News Virginian, March 29, 2021

A first column is, like any introduction, the only chance I’ll get to make a first impression. So, no pressure here! Only… some of you already know me, for better or worse.

Perhaps you read the letter I wrote in response to a recent column on transgender issues. Some of you liked what I wrote. Others of you did not. Perhaps you read an article or saw a TV news piece in which I talked about the vandalism right in the Tree Streets to my congregation’s Black Lives Matter sign. Or maybe it was the time I was among the speakers at a rally in front of the Charles T. Yancey Municipal Building in response to the KKK recruitment flyers placed around Waynesboro. Perhaps you know I am a supporter of RISE, a gay man in a committed partnership of 34 years, a Unitarian Universalist minister, a father of three and grandfather of five.

I moved to Waynesboro from southern Illinois in the summer of 2015. At the time, some here asked me how I felt about moving to a rather conservative part of the country. But that is no different from the places where I lived in Illinois. I am liberal both theologically and politically. Yet most of my life I have lived in conservative areas. Many of my family members are conservative. I have fond memories of my conservative great grandfather’s pontificating at family dinners. He would play devil’s advocate so well that we couldn’t tell whether he held the beliefs he spoke. Only the long-standing family relationship clarified that for us. I’ve long known the importance of the coexistence of different opinions on important things.

Recently, Pastor Mark Wingfield and I sat down together, enjoyed a cup of coffee, and got to know each other a bit. We had met in the community before, but this was the first time we had been together without a meeting, an agenda, or other people’s needs and interests shaping the conversation. No, there was little likelihood that he would convince me of his positions. Just as he will not be changing his basic opinions because of what I had to say.

What we both recognize is the importance of knowing each other. Of seeing each other. Recognizing the humanity in each other.

We live in a time when social media has produced what is sometimes called the silo effect. I only have so much time, and so I tune into the people and outlets that hold similar views to the ones I already hold. The echo chambers of many media spaces contribute to the sense of difference from people who think differently. People on the left and on the right of any issue frequently think of their opponents in stark, binary ways. We know we’re good, so that means “they” are evil, right? We’re right, so they’re wrong, right?

And so, too often, we don’t see each other as human beings, in all that entails. Pastor Mark and I agree to see each other as fellow humans. Even when the issue before us means that is a challenge.

Seeing and being fully seen is the challenge. In the book of Genesis, there are lots of complicated family dramas, none more wrenching than when Sarah and Abraham banish Hagar and her son Ishmael to the desert. Hagar was enslaved. Sarah and Abraham saw her as an enslaved person to do with according to their own aims. But out in the desert, God sees her and promises her life and many descendants through her son. God sees her. It is a new experience for Hagar to be seen. And so, Hagar is the only person the Hebrew scriptures show giving God a name. She calls God El Roi, the God who sees me.

Seeing each other and each other’s living reality goes beyond political issues and theological disagreements. Seeing each other is, simply put, the God-like thing to do. Regardless of the differences we start from.

March 31st is International Transgender Day of Visibility. It is a day that challenges cisgender people – those who are not transgender – to actually see transgender people, their lives, their accomplishments, their reality as whole people, as worthy people.

It’s okay to feel a little uncomfortable, seeing people outside our silos for the first time.

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Column by Rev. Paul Oakley