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Reconciliation Through New Community Meetings

by Bob Keefer
April 1996

This article was previously published in The Register Guard, April 7, 1996.

Bob Keefer
In the Christian calender, Easter Sunday is a time of resurrection, rebirth and reconciliation. Jesus, who was dead, is alive again--by his death, God and humankind are reconciled.

Even if you aren't a Christian, you can't help but be moved by the power of spring, the return of light and life to the winter-dead Earth, a natural rhythm that's been the foundation for festivals and rituals in virtually every religion around the world.

Last month, we asked Register-Guard readers to tell us their tales of reconciliation in their own lives. Many did, writing of anger and forgiveness, of deep personal tragedy and ultimate acceptance.

The most moving story we received, though, was this one, from an evangelical Christian pastor and a lesbian activist.

They were two people living in two worlds separated by a gulf of suspicion and hatred. Then they met, face to face, and spent months at work in a deliberate effort to find common ground.

Introduction by Bob Keefer for Register Guard

In 1994, John Koekkoek, pastor of Norkenzie Christian Church and former head of the Lane Association of Evangelical Ministers, and Nadia Telsey, faculty adviser of a service-learning program at the University of Oregon, got involved in A New Community Meeting.

The series of conflict resolution meetings, begun in the wake of a hotly contested statewide anti-gay-rights measure, was sponsored by the University of Oregon Humanities Center and the National Institute for Dispute Resolution.

Here, Koekkoek and Telsey tell of their journey toward reconciliation.

Why did you choose to participate in A New Community Meeting?

Nadia Telsey:
The most important thing was the level of hatred I was feeling, and feeling myself amid a community that was so divided. I realized I was walking around dividing people into camps and needing to know which one everyone was in. If I saw that fish symbol on a business, I wouldn't go in. I had to ask the guys at the station where I had been buying my gas how they were going to vote on Measure 9.

My anger and hatred came from the anxiety of being put in the same category as child molesters (where fears are legitimate)...

During Measure 9 I kept thinking, "Maybe I ought to get a passport...maybe I should make friends with someone in Canada..." I held long painful arguments with people in my head trying to counter the lies. I had a lot of nightmares and sleepless nights.

I wasn't alone. My friends were going to therapists, taking antidepressants, struggling with the stress of the issue in their relationships. Some people turned the stress inward, in our society it's common that your family wants to hide you if you are gay. You have grown up struggling with self hate. I didn't want to hate anymore. I was exhausted with the divisiveness, I wanted to know if building some kind of understanding was possible.

John Koekkoek:
I felt that I was called by God, I felt God saying "Get out of your tower and go down to the marketplace and allow what you feel about me and yourself to be some kind of contribution to this community."

I felt some apprehension about whether my involvement would just stir up resentment or ridicule--would people understand why I was there?

Sometimes in the religious community--maybe in the gay and lesbian community too--people think that if someone believes very different than you do, then you have to be enemies. I don't know where that is written! In fact, in the Bible I read, it says love the enemy, do good to those who hurt you.

God loves me as I am--he loved me when I was less than I am now. Receiving God's love and forgiveness drives me to try to find what is good in people and to support people.

How could I possibly receive such forgiveness and acceptance and not be committed to give it to others ?

What does reconciliation mean to you?

John Koekkoek:
For me, reconciliation is breaking down the walls of ignorance and fear, and bringing together individuals and groups that need to be together to accomplish understanding and genuine concern for one another.

We did that with representatives of very alienated groups in A New Community Meeting.

The alienation of people and groups is counter productive to any kind of progress, any kind of human understanding. Alienation is such an evil in terms of a culture finding its way into light and understanding and caring. That's what we human beings were created for; its the purpose of culture to support us in doing that.

If we are really alienated from one another, it's like a body whose a immune system has turned against itself: the body's system works at destroying itself.

I work in my ministry primarily with people who are alienated from themselves through guilt or fear, or they are alienated from their families, from husbands, wives, kids, parents. Their framework can be one of mistrust of themselves and others. The need is to help people to see who they are on a higher level than whatever conflict they are in. In the context of their spiritual nature, they can learn to relate to one another on that level. They can know who they are and the walls can come down. There is a real possibility for reconciliation.

