Reaching Beyond “the Choir”

I’ve had a great opportunity this weekend to talk with long-time friends about the issue of immigration and the detention centers that are currently being used by the United States. The issue has been at the forefront of our minds since we were told that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had picked 10 cities for sweeps targeting immigrants – including both Los Angeles (the city in which I live) and Denver (the city I am currently visiting).

In the context of those passionate conversations with loved ones, I was reminded my approach to divisive social issues is a little different than some. The reason for that is that I have two passions that are often perceived of as being diametrically opposed that inform my approach: spirituality and politics. My approach, then, is to deal with hot-button issues by borrowing equally from both fields.

Let me demonstrate how I use my approach using the matter of immigration sweeps as an example. I’ll begin by talking about my spiritual convictions that guide me.
As a Christian, there are two spiritual convictions that guide my life. First, I believe that every human being is a sacred child of God and – as such – needs to be treated with dignity and respect. Second, as a Christian I believe Jesus calls us to mercifully care for others in the way that the Good Samaritan treated the vulnerable man alongside the road (which, ironically, was the assigned Gospel reading from the lectionary yesterday).
Here’s where those two spiritual convictions get me in trouble in unexpected ways. When I say that “every human being is a sacred child of God and needs to be treated with dignity and respect”, that means both the immigrant from Guatemala and the Trumpster that lives next door. Many who affirm the sacred value of every individual mean EITHER the immigrant OR the Trumptster: but not both.

Second, when I say I believe “Jesus calls us to mercifully care for others in the way that the Good Samaritan treated the man alongside the road” – again, I feel a moral obligation to treat everyone well. That means treating both the immigrant with dignity and respect as they seek to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities they deserve AND treating those whom society would label my political opponents with dignity and respect in the course of our conversation about how to best craft immigration policy.

So my spiritual convictions call me to be a powerful force of love that transcends labels like “immigrant” and “Trumpster” – so that I can help create a world where all receive my love, care, and mercy.

So how do my political (and not my partisan) convictions inform my approach to immigration?

As someone who has been involved in the political process for over 30 years now, I learned an important lesson very early. I have little if any desire to “preach to the choir”: meaning pull together likeminded people and whip them into a frenzy by focusing on how bad those on “the other side” are. Instead, my consuming passion is to reach beyond those who already see the world like I do and affect those who see things differently. My experience has taught me that that is the only way in which I can ensure that my views stand a chance at becoming public policy.

So how do I reach those who see themselves as holding radically different positions than I do?

Here is where I use a model that I learned from the Oregon Speak Out project comes in handy. The model was used in the early 1990’s when the states of Oregon and Washington were facing a spate of ballot proposals designed to deny LGBTQI people their basic human rights.

The model they taught their volunteers was called LARA. The acronym stands for LISTEN, RESPOND, AFFIRM, and ADD INFORMATION. Let me give you an example of how this model might work in real life.

Let’s say I’m involved in a conversation with a passionate supporter of immigration sweeps and the detention centers. The first thing I do is take the time to listen to the individual without interrupting her or him. As the individual talks, I listen for at least one point they make that represent common – or shared value. For instance, in their remarks the person might say, “We need the sweeps to round dangerous illegal immigrants up get them off our streets!”

So when the person finishes speaking, I might start by saying something like, “I hear that you are really concerned about the safety of our communities.” A statement like this does two things: first, it demonstrates that you listened; and second, it gives you an opportunity to frame the next phase of the conversation.

Now that you’ve listened and responded, the next step is the most unexpected – and transformative – piece of the encounter. You affirm a shared value. In the above conversation, for instance, you would follow up your opening sentence by saying something like, “I, too, share your concern about the safety of our community.” Once a shared value is identified, the fear and distrust of “the other” begins to disappear – for you establish the fact that the two of you don’t see the world as differently as they might suspect. And with that, the other person begins to breath and actually open their ears and their hearts.

Once that happens, you get to the fourth and final stage of the model: the part where you get to add information. The final part of the conversation might go something like this. “Since we both share a common desire to make our communities safer, here’s something you might want to consider. I was reading that a study by the Cato Institute – a Libertarian (not a Democratic or Republican) think tank – that looked at the rate of crime and convictions per 100,000 residents for three populations: undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born Americans. They found that the rate of arrests and criminal convictions for undocumented immigrants was 899 per 100,000; the rate for legal immigrants was 611; and the rate for native-born Americans was 1,797. That means native-born Americans were more than twice as likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes than undocumented immigrants! So if we truly want to take steps to make our communities safe, we need to focus our limited resources on those who are actually committing crimes at the highest rate – native-born Americans.”  (Here’s a link to the article: Cato Study.)

Will such an approach work every time? Absolutely not. There are some people whose hearts are so hardened by their assumptions that they will NEVER change their minds no matter what the facts say. There are many people in a group called “the mushy middle”, however, that will listen. IF – and only IF – they feel as if they have truly been listened to first.

And here’s my favorite part of the LARA model. The model represents both my core spiritual AND political values. The model’s commitment to listening to “the other” and taking the time and energy to identify shared values demonstrates my spiritual conviction that every person (including those whom society would label my opponents) are sacred individuals worthy of being heard. AND it demonstrates my core political conviction that if we ever want to effect policy change, we have to have the strength and courage to reach out beyond “the choir” and change the hearts and minds of those who tend to see things differently than we do.

So how about you? What ideas do you have for reaching out to everyone in the midst of divisive debates that both reflect your core spiritual values AND present opportunities to actually change people’s hearts?

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About Pastor Craig

I'm a 51-year-old single, gay man who lives in Los Angeles, CA. My passion and vocation involve spirituality. I live with my Italian Greyhound Tupper and my passion for Houston sports. I'm looking to start wonderful conversations that spark spiritual growth in all of us!
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