By: Lisa Ashley, Master of Divinity Student
Lisa Ashley shares with us after hearing Fr. Frank Clooney, SJ, speak at the “Our Story” event held last week at Seattle University, sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry. ”Our Story” was an ecumenical event meant to bring together students and denominational leaders, in an attempt to begin the year with conversation and prayer. Below is Lisa’s reflection on Fr. Clooney’s lecture, in light of being a Unitarian Universalist:
As a Unitarian Universalist student at Seattle University I am a person who believes in God and I am a non-Christian interacting with, and learning with and about, (mostly) Christians. As Father Frank Clooney, SJ, approached the podium, I thought to myself, “I wonder if he will be inclusive of me, or will he use Christian language, even though I know after five years that exclusion is NOT what is intended?” I was tired, I wanted to go home and my patience was thin. I partially closed my ears.
Did I hear a lot of Christian language and traditions expressed without a “nod” to me and my team? Yes, of course. Did I feel excluded? Yes, I did, at times, which brought forth familiar feelings of sadness, and some resentment, too. Did I hear other important messages spoken by Father Clooney? Yes, luckily I did, including the need for Christians to “go out” from the church, to get to know others (in his case Indian people and those who followed the Hindu traditions), to cross boundaries, to share the Christian tradition with others and to examine where and when we draw boundaries.
Father Clooney’s kind, quiet, calm and wise voice helped me to hear his messages in spite of my sense of being an outsider. That is, in part, what I mean about “luckily” hearing his messages. I was not completely shut down or resistant. How was I able to do that? Having chosen to attend a Christian seminary I knew it was up to me to “go out” of the Unitarian Universalist tradition and engage with “the other.” My journey with this has been lonely, sometimes painful and extremely valuable. Over the past five years I learned to listen and open my mind and heart so that I could learn all that I could in a given moment in time. Students asked me curious and respectful questions about my tradition. I made friends from all faiths and felt respected in every class by them and by the professors.
This process was illuminating for me, in its concrete rewards of helping me gain a greater understanding of Christianity and the wide range of Christian persons who walked with me in our journey at STM. It gave me the grounding in theology I had come looking for. It was also illuminating for my formation as a whole human being because as “the other” I came to understand those “others” in my world a bit better, to understand how it is to live as an “other” in a dominant culture. And so my ministry with incarcerated teens was deepened and enhanced as I met them, listened deeply and tried hard to “walk in their shoes.” Finally, it was illuminating because I came to understand (even when I get “hooked” back into old patterns of reaction) how important it is for me to reach across the chasms and meet those others midway, including those who believe differently than me, rather than to expect them to always reach all the way out to me. How else can they or I learn how it feels to be excluded and how we can dialogue and listen, learn and change?
My Unitarian Universalist tradition holds up plurality of thought and faith traditions, holds up tolerance, reason, freedom as major tenets. My tradition holds, as its first principle of seven, that I am to “affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” I see that I am called to live into those tenets and share my tradition’s values even as I study, read, learn and come to understand the tenets of other traditions.
As I reflected all the next day after Father Clooney’s presentation, I came to see the hope his message offered. If we truly reach out and truly connect to one another, it frees us to be who we are, to accept ourselves and others, and to let go of any sense of threat, of any sense of “my way is better than their way.” We can listen better and hear better and one day, I hope, communicate so well that acceptance, peace, respect and love will be more strongly lived out in our traditions and in our wider world.
Lisa Ashley is a Master of Divinity student, who follows a progressive faith tradition with an emphasis on social justice. She is entering the final phase of her Master of Divinity Program.