The light streamed into our meetinghouse windows last Sunday afternoon as neighbors, strangers and friends took to their seats in the white wooden pews. A sandwich board posted out front advertised our gathering as a “Community Listening Forum,” planned in response to the vandalism of a welcome message sign posted the day after the election. Teresa Govert, a twenty-something member of our town, painted a unifying message that welcomed all ethnicities, genders, and races.
"Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."
Twelve hours after its placement, it had been defaced.
The idea for a community forum grew quickly as cracks in the community seams were torn and festering emotions emerged. First Church of Christ (East Haddam) offered our sanctuary as a safe space for the neighborhood to come together and listen to whomever showed up regardless of affiliation or voting preference.
As I met with the organizers on Friday in preparation, our intentions were clear: to mend the broken-hearted neighborhood, hear from all sides if possible, and create a respectful forum for storytelling. These were small steps toward a hopefulness none of us felt at the moment.
In my three years as pastor of the First Church, I had never met the majority of two hundred folks that gathered under our roof. "You are Welcome Here” is the message on our sign that greets all who enter our Church. Today was another chance to prove it.
Among those of us greeting participants was a young person named Angel. She held up a sign in rainbow colors painted with “Free Hugs” and her presence softened the anxious faces climbing up our thick granite front steps. A quick scan of the parking lot revealed Trump bumper stickers as well as ones marked #HillYes!
As crowds assembled inside, each person was handed a list of the Listening Openly Guidelines prepared for this event, as well as a safety pin. Some quickly reached for pins while many others were already wearing them fastened to a shirt. We were letting people know that we were safe.
Civility, community, and courage were our guides along with the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah echoing in my heart as the storytelling began:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6-7)”
One by one, folks lined up to share their stories and pain, vulnerability and anger. It was as though a faucet had been turned on and the lines to the microphones grew longer. What we thought would last one hour lasted three as a community of grace unfolded in our midst. Many expressed a deep hope for the first time since the election.
Tears flowed unreservedly even from the local politicians who stood up to speak. There was a gay man and his husband who, after living here peaceably for decades, talked about the fears each felt that now separated them from their community.
We watched transfixed as a second grader (the only child present in the forum) got up to speak and comfort the crying mother of a classmate he recognized. Tissues were passed up front for her as she cried for her two children who’d come home from school the day after the election confused as to whether or not, as people of color, they would be rounded up and have to move.
One married woman, a convert to Islam, spoke of her terror for her husband whose green card was up for renewal in two years. She offered to come and speak to any organization about the Muslim faith and its roots in love and peace.
As the sky darkened, two neighbors, one a supporter of Trump, and the other of Clinton, shared their raw emotions of bigotry and prejudice expressed in moments of anger towards each other. With tears flowing down their cheeks and arms tightly around each other, each gave voice to concerns for her gay son. Somehow, they were finding a friendship and similarities that were stronger than their fear.
Toward the end of the session, an LBGTQ teen with dark blue curls stood up and declared her sexual identity and named the bullying she encountered in school hallways.
And, a fifty-nine-year-old social worker found her anger dissolving into tears as she mourned the rights of all women and those who had been sexually assaulted. She, too, admitted to feeling a glimmer of hope for the first time.
Story after story, we were transfixed as the domino effect of courage, affirmation, and empathy continued. People’s goodness was felt. God’s grace was present in our circle of truth and reconciliation.
Offering a space for folks to come together, mourn, and speak their own truths is an act of resistance in itself. And one that can mend a broken community. At least begin to…
In this spirit, the forum closed with plans for shared emails and future action steps as an email list was circulated to the music of Alicia Keys’, Pressing On, playing through the loudspeaker.
For a few hours last Sunday, we came together and found a way to begin to heal together. Offering hospitality to the wider neighborhood, we found the good, holy news of our shaky discipleship… that God created us to do the work of justice and repair—together. And, when we do so we become…“like a watered garden. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (58:12)
May it be so for us all.
The Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager is pastor of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, in East Haddam, CT.
The Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager is the Associate Pastor at The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme.