When the lines of communication go down

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

"I'm too big and too black to be ignored," said my friend, her hurt evident behind the bravado of her words.

We had been working together on an initiative for a nonprofit group. With far more experience in this area than I had, she presented a straightforward, on-target analysis of an entrenched problem facing the national board. The e-mail went to the president, with a copy to me in the process. Then, without acknowledging either my friend or her presentation, the president came back to me for further discussion.

Both the president and I were white - of European descent. My friend was African-American.

"This is classic racism. It's an effort to make me invisible," said my friend, who had led many seminars on racial justice and reconciliation in her career as a minister. "And you," she said to me, "need to confront the president for me and with me. She'll listen to you."

Me? Do what? With the president?

I was in the middle of a controversy I hadn't initiated and which I felt inadequate to resolve.

I knew my friend was right in exposing a pattern of communication - or noncommunication - that was inconsistent with the values and mission of this organization.

"Monday morning, we'll call her and have a three-way conversation," said my friend. "You set it up, and you take the lead."

At least that gave me the weekend to pray, to gain my own peace, and to feel prepared to help correct this breakdown. Actually, I just wanted the problem to go away without this confrontation. I felt so uncomfortable in this role.

So I was startled by a question in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy. "Why this backwardness, since exposure is necessary to ensure the avoidance of evil?" Then the author explains, "Because people like you better when you tell them their virtues than when you tell them their vices" (page 571).

Unwillingness to be disliked was at the heart of my resistance.

I had a cordial relationship with the president. She was from a generation older than I, and I could see that she had little exposure to people of different backgrounds, which explained this current insensitivity. But my friend had grown up in North Carolina during the civil rights movement and had felt the heat of racial hatred in some form every day of her life.

There was a need to bridge that gap between them, and the continuation of that paragraph in Science and Health gave me the direction I needed: "It requires the spirit of our blessed Master to tell a man his faults, and so risk human displeasure for the sake of doing right and benefiting our race."

So I thought about how Jesus varied his treatment of the situations he encountered through spiritual insight, detecting the attitude of a person. A woman who wept at his feet was gently treated, despite her moral shortcomings. The self-righteousness of a man who was by-the-book upright was given a harsher rebuke for his lack of love. Jesus was communicating a love that healed hearts - restoring broken ones and softening hardened ones.

I acknowledged God as the source of all true communication, sustaining the bonds of relationships. God's love - all powerful and ever-present - soothed my friend's wounded feelings and awakened the president's appreciation for my friend as a peer and equal ... and gave me the courage to do what I needed to do.

The three-way conversation began with me presenting the situation to the president and her acknowledging that it would indeed seem racial.

But then the discussion drifted toward the wider problems that the organization was facing. I listened inwardly and felt impelled to ask for an apology from the president to my friend. Graciously and generously, the president gave it.

It was a moment of reconciliation.

Two days later, my friend and the president were working shoulder to shoulder to address a new crisis. I heard the president say to my friend, "I am so grateful for you."

As my friend pointed out afterward, more lines of communication and understanding still need to be opened. But we have confidence, she and I, that in God we find the healing language of Love to connect us, heart to heart.

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