The key to a new beginning

Recently I was in a retreat with colleagues in a committee leading a History & Reconciliation Initiative at St Paul’s Episcopal Church. This initiative has done ground-breaking work in uncovering and documenting the church’s central role in Richmond’s slave economy and in promoting the “Lost Cause” mythology.

We came together to assess progress and to look at the challenges facing us as we build on what we have learned. What might this mean for St Paul’s and for Richmond’s need for racial reconciliation and equity? We also recognized the need to strengthen our own teamwork and to do our own healing work (we are a group of capable and strong-minded personalities), and to support the necessary teambuilding and reconciliation within the congregation so that we might be an authentic model for the wider Richmond community.

We found ourselves meeting under a portrait of the late Dr Syngman Rhee, the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). in 1950, he escaped from North Korea through winter snow, joined the marines in South Korea and later  came to study at Chicago and Yale. He served as a campus minister at the University of Kentucky, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr, and devoted himself to reconciliation between North and South Korea.

Syngman was a friend and mentor. I recall him saying, “One stick does not make a strong fire. If we are going to carry on a vision for justice and peace we must learn to be a team. However brave and talented I may be, without a container or framework, compassion and commitment can become wrongly directed.”

I also remember him telling us that the most powerful lesson he learned from King was the idea that “the oppressed have the key to a new beginning.”

He said, “This touched me deeply because I considered myself oppressed. I had turned my back on Korea.” (His father had died at the hands of the communists and he never saw his mother again.) “But the oppressed have the choice of revenge or of forgiving and working for a new society for everyone.”

Teambuilding is intimately connected to forgiveness. Jean Vanier writes in Community & Growth: “A relationship is only authentic and stable when it is founded on the acceptance of weakness, on forgiveness and on the hope of growth… If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to discover the mystery of forgiveness, we will soon be disappointed.”

I have spent most of my working life in efforts for racial healing and justice, often in highly polarized situations. But my most challenging and painful experiences have not been in addressing conflicts around issues of race or politics but with my own team, close colleagues and friends. In some of these circumstances I felt let down, obstructed or unfairly judged. Others may have felt similarly about me. At times the stress impacted my health. Ultimately, I was always faced with the need to accept my part of the responsibility for the breakdown in trust.

But we have long memories. Despite my decision to let go of a resentment or disappointment, there is sometimes a temptation to revisit the experience, to unpack the wound, to look at it again and to indulge in self-pity or self-justification.

Richard Rohr writes in Breathing Under Water that “to surrender ourselves to healing we have to have three spaces opened up within us – our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.” What opinion am I unwilling to reconsider? To whom have I closed my heart? What am I defending?

Our families, communities and nations are divided and torn apart by individuals and groups who feel oppressed, wronged or wounded. There are no winners in these cycles of blame. But as Syngman Rhee reminds us, we can all choose to be part of a new beginning.