Pursuing the vision

Four decades ago I worked briefly with a client who had come to our health center filled with many different kinds of fears and problems. Her diagnosis and eventual treatment are not my story to tell, but the lesson for me in the encounter was that there are times when I am not able to solve the problems of all of the people with whom I come into contact. I had counseling skills and those skills had been helpful to other people, but in this case, the illness was too severe for my particular skills to be the sole remedy. The counsel that I did provide in a few weeks may have bought some time for more intensive care to be put in place, but my general feeling was of being inadequate to the situation. Working with my supervisor, our center quickly made a series of referrals and helped her to obtain more intensive care.

I remember one session where she was literally cringing in the corner of the room, describing creatures that were attacking her. I could not see the creatures. I could not perceive the source of her fear. All I could do was attempt to reassure her, let her know of my presence, ask what I could do to help, and offer what I had.

Much later, after a time of hospitalization, a change in medications, and other treatments, she stopped by our clinic and asked to see me. I welcomed her into my office, not knowing what to expect. She brought me a snowflake Christmas tree ornament made out of white crochet thread and stiffened with starch. She offered it as a gift of thanks for what she called the day I saved her life. On that day when I had felt overwhelmed and unable to know what to say and without the resources to calm her fears she had somehow been reassured by my presence. “You didn’t leave me alone,” she said. “You didn’t throw me out because I am crazy.”

I hang that ornament on our Christmas tree every year. It serves as a reminder to me that we are called to be present to one another even when we feel we are not up to the task. Sometimes we can be a blessing without knowing that we are.

Over the years since that time I have frequently encountered situations where I feel inadequate to the needs that surround me. My heart goes out to people who are suffering deep grief and I know that there is nothing I can do to ease their pain. It is often in the face of tragic loss that words fail me. I can offer a presence, but do not have words of comfort, because there are no words that will make the suffering less.

It is, however, far easier for me to be in a situation where I can see a person’s pain even when I can do nothing to ease that pain than it is for me to come face to face with someone who is unaware of the pain they cause. Careless and sometimes cruel words are uttered and I can see the harm they are causing and I am silent when I should speak up. The color of my skin and the circumstances of my life often land me in situations of privilege. I hear a racist comment and I am silent. I hear words that I would never myself speak and I fail to tell the speaker how much those words hurt.

I was raised to believe in the dream that we are making this world better for those who come after us. My parents worked tirelessly for civil rights for all people. They worked to build a community where each person was valued and had the opportunity to participate in meaningful ways. And I have pursued that dream in my personal and professional life. There are some small symbols of that work in the places where I used to serve. I’ve raised funds for access elevators and accessible bathrooms and I’ve helped construct wheelchair ramps and install door openers. The physical barriers, however, aren’t the biggest obstacles in the communities that I have served. We have struggled to welcome a more diverse congregation, learning to re-purpose budgets as we welcome members with lower financial means. We have incorporated words of welcome into our weekly liturgy: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Our community, of course, is imperfect. Although we have some racial diversity, we’re not the church of choice for very many of our Lakota neighbors. Our elected leadership is made up predominantly of people who are remarkably similar to one another in age, race and financial means.

So we keep working. We keep inviting those who are different from ourselves. We are careful with the words we use to make sure that we are not excluding others. We reach out in the ways we are able to offer help and support to those beyond the walls of our church.

One of the great mentors for me has been Vincent Harding. I’ve never met him face-to-face, but have read his words. He was a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and is author of “Hope and History,” “There is a River,” and other books. He offers his voice of calm and tells of his passionate pursuit of cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships. He is articulate about his desire for a beloved community that is not merely tolerant of integration, but rather spiritually connected at the deepest levels. His is a vision for the 21st century that stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of hate and exclusion that is all too common in public discourse these days. His powerful paper, “Is America Possible?” reminds those who read it that ours is a nation whose dream is still unrealized and still worthy of our commitment.

The dream of our community as a beloved community is worthy of our time, commitment and passion. That dream does not die when it faces setback. It is not gone when our words fail us.

When I am at a loss for words, may I find the compassion to listen and the spiritual strength to be silent.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!