by JoBeth Allen
Let your ears listen to wisdom.
Apply your heart to understanding.
Call out for the ability to be wise.
Cry out for understanding …
You will understand what is right and honest and fair.
You will understand the right way to live.
Your heart will become wise.
Sometimes listening isn’t enough. Sometimes — usually — I have to apply my heart, to cry out, to understand. Otherwise, I just hear what I want to hear.
For several years in the mid 1990s, I was part of a group on teaching for social justice. Felicia, a member who had moved away, was in Athens visiting. I invited her to come to the monthly group meeting, see her friends, and participate in discussing a short story featuring young people who were gay. The timing seemed perfect. Felicia had recently come out as lesbian, although not to the whole group. I knew she would teach us a lot. I was ready to listen and learn.
The meeting was difficult for all of us. We had not done the work we needed in order to listen. Everyone was uncomfortable, especially Felicia and Lynn, the librarian at Felicia’s former school who stated that literature portraying lesbian or gay lives would never be in her school library. Felicia explained, “It felt to me like she was saying I was welcome there when I was perceived as straight, but as soon as I pronounced myself as lesbian, I was no longer welcome. I left wondering whether you had inadvertently set me up by choosing this story just because I could be depended on to do the work of discussing it. Now I can see — if I was set-up, so was Lynn. She likely had no idea that someone in the group could be so hurt by her words.”
This reflection occurred 10 years (why did it take me so long to ask??) after the meeting when I asked Felicia if she’d be willing to dialogue with me about the event, which continued to trouble me. Ever the kind and patient teacher, Felicia identified that my lack of experience in being an ally and my lack of preparation set up the wrong conditions for listening to and hearing each other.
Perhaps the group needed time to talk about lesbian and gay people and their concerns without a lesbian or gay person present to get their ideas out there, to take tentative stances, to raise questions, to revise stances. Perhaps I needed someone else who was gay or lesbian, or at least someone who was really practiced at being an ally, in the group to back me in my concerns.
How many times, in places of work, worship, socializing, or in relating to family, friends, or strangers do we blunder, insult, objectify, marginalize, remain silent, silence others, or assume too much or too little? How many times do we “just listen” when we need instead to study, ponder, speak or act? How often do I wait for God to make me an instrument of peace and justice without knowing enough to discern how to live in ways that are right and honest and fair?
Prayer: Wise Mother God, I cry out to understand systems of oppression and those affected by them. Help me apply my heart to understanding by constant preparation, by doing the work I need to do instead of relying on others to do it for me. Remind me that to listen to you, I must hear my neighbors, so that my heart may become wise.