We want to begin today’s report with a shout-out to Pope Francis who announced the formation of a special Commission to study the possibility of women serving as Deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. As notable as the content of his announcement was, it is also important for us to note HOW he made it. The New York Times said it was “consistent with his style: a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that opened a broad horizon of possibilities.” Here at General Conference, a lot of our communications are formal therefore more easily monitored, but we too must pay attention to the “off the cuff” remarks. They too, can broaden our possibilities, or shut others down.
We’re delighted to report that the large majority of the committee and sub-committee chairs are doing an outstanding job of making sure everyone is included. Bill Allen of Upper New York, Chair of the Conferences Legislative Committee, slows down regularly and repeats himself as many times as it takes to make sure everyone understands exactly what is being voted on. He has also encouraged patience while the interpreters do their work to make sure everything is clear. At the same time, there are members of the committee who do not wait to be recognized, and often speak out of turn, while others wait patiently with their hands raised. It cannot fall only to the chairs; the delegates can also contribute to the full participation of all persons by being as or even MORE interested in hearing the voices of others than in voicing one’s own.
In Church and Society II, while discussing a petition, one delegate asked for a definition of the term, “gender identity.” Another delegate offered a definition, which was received well by some, but with a few snickers and eye-rolling by others. Sub-committee Chair, LaTrelle Easterling of New England, immediately spoke up and reminded everyone to react more carefully, especially in regard to issues that are sensitive for many. Again, a great chair, but the onus is on all of us to remember how much our verbal and non-verbal reactions can hurt feelings and shut down others.
Another way off-handed, well-meaning remarks have been problematic is regarding people’s names. In one committee, during the nominations process, one delegate introduced himself as having a name that is “easy to say and easy to spell.” That, after a number of people had been introduced with non-English names. Unfortunately, the unintended implication of such a statement is that some belong because we “know” their names, while others are “foreign” and therefore challenging to include. In a more inclusive style, Bethany Amey of Greater New Jersey, chairing Church and Society I, went out of her way to carefully pronounce everyone’s name, and asked for grace and forgiveness as she made her way down the list of names, intentionally learning each one.
So, our three NAMED stars of inclusion today are Bill Allen, LaTrelle Easterling and Bethany Amey, but there is one more story of note, though the stars are nameless. In one of the sub-committees in the Faith and Order Legislative Committee, a number of delegates were overheard saying to each other that they need to self-monitor more and reminding each other to be better at making sure everyone is heard. THAT is the goal – 100% self-monitoring, which requires a tendency to want to hear others, even at the expense of occasionally silencing oneself.
Lest we think that is easy, we must also remember the complications that arise in our richly multicultural gathering. One of the challenges that has come to our attention is the dominant voices of white American delegates (male and/or female, depending on the committee) and African males. Because those groups are simply the most numerous, it may take a bit more intentional effort to make sure others are also heard. Added to that, we need to be sensitive to the fact that it might be less common in some cultures for some persons to speak. In particular, when a few African men speak for their delegations, and we don’t hear from others, especially the African women, some might be concerned. On the one hand, it could be a wise and strategic approach meant to put forth the most persuasive voice, or the person best able to speak English. There may also be cultural values that assume men will lead in public gatherings. We don’t want to insist that everyone speaks equally, or that everyone speaks at all, but we do want to be sure to hear from everyone, while also being sensitive to the political strategies and cultural practices that we all bring. In other words, we must monitor both our speaking AND our listening.