When Stories are Complex

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By Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton


When I was at the tail end of seminary, I travelled to Israel and Palestine with 21 other seminary students and a professor. At Wesley Theological Seminary all students were required to participate in a two week intercultural immersion experience as a requirements for graduation. Some travelled to domestic locations, others internationally, and my trip to Israel and Palestine was the trip I had chosen.

These were guided trips where we were encouraged to listen carefully. We especially tried to listen for stories. Ministry at its core is about listening well to stories.

Before travelling I asked myself, “What does it take to be in this ‘listening mode’?” I wanted to go with an open mind – open eyes, ears and heart. And yet, my first instinct was to ‘study up’ before I left – to read, and inquire and cram to learn everything I could on Middle East politics, history and religion.

As I started to dig in, I did pause — would this prep really serve me well?  I wondered, was I gathering facts to help me learn more once there?  or to listen better?  or to avoid looking clueless in front of my peers?  It occurred to me, maybe, just maybe, I was trying to figure out who in this region of conflict was ‘right’… or at least who was the most right.

I am grateful for this a pre-trip “aha” moment. If I spent the trip methodically accepting and rejecting facts and input to determine who is right and, in turn, wrong — or even if I was studying so I could ask a few brilliant questions — my heart was not in the role of compassionate listener or compassionate observer. By intentionally resisting analysis both before I left and while traveling, I hope I was more open.

Our trip was busy – often six or seven events in a day. On and off the bus.  By Day 9 – a Thursday — I was saturated. That morning was chaotic, with loud traffic and competitive tourist attractions with long lines. Early that afternoon we took a needed rest. I stayed at the hotel and cleared my head.

Late that afternoon, our bus crossed Jerusalem to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. The museum is on a hill. As our bus climbed, the traffic lessened and we were surrounded by parks.

As you enter the main museum, which is a new facility, you are told you must proceed in one direction. You can see a narrow window of light way at the end, yet the walk through the museum is fairly dark. The path goes back and forth across the center about 10 times – from major exhibit to major exhibit. Some pictures, videos and displays were close to life size – train stations and the concentration camps.  Other artifacts small – scribbles in journals, and jewelry, locks of hair and coins.

As I walked and read and looked, I was struck by the separation of families and their desperate attempts to find ways to reconnect.

The ability of humans to dehumanize others is striking. It’s not the first time I’ve considered this, but it is a foundational thought. The exhibits brought home the price of the silence – the reality of many looking away and not getting involved. I pushed myself to look  – 6 million Jews, 200K Roma, 15K homosexuals, 300K mentally ill – the estimates of those tortured and then killed for being who they were.

As our bus came back down the hill, I realized that many of those we passed – everyday folks routinely walking home from school or work — would have family trees with many severed limbs – places where aunts, uncles and cousins – parents and grandparents had disappeared.

That evening a knot stuck in my stomach – I sensed it was more than just this museum visit.  This was Day 9. We’d heard a lot since our trip began. Themes of oppression and family separations — of dehumanization and looking away – seemed to still dominate the present-day region. The patterns felt cyclical – and layered.  Day 9 felt heavy.

Our two week field trip included many briefings. We met with those who led schools and managed hospitals. We visited a liberal kibbutz in northern Israel, and toured Effrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. We went to Palestinian refugee camps and Arab villages. We toured the Knesset – Israel’s parliament.

Many of our meetings were with advocates from human rights groups who were focused on the plight of Palestinians. Spokespersons included Jews, Muslims and Christians. Some were born in Israel and Palestine, and others were from the US, England and Italy. Many were young, some middle-aged and some easing into later years.

At a typical briefing, the spokesperson for the group or organization would share background regarding the region in the way he or she thought would help us understand. Virtually every group we met with started with a short history and set of maps…with a complex snarl of lines and shifting boundaries – descriptions of Zones, and UN agreements.

For these sessions, the 22 of us would be sitting around a conference table, or in an auditorium, or even outside on the ground. Invariably the speaker – most of whom did this day in and day out – a few minutes into the presentation would scan the group to gauge our looks.  A sort of “Are they getting it?”

And then they would continue. We heard stories about house demolitions and lack of freedom to travel; about separated families and truncated educations, and of limited access to water and electricity.

As a group we collectively got better at the question and answer part of the session. Rather than focus on technical questions regarding the maps, or legal matters, we learned to ask personal questions about the speaker’s background or views.  In one session a 28 year-old Jewish woman from Haifa (in northern Israel) spoke. She had been a passionate voice supporting justice for Palestinians since she was 15 – a self-described activist.  I asked how her parents felt about her work. “No. They don’t get my views or work. After years, my mother occasionally comes to demonstrations, but my father has different views – totally.”

Views weren’t uniform in families in Israel.  It brought home there is no “Israeli” perspective, or simple Palestinian view – any more than there is “an American view.” Whatever I heard in two weeks was at best a narrow sliver of background.

