Call and Response: Journeys in UU Lifespan Faith Development

Empathy Carries Us to Standing Rock

By Harlan Limpert

You may be aware that Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, invited clergy of all faiths from every nation to come to the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock on Sunday, December 4th, 2016. In his appeal, sent far and wide, he said, "We are asking religious people to come and support our youth, to stand side by side with them, because they are standing in prayer. If you can find it in your heart, pray with them and stand beside them."

Standing Rock, North Dakota encampment showing cars, tipis, and people, with a large blue sky above that has a drone aircraft flying through it

A peaceful encampment of water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota was documented by a drone aircraft on December 4, 2016. Photo courtesy Harlan Limpert.

And so I found myself at the Standing Rock camp that weekend with thousands—clergy, lay people of different faiths, veterans, others—and some questions popped into my head: How does a person learn about empathy? How does a person gain insight into another person’s experience of the world? What leads people to respond to a call to pray with others with willingness to stand beside them?

Scholars and theologians have their answers. A new book by Nate Walker, Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person – Without Exception, provides good insights. As for me? While my seminary professors may be disappointed to hear it, I learned empathy when I was in 9th grade, from Bob Hammerstrom, the youth director at the Lutheran church in which I was raised. It was a suburban church in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The community was lily white. But Bob Hammerstrom was driven to expand the worldly awareness and moderate the self-absorption of the junior high youth group of which I was a part.

Through a program called Youth in Ministry that Bob helped create, I joined with 14 other, mostly white youth from Lutheran congregations around the country to work in a community center in Fresno, California. For two weeks, we staffed the center, listening to the young Chicano kids, some as young as five, some nearly eighteen, and learning about their life. The older ones had become street smart, but nearly all lacked good formal education. The neighborhood was tough. The racism in their city was overt. We heard about it from the kids. They told us stories. There was heartbreak. Our minds were blown.

Bob Hammerstrom (photo circa 1965) was the Lutheran youth leader who provided a field service project that widened the world view of Harlan Limpert, shown at far right at Standing Rock with a UU activist from Boulder, CO.

The program leader helped us interpret what we heard and process our experiences. He guided us to explore the world beyond our world. He opened our eyes.

It was only two weeks, but it was a start. Inside me now was a place for greater understanding, a space for reflection about people different than me.

I’m well aware… Many youth in our congregations, perhaps most, can’t participate in such a program. It’s expensive. Scholarship funds are scarce. But religious leaders can look for opportunities to provide local experiences. They can create settings where careful listening can take place and reflection can be possible. They can begin a process of discovery that fosters empathy, which, in turn, later in life can make one open to a call. So, when our youth are asked, “Can you find it in your heart to pray with them and walk beside them?” they can answer, “Yes.”

Next Steps!

Read Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person – Without Exception, by Rev. Nathan Walker (Skinner House, 2016). Available from inSpirit, the UU Book and Gift Shop, this book unpacks the author's commitment to stop "otherizing," which happens when we demonize or romanticize people unlike ourselves.

A Toolkit book from the UUA can help a youth advisor create a world view-expanding travel and service experience with and for young people: Journeys of the Spirit: Planning and Leading Mission Trips with Youth, by Jennifer McAdoo and Anne Principe.

For guidance in shaping a high impact, closer-to-home (and thus, less costly) field service or justice project, read Creating Justice Together: Service Projects for Families and Multigenerational Groups, by Susan Lawrence.

The Tapestry of Faith curriculum for grades 7-9, Heeding the Call: Qualities of a Justicemaker, equips and empowers youth to explore the wider world and find ways that they can serve.

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) is a collaboration of the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which is renowned for offering hands-on, transformative experiences in human rights work. UUCSJ service learning destinations include Haiti, Nicaragua, New Orleans, and the U.S./Mexico border.