A UNITY MINISTER DECIDES IT’S TIME TO HAVE THE TALK.
BY DEBORAH SHOUSE
Rev. Sandra Campbell was nervous. Her throat was dry as she sat in a small circle with congregants from Unity Temple on the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, for their first Courageous Conversations meeting. Campbell, an associate minister, didn’t know where this venture would go or how the participants could even get into the difficult discussions about personal and societal prejudices regarding race, religion, sexuality, class, and more. She didn’t know what the talks would uncover. She just knew she felt called to do this.
The seven group members of diverse ages and ethnicities introduced themselves and shared information about their backgrounds and their current lives. Then Campbell used an exercise from the “Diversity in the Workplace” class she’d taught at Webster University’s Kansas City campus. She asked the group to identify politically correct names for a variety of peoples, including African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasians, Jews, Latinos, LGBTQ, and others.
“Now, close your eyes and imagine that you’re at the family dinner table,” she instructed the group. “What words are used to talk about these groups of people?”
The silence thickened. Someone coughed.
Finally, a woman said, “Nigger.”
“Chink,” said another.
“Now, think about who you know personally,” Campbell continued. “Do you know African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, lesbians? When you see them, do you see the labels around the kitchen table or do you just see the individual?” The tension eased as the group talked about their friends and how much they had learned from being around people who were different. At the end of the two-hour session, everyone hugged. Campbell breathed a sigh of relief: She had wanted to build an environment where people would feel safe and invited to speak. They were on their way.
“DIVERSITY IS BEING INVITED TO THE PARTY. INCLUSION IS BEING ASKED TO DANCE.”
FOLLOWING THE HEART
The idea for starting the group came to Campbell months earlier, in the summer of 2016. Campbell was teaching at Christ Church Unity Orlando, just days after the mass killing at the Pulse
nightclub, where a gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 58 more at a popular gay bar and dance club. She returned home with a heavy heart, haunted by a recurring question: What is ours to do? Campbell voiced her concerns at a Sunday lesson, asking, “Do we just pray and meditate, talk and agonize, and go back to business as usual while others are left to pick up the pieces?” Instead, Campbell saw the tragedy as an opportunity to lift up those who were hurting.
“I thought we should have a conversation about the issues that divide us,” she says, “but I didn’t take any action.”
Still, the question What is ours to do? stayed with her. Several Sundays later, after a black gunman killed five white Dallas police officers at what had until then been a peaceful protest, she decided to ask the question and invite comments during her Sunday lesson. Several people came up to her afterward and agreed that something needed to be done for the congregation to be more inclusive and engage the community on issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and so on.
Campbell then went to work, creating a 12-week program to explore the uncomfortable issues and stereotypes that keep people apart. As an African American, Campbell knew they would need to brave some difficult topics before they could begin to achieve understanding or inclusion. A quote from diversity and inclusion expert Verna Myers kept echoing in her head: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” “DIVERSITY IS BEING INVITED TO THE PARTY. INCLUSION IS BEING ASKED TO DANCE.” —VERNA MYERS
“Our human nature is to stay with our own kind,” Campbell says. “We don’t intentionally exclude; we do it unconsciously.”
USING UNITY PRINCIPLES
Campbell reveres the fifth Unity principle: We walk our talk. During the conversation group, she encouraged people to explore questions such as: “How do I walk my talk?”
“If they answered, ‘Through prayer and meditation, I connect with God,’ I asked them how they show that,” she says.
Campbell also asked participants, “How open can we be? Are we willing to share our truths honestly and with kindness? How do we shift to thinking that we are all children of one God?” The conversations helped people identify their strengths and challenges. Each person was affected by their circumstances growing up and brought with them stereotypes and prejudices.
“When you give people the right avenue to speak their truth and be heard, they learn and you learn,” Campbell says. “You can change the conversation at home. When your brother makes a disparaging comment you can say, ‘That’s not the way I see it.’”
Even Campbell, who’d done extensive training and teaching in diversity, uncovered some of her own ingrained prejudices. “I see pants sagging, body and face piercings, tattoos,
and my mind leaps to judgment,” she says. “When I find myself stereotyping someone, I remind myself to look beyond the appearance to who that person truly is—God’s whole and perfect child.”
