One strategy I use in my diversity and culture work is to pair up the most unlikely people and give them something to do. Justin was a 21-year old queer Goth skater with an asymmetrical haircut and multiple piercings. Mrs. Park was a Korean immigrant grandmother with permed hair, a blue pantsuit and matching purse and shoes. Beyond their appearances, I knew that Justin was an atheist and Mrs. Park was a devout Christian. I gave them 20 minutes to talk about what their about their home and two people they love. They reluctantly accepted, giving me side-eye as they retreated.
Upon their return 45 minutes later, they reported that they were enjoying each others' company so much that they lost track of time. Justin and Mrs. Park were inseparable for the rest of the session and they remained friends for the next ten years until Mrs. Park's passing. At his friend's memorial service, Justin said that, once their hearts and spirits connected, their differences faded away.
Justin and Mrs. Park are prime examples of what I call Transcultural Leaders (trans- being the prefix meaning "to cross." It takes courage to cross cultures, especially if we don't know what waits on the other side. Such courage calls upon us to trust and believe in ourselves and in others.
But what if those others are the worst people we can imagine?
In my community, Kim Davis has been an example of one of those people. The County Clerk from Kentucky refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds that it violated her religious beliefs. Ms. Davis was jailed for contempt of court. She has been proclaimed by cultural conservatives as the Rosa Parks of the religious right, while cultural liberals mock her as Dick Cheney with bad hair. By all accounts, Kim Davis and I couldn't be more different.
What would happen if we were paired up and given something to do? Would we, like Justin and Mrs. Park, be able to overcome our differences, work transculturally, and reach a place where we could see each others' humanity? What conditions would need to be in place for this to happen?
When I posed this question to my colleagues, ironically at a Giants-Dodgers game, some said that the chasm is too wide and we simply have to write some people off. Then my son Rafa chimed in. "I actually have a lot of respect for Kim Davis," he said. "While I don't agree with her, she's standing up for what she believes in, and isn't that what you always taught me to do? I think if we can start from that place of respect, and not vilify each other, we might be able to find ways to cross that chasm." Home run, Rafa.
My practice and my faith informs me that, no matter how wide the chasm, we can find a way across. In these times, we meet the insurmountable each day. And unless we want to destroy each other and the world along with us, we have no other option but to overcome these barriers.
I co-facilitated a series of community forums for the people of New Orleans on the proposed disposition of four Confederate monuments. People of all cultures, beliefs and upbringings shared deep and sometimes painful stories for what these monuments meant, and mean, to them. Challenging conversations caused some to leave the room. To their credit, they returned, out of respect for each other and because of their common love for their city and community.
My partners and I established the conditions for respectful engagement and courageous conversations to occur. People completed the process tired, exhilarated, and stretched beyond the comfort zones. Despite differing experiences and beliefs, they found common ground and a vision for a unified future.
Throughout this meeting, I remembered Justin and Mrs. Park, frightened at first and inseparable by the end. I also remembered Kim Davis and imagined how we might engage in a transcultural conversation with her and cross the chasm of our beliefs. It starts with respect, open arms and an open heart, and a good dose of courage. The first step is the hardest. But once hearts and spirits unite, our differences fade and the bridge is secure for others to cross.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Talk about an experience in your life when love overcame fear.
- Make a list of the first 25 people who come to your mind. How are they similar or different from you? Consider gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political affiliation, upbringing, socio-economic status, and nationality for starters.
- Think about a person who might represent your Kim Davis (or Kevin Fong). What steps might you take to be a transcultural leader and cross that chasm?