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Why Does Immigration Matter TO YOU?

I asked myself this question while journaling last week. I did not expect the wild ride through my unconscious that followed.

The question has become central for me because I find myself enraged at people on the other side of the debate: the folks who want to build a wall on the Mexican border, or block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., or press for English-only policies. That persistent rage feels corrosive to my soul, like something I need to work through.

The odd thing is that immigration issues don’t really make an impact on my daily life, at least not on a visceral level. My list of friends is rather thin on people from other countries, and none of them plan on immigrating. My part of the U.S. is not really a magnet for immigrants, as (for instance) California and the Southwest are.

In short, my rage is all out of proportion to the thing that’s triggering it. Over the years, I’ve learned to see that and ask, “What’s going on here?”

Asking that question led me to the question in the title. Why does immigration matter to me?

I started exploring the question in my journal, and it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. My stance on immigration quickly led to my passion for welcoming everyone carte blanche into my life. That, in turn, pulled me into a whole multitude of issues around loss and grief that I have yet to fully understand. Trust me, they are large issues.

I haven’t come close to revisiting them at this point, one week later. I am not surprised, however, to discover that my iron grip on my beliefs—and the rage that accompanies it—have relaxed a bit.

Next, I imagined putting the same question to a relative who is particularly strident about immigration. I reviewed what I knew of her life situation, talked it over with my wife, and tried to gain an “empathic glimpse.” Sure enough, the answers to “why is immigration important to her?” came quickly: the healthcare benefits that her neighborhood’s immigrants can access and she can’t; the language barriers that make her life difficult because she doesn’t speak Spanish; the economic insecurity she lives with day by day.

Suddenly she seemed more, well, human. Her situation deserved some sympathy (while taking nothing away from the situation of the immigrants themselves). I had a chance, at least, of not letting this issue damage our relationship.

So now I’m wondering: what if we asked that “to you” question regularly, not only of others but, much more important, of ourselves? What if, instead of snapping off a superficial, abstract answer, we slowed down our lives and our hearts enough to consider the question in greater depth? How might the insights we uncover soften the way we approach our adversaries? Might we glimpse the humanity and perhaps the suffering behind their positions?

Is this sufficient for policymaking on an organizational level? Of course not. But I would submit that it is necessary. Asking this question, and listening for the answers, enable us to bring our whole selves to the issue at hand: not just our cerebral sides but our hearts, our shadow sides, everything that might inform a wise (not just a rational) decision.

Have you asked this question of yourself—on any issue? What happened? Feel free to share here.

In Praise of Gossip

It was day four of a five-day retreat. We’d just finished another soul-baring breakout session, three of us practicing new interpersonal skills and getting critique from one of the retreat facilitators. The exercise would have been grueling on any day; on this particular day it came after hours of deep, intense lecture on many things dark and psychological.

I could say we were exhausted, but exhausted doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Right after the breakout, the facilitator left. The three of us retreatants were left on our own. And we started to compare notes: our opinions of x facilitator’s belief system, whether y facilitator had completely misunderstood us, the off-the-record thoughts each of us was harboring and are y’all thinking the same thing?

In other words, gossip.

OK, I am using a very specific (and somewhat edited) definition of the word, from the OED: “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.” Yes, gossip often carries overtones of rumor mongering, malice, and other nasty stuff. I’m referring more to what church people sometimes call parking-lot conversation: the casual chat, often held in parking lots after a meeting, where folks linger to let their hair down and say what they think. Sometimes the conversation just involves ideas, but because ideas come from other people, we sometimes end up talking about other people too.

This kind of chat gets a bad rap. We refer to it darkly as “talking behind each other’s backs.” The Bible confronts “whispering” and “tale bearing” with a hearty dose of condemnation.

So, in true contrarian fashion, allow me to raise a few good points about gossip, at least as I’m defining it.

