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Reconciliation as a spiritual discipline

In our own souls, between individuals, within groups, and between groups.
By Paula Cole Jones
March/April 2004 3.1.04

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Willows weep along the banks of Lake Artemesia where my sister Lori, her two boys, and I escape from the daily routines to be together. It is fun to be with the three of them when their energy erupts into laughter. This time the boys tell me, “Aunt Paula, be careful for goose droppings,” and they point to specimens on the path before fastening their helmets and peddling off in front of us. The grass close to the walkway has been mowed, but in the higher grasses small white butterflies dance in the wind. Except for the periodic rush of the Metro, it is easy to forget that we are so close to the urban urgency of Washington, D.C. Between a cone-roofed gazebo and an arch of young black pine trees, two men are stationed with fishing rods, hoping that 12-inch bass will tug their lines. For Lori and me, time has been tugging at our relationship. Walking has become a way for us to reconnect the bonds of sisterhood.

We stop on the pier where a spider web glistens. The lake holds our gaze and laps at the pilings. Sun and wind transform the water into rippling rims of light. A small black bird, white bellied with light blue beneath its wings, flies higher and turns, then soars before diving. I am struck that piers are always an invitation to go into deep water, that they take us beyond the safety of the water's edge. Lori and I took the plunge last year.

In spite of our large family gatherings for holiday dinners, summer crab feasts, cookouts, caravans to the amusement park, and birthday parties throughout the year, a gap had been growing between Lori and me. I felt it, but didn't know how to reverse it. We talked on the phone less frequently and our conversations did not reveal the trouble between us. And then I said something on the phone one day that snapped the tension—and Lori unloaded her resentments at me and blew off some steam. It was painful for both of us.

“Your pain,” Kahlil Gibran says, “is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” I listened to try to understand the intensity of Lori's frustration and really hear what she had to say. I felt myself shift from reacting defensively to making an effort not to judge her or justify myself. I made a commitment to work to reconcile our relationship; this was the moment to move beyond civility and hidden resentment, to restore love and trust.

That night I sent her an e-mail hoping that when she arrived in her classroom the next morning and started her computer, she would see both my uncertainty and my commitment to us growing closer again. I wrote:

Maybe trust is beyond our grasp right now. I've spent lots of time thinking about it, but talking about it only seems to make matters worse.

I think that trust is one of the paradoxes in life. We measure it by our failings, which will shape our present moments if we haven't succeeded at trusting in the past. At some point, if trust is to stand a chance, we have to create it and try again and again, until we get it right or until we choose to give up.

Most important, I expressed my respect and appreciation—whatever the outcome—for saying what she felt and for going out on a limb with me.

Her response was there the next morning: “I forgive you, and I hope that you also forgive my outburst of emotion. I have always loved you and still do, and I hope this opens the doors to further communication and allows us to get to know each other better.” We had broken through the barrier of “safety by avoidance” and opened the door to the feelings and concerns that were keeping us apart. Sharing a history and feeling heard, we each let go of pieces of the past and emerged vulnerable and safe in each other's keeping.

Now, our walks together have become a way of setting life's demands aside and sharing with each other. We are no longer concerned about judgment, but trust that the other is listening and, if needed, will give an honest answer. “Communications is to relationship, what breathing is to maintaining life,” says Virginia Satir. As we walk around the lake, lines from Mary Oliver's poem remind me of our work to reclaim our relationship: “The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese . . . over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”


Practicing reconciliation is my personal spiritual discipline. As a management consultant, I know a lot about helping people work through their differences, but until I embraced reconciliation as a spiritual practice, I didn't realize just how transformative reconciliation can be. Practicing reconciliation means I commit to being in right relationship with people in my life and, when I'm not, caring enough to face unresolved issues and improve the relationship. I keep two lists: One has the names of people with whom I need to reconcile. The other has names of people with whom I have begun reconciliation efforts. The lists keep my commitment in front of me. Each time I am able to move forward with another person, I draw a line through her or his name on the list of people with whom reconciliation is needed—and the list of people with whom I have begun reconciliation grows longer. (See sidebar for a link to ways to make reconciliation part of your spiritual practice.)

I have learned to practice reconciliation in my personal relationships—it gave me the clarity to address issues with my sister—but I have also been learning to practice reconciliation across divides in our broken culture, especially racial divides. I have carried reconciliation with me while working in All Souls Church in Washington, where I am a lifelong member, and increasingly, in the Unitarian Universalist Association at large. From this experience I have learned that reconciliation is a competency we can bring to four levels of conflict—in our own souls, between individuals like my sister and me, within groups like my congregation, and between groups such as people of color like me and the dominant white culture. Reconciliation helps us to get into right relationship.


