Monday, July 12, 2010

Liberal Values, Conservative Communities

I consider it a lucky thing, a useful thing, a benefit to have been born and raised in a Baptist preacher's family, growing up with the stories of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, thinking how I could best fulfill my own desire to have a church-related vocation short of going to a mission field where there were snakes and big bugs.

I consider it an advantage to have grown up in small communities where small town philosophy and religion shaped politics and culture, communities which still pretty much cling to conservative values and precepts.

I feel that my upbringing and early values have given me an understanding of how geography and small town community life are connected to the commitment to conservative values and ideals. I have a great sympathy for those ideals, even though they are not necessarily my own.

I am pretty sure that if I had stayed in Washington state instead of going off to Colorado to work in the inner city my own values might be more conservative, my religion might be American Baptist, not Unitarian Universalist.

But I did go off to Colorado as a consequence of my desire to have a church-related vocation, to work as a program leader in an American Baptist community center, the Denver Christian Center. I taught preschoolers in a pre-Head Start program, met with elementary school kids after school to sing songs, play games, and give "project kids" a place to go after school, and helped with a Teen Canteen Saturday nights in the Christian Center. And I saw first-hand the devastating effects of poverty, racism, and violence. It changed me.

Every year, I go back to my small town roots, visit family members and friends who still live in those communities, and experience again the values and ideals of conservative America. It is a pleasure, on the one hand, to see all my family members again and, on the other, a struggle to listen without arguing, look for the common ground we share, and remind myself that "conservative" doesn't mean stupid, doesn't mean un-caring, doesn't mean disregard for others' needs.

I love them dearly....and it's hard. I don't know whether, if they had shared my experiences, they would understand where my liberal values come from. But my exposure to the inner city world I'd never before visited was the turning point for me. It made me hungry to find ways to help, beyond the bandaids of welfare and subsidized housing.

My life was diverted from community center work into public school teaching and counseling when I married, but my desire to help at a deeper level followed me into that profession as well. I wanted to know why kids did drugs, why teenage girls got pregnant and why they chose the solutions they did. And I still want to know. As a minister in a small congregation, I'm interested in why people behave as they do and what I can do to help.

I don't think I could go back to a small community to live. I got pretty worn out this past weekend by the need to bite my tongue, not react, and just listen. I don't have to do that very much here on South Whidbey. But I have the ability to move back and forth between more conservative folks who live in the community and the more progressive folks in my congregation. I like having that skill and I'm grateful for the oasis of liberal thought my congregation provides.

13 comments:

Heather said...

I share your commitment to conversation, and am grateful for reports from others struggling to listen and speak carefully. Thanks for sharing!

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Thanks for the observations, Kit.

Here in "liberal Boston," I notice how the hunger for community manifests itself in otherwise disconnected folks creating their own tribes and families; sometimes the more outlandish the grouping, the tighter the bond. And how many of these "urban tribes" uphold their own codes and customs, not only to define themselves but to establish a border with the outside world -- one might say to conserve their common identity.

Perhaps what distinguishes us as liberals is the willingness to cross those borders, to build bridges between these various groupings. And perhaps what we all need to do is learn how to respect these diverse community identities while affirming our common humanity.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Heather.

ms. kitty said...

Good observation, Desmond, thanks.

Paul Frank said...

I like to think that at least some of the aggravation we have to endure from conservatives is often a matter of a lack (or skewing) of information. For example, in today’s USA Today, an editorial about Head Start (whom I work for) pointed up a study of Head Start’s effectiveness, but mis-interpreted the central conclusion of the study. The editorial asserted that the study indicate that Head Start did no good even though the central conclusion of the study was that Head Start children outperform non-Head Start children “on every measure of children’s preschool experience.” I like to think that, given the chance for thoughtful discussion, people could be “won over.” I think it unfortunate that so many people are unwilling to take the time and effort to study and discuss an issue in depth but would rather argue in quips and sound bites.

ms. kitty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ms. kitty said...

That drives me crazy too, Paul!

DairyStateDad said...

Two thoughts.

1) I agree with Paul, and while I consider myself well-informed, often lament my inability to call to mind precise and factual information when it might be helpful to share with someone of a differing point of view (or, I confess, when it might help me score debating points! :-) ). For instance, take the study you refer to. I wasn't aware of that editorial, and should someone point it out to me, I would feel ill-equipped off the top of my head to rebut the evidently erroneous take that USA Today had on it.

2) The lesson of listening, though, is one that I feel I should take to heart, especially with an upcoming vacation in which I will spend time with a very conservative (politically, economically, and other) relative. Listen more, and worry less about scoring debating points....

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, DSD. One thing always in my mind is the question "is the relationship or the debate more important?" I often listen only because I don't want to wreck the relationship; I'm also tongue-tied at times because of my inability to protest eloquently and persuasively in the moment.

DairyStateDad said...

There's two kinds of "listening" and I'm afraid I've been more inclined to the first kind rather than the second. The first kind is simply to smile and nod and then let the conversation move on to the weather or the sports standings.

The second is to ask questions and hear the answers, ask more questions and express one's own perspective, but in a respectful and dignified way, not in the name of scoring points or putting the other down, and indeed finding and expressing points of common ground. It is the second that I'm seeking more courage to employ.

ms. kitty said...

That's an important distinction, DSD, thanks.

UUnderstand said...

I grew up in a medium-sized town (which I disliked, as it was neither exciting nor peaceful) and have lived in a city for over 20 years. Sometimes I think I might like retire in a rural community, but know it would be difficult: no used bookstore, no vegetarian products in the grocery, no UU congregation. . .and too many "Christian Republicans." So much for peace and quiet!

The only common ground I regularly find with social conservatives concerns materialism, especially protecting children from mass media and the culture of too much "stuff." It's not enough to create genuinely comfortable relationships, but it's sometimes a cautious beginning.

At risk of stating the obvious, many "conservatives" are white men who fear losing their own social status. If they would only acknowledge this, I would respect them for admitting their human failings.

ms. kitty said...

You might be lucky enough to land in a community like South Whidbey Island, where the balance of conservative and progressive is pretty good. It's not your typical rural community. I feel very lucky.