For one thing, this brand of gossip is an effective reality check. It can be useful when an event stirs something within us that resists what’s been said, and we can’t tell whether or not our opinion is abnormal. “Did you hear that? Did it seem weird to you? I couldn’t help hearing it and thinking _________; what about you?” This is especially important for adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle mightily to figure out what normal is.

Similarly, “parking-lot conversation” can help us ferret out the essential from the trivial. During contentious meetings, I’ve found myself speaking angrily about an issue without taking the time to determine whether this is the battle I want to pick. The “meeting after the meeting” provides a calmer place to re-examine what happened, whether I should have just let it go—or, conversely, whether it’s important enough to keep pursuing it.

Informal conversations also allow us to reflect openly on people who may be toxic. Such folks typically excel at manipulation, the use of language to conceal or mislead, crafty tactics to divide and conquer, etc. It can be nearly impossible to figure out their game—and then defuse it—without comparing notes with others.

Certainly we need to take great care with this kind of conversation. We must watch our own souls for signs of the aforementioned malice or the desire to spread rumors. Still, gossip (defined this way) does appear to have its good points. I’m sure there are others. Can you name a few?

Dialogue, Marriage Equality, and an Ancient Text

Note: Occasionally I write a post for this blog, set it aside to attend to something else, and forget about it. The post below came into being shortly after the landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. The time references, therefore, are off, but I think the basic points still hold, so I’m offering it now.

Every now and then, a text written centuries ago speaks almost eerily to an issue right here and now.

Take this week’s Collect of the Day from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer—a brief, structured prayer that connects with the Bible readings assigned for that day. (In case you need to use the word in conversation, it’s pronounced KAHL-lekt.)

Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the
foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself
being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together
in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a
holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Beneath the euphoria I’ve felt over last Friday’s Supreme Court decision (yes, I favor marriage equality), a line of questioning has lingered in the back of my mind. What now? What happens to our dialogue? More important, how do we—all of us, on all sides of this issue—continue to hold our “adversaries”?

This quandary has a lot of moving parts. In the present, supporters of marriage equality want to celebrate, and well they should. Opponents may want to grieve or express anger, and well they should. Doing either in the presence of one’s “adversary” is difficult at best: it could too easily lead to gloating from one side and churlishness from the other.

But maybe people don’t care that much whether their reactions come off that way, because they don’t plan to associate with the other side any longer. Maybe they read this Court decision as the permission they have long sought to ignore the other side—a fulfillment of the wish that the disagreers would just “go away.”

I wrote about this wish in a recent article. As tempting as it might be, it’s dangerous. Our Collect of the Day, read expansively (i.e., beyond the specifically Christian), gives some hints as to why.

  1. Ultimately, there is no other side. Note the verb tense in the first sentence: “you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Cast more universally, nothing we can say or do or argue mitigates the truth that we are all humans and will all share this planet for as long as it lasts. Yes, within our species lie significant differences and dynamics that we must address. But the other side can’t go away; ultimately, there is no place for them to go
  2. We are called to live that reality. That’s the essence of “grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit.”
  3. We need help. This is, after all, a prayer—not a declaration or a promise or a resolve, but an admission that we just can’t do this “one human family” thing on our own. Christians believe that help can only come from God. However you parse it, though, the fact that we need help remains.

So what do we do? I think, in the short term, we celebrate or rail against the Court decision with our allies. It is good and right to do so. And then we keep on going with our “adversaries.” Maybe we continue the dialogue over LGBTQIA issues; maybe we don’t. But we do keep the lines open. Who knows whether, somewhere down the road, on a different issue entirely, that adversary may become your most important ally?


Of Dialogue, Teachers, Common Core, and Habits of the Heart

The sun had turned the grass a fluorescent shade of green. My wife’s tulips glowed ivory and red and yellow. Our next-door neighbor was pushing her toddler in his tree swing. A Saturday as lovely and ordinary as you can get.

I wandered over to the neighbor’s yard for a chat. I did not expect her to change my thinking about some of the hottest issues in education.

