Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Practicing Forgiveness

 A few years ago, the youth group at our church went on an international work camp. My oldest son, who is now 24, attended every work camp when he was in high school. I trusted the youth minister and the team of volunteers she assembled to keep the kids safe and on track.

During the international trip, that my youngest son did not attend, a large group of the kids sneaked out of their rooms to party offsite. This, despite the fact that they all agreed to abstain from alcohol and drugs during work camp. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The kids involved kept the party a secret for a few months, until at least one confessed to the youth minister.

At the time, I was a member of the lay leadership council. This event was obviously a topic of discussion at our monthly meeting. Though neither of my children had attended, I knew others who had. I wanted to know how this could have happened and expressed how this damaged my trust as a parent whose child was eligible to attend future work camps.

What I wanted to hear was this: Staff and church leadership are mortified that this happened, we take full responsibility, we're taking steps to ensure this doesn't happen again, and your child and all attendees will be looked after properly.

Instead I was scolded for jumping to conclusions when I didn't really know what had happened. I was also told no one can stop sneaky kids from doing nefarious things. Those "sneaky" kids were themselves church members--and their parents were, too.

Your next question might well be, did you stay at this church? You may be surprised to read that I did. I am a woman of faith, so I finished up the last two months of my term, and took an indefinite break from the church.

During that time, I missed the church and the people there. I thought about the many, many ways the ministers and others had cared for me and my family, how generously they gave of their time and expertise to the community's benefit. Why would I throw all that away because some leaders had made some mistakes? Hadn't I myself blundered?

Two of the people involved sought me out and apologized. With their help, and God's, I concluded this was forgivable. As the minister of the church had often taught the congregation, the church is about forgiveness.

This memory arises as I watch the presidential campaign unfold. As Donald Trump's antics dominate the news, there is also discontent about Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy and record after a contentious primary campaign with Senator Bernie Sanders. Some criticize HRC for calling African-American juveniles "super predators" during a speech she gave during President Clinton's 1996 re-election, pointing to how welfare reform and policing tactics instituted during that era negatively impacted communities already suffering from institutional racism.

I won't pretend to know what it's like to be African-American or a minority growing up in a country that has not sufficiently healed from its history of enslaving Africans and the civil war fought over it, or to be a policy expert. What I did do is watch the speech in question. She spoke for half an hour, laying out initiatives President Clinton was proposing for his second term--environmental protection, education, economic inequality, health care, family issues, peace and freedom and community policing. This last was where she made the super predator comment. She made it in passing, and moved on to her next remarks.

I'm not making any excuses for the racism inherent in such a remark. I will say HRC did not invent racism. She used a regrettable term to talk about other peoples' children, children growing up in very difficult environments--similar to the terms some church leaders had made about kids in our community. HRC's remark was also made more than 20 years ago, and it seems to me that she could be forgiven, given her years of advocating for educational opportunities and health care for all children.

Because after all, who hasn't been ignorant and insensitive? On top of that, most of us don't have every dumb thing we've said in the public record. That same public record also contains domestic and foreign policy progress Secretary Clinton has forged.

Nor have most of us crafted policies that affect a lot of peoples' lives. I know someone who served on the Boulder City Council who says that nearly every policy she helped develop and implement had unintended, sometimes negative, consequences. A lot of them also never saw the light of day, because of opposition, and some did not survive beyond her terms. The same is surely true for HRC, and certainly every other public official.

I am learning not to expect perfection from leaders. What I do want to see is leaders who learn from their mistakes, who assemble advisors with wide-ranging perspectives to ensure that all decisions minimize unintended negative consequences. When these arise, they are prepared to address them.

I do my best to fold forgiveness into my spiritual practice, because I realize how easy it is to hurt others just by being me and living my life. Because of this, I can afford to be more tender hearted and forgiving with others, including leaders who really are trying to do their best to serve.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Art of Giving

When I was 17, my mom turned 40. I had just recently graduated from high school, and I was earning money from a summer job. I thought about a gift for her and decided on a book I liked, Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She was polite and thanked me for it, but I doubt she ever read it.

This is no slam on her. It's all on me. In this case, it truly was the thought that counted. My mom is a reader, but this book of essays by a writer I admired is not her cup of tea. I had violated a rule about the giving of gifts. I had not bought the book with her in mind. I had bought it with me in mind. I had a vague idea that my mom would read the book, and we'd have discussions about it. In other words, I wanted her to give me something, her time, her thoughts, her attention. Any gift I gave should have reflected that the occasion of a milestone birthday was all about her.

I am not alone in my mistaken notion about what constitutes good gift-giving practice. I see it happen all the time. A well-meaning relative insists on giving you a piece of furniture, when what you really need and want is help paying your child's college tuition. Or a new sweater, or almost anything else.

On a larger scale, some presidential candidates say they'd give low-income families tax breaks, when what they really need are better jobs, child care, schools, transportation and health care. 

To be a good gift giver, first of all take what you want completely out of it. Instead, pay attention to what interests the recipient, and what they love. When in doubt, ask them what they need and want. These, and your own love, will guide you to finding a gift that suits them.