Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Bridging Our Divides With Rev. Jennifer Bailey
[00:00:02] PF: Welcome to Episode 357 of Live Happy Now. Right now, it’s time to get out your toolkit because we’re about to teach you how to build a bridge. I’m your host, Paul Felps, and throughout the month of March, we’ve been taking on the issue of unity. Today, I am so happy to be joined by Reverend Jennifer Bailey, who in addition to being named one of the 15 Faith Leaders to Watch by the Center for American Progress, is Founder of Faith Matters Network. She’s also the Co-founder of The People’s Supper, which brings people together to engage constructively on issues that affect their communities. This project has brought together thousands of people to create a space of healing, all while enjoying a nourishing meal and civil conversation. She’s here today to share some of the tools she uses for bridging our differences.
[00:00:54] PF: Reverend Jennifer, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:57] JB: Hi. Thank you so much for having me, Paula.
[00:01:00] PF: This is such an important conversation that we need to have. As you know, you and I have talked about this, how during this month of happiness, and as we celebrate the International Day of Happiness, Live Happy Now has been talking about the theme of unity. That’s why I wanted you to come on the show because that’s something that you really specialize in. Right now, there’s so much division in our communities and in our world and sometimes in our own homes. So what we want to talk to you today is how we begin to bridge that divide. I guess that’s my first question. Where does this healing need to start, and how do we do that?
[00:01:40] JB: Thank you for that question. I know it’s one that so many people are carrying in this season of our country’s life, as it almost seems like you turn on the television or scroll on social media, and that polarization and divides are incentivized, rather than deincentivized in this world.
[00:01:56] PF: Yeah, that’s so true.
[00:01:58] JB: So as I think about the work that I’ve been proximate to over the past several years through a project that I have a really wonderful opportunity to co-found called The People’s Supper, one of the lessons that I learned in that project, which was founded right after the 2016 presidential election, it’s a space for folks to come together over a shared meal and talk about both bridging across lines of difference and creating spaces of deep healing within community where there had been a breach in the interpersonal relationships in that community.
One of the things that really surfaced for me is when we think about where to start, it really starts proximate to us. So thinking about those places and spaces in our own lives where we’ve experienced a deep divide or rupture, whether that be in an interpersonal relationship, as part of a faith community or a civic group that you might be a part of, each of us has a deep experience of what it is like to be in relationship. Then find ourselves in a moment of conflict or division. So I always say for folks that it is important to start close to home when we think about what it means to bridge divides, rather than attempting to solve big universal problems. One of the greatest skills that we have and invitations that we have is to do deep work proximate and close to us.
[00:03:27] PF: How do we do that when we are extremely divided? We’ll say it in a political sense. If you’ve got people in the same house even who have very different views, and we don’t really want to hear that other person’s opinion, what their perspective is, or why they come from that perspective. It tends to be a talking over one another and just trying to throw out these talking points to show them they’re wrong. So obviously, that doesn’t work at all. What are the very simple steps that we start taking?
[00:04:02] JB: I think step one is to take a deep breath. It sounds silly, but I’ve been reminded lately, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, that literally it’s seeking to steal our breath, just how precious the gift of taking a deep breath really is in this season. I think we have been so programmed to get into fight or flight mode when it comes to our politics or ideologies. But I would argue that in this moment, one of the things that is called for is a deep re-humanization of one another. What moments of conflict or division do is have us buy into the false belief that the person sitting across from you is an other and shouldn’t be otherized. It’s easy when we otherize people to make them into a stereotype or a statistic. We all know that each of us comes into and approaches relationships from the particularity of our own experiences, our own stories, our own narratives.
More often than not, we’ve come to our set of beliefs through a set of experiences or core beliefs that have helped shaped us and our own story. So I would say first step is to get curious. I’m reminded of the work of the Center for Courage and Renewal when it says in one of their touchstones, “When the going gets tough, turn to wonder.” So rather –
[00:05:31] PF: Oh, I love that.
