From Your Minister

 

BY MEG RILEY SENIOR MINISTER, CHURCH OF THE LARGER FELLOWSHIP

meg-rileyBefore I had the good fortune to serve the Church of the Larger Fellowship as senior minister, I was part of a team that designed and launched the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign at the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) is a public advocacy campaign, created to launch Unitarian Universalist values out into the world as boldly as possible. You may have seen people wearing those yellow t-shirts with the chalk hearts that say LOVE in bold letters—I hope so!

By now, hundreds of people wearing those t-shirts have been arrested protesting cruel immigration policies, speaking out for marriage equality, witnessing against racism and occupying various city streets for economic justice. The tagline for the campaign is “harnessing love’s power to stop oppression, exclusion and violence.” But what does it mean to claim our place as people who stand on the side of love?

I believe it’s about speaking the language of love both in public and in private. Doing so is countercultural and sometimes very frightening. And yet being silent is more frightening still—it reinforces helplessness and renders us without a voice.

I’ve had the privilege, here in my home state of Minnesota, to experience disciplined, courageous, effective use of the language of love to change public policy. In 2012 some members of our legislature put a ballot initiative up for a vote that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Thirty states had already voted on such an initiative; thirty states had passed it. Learning from those losses— with the help of marriage equality guru Evan Wolfson, year after year, urging us to “lose forward”—focus groups determined that the only conversation that actually swayed undecided voters were about love.

And so, tens of thousands of private conversations took place at dinner tables and on city buses about what it means to love. I was a trainer for people having these conversations with family and friends. We helped people to practice, looked for triggers that would throw people into defensive postures, and figured out how to stay centered when those triggers came up. We gently but firmly urged them not to talk about legal history, fairness, or the Bible. Time and time again, we coached people in how to turn the conversation back to what it means to love.

heartAt first, I became a trainer because I was too scared to do what looked like the hardest work to me—making cold calls to strangers to talk about love. Soon, though, I was intrigued. What would it be like to discuss love with someone I was cold-calling from a list? It turned out that if you could actually have such a conversation with an undecided voter, two-thirds of them would move to voting against the constitutional amendment. I can still remember some of those conversations—a widow pouring out her heart about how much she still grieved her late husband, a mother realizing that her convictions were costing her connection to her gay son. Minnesotans of all kinds suddenly realized that this ballot initiative was hurtful when they had never thought of it that way. “It’s not personal,” caller after caller would say, and we were trained to respond, “I know you don’t mean it that way, but let me explain why it feels personal to me.”

During trainings, and at the end of the nights of calling, we would all gather and share stories of the most inspiring conversations. One story in particular has really stuck with me. This woman, like many Twin Cities residents, came from farm country. Lately, when she had visited her elderly mother she had been dismayed to see signs all over the town, including her mother’s yard, urging people to vote in support of this bill which would encode discrimination into the Minnesota constitution. The woman tried every angle she could think of to persuade her mother to change her vote. Finally, exasperated, she said, “Mom, you struggled when we were young. We were poor, you were divorced; you’ve told me how hard that was.” Her mother nodded agreement. The woman asked, “Then why would you want to make other people’s lives any harder?” The woman said that the next time she visited her mother a different sign was in the yard—a “Vote No” sign. And not only in her mother’s yard, but in several neighbors’ yards, too, in the heart of this conservative area. “I thought about what you said,” her mother told her, “and I realized all of our lives are hard. We are not here to make them any harder. So I told my neighbors about it, and they changed their minds, too!”

Maybe that’s the bottom line of what it means to stand on the side of love. It means that we say everyone’s life is hard—let’s not make them any harder. I believe that the grassroots campaign which defeated that ballot initiative and eventually landed marriage equality here in Minnesota is what is needed on so many fronts: Hundreds of thousands of personal, focused conversations that talk about what it means to love each other in our communities. So many communities around the world are torn apart through silence and through active violence. I believe that only sustained love has any prayer of knitting them back together.

So let’s be about that work of speaking on the side of love. Wherever you are, no matter with whom you speak, try staying focused on love when disagreements arise. At the least, I promise you more interesting conversations.

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