As we talked, the details of her job came out. She teaches middle school in a neighboring state. The challenges of mandated testing—Common Core and all that—are making life difficult for her, her colleagues, and her students.

That brought me to my usual place of ambivalence on Common Core.

On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a more noble profession than teaching. The teachers I know work long hours and are unflagging in their dedication. On the other hand, I can see the urgent need to equip U.S. kids to thrive in a brutally competitive world, and that may mean adding rigor to the learning experience.

On the third hand (yeah, I know), teachers’ unions leave me skeptical. In my state, at least, they wield tremendous power. They spill a ton of ink on shaping public opinion. So when I hear the buzz against Common Core, I can’t tell whether it’s the teachers talking or the unions.

As a result of this, the dark side of my brain starts wondering, maybe teachers doth protest too much. Maybe they’re too resistant to change. I don’t like those thoughts, but I don’t know enough to gauge their truth.

But then, during the chat with my neighbor, something clicked. It dawned on me that, of all the teachers I’ve talked with about Common Core, No Child Left Behind, etc., not a single one was happy with the changes in the educational landscape.

Yes, unions are powerful, but not powerful enough to create that kind of unanimity. Rather, something important is being said here, it is coming from the mouths of teachers themselves, and I need to listen to them afresh.

That led me, in turn, to dig deeper into the pros and cons of Common Core. Guess what? As with just about every issue, there’s way more nuance and complexity than meets the eye. The two largest U.S. teachers’ unions supported Common Core at first. So did many teachers. Opposition to Common Core is not coming from one end of the political spectrum, but rather from across the spectrum (though each “side” has its own reasons).

To think all this started with a casual neighborly chat.

Here’s the point. In the field of dialogue, we talk a lot about process, and that’s good. Academics and practitioners have designed some terrifically effective approaches to facilitating dialogue in structured settings.

But, as I point out in my book, there’s inestimable value in fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart as well—something so fundamental to our deepest selves that, when presented with an opportunity like this Saturday chat, we instinctively respond with curiosity and compassion. Equipped with this habit of the heart, we are continually ready to see opportunities to listen, learn more, connect with others, and bridge divides.

And trust me, those opportunities are everywhere.


P.S. If you want to educate yourself on the Common Core debate, try these articles for starters: a Wall Street Journal op-ed generally in favor of Common Core, a piece from education historian Diane Ravitch on her opposition, and a USNews survey of who’s for, who’s against, and why.



E-Course on Interfaith Dialogue & Spirituality

If you like the topics we discuss here, you’ll probably love the announcement below.

My colleagues in spirituality and dialogue, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality & Practice, have just announced an e-course led by The Interfaith Amigos. These three guys–an imam, a rabbi, and a pastor–have been talking, working, and presenting together for a long time. They are often funny and regularly provide penetrating insights into reaching across divides. Among other things, the course involves reading and reflecting on emails in a virtual “Practice Circle,” so you’ll get to know some other spirit-and-dialogue folks as well. I’ve already signed up, so I’m hoping I’ll see you there. (Note: if the registration link below doesn’t work, use this one:



A New E-Course with

The Interfaith Amigos


Imam Jamal Rahman, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Pastor Don Mackenzie, who have become known as the Interfaith Amigos, have been working together for over 14 years. The horrors of 9/11 brought them together to consider how truly effective interfaith dialogue could alleviate the demonization of any religion. They believe that all authentic spiritual traditions are sacred avenues to a shared Universal Reality from which true healing of personal and planetary problems flows.

Now in a new e-course developed for Spirituality & Practice, the Imam, the Rabbi, and the Pastor look at the specific issues we face in a pluralistic society and the spiritual practices that can help us transcend those roadblocks to effective collaboration on the critical issues of our time.

The e-course will run for four weeks from April 13 – May 8, 2015 and will focus on these themes:

Week 1: Spiritual Practices in General and Why We Need Them

Week 2: The Five Stages of Interfaith Dialogue

Week 3: The Major Ways Our Traditions Stray

Week 4: Beyond Polarization: Confronting Our Major Obstacle

This is a rare opportunity to learn from three distinguished spiritual teachers from the three Abrahamic faiths. Read more about it and register here:

We look forward to sharing this interfaith experience with you.


