By Conference Minister Diane Weible
Last week in our newsletter, our Moderator, Eppie Encabo, shared information about our 2020 Annual Gathering plans. Today I want to take some time to explain the theme, “The Elephant in the Room.”
The decision for the theme comes from a well-known parable that originated in India, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” The origins of this can be traced to sacred texts of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faith traditions. In this parable, several blind men come across an elephant and because they have never encountered an elephant before, they use their sense of touch to decide for themselves what an elephant looks like. Each man touches a different part of the elephant and based on what they have touched attempts to describe what an elephant looks like. One touches a tusk, another a tail, a third the trunk and so on.
In one version, the men begin to fight because each believes the other is being dishonest in their description based on what they believe is the truth. I like this description from Wikipedia about the meaning of this story: “The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.”
In my Doctor of Ministry work, I used this parable to explain how this story illustrates something important about how we understand and experience God. Each one of us has our story and our own experience of God. And, if we know and trust that God is so much bigger than any one of us, we also know that any one of our stories or experiences is but one sliver of the totality of who God is. If we want to know and understand God, we need each other and each other’s stories to expand our understanding of just how big our God is.
This parable also illustrates the danger of a single story. If we believe our experiences of the world and society are the same experiences as everyone else’s, then we begin to believe that every person has the same opportunities and sees the world in the same way. Or, even worse, we try to connect another person’s story to our own reality and make assumptions or decisions about how that person should or could respond because that is how we are able to respond.
The Elephant in the Room is a reminder that we need to do a better job of listening to our stories. We need to do a better job of getting out of our own story so that another person’s story can be heard for what they have experienced. We need to understand how another person sees and experiences God if we want our own understanding of God to expand.
This year we have committed to having “deep conversations for deep concerns.” The most sacred conversations we can have in our lives are conversations where we hear another person’s story that is so completely different than anything we can understand and we find a way to step away from our own reality and our own story in order to learn something new and understand a truth we have been missing. Really listening to another person’s story opens up our awareness and understanding and helps us view the world in a different way. It motivates us to act differently because we see injustice and inhumanity in ways we had not seen before.
Next week I will be in Alabama with the rest of the Conference Ministers. We are visiting the Legacy Museum, King Memorial Baptist Church, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery; will walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; and will visit the 16th St. Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. In preparation for this experience, I just finished listening to The Sun Does Shine, the story of Anthony Ray Hinton and his false conviction and death sentence. Listening to his story makes clear how much work we have before us in order to bring justice to systemic issues of racism and individual and societal trauma that continues to give some people advantages that others do not have. It is a story that has opened my eyes to see the world in a different way.
We chose the theme, The Elephant in the Room, because I have a vision that all of us in the Northern California Nevada Conference will do the work that we need to do to learn to listen and open our lives and our stories to one another so that we can then come together and address issues of racial justice and dismantling white privilege. If we are willing to share what we see and feel and experience in an authentic way, our awareness will grow. We will see how white supremacy and white privilege has chained those of us who are white to a narrative that was meant to keep us from seeing the reality of what humans do to other humans. That reality is the elephant in the room. And, the elephant in the room is also a reminder of the wide expanse that is God—God who can do all things and who has promised to journey with us and, most of all, is counting on us to join our voices and our hands together and get busy.