At the end of meetings, we fell into a pattern.  Someone from our group would ask the speaker, “What gives you hope?” Often the speaker seemed surprised by the question. Many responses expressed a sense of deflated-ness. We heard “I don’t know” or “Almost nothing” or “It’s getting worse.”

At these moments I think we were doing our best listening. There was almost a sense of exhale in the room. A moment of pause. Maybe in these moments the speaker sensed we were getting the complexity of the years of history and maps; of attempted peace processes that had seemed to have promise and commitment, and then failed. Just maybe we were touching upon what it meant to see their reality through their eyes.

We were not there as problem solvers, but as people of faith open to hearing whatever they had to share.

It was wrenching to hear recurring themes of oppression of de-humanization and to not look away. To hear and not look away. When we listen in love, we are walking with the other.  We are not looking away. I was sad at times. Frustrated at others. Traveling in the region dredged up my own snap shots of news reports on the violence in the region – TV images. At one point in a market on a covered street in Hebron I was scared. There was no known threat, but I realized there was no easy way out should something occur.

Listening in love in this way – letting feelings come through — is the core of being a witness.

For other parts of the trip we had on the hat of tourist racing between popular tourist sites. We saw ancient sites – the 10,000 year old city of Jericho, as well as Nimrod, Megiddo, Herodian and Masada. We went to the sites of Jesus’s ministry, took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, a quick tour in Nazareth, and I swam in the Dead Sea.

While interesting and helpful for understanding context for the Bible and regional history, I wondered how these tourist sites fit with the theme of intercultural immersion? How did this fit with the goal of listening to stories?

For me sometimes the important observing and listening happened between designated stops. As we rode, I was continually struck by the rugged beauty of the land. Israel was more lush and green than I expected – forced cultivation to be sure – yet fertile ground. Our tour guide was a Christian Arab, about 70, and he seemed to get a bit gushy when over and over he’d describe the bright purple Oleander, and the orchards of figs, dates and almonds. Maybe in those moments I sensed the depth of his pride in the land – something beyond his more mechanical descriptions of sites.

Israel is very hilly. Hills virtually everywhere. As our driver skillfully negotiated the contours of the hills, I made time to breathe – at least tried to. I loved being on the bus. I had a map – I love maps – and was travelling on routes used for centuries – for millennia in some cases. Routes used for routine travel and trade. And routes, sadly, travelled over many years of local, regional and interregional conflict. Members of many, many tribes, empires, nations and cultural groups had crossed these same steep hills. And this long layered history has included so many cases of oppression and dehumanization; of hierarchy and domination.

As I looked out the bus window, I started wondering what makes social trust between ethnic, cultural and religious groups possible, particularly what makes it possible after periods of sustained oppression and conflict? The track record in the region has not been good. Maybe in these moments I was grasping for my own sense of hope for this complex region. Of late, I’ve had similar questions about culture and conflict in our country – what makes social trust across difference possible in the complexity of the US?

In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong ties the potential for compassion in a global community to how it is we communicate. Armstrong sees, “True listening means more than simply hearing the words that are spoken. We have to become alert to the underlying message too and hear what is not uttered aloud.” Listening has to consider the intentions and the emotions – to consider the spirit of the communication. In considering the role of compassionate listener, Armstrong notes, “Language is based on trust.”  She sees the challenge to establishing trust is suspending our pre-conclusions, and doing this even when ideas initially seem “baffling, distressing and alien.” This is the challenge of learning to really stand in the other’s shoes.  It’s about listening so closely that we can imagine the others’ experiences  — the others’ assumptions. It’s about trusting that in the other’s humanity they are sharing what makes sense to them.  It’s about resisting point and counterpoint debates.

When we listen, rather than jumping in with ‘knowing’ conclusions and advice, it’s easy to wonder, is listening enough? Yet without listening how can trust be built that might help close divides.

What I recall of this trip four years later are stories, and that the stories were complex. Each person’s story had emerged (as all stories do) in the context of information sources and filters developed over years and centuries.

Is listening as witness the same as being among the silent ones who ignore injustice? I don’t think so. When we try to understand the other’s views, it is the opposite of dangerous silence. Dangerous silence puts ‘the other’ at a distance and ignores pain. Listening in love is not about ignoring the other, or looking the other way, but rather about being open to another’s whole story – their values and perspectives, and their doubts and confusion –their full humanity.

Over the last weeks as I’ve thought about deep divides in our country and revisited the question – is listening enough? Maybe a better question is  –  How does listening help us start to nurture awareness and relationships across divides? How can we progress without such witness?

When we make space for others to share their stories, and then hold the space open, we are meeting a critical need. This work of witness is not easy work. Yet, it is important work.  It is holy work.  And yes, it is work we must do with patience and love. And yes, it matters.

May It Be So

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