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The Way It’s Supposed To Be: Part I
The Middle East Crisis In My Backyard:
How Communities Come Apart and How They HealDecember, 2015
I looked around at the “Monday Morning Meeting” attendees gathered in this cozy club-like room we had claimed these past months, missing my police officer friend, Jason, acutely. On this last get together day of what had been a year-long conversations adventure, my sense of Jason’s presence being necessary startled me along with his absence feeling important. I had grown close to Jason on this journey we had shared and often looked to him as a sounding board as we worked together to expand our project; our minds and our hearts – and – consequently the visions each of us held for the possibilities our joint endeavors might achieve, forging a bond of understanding between us.
But Jason had taken off for some family time; first a long-planned trip to Las Vegas to celebrate his son’s twenty-first birthday, then another week-end marking his wife’s. I probably wouldn’t see him again until after the holidays in January. I sorely felt his being gone.
Today, overall, the attendance for our semi-regular meetings had dwindled but I made that fact incidental. I was just simply glad to be back here at Dublin Roasters, our neighborhood coffee shop with this special group of people now gathered. Long past were my days of being a loner; devotion to collaboration and team work had taken center stage. As I had grown more and more aware of what was important, the notion that life was with people had taken hold. I had no wish to release it. It had been a long time coming.
Once I caught on, however, this retired psychotherapist, Me, turned community development consultant and trainer became dedicated to the ideal of overcoming the polarization running riot throughout our society. It was now close to ten years since this shift had occurred in me. Drawing on my clinical training, experience and skills, especially in doing group therapy, I had then gone on to collaborate with a former ninth grade school teacher to create a model for community dialogue and problem solving that became the Coffee House Conversations series. We were in our eighth year with it.
Now like a recovering drunk who had found the Twelve Steps, I wished everyone could know and embrace the values interwoven into the transformational power of our model and apply them to everyday challenges; values built upon a belief and substantiation that through dialogue, truth and reconciliation practices people can find common ground and together build a better world.
This set of beliefs was at the very core of my Being. And, our Coffee House Conversations project had given me, personally, a venue from which to shout out its beauty; loud and clear in everything I said and did in presenting it, or so I thought. After all, I came of a long line of folks who had fought for their very lives against the oppression of those who would do them in; from the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, all the way down to modern times, including the Holocaust and the still active anti-Semitism throughout the world.
I had a personal stake in overcoming polarization and our Coffee House Conversations project was giving me a much-needed setting from which to express my passion for peace and unity and teach what I knew on how to systematically attain that state.
Both Sue deVeer, my collaborator who was born and bred Quaker, and myself had lived by these principles and related practices for most of our lives. We knew them from the inside out. But so far, where others were concerned, it had been like swimming upstream to sell our approach; the idea sounded appealing but the effort required to develop the necessary skills for genuine effectiveness seemed to be too much for most people. This disappointing insight had been one of the most revealing realizations for me from this past year of Coffee House Conversations. Additionally, neither Sue nor myself were much good at fundraising and marketing. And a program such as ours needed both.
But here in our hidey hole meeting place we, who were seemingly of like-mind, had found a back room for gathering and sharing our hopes and dreams for building a greater unity in our community. Here we had met as a group of not more than ten or twelve for months now, to develop what had turned out to be regular events, spotlighting certain sensitive issues in our community through the dialogue programs we called Coffee House Conversations; now our non-profit organization’s signature series.
The first Coffee House Conversation we did, this past January, had a broad scope, billed as focusing on race relations, police relations and general community relations. It had been an exciting and inspiring launching, especially on the heels of the previous year’s upset in Ferguson, Missouri, claiming the life of one more Black male youth, downed by a police officer, worsening the nationwide backlash already in motion wherever citizen-police relationships were in question.
Building on this platform, we had put in a rewarding year with our programs; five out of nine of them specially focused on citizen-police relations; “Kids and Cops,” which we had presented two times; one on site for the local Housing Authority and three of “Humanizing Citizen-Police Relations,” partnering with our local City Police. All had been well-received with the local media giving us our fair share of free publicity.
Now it was the end of the year, heading into the holiday season and people’s hearts and minds were turned elsewhere. Besides, we had already finished our slate of Coffee House Conversations for the year. The final one had been presented the Saturday before this Monday Morning Meeting; the first Saturday of December. So it was really wrap up time.
But just as our meeting was ending, An-Nur, a Muslim woman from Bangladesh that I had come to know, admire and even love a little spoke out, adamant and angry! As my father used to say, given the volume and intensity of her voice, she was definitely a bit “hot under the collar” about something. But I didn’t quite understand what; her anger making it hard for me to hear her and register the actual source of her displeasure.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the disturbance but I was. Actually both An-Nur and her husband, Ahmed, had accosted me at the end of last Saturday’s program; a certain demonstration that the main lesson I had been attempting to teach all year; dialogue must supplant debate as our common mode of communication, if genuine bridge building and problem solving are our goals, had definitely not taken hold.
Quite evidently the message intended had found no place for expression in these exchanges with An-Nur and her husband. The conversations were the complete antithesis of what our project was about, leaving me feeling entrapped and abused with both of them coming at me angrily. I had also had a similar encounter with Ahmed following the Coffee House Conversations event in November. What had been most unsettling to me then is that I had truly tried to listen carefully to him and his concerns at the time but could not find my way through his heavy Bengali accent.
The second time a similar encounter occurred, this one at the December event and including An-Nur, there had been two people talking hard and fast to me in a way that felt as if I were being hammered on. I had made my escape as quick as I could. Now here we were again. This time at the Monday Morning Meeting I had come to consider almost as sacred territory. Although with An-Nur only, especially away from her husband, I sincerely wanted us to work this thing out.
What was the whole Coffee House Conversations project about anyway, if not to build bridges, not impenetrable walls? But these encounters were definitely not “IT” by any stretch of the imagination. They exemplified debate at its worst extreme; anger and hostility carried to the point of abusiveness; a far cry from the peace building agenda we had in mind. But at least they were saying something of their views and for that I was grateful.
Part II: Coming Soon!