History of How We Got Here
By Rev. Rod Miller
“Courageous Conversations are intended to lead
to courageous connections and courageous actions.”
Racial and religious inclusion were part of the founding dream of Columbia. We are a county which welcomes people of many cultures, identities, ethnicities, and spiritual backgrounds to live here. Our challenge has been how to be inclusive in more than name. In the fall of 2017, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, made a deliberate decision to kneel for the National Anthem before an NFL game. He said “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
His decision and the response of many other NFL players to follow his lead spurred an ongoing national controversy and debate about the state of racial injustice and the meaning of patriotism in our country.
Here in Howard County, these actions were a catalyst for a conversation which included Rev. Robert Turner, Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary and Congressman Elijah Cummings and members of his staff.
They asked one another what many of us were asking in our homes and religious places, what can we do about our cultural divisions and the crying need for justice for people of color?
It was a powerful meeting of the minds which resulted in an idea and a proposal. What if we were to do something about this in Howard County? What if we were to somehow address the cultural divide by inviting together some of the religious leaders and their congregations in Howard County to jointly discuss patriotism and race?
And so, Rev. Turner, following his heart, his faith and with a broad ecumenical spirit, called together a few religious leader colleagues to meet together with Delegate Vanessa Atterbury and Amy Stratton from Congressman Cummings’ office to discuss what we might be done.
Shehlla Khan (not clergy) - Dar Al-Taqwa Islamic Center, Rev. Paige Getty - Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Rev. Rod Miller - United Methodist clergy, serving Glen Mar UMC at the time,
Rabbi Susan Grossman - Beth Shalom Congregation, Rev. Dr. Robert Turner - St John Baptist Church &
Fr. Gerry Bowen - St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church (Not pictured)
November 2017, these sponsoring congregations sponsored a kickoff event which took place at St John Baptist Church and included a key note speech by Congressman Cummings and a panel discussion on patriotism and race. It was well attended and sparked broad interest in the conversation circles which were held monthly at each of the sponsoring congregations beginning that February.
The core team continued to meet weekly through the winter and spring. It was a real joy and a continual learning experience for all of us. We received a grant from the Horizon Foundation to support the effort. The grant allowed us to hire Essential Partners, an organization with extensive experience and success in bringing together diverse populations to engage in facilitated conversations around common concerns. John Sarouff, from Essential Partners, quickly became a vital part of the planning. His skillful ability to listen deeply led to developing an effective process and training for the facilitators of the conversation circles. We realized almost immediately that our conversation circles would also need to include issues of religious bias as well as racial bias. John Sarouff masterfully included both in the facilitator training and circle processes.
I have to tell you that meeting weekly with the core team took on a sort of spiritual quality for me as we came to express what was most important about our individual commitments to ministering to the diverse population of Howard County. Approximately 200 persons participated in the Circles. The culminating event took place in June and was attended by over 400 persons. Congressman Cummings offered a passionate keynote address and we had a sense that some attitudes shifted, new relationships developed, and the foundation for more dialogue and ensuing actions were established.
Our intention moving forward was to expand the leadership, facilitator teams, and participant congregations to include the diversity of religious congregations in Howard County. Our purpose for Courageous Conversations is to learn from one another and hear each other’s perspectives about how we are living together in our experiences of race and religious bias. Our overarching theme addresses this question: “How do we work towards creating a connected community of different people rather than a community that lets different people in?”
Courageous Conversations are intended to lead to courageous connections and courageous actions. It all starts with the individual and their willingness to share and to be open to what else is here. Some of you have been doing this work for a long time and for some this is a new experience. Some have roots in many congregations and religions – and some are spiritual and not linked to a congregation. Some are passionate about faith and some are passionate about not having a defined faith. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, however you describe yourself, we are glad that you are interested in having Courageous Conversations.