Before Lori and I began our reconciling walks around the park, I learned the importance of personal and group reconciliation at church. On a sticky weekend in July 1997, seventy members of All Souls gathered to discuss reconciliation at the church. Our racially diverse congregation was staggering after a divisive crisis that ended a ministry. The meeting began a painstaking process of rebuilding our community and deciding how to move forward.

A colleague and I had been hired to facilitate the process. After our first day I went home with nagging feelings regarding one member of the group. We had history, and I knew that if the right buttons were pushed the unpleasant past would flood into my thoughts. Until now, safety by avoidance had seemed the best strategy, but here we were in the same room, working together. I was still carrying old, unresolved resentments, and although I had tried to mask my negative feelings over the years, they still bubbled beneath the surface. “We are, very largely, what we remember,” says Bishop Desmond Tutu. “Forgiveness is giving up the idea that the past could have been different.” To lead reconciliation in my faith community with integrity, I realized, I had to be able to reconcile my own past.

No one knew of my inner conflict, but simply recognizing my need to resolve the past helped me to let go of the lingering resentment. After some thought, I chose not to address the person directly. It wasn't necessary. What resolved the feelings for me was the understanding that it was important for both of us to be working to heal our church community.

One of the many changes that came out of the reconciliation work at church was “A Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity” (ADORE). People came together to share personal stories about how race had shaped their life experiences, and it was clear that we had tapped into something deep in the community. We kept the door open for anyone who wanted to participate: Everyone has a story about race and ethnicity. Telling the stories brought a new dimension of our lives to the church community and brought us closer together. Six years later, ADORE continues to meet and welcomes new participants.

Several months after the first ADORE meeting, our assistant minister handed me a flyer and said, “You might be interested in this.” It was an announcement for “Creating a Jubilee World,” a UUA-sponsored weekend workshop about antiracism hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Maryland. About eighty people from congregations in the area attended. I was deeply impressed.

In my professional life I have attended and conducted diversity trainings and hadn't seen any with the courage to approach race as directly and to delve as deeply as this UUA program does. The leaders provided a structure for this large group of people to address one of the most difficult issues in our lives; they took the conversation much deeper than I had expected. My mother and another member of our congregation attended with me, and we agreed that such a workshop would be good for our congregation. But as we learned when the workshop came to All Souls, some people found this deeper involvement a challenge. We were fortunate to have members of the church board, search committee, ADORE, and other leaders participate in the even more challenging “Jubilee Two” workshop before the search committee reviewed applications for a new senior minister. After five years of reconciliation work, with ministerial participation and lay leadership, antiracism has been embraced widely in the congregation.

My experience at All Souls in 1997 inspired my decision to make reconciliation my spiritual practice. That experience also deepened my involvement in my church and began my growing involvement in my district and ultimately in the UUA. The more involved I got, the more challenging the work became—but the more risks I took, the more I grew. The more I listened and the more I communicated, the stronger trust became. The more humility I summoned, the more I learned.


Our schools and the social environment in this country have not prepared us to be competent dealing with race and multiculturalism. This is unfinished business in America, in the UUA, and in our congregations. Our society at large needs profound reconciliation.

Many programs that address antiracism have not stressed reconciliation, perhaps out of concern that people might confuse reconciliation with apologizing and forgiving. The Rev. Danielle Di Bona's words have stayed with me since a General Assembly workshop four years ago in Cleveland, where she asked: “Who is apology really for? What does it do for the injured party? Is it to relieve the burden of the person who caused the injury, leaving the injured holding the responsibility of accepting the apology with no commitment to changing the conditions that caused the problem? The person who apologizes may never know the impact of their actions.” By contrast, reconciliation transforms the present moment as well as the future of a relationship. Some Unitarian Universalists are now starting to embrace reconciliation as an important competency for our antiracism and other anti-oppression efforts.

The unfinished business of race affects Unitarian Universalists as it does all Americans, but in addition UUs have some special needs for reconciliation: Among us are some people who hold concerns from a dispute more than three decades ago over how best to support efforts to fight racism; some who have worked hard to keep antiracism on the UUA agenda and now feel marginalized; some, including ministers, who have found reasons to oppose antiracism; some people of color and some pioneering ministers who feel that Unitarian Universalism is not yet ready to receive their gifts and have endured at a spiritual cost; and some who are not yet engaged in antiracism, but whose energy is crucial if Unitarian Universalism is to move closer to being an ideal community.

And we Unitarian Universalists need reconciliation because our children and youth live in a multicultural world and are learning strategies for solving problems in their relationships and in the society by observing what we do and hearing what we say. Racism is an ethical issue for all of us. What legacy are we leaving for our children?


