conference in New Orleans this year. Two uncertainties already in my mind: what is a ministry conference like and how does New Orleans look after two Gulf Coast disasters? The shuttle from the airport to Dillard University was cold and full of chattering voices. I observed how we instinctually categorized each other: What kind of Fellow? What denomination? What seminary? The words felt empty when I said them. They did not actually say much about who I was. It was like placing everyone on a map and we’d only just met ten minutes ago.

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A Taste for What we are Missing

By: Kayla Fox
June 29, 2011

The Fund for Theological Education held their conference in New Orleans this year. Two uncertainties already in my mind: what is a ministry conference like and how does New Orleans look after two Gulf Coast disasters? The shuttle from the airport to Dillard University was cold and full of chattering voices. I observed how we instinctually categorized each other: What kind of Fellow? What denomination? What seminary? The words felt empty when I said them. They did not actually say much about who I was. It was like placing everyone on a map and we’d only just met ten minutes ago. My own response to people’s answers was mixed. Some traditions conjured vivid images while other denominations were relatively unknown to me. It seemed hopeless. A real live person standing in front of me, and I was asking them assist my assignment of the most convenient preconceived notion I had for easy future reference.

I always thought I liked the idea of ecumenical communities, but I have rarely seen one in action. The most common problem is that the people who join want to be there. Since they do not reflect the true diversity of our communities, we fail to be trained in how to live cooperatively in neighborhoods rife with disagreement, struggle, and discord. The word ecumenical conjures ideas like openness and acceptance. Actually leafing through my conference notebook to discover the range of denominational backgrounds present only brought to mind what our differences might be. Being in an ecumenical community sometimes feels like walking on a tightrope. Swaying between resistance and compromise we felt our way forward cautiously the next few days. Among the Fellows, I was surprised by all the concerns and joys we shared. We take shelter in many of the same hopes for our communities and congregations. As I listened to their stories, I developed respect for their journeys and struggles.

The conference was punctuated by the stories of New Orleans. We heard from individuals that have worked tirelessly since the hurricane and the struggles of a city rife with political corruption, racism, and terrible loss. I was surprised to discover that the regenerative spirit in the community was restoring our own ministries. New Orleans was providing us with a vision we could all take back to our homes. Though the marks of Hurricane Katrina still linger, the city is now defined by how its residents are choosing to rebuild. We heard from community leaders some of the keys to this transformation. We can all come to accept that we will never be completely ready for the challenge of working together. The situation is always outside of our control, and we can never be prepared for everything. But we remain teachable and accept responsibility for our actions. What was left unsaid: That we cannot afford the luxury of pretending that the struggles of New Orleans are confined to New Orleans.

There is a distorted sense of security in familiar pain. It seems that talking about race or class somehow manifests those things in our midst. It is the conviction that I need to be right to be safe. That to be right there must be someone who is wrong. We don’t like confronting the lies we tell ourselves that make a divided world feel more comfortable. In reality, only these conversations can clear the air between us, so that we can begin to develop meaningful responses to the needs of our communities. The complacency in our societies is not to be confused with tolerance or peace. It is merely the concerted effort to avoid the consequences of our inaction. As I made my journey back home, I carried with me a new appreciation of genuine ecumenical communities. The four day experience did not resolve all conflicts. Many of us return to congregations that insist on their claim to the truth. Some of us cannot openly pursue our dreams because of our gender or sexual orientation. But now we have a taste for what we are missing, and we have seen that it is not the end of the story.

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