Salaam, Shalom, Shanti, Peace,


Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat


Co-Directors, Spirituality & Practice

When New Input Shapes Old Ideas: A Second Look at Walmart

I have to confess: I don’t like Walmart.

I don’t like the layout or the crowds. I don’t like the sub-subsistence wage they pay employees. I don’t like the havoc they wreak on local businesses and communities.

Clearly the entire business is an unmitigated blight on our society.

Clearly I’m as prone to simplistic bias as the next person.

That bias came to light when I woke up last week to a series of reports about Walmart on NPR’s Morning Edition. The segment on workers did highlight the pay issue I mentioned above. It also mentioned Walmart’s employee retirement plan and interviewed neighborhood supporters of the company. It quoted some people as observing that, at least in some communities, Walmart jobs are better than no jobs at all.

The day before, in a segment on community impact, the reporters noted that the Walmart effect is more complex than simply “Walmart comes in and destroys local business.”

Yes, they also raised the oft-repeated criticisms of the company. But overall, the picture presented is more nuanced than I would have thought.

I don’t know why I’m surprised. Time and again I run across input that forces me to re-examine—and usually revise—my opinions and biases. More often than not, these are opinions and biases I didn’t even know I had. The new input uncovers the dross in my inner life and empowers me to change or root it out.

(As a side note, this closely resembles a dynamic well known in the Christian tradition: with divine help, our sinful tendencies become apparent to us, and we strive to clear them out of our hearts in order to make more room for God.)

This attitude toward input is part of fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart. If we give input the opportunity to change our misperceptions, we’ll be more likely to approach the next bit of input anticipating the wisdom it may hold. We bring to it not the usual defensiveness, but a spirit of curiosity and inquiry.

This becomes all-important when that input comes to us face to face, via a living breathing person. Now we are not just welcoming another point of view; we are welcoming the human being behind it. When she says something with which we disagree, we’re more inclined to ask her to explain more, so we can explore the truth with her. And just like that, dialogue begins.

When was the last time you let some new input shape your old ideas? What was it like? Would you do it again, and why or why not?

Stupid Remarks and the Rush to Judgment

A few days ago I said something stupid, possibly even offensive, and it got me thinking about a disturbing bandwagon that most of us, from time to time, jump on and ride.

On Tuesday I had the privilege of speaking about my book at the behest of the Friends of the Albany Public Library. From what I could tell, the “book talk” was well received. During the Q&A, someone raised an issue that I hear a lot: how can you look to the Christian faith for insights on dialogue when the history of Christendom is littered with war, oppression, complicity in genocide, etc.?

It’s a compelling question, and the moment I heard it, I wanted to express my solidarity with the questioner—that I too am horrified by many acts perpetrated in God’s name. What I said was something like “I make no apology for my fellow Christians and the things they’ve done.”

Somehow, in my head, the phrase I make no apology meant I will not even try to justify or rationalize—in other words, the acts were horrible and I admit it. Later, back at home, I searched some online dictionaries for the phrase and found that it’s used for saying you’re not sorry about something. Yikes.

It gets better. The talk was being recorded. It’s slated to play on public access TV all week.

In the grand scheme of things, this is probably no big deal. Even the event organizers said so (they hadn’t noticed). But now imagine that someone wants to ruin me. He could conceivably edit that little clip, send it to any media who care, and post it on Facebook. I would look like an idiot, or worse.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

We do this all the time with our celebrities, our elected officials, and others in the public eye. They get their words tangled, it comes out badly, people catch it on their smartphones, it goes viral, and the outrage begins.