[00:05:33] JB: Yeah. I love that work from Parker Palmer’s work because I think there is something really profound about rather than immediately jumping into judgment, asking yourself the question, “I wonder why they think that way,” and it opens up a space for potential empathy and enough of a pause, enough of a breath to remind ourselves that the person sitting across from us is indeed a person and not just a meme on social media, right?
[00:06:03] PF: Well, that’s – I love that approach. What are some ways that we can start training ourselves to react that way? We’ve got a lot of undoing to take care of before we can get to that process of not being triggered when someone makes a statement. But instead saying, “Huh, let’s unpack that and find out why you think that way.” So how do we start teaching ourselves to think that way?
[00:06:28] JB: It starts at home with ourselves and making the commitment, right? I think we’ve had conversations, Paula, that I don’t know that everybody is called to bridge. Actually, the work of bridge building is indeed a calling. In some cases, it can be unethical to ask people to bridge across lines of difference, particularly if they’re being asked to bridge across lines of difference, where someone might be questioning the variability of their personhood, right? I think a lot about dear friends and siblings who identify as LGBTQ, who sometimes get asked to bridge with people who have a very particular view around gender neutrality. That can be inherently violent to question.
I use that as an example to say I think not everybody is called to bridge. It can sometimes be unethical to ask people to bridge. So it begins with really a personal assessment about what you’re bringing to the conversation and an interrogation about your why, a curiosity about your why as you enter into bridging work. There are really a set of questions that I asked everyone who feels compelled to do this bridge building work. The first question I often asked in my work around bridge building is what are you bridging to? That is what is the goal. What’s the ideal state on the other side? Is it about restoring a personal relationship in your family? Is it working with crossed political lines to advance a particular policy area that you’re looking to move forward or find some common ground on?
Being clear about your motivations and the why and the vision you’re building towards can be really important because they’re different size bridges. It’s a very big difference to bridge over a creek than bridge over a large river, right?
[00:08:17] PF: Right, right. We don’t need to span the aerie right now.
[00:08:20] JB: Yeah. Or maybe you’re called to do the big river, but just know that that takes time, and give yourself grace and patience, depending on the length of the bridge you’re trying to bridge. The second question that I asked folks is what are you bridging over? So often, we do bridging work. It feels shallow when we don’t tend to these unspoken wounds or traumas and histories that are operative in our relationships, right?
So it’s hard to have a conversation bridging across lines of, for example, racial difference without tending to and talking about the harm that systemic racism has done to people of color in this country, right? Even more specifically, if you’re in a local community, lifting up examples of how that might have shown up in the experience of lives of people. There’s something about the power of the recognition of that truth, whatever that truth is that you’re trying to bridge over, and acknowledging it. That can lead to more deep and authentic conversations.
Then the third thing, and I think this speaks to what we were just talking about, which is what is your bridge made of. I like to think about these as like the tools in our toolkits, the resources, the skills that we are continuing to build and cultivate over time to make sure that our bridge is strong. Because I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to like work on climate change issues and some of these generation, a pandemic, public health access, those are really big issues. If we’re going to bridge divides to tend to them, I don’t want a bridge made of sticks. I want one made of steel, one that’s going to –
[00:09:51] PF: Right.
[00:09:53] JB: So I think that what’s your bridge made of is both about how we cultivate personal practices to renew ourselves so that we’re able to show up more deeply and authentically within ourselves. So creating that system of care and practice that grounds us, that allows us to show up, and is the muscle in exercise of continuing to show up time and time again, even when things get difficult, right? Learning how to move through and navigate conflict. So those are my three questions. What are you bridging? Two, what are you bridging over, and what is your bridge made of?
[00:10:32] PF: Just the act of sitting down and contemplating those questions, does that cause a shift in a person’s thinking?
[00:10:41] JB: I can only speak for myself, but I’ve found that it has become almost like a spiritual practice for me to return to those questions because it really helps me get in touch with my motivations and making sure that the motivations that I’m carrying into bridging space is authentic and genuine and grounded and a real desire for building community versus sort of my own selfish aims. So I invite people to answer those questions as part of your own practice. Since we’re talking about thinking about happiness, I’ve felt much freer being in touch and in tune with those core motivations and that which moves me and grounds me by answering those questions and having sort of a reflective practice in my own life.
