By Conference Minister Diane Weible
Growing up I was always intrigued by the “Jesus” plaque in my grandma’s house. It was one of those pictures that when you first look at it, it just looks like nothing more than a bunch of lines. You have to learn to look at it in a new way in order to understand its meaning. Once you are able to do that, almost like magic, the word “Jesus” becomes clear and visible. The thing that was so cool about it was that once you have seen it, you cannot un-see it. After the first time I saw the word, every time I would walk by it, I would say to myself, “Jesus,” because it was so clear and obvious.
That’s how I’m feeling about a lot of things these days. I’m seeing racism, sexism, homophobia, and a disregard for the impact of climate change on our most vulnerable siblings. I’m understanding how these issues (and more) are ingrained in in our cultural and societal systems in a way that goes beyond what I know intellectually. Sure, people told me it was and continues to be an issue and I even know how to preach about it, but I don’t always SEE it.
I can tell you that the impact of climate change on the residents of the island of Tuvalu means that someday their island home will be under water. But, until I met someone who was forced to leave home because of climate change, I did not feel in my gut what it would be like to lose my home and culture to something that is preventable. I also did not understand that although we talk about how no one can or will escape the effects of climate change, many people, the poorest and most vulnerable in our world, are losing everything. My privilege blinded me to the fact that this is not a “someday” scenario that we can eventually turn around. I now see Jesus clearly in this issue and the urgency around it.
I can tell you that the racism that people of color experience every time they walk into a grocery store is real. But, until I listened to friends tell me about their experiences of being followed by an employee or their fear that they will be accused of stealing, I did not feel in my gut what that would feel like if it were me. I pictured walking through my neighborhood Safeway with a store employee watching my every move and it made me sick. I understood how my privilege has sheltered me from seeing “Jesus” in this issue and that has changed the way I respond.
I know there is much more that I’m not seeing so I keep looking at things and working to understand so I can begin to see Jesus in everything I do and experience.
I’m “seeing” interchanges and reactions in different ways too. In the past, I would just assume that if someone shows what I consider disrespect, it was because they were having a bad day or just misunderstood. I would make excuses for that behavior by saying “that was not their intent” or “they just don’t know better.” Now, however, I realize that even if it was not their intent, it does not lessen the impact. This is true for conversations directed at me as well as for conversations I observe. Words do matter. Actions do matter. Impact does matter.
I am learning to examine myself because this principle holds true for me too. What I say and how I act in a stressful situation matters. What did I say that had an impact on someone else and how can I make amends? And, what do I need to work on in myself so that I can change the way I show up the next time I’m in a similar situation? This is especially important for those instances where my impact is felt by another but not necessarily seen by me until much later.
If I am part of a conversation where I observe the words of one person having a negative impact on another, what is my responsibility to respond? In our Conference Council discussion on Brene Brown’s book, “Dare to Lead,” we talked about how sometimes when we observe something that impacts another, the best way to interrupt it is to say, “ouch.” That may be something we say when we feel the impact on ourselves but don’t know how to respond and it may also be something we say when we see something happening between two people and we feel the importance of saying something, even if we are not sure what that something should be. If we are learning to have brave and daring conversations, sometimes the simple word “ouch” can open a door for clear and kind communication that transforms dialogue. It can also invite us to see Jesus in a way we had been unable to before.
Grandma’s “Jesus” plaque is a reminder that as I work on my own issues of privilege and as I do my best to engage in brave conversations that can be transformational, I cannot un-see what I’ve seen. Instead, I need to find ways to build on what I see and how to show up if I want to be an authentic, real, and raw partner in this work we are called to do.