In that outrage, for some reason, we make a critical error: we assume that the clip in front of us represents the entire picture of what happened, context included. That’s an error for at least two reasons:

  1. We have no idea if the person on camera honestly misspoke. Public speaking is a weird phenomenon: you’re focusing on what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, how the audience is reacting, how much time you have left, what you can cut from the speech to make up time… Try to juggle all those thoughts and not make a single verbal mistake.
  2. We have no idea what the person said before or after the offending clip. It may have changed the meaning substantially. We may not even know the setting for the quote, or the intended audience, or other key contextual details.

Does that mean every speaker should get a free pass? Not hardly. I listened to Mitt Romney’s 47% quote in full context, and it still sounded bad.

The problem here is not so much judgment as it is the rush to judgment. We owe it to ourselves, to the offending speaker, and to the spirit of dialogue to inquire carefully into the context before we decide what the quote says, if anything, about the person behind it.

We all screw up. Stupid things fall out of our mouths. Sometimes they do in fact reveal our venality or sin or prejudice, and it’s important to fess up to it. Sometimes “I was misquoted” is a cheap excuse. But sometimes it’s true. Let’s get in the habit of checking it out before rushing to judgment.

Dialogue, ISIS, and the Reading of Evil

Is it enough to condemn evil without trying to understand it?

I’m not sure the answer is obvious. On the one hand, dwelling on the wretchedness of villainy (to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi) can be corrosive to one’s inner life. It’s why we humans often tell one another to “focus on the positive,” or why St. Paul instructs his Philippian friends similarly:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

On the other hand, two things can go wrong if we condemn evil without understanding it. First, we could miss out on the fact that the “evil” isn’t evil at all, but simply another perspective that merits a hearing in dialogue or some other format. Second, in cases when the evil is evil, we could miss out on uncovering the best ways to defeat it.

Throughout his must-read article in this month’s Atlantic, contributing editor Graeme Wood puts the Islamic State phenomenon squarely in the second category. To correct this error, he puts forth a well-researched report on the specific beliefs that drive the caliphate.

If Wood’s analysis is correct, then actual dialogue with the jihadist leaders, even if remotely desirable, is impossible: their interpretation of Islam requires them to forswear the peace and bridge building that dialogue fosters. However, understanding the intellectual foundation of ISIS would greatly enrich our dialogue about ISIS—particularly the dialogue of Western leaders as they seek more intelligent, more effective strategies for bringing the rogue state down.

That is Wood’s thesis, and I agree. It doesn’t make reading about the Islamic State any less stressful or horrifying. A steady diet of such articles would mess with my mind, and probably yours too. Which leads us back to the question: does it make any sense for average citizens, with no power over strategy, to let this stuff into their minds? What do you think?


Dialogue and My Facebook Detox

I’m in the fourth day of Facebook detox.

If you read this space regularly, you’ll know that Facebook has inspired a good many dialogues (and articles) for me. Some of my favorite colleagues I know only through Facebook. It’s become one of the world’s great gathering places, so it would be silly for me not to be there and learn what I can.

And yet it’s just too easy to slip away for a moment, take a quick break from work, disrupt whatever I’m doing to check Facebook. It’s easy to respond to x conversation, add a quick comment on y page, maybe post an update or a question of my own, watch that video (it’s only two minutes)….

Before I know it, my concentration’s shot. I don’t know what or how much I’ve accomplished. Each day ends with a vague sense of waste. So I’m off (or nearly off) Facebook, at least for a few days.

This seems to be the way life goes, for many of us at least. We engage, we retreat. We make our mark in the public square, we withdraw to reflect and recharge.

It’s hardly a new idea. Early Christian thinkers spilled a lot of ink reflecting on “the active life” vs. “the contemplative life” and opining which was better. In modern times the general conversation speaks of introversion and extroversion.

For me, the best is a blend of both—or, rather, a flow between the two. I’ve spent much of my life in a more contemplative place. Now, with the book and the articles and the conferences and whatnot, my life has taken an active turn, without leaving the contemplative behind.