[00:11:28] PF: That makes so much sense because I think so many of us feel a sense of frustration, or we don’t want this divide, all these divides to continue existing in our lives and in the world around us. But we’re not necessarily sure what we can do about it. So I love being able to sit down with those questions and really start thinking and identifying with it. I can see that being even as like a great journaling practice to dive into it. I don’t think it’s something where the answer just pops into your head immediately. It takes a lot of thought and introspection, I would think.
[00:12:04] JB: Yeah, I think so. The great news is for folks who are listening, you don’t have to do this alone. There are so many amazing organizations out there who have tools and resources for just this type of work. I think a lot about my friends at living room conversations, which is a methodology that brings people together to have conversations in living rooms across lines of difference. There’s a group out there called Braver Angels that really does focus on the blue, red partisan divide. So there is a set of really amazing organizations out there, if this really does feel like work you’re called to, that you can lean on and who have a set of free and downloadable resources for you to try out, to test, and figure out which one might feel right for you.
[00:12:47] PF: I love that. As we’re coming out of the pandemic, and we start interacting more face to face, do you think some of this healing will kind of take place on its own? Because it seems like when we’ve been in our little digital towers, it got very impersonal. I’m just curious how you think being face to face will change the way that we interact and react.
[00:13:10] JB: Oh, gosh. Paula, I sure hope so. I sure hope that when we see each other face to face, it becomes less likely that we will be a jerk to somebody in person, right? We’re just not programmed in that way. But I say I hope because I don’t know. I do think that there is something to be said about living the past two years in a state of isolation from a broader community. For many of us, that has allowed for some folks – Their ideologies is sort of fossilized deeper. So I’m hopeful that the experience of deep human connection one on one, being able to look one another in the eyes and speak to one another might help break open some of those pathways to empathy. The fearful part of me notes that I saw how people acted in grocery stores once the pandemic started, right? [inaudible 00:14:09].
[00:14:12] PF: It wasn’t really a, “No, you go ahead,” type of environment, was it?
[00:14:15] JB: Exactly, exactly. So I think we have to get into, again, the practice of empathy, that practice of seeing one another as human, the turning to curiosity and wonder, as a way of opening up pathways for us to see one another again. I mean, the jury’s still out. I belong to a faith tradition that is really grounded in radical hope, and so I’m going to hold on to that hope.
[00:14:43] PF: Well, let’s talk about that because that is something I wanted to explore is the concept of radical hope. I think that is what we need. Regular hope is not going to cut it right now. We do need radical hope. So tell us what you mean by radical hope, and then how we create it in our own lives.
[00:15:01] JB: Absolutely. So the concept of radical hope, as I understand it and talk about it and write about it, I first learned my background is that I am clergy in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is the oldest historically black church denomination in the United States. I grew up in a small church where there were just these powerful women, many of whom who had escaped the horrors of Jim Crow, who had seen some of the worst of what humanity has to offer in terms of violence, and yet were the same people who saw in me a spark and creativity, who were able to name – When I was six years old, it was Sister Catherine Weldon, who told me I was going to preach someday, something that –
[00:15:47] PF: I love that.
[00:15:51] JB: So we’re able to recognize and see in the young people who are under their care in a variety of ways their potential, who – As I think about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, I’m often saying I know that to be true because I saw what those church women could do with two boxes of spaghetti, right? They could feed. One of the great lessons I learned, they were not perfect women. Let me say that. They also had their after-church conversations in the parking lot that were not kind all the time.
[00:16:23] PF: It’s okay to be human, I guess.
[00:16:24] JB: Exactly, exactly. That’s why they were such great teachers is because they showed me both how to live and what some things I might want to let go of from my tradition. But one of the things that was consistent is that for these women, again, many born in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, who had seen and experienced the direct staying of racism and sexism in their life, they still had this unfailing belief that they had the power to change the material conditions of the world, that they could change things, and that that power resides within each of us. So they were never pessimistic because they saw what progress look like. They weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and do the work to create a better future for me and for the generations that have followed me.