Nadia Telsey:
Reconciliation is not easy and it doesn't mean we don't hurt each other. In participating in A New Community Meeting I sometimes felt very hurt, and I know I said things that were difficult for some of the other participants to understand and accept.

The critical thing to know and understand is that each of us is a good person who is trying to reconcile.

To me reconciliation means coming to a new understanding, and taking down barriers and not needing to have an enemy. I don't think we need an enemy, I think we can define our culture in terms of common challenges.

What did you learn from the process and what does it mean to your life?

Nadia Telsey:
It wasn't magic. It was a lot of work and it was rewarding, more rewarding than I had ever imagined. I had no idea how much I had to gain. I can live with myself again, about walking my talk and seeking to understand others.

I confronted the stereotypes that I held. Before our meetings, I would have sworn that only those on the other side had them. If we say we believe in diversity and tolerance, then we cannot extend it to some groups and not others. If we believe in diversity and tolerance, it has to go around to everyone.

I came to understand some of the issues and concerns that some of the conservative Christians had. Some of them also have fears about being pushed out of the public square.

John Koekoek:
The whole concept of reconciliation is based on the willingness to step out of safety and be able to really hear, appreciate and respect the other person's point of view--and then share back with them our own very real feelings, concerns, hopes and dreams.

When we had really listened to one another, it wasn't as bad as we thought. It just wasn't as extreme as it sometimes looks in the media.

One thing I learned that is very important to me is the view many gays and lesbians and liberals have toward conservative Christians. The way it felt as I learned it was more like a punch in the stomach than an "aha."

At one meeting Nadia was able to just tell everyone what her fears and her experience were really like. For someone who sees himself as a reconciler, it hurt.

Without wanting to be associated with people who had been "demonizing" gays and lesbians, I realized I had been part of the problem just by not saying anything.

Nadia Telsey:
We know that when people dehumanize each other then we think its okay to hurt. The more we dehumanize, the more we can discount the dehumanized group's needs. In A New Community Meeting, we reversed that process.

When I remember moments of profound understanding--such as when John was able to really hear me at that one meeting and when he pledged to share what he understood with other Christians--it gave me great hope.

John Koekkoek:
As Christians, we need to stay in integrity with our values. We need to trust God. We need to obey his primary commandments, which are about loving and caring, instead of letting the social "no no's" block us from the primary character of who we are supposed to be. We are supposed to be vessels of compassion and concern for the world.

I am concerned about the confusion that acceptance of homosexual behavior as a normal sexual alternative is bringing to our culture.

I have a strong belief that God has given us a plan for life that is ideal, and absolute, for me. I want my children and grandchildren to hang on to that way of life. I was concerned when Candance Gringrich came to speak at South Eugene High School.

I also want my children and theirs to understand the frustration that gay and lesbian people feel when they are demonized--or even not respected for being honorable people.

Bitterness, resentment, or hatred toward people they don't understand, such as gay people, is too great a price to pay for the simplicity of seeing only one view.

What would you like to tell people in this community?

Nadia Telsey:
I have always believed that peace begins within each of us. The process of A New Community Meeting was a road to peace inside me.

All of us who participated struggled to find some real bridges of understanding, and we did find some real common ground and learned to care for each other. Now we are looking for ways to give others the opportunities to experience what we did around the issue of gay rights or any other.

John Koekkoek:
Being a minister and seeing myself as a child of God, my desire is to be an instrument of reconciliation. Reconciliation comes out of love.

In A New Community Meeting we all had a chance to learn to respect and appreciate and love and even like one another. This makes it possible for us to work together to look for solutions to this issue and other issues that will benefit the entire community. That kind of relationship and problem solving can build a safe and healthy community for everyone.

Participation in the meetings felt like a risk to me and I have been forced to think and feel in some areas of my life that I had kept pretty protected. Some of us have to be willing to take risks.

I gained a greater sense of peace and security in terms of my own faith--and a willingness to move out again to risk if the opportunity comes--because it's worth it.

Biography


Bob Keefer is a journalist with The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon.

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Website: www.bkpix.com/bio/bio.php

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