This flow, I think, is essential for us as people of dialogue. Individual dialogues are demanding work. They require intense periods of listening, deep reflection, compassion for the other, and great care with language, among other things. We can’t sustain these wonderful efforts forever. We have to process, give our souls a break, let our preconceptions and the input from the dialogue play together.

How do you know when the flow is shifting? This is where I think listening comes in: listening to one’s own heart, to one’s exhaustion levels, to the tenor of the conversation at that moment, to the situation, to the other. If we develop an ear for these things, we can let the shift happen when it comes, respect its timing, and go with it.

Oh, it helps to listen to loved ones too. With the Facebook business, I ignored the shift for quite a while. Fortunately, one passing comment from my wife woke me up to face what was happening.

I’m sure I will be on Facebook again at some point. If I listen to my heart with enough honesty, I’ll even know when that point is. One can only hope.

Have you ever done a Facebook detox? Did it help? How? Feel free to share.

What I’ve Learned from Al Sharpton

My bullshit alarm went off last month. As usual, it forced me to rethink an opinion I’d always just assumed.

The big surprise was who set it off: Al Sharpton.

Here’s what happened. In the wake of the senseless deaths of two NYPD officers, one news item in particular caught my attention: Al Sharpton condemned the shootings.

I have never paid a great deal of attention to Sharpton. What little I had absorbed was overwhelmingly negative: he was an opportunist, a craven showman, an inciter of violence and hatred. So when a conservative friend or relative condemned the reverend, I would simply nod my head and point out that no, not all black people were like Al Sharpton, not all progressives were like Al Sharpton, he was an extreme example.

And when I heard that Sharpton condemned the murders of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, it struck me as remarkable news. I figured someone in the public square would remark on it. But no: many conservative pundits continued their ongoing assault on Sharpton without missing a beat—without even acknowledging his statement.

That’s when my bullshit alarm went off. It posed this question: “Who exactly informed your opinion of Al Sharpton?”

After a bit of thought, I realized that my opinions came largely from in-laws and friends and media types. Specifically, conservative in-laws and friends and media types.

There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on sources like these. But I try hard not to get all my input from one viewpoint, so a bit of investigation was in order to restore the balance. I spent the better part of an afternoon reading about Sharpton: not what opinionators said about him, but what he said and did, going back at least to the 1990s. (For example: Sharpton’s eulogy at Michael Brown’s funeral and his account of his role in the Crown Heights unrest.)

To summarize: I could not find a single instance of Al Sharpton’s inciting violence. He is vocal and assertive about racial injustice, but he also takes elements of the African-American community to task (as in the Michael Brown eulogy). He has done some divisive and incendiary things, particularly in his early days (the Tawana Brawley affair comes immediately to mind). Perhaps he is opportunistic. Many of his calls for justice sound similar to what I recall hearing in the 1960s. I’m hardly the first person to notice all this: media outlets like Politico and Newsweek have chronicled Sharpton’s evolution.

As I read, a different image of Sharpton began to form in my mind: a particularly colorful mix of virtues and vices (like most of us), who appears to have evolved over time (like most of us). It is hardly a description of the devil incarnate.

So. What are the lessons here?

  1. People can and do change. We need to give them grace to do so. We owe it to them to see and honor their evolving selves and reshape our opinions of them accordingly. This approach, unfortunately, is in short supply, as anyone who’s attended a family reunion—and was treated like she was still 10—can tell you.
  2. There’s no end to our blind spots: instances in which we’ve semi-consciously glommed onto an opinion without even realizing we haven’t thought it through. Openness and humility can help here: humility keeps us attentive to how much we don’t know, while openness motivates us to hear—even more, to seek out—opinions that differ from our own, no matter how “settled” the issue might be for us.
  3. Assume good intent. This is particularly important for people of faith, since most if not all faith traditions require us to extend welcome and compassion to all. Does that mean we trust blindly? No. The gospel admonition to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) applies here. Skepticism can be healthy. Cynicism born of hostility, not so much.

Have you had to revise an opinion of someone you were absolutely certain about? How did that work for you? Feel free to tell your stories here.