So when I think about radical hope, I’m thinking about a hope that is rooted. So the origin of the word radical is actually rooted. That’s what the etymology of that word is. That’s rooted in a deep sense of history that is grounded, that is not sort of a far off, far flown distant type of hope. That is just sort of spoken out into the ether sphere. But that takes agency over creating that new world that each of us wants to build or we envision. If part of our orientation towards radical hope is unity, then it’s one thing to say that you want unity. It’s another thing to do what we’ve been talking about today, which is to roll up our sleeves and cultivate the skills to do the type of deep bridging work that will be required to help net back together and weave back together the breaches and the ruptures in our interpersonal and communal relationships.
[00:18:12] PF: So where do we find that hope within us? There’s – I know a lot of people feel right now absolutely hopeless about the state of the world, the state of our relationships, all the division that’s going on. Where do you start to find that spark of hope?
[00:18:31] JB: Well, I advise folks, if you have the ability to, in your life, spend some time with what I call my tradition senior seats and playground prophets, so older people and young folks, right?
[00:18:43] PF: I love that.
[00:18:44] JB: There’s such a great gift. One of the great gifts of being a part of a religious community is that it remains one of the few intergenerational spaces in our society. Every Monday at 12 o’clock, I get the opportunity to be on my church prayer line with elders, who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Being able to talk in particular to, in my context, older black folks who’ve seen some things and who can tell you that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, that it can tell you when you’re feeling down and out.
One of the favorite refrains of Sister Weldon and the church mothers in my life growing up was whenever I would feel distraught, they would just say, “Just keep living, baby. Just keep living.” It wasn’t meant to be dismissive. They always acknowledge the pain that I was in or whatever conflict that might have been operative for me. But I think the message that I didn’t realize until much later was so profound is that there’s something about the act of living. That every day, moment by moment, day by day, is an opportunity to recreate the world, is an opportunity to live differently, is an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and experiences, that those words of the elders remain close to me when I seek hope. I remember to just keep living, and that that is a powerful thing.
I also say spending time with young people will keep you fresh and keep you young. I have an 18-month-old son, and every day is just grounded by sparks of fresh joy. You’ll appreciate [inaudible 00:20:22]. He’s over the past two weeks had an explosion of language, and so is like starting to say words and not just mama and daddy, but like puppy and rice. The joy and delight he gets in being able to speak these words that he’s like heard for a long time for the first time. So I encourage folks, if you’re looking for hope, young people are there, and they will both humble you, and they have a spark within them, a spark of possibility that it’s just such a great gift for me to be reminded of the part of the work that we do is not just for ourselves but for the seven generations from now. So senior saints and playground prophets is how I find radical hope.
But I encourage folks that are listening in to think about the sources of joy in your life. I know joy and hope are not the same thing. But I’ve found in revisiting those things that gave me joy, revisiting those conversations with elders, spending time with my son, that the seeds of hope are actually grounded in those spaces of joy in my life and reminding myself that there are places of joy in my life, joy that I want to flourish and I want other people to experience. So maybe it’s not a conversation with an elder or spending time with a young person. Maybe it’s reading one of your favorite books. Maybe it’s doing something collectively with friends that you haven’t done in a while. But I think those sparks of joy are the good soil that help us see hope anew.
[00:22:01] PF: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about. You’ve given us hope and, again, kind of a roadmap for starting out on this journey for greater unity. So thank you. I know we’re going to tell our listeners how they can find you, learn more about you, order your upcoming book. I really do. I appreciate you taking the time to sit down and walk through this with me.
[00:22:24] JB: Yeah. Thank you so much, Paul. I really appreciate you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:22:32] PF: That was Reverend Jennifer Bailey, talking about how to bridge our divides. To learn more about Jennifer, follow her online or learn about her upcoming book titled To My Beloveds: Letters on Faith, Race, Loss, and Radical Hope. Visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast app.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.