SPEAKING THEIR TRUTHS
“I needed to have conversations across different cultural groups, in particular between black people and white people,” says Boni Tolson, Ph.D., artist, advocate, and one of the group’s participants. “We need to reconcile these two groups who’ve been at odds for hundreds of years and we need to do that on an individual level. In our group we can voice what we believe and we can hear ourselves say what we believe.”
Tolson appreciates the openness of the group because people express different opinions but do not get into arguments.
“This openness means we can change how we perceive ourselves, each other, and the world,” she explains, “and that can bring us all closer together.” Everyone in the group has benefited.
“I didn’t have my voice until I joined this group,” one member who asked to remain anonymous said. “People would say disparaging things at work and I did not speak up. I simply went home feeling sad and discouraged.” Joining the group helped her open up and speak in a caring way.
“WHEN WE DON’T KNOW PEOPLE PERSONALLY, WE ONLY KNOW THE MYTH. WE HAVE TO DISPEL THAT MYTH.”
—REV. SANDRA CAMPBELL
“Until we started having deep conversations about our own experiences, I thought these problems were just on the news,” another member mentioned. “My mind has expanded.”
ADDING IDEAS AND RESOURCES
As the conversation group developed, they accessed a variety of resources and media to expand their understanding of diversity and inclusion. They consulted with Shariff M. Abdullah, J.D., author of Creating a World That Works for All (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). They discussed don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements (Amber-Allen, 1997). They brainstormed with other congregations who had experience in social justice and diversity. They watched and discussed leading-edge documentaries, such as Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America and the
film 13th, which explores the relationship between race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. They visited interfaith organizations and got to know a wider swath of people.
“When we don’t know people personally, we only know the myth. We have to dispel that myth,” Campbell says. “By expanding your kinship group, you shift your paradigm. When you develop a kinship with people who are different, you see there is no separation: We are all the same.”
The question What is ours to do? continued to guide the group. They discussed: “When you see something unjust happening, do something.”
“Maybe the appropriate action for one person is speaking up right now. For another, it may be writing an elected official or the editor of a local newspaper,” Campbell says. “Small deeds are powerful.”
People reached out to Campbell to learn even more. She spoke with other African-American Unity ministers, including many who felt that there had been racial disparity in Unity during the 1960s and 1970s and that African Americans hadn’t been honored for their contributions.
“We decided to toot our own horns,” Campbell says. A group created a presentation of the accomplishments
of African-American ministers, which was shown at the 2016 Unity People’s Convention.
African-American ministers on the East Coast invited Campbell to discuss next steps for highlighting contributions of African Americans to the Unity movement. The group asked Campbell to
present a Courageous Conversations workshop at the 2017 Unity People’s Convention. Before an audience of about 70 people, Campbell described her group and their vision and showed the 2013 documentary White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son, with activist Tim Wise. After the film, the conversation burst wide open.
“I was like Oprah running around with a mic,” Campbell says. “Everyone had something to say about how they were raised and about things that happened to them in Unity and in the community.”
Campbell was also a featured speaker at the Unity People’s Convention in June 2018. From a small core group, the Courageous Conversations concept is slowly spreading. And in the meantime, the original group has expanded and continues to meet, ensuring that their own courageous conversations keep going.
STARTING YOUR OWN COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION
TIPS FOR STARTING A GROUP:
• Set guidelines for the discussion, such as no interrupting, no blaming, no criticism. Invite people to listen quietly and respectfully before speaking. Make sure that everyone gets to express themselves.
• Consider bringing an evocative film or reading to open the discussion.
TIPS FOR SPEAKING OUT:
• Breathe first. This helps you center and release emotional attachment.
• Be willing to listen. Slow down, focus, look the speaker in the eyes, and think, I bless you, I see the Christ in you. “Offering this affirmation may not change them,” Campbell explains, “but it
• Allow yourself to be silent. Sometimes being quiet shows strength. Campbell cites the verse, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39)
• When you speak, be clear and nonjudgmental. Use “I” statements, such as, “When you said that, I felt uncomfortable” instead of “You made me feel uncomfortable when you said that.”