From Epiphany to Encounter: A Story

From Epiphany to Encounter is the current theme for Sunday morning worship. Members of the First Church community have been invited to share recent stories of an encounter with someone dfferent from themselves, where God became a bridge between them and the other.

If you have a story you can send it to Carillon Editor Margaret Copeland. Send us any story about holy encounter across difference between now and February 28.


This story comes from Brittany Walker Pettigrew:

I have come to believe that when my first reaction to something is "Heck no!", I should probably pause and explore that more. So when I a friend asked if I wanted to participate in a project that invites 25 women from California who voted for Hilary Clinton, and 25 women from Alabama who voted for Donald Trump to be in dialogue together, I moved past my initial refusal to asking "What do I have to lose, besides a little bit of sanity?"

The purpose of the project was to to be an antidote to the divisiveness of the presidential campaign and bring us women together, not to change people's minds, but to seek understanding, and maybe even common ground. So after a relatively simple vetting process, we all got to talking in a private Facebook group. The group was moderated by journalists, who at the end of the 4 weeks, wrote a series of articles for an Alabama newspaper. We worked hard to remain civil, and for the most part, we were able to avoid snarkiness, though occasionally some couldn't help themselves. When one woman writes something that triggers a strong, perhaps emotional reaction in another, rather that react, we tended to respond. We would ask a clarifying question or ask them to describe an example or an observation from their own lives. This led us to moving away from the binary of who was "right" and who was "wrong". Instead, many of us came to accept that on many issues, you don't have to be wrong for me to be right. We can accept the experience of our sisters alongside our own.

Our conversations spanned many topics including the Affordable Care Act, legalization of marijuana for recreational use, gun control, the size of government, the role faith plays in our lives....But no conversation brokered the biggest breakthrough for me as the one regarding race relations.

The Alabama women lamented the current state of race relationships as being more divisive as ever. By contrast, I felt like race relations are finally moving in a progressive direction. Upon deeper exploration, I learned that they felt this way because race was coming up more in the national conversation, and it made them uncomfortable. What they were experiencing was the awkward awareness of their privilege.

They didn't ask to be white and to have all of the inherent benefits that come with that. But they are. And with that privilege has been the luxury of opting out of difficult discussions of racial inequality because they are uncomfortable and, quite frankly, their lives, and livelihoods do not depend on it. But I understand why the conversation on race is so unpleasant for them. You see, when you have been living with privilege, and things begin to arc toward equality, it feels like oppression to you. Sure, feelings are not facts, but it's hard to tell the heart that sometimes...

So when one Alabama woman, who had finally accepted for the first time in her life that living in a society where whiteness is the standard for rightness puts people of color at a particularly pervasive and sinister disadvantage. "I really never thought about it that way before..." she said.

When another Alabama women hazarded to ask, because she knew our crowd would not label her a racist for wondering, why can't people of color just "get over it." She acknowledged her region's "shameful" history of race relations and horrible treatment of people of color, but said slavery ended and Jim Crow laws are no longer on the books. I felt the easiest way to explain it was through metaphor. Here's what I said:

"Imagine you are a woman with breast cancer. The cancer in your breast is killing you. But then you have a mastectomy and the cancer is gone, and it is no longer dying. There is still a painful recovery process ahead of you, and even though you are not dying, you are a woman who used to have 2 breasts and now you have one. You are still living, but the scars of the cancer and how it has changed you will never go away. You only need to ask a woman who has ever tried to date, or buy a bathing suit after a mastectomy, the know that living with one breast is an entirely different experience than living with two. Yes, you are living, but you can never go back to the pristine, precancerous innocence you once have. Your journey is irrevocably changed.

"Now replace cancer with oppression. Oppression was/is killing people of color at alarming rates. Even though you eliminate one of the tools of oppression, Jim Crow laws for example, the injury of that oppression does not simply go away. And even if there is healing, the scars of that oppression will always be with us. It is not a simple matter of getting over it. It is accepting that moving forward, and in fact "living" is going to look completely different."

I explained that for many of us, the election results were like getting a bad mammogram, after already having a mastectomy. We don't exactly know what it will mean yet, but its very possibly not good, and since we have already experienced some of the worst, we aren't hopeful this was just some unwarranted worry.

In the biblical sense of the word, these women were an epiphany for me. These 49 women were manifestations of God-with-skin-on. Through my encounters with them, I realized that for the first time in perhaps my whole life, I set down my finely cultivated habit of subverting inconvenient feelings, and avoidance of controversy and allowed myself to be fully seen and fully heard. In that sense, I went from epiphany, to encounter to epiphany again.

The real work now is to continue the encounter. These kinds of conversations are difficult and emotional. It is all too easy to leave the uncertain space of seeking understanding and stumble over to passing judgement. One thing we have in common is that we are all equally disadvantaged by a press that is difficult to trust.

Yet we all also want to be happy, to take care of our families and to make things better for our children and their children. It is keeping this knowledge at the forefront that has kept me engaged with these women. I have challenged myself to stay at the table because even in the rough patches, that is the type of encounter that will lead to more unity... and more epiphanies.