "Reconciliation as a spiritual practice," by Paula Cole Jones in the March/April 2004 issue of UU World.

Practicing reconciliation is my personal spiritual discipline. Practicing reconciliation means I commit to being in right relationship with people in my life and, when I'm not, caring enough to face unresolved issues and improve the relationship.

I have carried reconciliation with me while working in All Souls Church in Washington , where I am a lifelong member, and increasingly, in the Unitarian Universalist Association at large. From this experience I have learned that reconciliation is a competency we can bring to four levels of conflict — in our own souls, between individuals like my sister and me, within groups like my congregation, and between groups such as people of color like me and the dominant white culture. Reconciliation helps us to get into right relationship.

I learned the importance of personal and group reconciliation at church on a sticky weekend in July 1997. Seventy members of All Souls in Washington, DC , gathered to discuss reconciliation at the church. Our racially diverse congregation was staggering after a divisive crisis that ended a ministry. The meeting began a painstaking process of rebuilding our community and deciding how to move forward.

One of the many changes that came out of the reconciliation work at church was "A Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity" (ADORE). People came together to share personal stories about how race had shaped their life experiences, and it was clear that we had tapped into something deep in the community. We kept the door open for anyone who wanted to participate: Everyone has a story about race and ethnicity. Telling the stories brought a new dimension of our lives to the church community and brought us closer together. Six years later, ADORE continues to meet and welcomes new participants.

The leaders provided a structure for this large group of people to address one of the most difficult issues in our lives; they took the conversation much deeper than I had expected. My mother and another member of our congregation attended with me, and we agreed that such a workshop would be good for our congregation. But as we learned when the workshop came to All Souls, some people found this deeper involvement a challenge. We were fortunate to have members of the church board, search committee, ADORE, and other leaders participate in the even more challenging "Jubilee Two" workshop before the search committee reviewed applications for a new senior minister. After five years of reconciliation work, with ministerial participation and lay leadership, antiracism has been embraced widely in the congregation.

My experience at All Souls in 1997 inspired my decision to make reconciliation my spiritual practice. That experience also deepened my involvement in my church and began my growing involvement in my district and ultimately in the UUA. The more involved I got, the more challenging the work became—but the more risks I took, the more I grew. The more I listened and the more I communicated, the stronger trust became. The more humility I summoned, the more I learned.

People tend to be reluctant to go deep into matters of race because we fear discomfort, conflict, and loss, and we fear appearing uninformed and unprepared. Summoning the depth of honesty needed to confront these fears—and thus to confront racism and bring reconciliation to groups that have been divided—is a spiritual challenge. It troubles the spirit because it disrupts our sense of things being all right. But thinking things are all right when they're not makes it difficult to see why or how we need to change.

The work of building a just community means individually and collectively working to be in right relationship with people from historically marginalized groups and holding ourselves accountable for changing the things that create injustice. A discipline of reconciliation helps us as we work to undo racism and oppression by empowering us to get on the path over and over again, respecting and appreciating that we have traveled different paths and we come to this point from different experiences.

The unfinished business of race has challenged me spiritually. At the end of 2002, reflecting on a year of engagement with UUA antiracism efforts, I wrote in my journal: "I am no longer willing to have my personal energy and spirit absorbed by the 'Great Inertia' around antiracism." I considered leaving the church. I spoke with my mother about visiting other churches. She was loving and supportive—and encouraged me to not give up.

Then I left for a ten-day trip on UUA business that I figured would make my decision to stay or leave. My first meeting, in Boston , included a serendipitous encounter with a colleague on a midnight walk in the snow to the corner store; he told me about some ministers who were ready to enter the conversation about antiracism. The trip led to Chicago and back to Boston for a meeting with the leaders of the UUA's youth organization, who committed to incorporate anti-racism into their long-range planning. My moment of decision came on the airplane to Chicago , tears welling up in my eyes as I read the Skinner House book Soul Work, and saw that the conversation to undo racism is authentic among ministers in the UUA. By the end of the trip, I had reconciled my own misgivings, and I had grown.

It's like what they say about marriage: We marry a fantasy and the bubble has to burst before the real relationship begins. It took forty years for my UU bubble to burst my fantasy that it was the ideal community. It was a pretty long honeymoon. I committed to begin again.

At its high points my work with the church has given me spiritual sustenance and a loving community. It's been more than five years since I learned the valuable lesson that led to developing a practice of reconciliation. Yes, it is spiritual work, and it takes discipline. For five years this practice has enabled me to challenge and be challenged in our congregation, which is now a vibrant, rapidly growing community with a vision for racial and social justice, and it has enriched my personal life.

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Last updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

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