Pastor calls for ‘Better Conversation’ on race

By Laurie Schlatter
Citizen Chronicle Writer

STURBRIDGE — Race in America is an issue that continues to challenge our ability to have intelligent and mindful conversations, but just such an opportunity is taking place this Sunday, Jan. 28, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

The first such conversation held Jan. 19 was based on the work of Dr. Vincent Harding, a Civil Rights leader, friend and colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and professor of Religion and Social Transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. The Rev. Kirsten Nelson Roenfeldt, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran, received her master’s in divinity from Iliff and was a student of Dr. Harding about 10 years ago.

Pastor Kirsten said Dr. Harding “invited us to think deeply about who we were and to listen deeply to one another. … Why I wanted to start with him, he’s someone who really sees and loves the people that he’s encountering, no matter who they are, no matter how they behave, and that includes people who are acting hatefully toward him. That kind of love is what we at Bethlehem want to be. Our vision is to shine the light of Christ beyond the trees, then people will know when they encounter us the way I did when I encountered Dr. Harding.”

“Let’s Talk About Whiteness,” a podcast by writer Eula Biss, forms the foundation of the second Better Conversation Sunday, a project of ongoing national discussions on different subjects based on the National Public Radio Show, “On Being, with Krista Tippett.” Open to the public, the local Better Conversation is to be held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the church at 345 Main St., off Route 131. Anyone planning to attend is asked to first listen to the podcast at www.onbeing.org and search for Eula Biss. Pastor Kirsten discussed the nature of the project at Bethlehem Lutheran:

What is the Better Conversation event?

“The event is an opportunity to gather in a room with people who have different life experiences to talk about important issues.”

Talk about this event about Eula Biss.

“First, let me say that two weeks ago (Jan. 19) we had our first Better Conversation and it went really well. It was lovely. We had about 10 people there and we talked about: Is America possible? That was the question for that day. It was about civic engagement and what it means to participate in making democracy happen. The centerpiece for that was a podcast by Vincent Harding, a leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

“Out of that session I asked everyone to write down something that they still wanted to talk about. The issue of whiteness came up in that conversation. So that’s why we’re doing the topic this time, Let’s Talk About Whiteness.

“Eula Biss is the person interviewed in the podcast. I’ve listened to it a few times now. She talks about wrestling with what it means that maybe white people do have certain advantages, or privileges, or opportunities that not everybody has. How do we who are white address that? A question that came up in our first session that I’m sure we will address again is, Do white people need to give up something in order for non-white people to have enough or to get the opportunities that they also deserve? Or is it something where there’s plenty for everyone, or what does that mean?

“I think that’s a really important question for us to think about, especially people who are white and who care about these issues and want our black and brown brothers and sisters to succeed to the same levels as our own families. It’s important to think about, Is there something we have to give up and if there is, what is that thing or things?”

Why this is important?

“The whole point is to have a Better Conversation, to engage, because too often there’s no good forum for talking about these tough things. This is just a matter of making a good forum for that, a safe place if you will. It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to agree with one another. In fact, we encourage people to be honest and kind, so if you disagree, that is welcome in this conversation. But we are here to listen really deeply to one another. So come if you want to listen deeply.”

How does this project of Better Conversations fit with Bethlehem Lutheran’s mission of “Welcoming all through the light of Christ by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and being a place of shelter”?

“It especially fits with our mission of being a place of shelter. We define that as: We are a sacred and holy community; that is, a place where other people can come and experience and encounter the holy. When you are deeply listening to someone, the Holy Spirit is present. Obviously, we are a Christian church, so we understand that our framework is about Jesus, but in this particular project you do not have to be a Christian to be present.

“In fact, again, we’re looking for diversity, so if people want to come and bring a different non-Christian perspective, that would be welcome. There’s not going to be an expectation that we’re all having the same religious-beliefs event. But being a place of shelter is about being a holy space where people can be heard and valued as the children of God that we understand everyone to be.

“I’m just one of the people across the country utilizing this (‘On Being’) resource. These conversations could be happening in places that are not churches as well. It’s not a religious endeavor, but it is a spiritual endeavor. The intention is to invite people to tap into the spirit that is within them. That’s a good way to say that!”

Talk about the difference between religion and spirituality.

“Religion implies that there’s an institution that goes with it, that there’s a set of beliefs, practices and understandings about who we are, where we came from and what our history and tradition is, and all of that is incredibly valuable for self-identity, for participating in community, for community identity. The value of religion is in knowing who you are, Whose you are, especially being a Lutheran Christian.

“But then spirituality is so much more broad. We understand that there is a God that is moving in spirituality. I’m sure other people can bring their own perspective about spirituality being more about human connections or some kind of divine or transcendent experience of their own. Religion is a tool to access this divine and transcendent thing and it gives us a structure and identity for who we are. Spirituality is this thing that we cannot control and that we do not get to put boxes around it. So, it’s harder to define. I would hope that someone hears the call to come and have a spiritual conversation, then what I would expect is that they would be willing to bare a little tiny bit of their soul and to be exposed to other people’s souls and hold those in trust and love.”

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