Rev. Dr. James L. Lumsden: Three ways to strengthen our ties as a community

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PITTSFIELD — I recently had the privilege to participate in the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregation's forum "Healing Pittsfield: A Conversation about What Divides Us." Each of my colleagues on the panel brought wisdom and years of commitment to the challenge of overcoming racism, sexism and anti-Semitism in the Berkshires. The moderators, Rev. Shelia-Sholes-Ross and Rabbi Joshua Briendel, were equally sensitive and insightful in moving the conversation deeper. It was an important local step in our quest towards reclaiming the Beloved Community of MLK's dream.

What happens next, however, is vexing. As one member of my congregation observed to me after the event, "This was very important — and I am grateful. But it seems that we've been lamenting exactly these same problems without moving toward life-changing solutions for over 50 years."

A sentence in The Eagle's editorial of Oct. 24 ("Pittsfield's divisions are cultural and tangible") makes the same point: "If there was a simple solution, it would have been found by now — in Pittsfield and other American communities." And therein rests our dilemma.

Time-tested actions

There are, indeed, solutions, but they are far from simple. They require sacrifice, time, candor, humility and resources at a moment in our history when all are in short supply. Nevertheless, at the forum, I suggested three time-tested next-step actions that would address our collective ignorance while strengthening the ties that bind us together in community. They are:

* An interfaith, grassroots, multi-year commitment to The People's Suppers movement. (www.thepeoplessupper.org)

The goal of this effort links ends with means: slowing down to break bread with others gives us a chance to meet those who are different from ourselves. As we listen carefully to one another's deepest concerns with humility we begin to rebuild "brave places" where our vulnerability becomes our strength.

Founder Emily May put it like this: "We aim to repair the breach in our interpersonal relationships across political, ideological, and identity differences, leading to more civil discourse. And, we plan to do it in the most nourishing way we know — over supper!"

Guidelines for each supper are provided. At each gathering, we begin by sharing personal responses to three questions: 1) What's the first moment that you understood what it means to be a citizen? 2) What do you dream for your community? 3) What was a moment in which you were made to feel not welcome?

Every one of us eats — and almost every one of us in Pittsfield yearns for a more perfect union. Using this new/old resource gives shape and form to one of our oldest prayers: "Thou pre-parest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies my cup overflows."

* A full year of researching and reporting on Pittsfield's "shadows and light" re: racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.

Our wounds have a deep history. Sadly, most of Pittsfield's white population knows nothing of our culture of overt and covert oppression. One example is illustrative: how many of us know that it was illegal for Jews to own land in Pittsfield until after 1890? Without land, there could be no cemetery - or synagogue.

That does not mean that Jews did not contribute to the well-being of our town before Knesset Israel was founded in 1893. It does mean that they were systematically denied the right to worship freely.

During Pittsfield's 250th anniversary, The Eagle and other local institutions ran daily mini-stories about events and people that had an impact on our community on that date in our past. My challenge builds on this: consider the insights we might discern if not only The Eagle, but the Athenaeum, the NAACP, the Jewish Federation, PACC and the Samuel Harrison House collaborated on a yearlong project of sharing our "hidden" histories. Both the ugly and exhilarating truths. If we want to change the trajectory of our culture, we must do the hard work of telling the truth to one another our loud.

Owning our sins

* A regional Truth and Reconciliation Commission that culminates in public ceremonies of repentance and forgiveness.

When apartheid came to a close in South Africa, the nation's leadership understood that laws on paper were important, but they did not change human hearts — especially hearts baptized in decades of hatred and blood. Under the tender but strong leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu, a multi-year voluntary project was initiated that brought together people who had oppressed others for honest conversations. In time, two things transpired: many of the oppressors came to ask their victims for forgiveness, and, many of the hurting found the strength and courage to do so in ways that liberated both parties.

Canada recently spent a few years of learning about its own subjugation of First Nations' People in a similar process. This led to new initiatives to combat police brutality towards indigenous women. I confess that I do not have a monopoly on wisdom about how something similar might take place among us, yet it is clear that without owning our sins in public — and working towards reconciliaton— there can be no deep healing.

There are certainly other ways to move deeper, too. The PACC team of panelists is already considering creative, "out of the box" events that would welcome younger Berkshire citizens to this essential conversation. I stand ready to do my part — as does my congregation — and pray that the spirit of creating brave and hope-filled space continues.

Rev. Dr. James Lumsden

Pittsfield

The writer is pastor of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield.



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