Many years ago I wrote a letter to the pastor of my church to lodge a complaint. There is nothing unusual about doing such a thing. I suspect that parishioners do so all of the time. Still I felt a bit uncomfortable about what I had done on the spur of the moment after attending services one Sunday. If I’d been able to climb into the mailbox to retrieve the note I would have. With the damage already done I stewed for days over how the kind priest would take my comments and worried that I would never again be able to face him without a strong tinge of embarrassment. When my phone rang one afternoon and the good Father greeted me on the other end of the line I was breathless. I thought that he had surely telephoned to upbraid me for my audacious remarks.
The content of my letter derived from many weeks of listening to one of the church deacons harangue those of us in attendance at the Sunday gathering for being sinners. I realize that such tongue lashings are actually commonplace in many Christian sects but I am a Catholic and had grown up hearing kinder, gentler sermons that were positive and up-lifting. I had explained that I often came to church weary from the challenges of daily living and expected to feel renewed at the end of the experience, not beaten down even more. I complained that the constant guilt trips coming from the deacon were disheartening and that if they continued I would be forced to seek another church. I had recorded my thoughts after a bruising account of just how sin-filled we humans are. Somehow when I heard the kind and soothing voice of the priest asking if he might come to my home to talk with me I was certain that I wouldn’t have to take the initiative of finding another place of worship. I began to mentally anticipate the excommunication from the parish which he was sure to deliver to me.
I was a nervous wreck by the time that my doorbell rang at the time that Father and I had agreed upon. I had made a pot of coffee and baked some cookies hoping to dispel some of the anger that I believed was about to descend upon my house. I did my best to cover my nervousness with a weak smile as I let the pastor inside.
We sat in my living room chatting about the weather and other such trivial things for a time and then the priest took the paper with my handwriting on it from inside his coat pocket. My heart was beating so quickly that I was certain that I was going to have a heart attack and he would to have to administer the last rites before I died right then and there. Instead he rather quietly smiled at me and said that he had been taken by the courage that writing such a thoughtful piece must have taken. He noted that he had felt and understood the honesty of my critique and actually agreed with the majority of my thoughts. He congratulated me for alerting him to my feelings rather than silently stewing in anger. He even noted that he had prayed over how to respond and realized that my concerns deserved a personal response.
I felt completely disarmed and relaxed as the pastor insisted that he was proud of me rather than being angry at my audacity. Then he told me how much he also loved and admired the deacon about whom I had complained. He laughed and explained that a great majority of the parishioners actually enjoyed the fire and brimstone sermons that the feisty speaker delivered and that he had letters from them to prove his contention. He told me that just as Jesus had loved everyone so unconditionally, so too should the church make room for all points of view. He had spoken with the deacon who was the subject of my ire and they had already agreed that perhaps he needed to balance his focus on sin with an equal note of the goodness that surely resides in our human hearts. He told me that I should expect to see a bit of a change in the homilies but that the essence of who the deacon was as a Christian would still be there. After all, he noted St. Paul was a firebrand and his letters to the people are still read today.
Somehow the explanation coming so wisely from our church community’s leader made sense to me. My fears evaporated and we spent the next many minutes just talking about my viewpoints and his. To my surprise the priest suggested that I become more involved in the life of our parish. He point out that the best way for me to bring about some of the changes that I sought was to counterbalance what I did not like by accepting a leadership role. He gave me a list of the organizations that he thought I might enjoy hinting that becoming a teacher of religious education seemed to fit me perfectly. He noted he liked the idea of having me influence the children with my more positive approach to religion. Then he walked from room to room in my home blessing the place where I lived.
I soon joined the teaching corps at my church and within a couple of years I was tapped to be one of the directors of religious education. I had learned a valuable lesson from the pastor that I have followed in all of my endeavors through the years. Namely, I realized that each of us has different ways of seeing the same situation and most of the time both points of view are valuable. I also came to understand that expressing our differences in a constructive way actually leads to the growth of an organization, not its destruction. I learned that staying inside a group that seemed quite different from myself was actually the very best way to begin the change process that I desired. The pastor had shown me how to lead effectively, how to maintain my personal code of ethics, how to be flexible, and how to make my own voice heard.
The deacon whom I had once disliked intensely became one of my dearest friends. I found him to be an remarkably sincere soul who actually believed much as I did but had a very different way of approaching the realization of our mutual goals. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known and it didn’t take long for me to understand why our pastor allowed him to do his sermonizing thing. There was great wisdom tucked inside his seeming madness. We worked together for years and tended to laugh whenever we reached a point of contention. We somehow managed to compromise just enough to both feel comfortable.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency has reminded me of my own story and the priest who so beautifully included me and my way of thinking into the parish family. He might have ignored my soulful plea or even been angered by the thoughts that were so heavy handed and written in a heated moment. Instead he took the time to assure me that he served all of his parishioners and loved them as well. I still prefer pleasantries at church and in my diversions. I don’t like to be lectured in places where I expect to find comfort and escape from the stresses of my life but I understand the we each have a right to the ways that we feel. The priest taught me to open my mind and have just enough empathy to understand what prompts alternative ways of thinking. I can track the leadership style that I developed all the way back to that meeting. I would recommend that all of us, including our new POTUS elect, take a moment amid all of the sound and fury to at least attempt to work with one another.
Like Trump I would have been upset by being singled out for a critique by the cast of Hamilton but I also admire Pence for being more like the priest of my story in suggesting that democracy is enhanced, not threatened, by such moments. Now it is time for those of us whose platforms differ from Mr. Trump’s to find the areas of agreement and work from there. When he makes a move that worries us it is valid to voice our concern but we must also applaud him when he does something positive. If our only approach to his presidency is a continual barrage of negativity he will soon quit listening to our pleas. We have an opportunity to impact the trajectory of our nation. Will we leave? Will we incessantly complain? Will we search for common ground and move forward from there? The choice is ours. How we respond will either keep us at arms length or lead to compromises that will positively impact all of us.