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Carter Shares Needed Skills for "Ministry in the Borderlands"

UU University 2008 Keynote Address
Speaker: Rev. Nick Carter

Part I

The Reverend Nick Carter, President of Andover Newton Theological Seminary, delivered the keynote address for the third annual Unitarian Universalist (UU) University, held just before the start of General Assembly 2008 in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Carter spoke about "Ministry in the Borderlands" and the skills we need to be effective in working together with people of different faiths and cultures.

Carter told participants that in our increasingly segregated and polarized culture—where we live, play, and pray with people like us—it is in the borderlands, the edges of this segregation, where action can be taken to reverse the trend towards extremism. He said that Unitarian Universalism is uniquely positioned to lead the interfaith movement in this work. To do so, however, we must first get our own act together so we can "give ourselves away in ways that matter," Carter told the group of more than 200 UU leaders gathered.

The bulk of his two-part address was spent in describing the ten skills we must develop as part of preparing ourselves for this important work. These skills are:

1. Knowing Your Identity

We must be self-differentiating and grounded enough to be able to say who we are. We must not homogenize or try to erase the differences. "Sloppy agape" keeps people from being able to relate to us. If we are casual about our faith, we won’t be understood. If we don’t know who we are, how are others to know us, to trust us?

2. Modesty/Humility

Modesty is the trait most often missing from our cultural realities. Everything we do now is "in your face." Carter told participants that "to be humble is to be unpretentious." Arrogance leads us to believe that it is what we hold valuable that must be defended, not others’ values. For instance, we are offended if someone disrespects our religious symbols, but we are not offended if others’ symbols are disrespected. We do not want to erase the borders, however. Rather, the most effective borderland ministers are very aware of and sensitive to when they cross the borders.

3. Maturity

Some people are not ready for border crossings, and would be unproductive as borderland ministers. To work effectively in the borderlands, a person must understand that they have not been chosen for special privileges, but for special responsibility. Carter emphasized that the ability to communicate with those who hold different theologies is important to develop in our own congregations. "If you can’t do it within your own congregation, how are you going to do it with other groups?" he asked. Carter warned the assembled leaders not to start categorizing people they have met. "Think of anthropology before theology, orthopracty rather than orthodoxy," he said. To lead effectively in the borderlands, we must become "connoisseurs" of human beings. We must move beyond tolerance into true appreciation, which opens the possibility of transformation.

4. Hospitality

Radical hospitality goes out of its way to make the newcomer feel welcome and valued. To be hospitable is to be thoughtful, to take the time to learn about the other. Alice felt very awkward at the tea party in Wonderland as the others talked among themselves, ignoring her except when they were grilling her with questions. Carter related his experience in a village in the Congo, where he was greeted by children singing, was guarded from the hippos when he went swimming, and was served chicken for dinner. He was aware when eating the chicken that it likely constituted half of the possessions of his host. He believes the poor are generally more hospitable than the wealthy.

5. Empathy

Carter told us that empathy is the ultimate act of imagination. With empathy, we think of things that will help to make the other more comfortable. We need to be avid, appreciative, attentive vessels into which others can pour their stories. He reminded us that people are more susceptible to change when they are appreciated and cared for, and that even those with whom we disagree will learn more from us if we are empathetic. He encouraged the assembled leaders to develop skills in listening to each others’ stories. He warned us that border crossings are where everything has more than one meaning, so we must be careful about how what we are saying is being heard by the other. Carter introduced a new word, "pisseled," a combination of puzzled and pissed off, to describe how people feel when faced with a lack of empathy.

Part II

Carter began the second part of his address with comments about diversity. He told participants that diversity is not a state of being, but rather a process and a state of mind that "reaches for a fullness that we do not yet have." Carter warned that no group can be exactly representative of the communities around them, and that overemphasizing diversity can cause problems. He also reminded us that having a few people of color in your congregation does not mean you are not racist. It doesn’t mean you aren’t sexist just because you have a woman minister.

Carter then continued to describe the ten skills we need to be effective in our ministry in the borderlands.

6. Mercy

When we think of mercy, we often equate it with clemency, leniency, charity, or even pity. These do not capture the whole meaning. The word comes from a Greek word which means "to feel from the gut." To feel mercy is to be moved deeply. Carter asked participants to imagine a retelling of the story of the Good Samaritan, in which the person who was beaten and left on the side of the road was someone close to them, a family member or friend. He asked how we would feel if we discovered our loved one under such circumstances. It is that gut-wrenching feeling that motivates mercy.

7. Solidarity and Witness

Carter told his listeners that solidarity and witness are even more important for justice work than the old adage of "organize, organize, organize." Solidarity is the "firstborn child" of empathy. Solidarity has staying power. It doesn’t balk at getting dirty—the oppressed are often in trouble with the law, or involved in drugs, and it is easy to abandon them when things get messy. To witness is to attest, to give faithful speech. True solidarity leads naturally to the desire to witness. When "their issue" becomes "my issue," it is evidence of solidarity. We don’t wait for the victim of injustice to speak out. When the white is offended by racism, a man is offended by sexism, a straight is offended by heterosexism, and we speak out, then we are in solidarity. When we have true solidarity, and become a witness rather than an observer, then we are ready to fight for justice. Carter quoted from the Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), 2:21: "You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you allowed to desist from it."

8. Communitas

The beloved community is the goal of all churches. It is the relationships, the bonds we share, that make it a church. Bonding is difficult to maintain when a congregation grows past a certain size. Congregations larger than about 300 need to use small group ministry to maintain these bonds. Carter told the leaders to engage their congregations in considering the things they need to do together. He quoted Martin Buber, who said, "The real essence of community is to be found in the fact that it has a center. The real beginning of community is when its members have a common relation to the center overriding all other relations; the circle is described by the radius, not by the points along the circumference."

9. Redemption

Carter got a laugh when he admitted he might be in hot water with UUs by using this word, but he quickly reassured us that he was speaking of institutional redemption. He bemoaned the fact that institutions often get caught up in a "Robert’s Rules of Order" mentality, rather than focusing on what it is that brings us together. We need to be careful of the "hidden curriculum," what our behavior is saying that is contrary to our public statements. We often think of institutions as being amoral. We have a theology of individuals, but not of institutions. We need to learn how to transform our institutions. Carter told us that the best way to do this is by putting our best people and resources to work on developing our assets rather than on fixing our problems.

10. Shalom

This word means more than peace. It means wholeness, completeness, where nothing is missing. Ministering in the borderlands must have shalom at its heart. Peace is not a goal, but a way of life. The orientation of the minds of effective borderland ministers is towards the peaceful, not on the lookout for hostility.

Carter closed his remarks by asking participants to be open to what deep spirit calls them, and not to worry that they might not be the people who can make a difference. "You are called to make the world a better place, and you have assets," he said. "The gift of faith is to know that you can do it!"

Reported by Pat Emery.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Tuesday, September 4, 2012.

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