People tend to be reluctant to go deep into matters of race because we fear discomfort, conflict, and loss, and we fear appearing uninformed and unprepared. Summoning the depth of honesty needed to confront these fears—and thus to confront racism and bring reconciliation to groups that have been divided—is a spiritual challenge. It troubles the spirit because it disrupts our sense of things being all right. But thinking things are all right when they're not makes it difficult to see why or how we need to change.

Facing racial questions directly takes courage; tension is the inevitable result. Practicing reconciliation in the midst of such tension is a healing discipline. Nearly half a century ago, the Rev. Howard Thurman, the African American minister who helped found the groundbreaking interracial and religiously pluralistic Church for the Fellowship of All People in San Francisco, said:

The quality of reconciliation is that of wholeness; it seeks to effect and further harmonious relations in a totally comprehensive climate. . . . The concern for reconciliation finds expression in the simple human desire to understand others and to be understood by others. These are the building blocks of the society of man, the precious ingredients without which man's life is a nightmare and the future of his life on the planet doomed. . . .

Every man wants to be cared for, to be sustained by the assurance that he shares in the watchful and thoughtful attention of others—not merely or necessarily others in general but others in particular. He wants to know that—however vast and impersonal all life about him may seem, however hard may be the stretch of road on which he is journeying—he is not alone, but the object of another's concern and caring; he wants to know this in an awareness sufficient to hold him against ultimate fear and panic. It is precisely at this point of awareness that life becomes personal and the individual a person . . . and the way is cleared for him to experience his own spirit.

And more recently, Bishop Desmond Tutu, who served as the first chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, said, “Without reconciliation there is no future together.”

Thurman and Tutu understood reconciliation as a spiritual issue. Both ministers faced the dehumanizing effects of systemic racism and worked for reconciliation on a very large scale, to bring healing to their respective nations. We have much to learn from them and from others who have put important effort into creating reconciliation among groups.

The work of building a just community means individually and collectively working to be in right relationship with people from historically marginalized groups and holding ourselves accountable for changing the things that create injustice. A discipline of reconciliation helps us as we work to undo racism and oppression by empowering us to get on the path over and over again, respecting and appreciating that we have traveled different paths and we come to this point from different experiences.


The unfinished business of race has challenged me spiritually. Five years ago, my work with my own congregation propelled me into work with the larger Association; more recently, I found myself having to admit that race was deeply unfinished business for Unitarian Universalism and this led to a true test of my lifelong faith.

At the end of 2002, reflecting on a year of engagement with UUA antiracism efforts, I wrote in my journal: “I am no longer willing to have my personal energy and spirit absorbed by the 'Great Inertia' around antiracism.” I considered leaving the church. I spoke with my mother about visiting other churches. She was loving and supportive—and encouraged me to not give up.

Then I left for a ten-day trip on UUA business that I figured would make my decision to stay or leave. My first meeting, in Boston, included a serendipitous encounter with a colleague on a midnight walk in the snow to the corner store; he told me about some ministers who were ready to enter the conversation about antiracism.

The trip led to Chicago and back to Boston for a meeting with the leaders of YRUU (the UUA's youth organization), who committed to incorporate anti-racism into their long-range planning. Many things happened on that trip, and each step of the way affirmed the UUA as my community.

My moment of decision came on the airplane to Chicago, tears welling up in my eyes as I read the Skinner House book Soul Work, edited by the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones, and saw that the conversation to undo racism is authentic among ministers in the UUA. By the end of the trip, I had reconciled my own misgivings, and I had grown.

It's like what they say about marriage: We marry a fantasy and the bubble has to burst before the real relationship begins. It took forty years for my UU bubble to burst my fantasy that it was the ideal community. It was a pretty long honeymoon. I committed to begin again.

At its high points my work with the church has given me spiritual sustenance and a loving community. It's been more than five years since I learned the valuable lesson that led to developing a practice of reconciliation. Yes, it is spiritual work, and it takes discipline. For five years this practice has enabled me to challenge and be challenged in our congregation, which is now a vibrant, rapidly growing community with a vision for racial and social justice, and it has enriched my personal life.

After my father's death, my mother told me that what he wanted more than anything was for us to remain close as a family. Practicing reconciliation has helped me do my part. In another walk around the lake with my sister Lori, we talked about reconciliation. I watched daffodils sway on the banks and commented to my sister about how peaceful the geese and ducks seemed as they glided across ripples of water in the late afternoon sun. And I thought of the energy in the pulse of the ripples like I think of the positive pulse of reconciliation.


See sidebar for links to related resources.

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