Column for November, 2016
On October 22, I was asked to help facilitate a Neighborhood Leadership Training for the City of Savannah Department of Community Planning and Development. The event is a part of a series of trainings for neighborhood leaders which happen about three or four times each year. The topic this month was working across generational lines. The program included a number of the participants in the city’s Summer Youth Ambassador program which met with some of our members and used our building last summer to help young people learn about civic involvement, community development, and leadership skills.
For my part of the discussion, I chose to talk about fear. I started out telling a story from my own work in community development before I attended seminary. My job was to reach out to neighborhood residents to get them involved in efforts to revitalize their community. One day, one of my co-workers gently observed to me that she noticed I seemed uncomfortable working with African-American men. At first, I was defensive: of course I treat everyone just the same, no matter who they are or what they look like! But the observation stuck with me, not only in the days and weeks following, but for 20 years since then. I realized I was just as comfortable with older African-American men as I was with anyone else. But I had to admit I felt uncomfortable when I saw younger African-American men in the neighborhood. And what I felt when I saw them was fear. My fears was fueled by my lack of experience in diverse communities and by constant portrayals in the news, movies, advertising, and other media in the 1990s on the West Coast of young, African-American men as gang members, drug dealers, and violent criminals.
If we are going to learn to work across lines of age, race, gender, social class, religion, or just about any other lines, I told those neighborhood leaders, we have to talk about fear. I offered the neighborhood leaders and youth assembled that day three observations about fear:
– Fear is very powerful. I pointed out that politicians are especially good at using fear. Good candidates, in both local and national elections, know that their job is make people afraid of what will happen if their opponents are elected. Politicians also know how to play on fears the people already hold, whether it is of international terrorists, of violent crime, or even of people of particular ethnic, religious, or other groups.
– Organizations built on fear are brittle. If you ask people in an organization built on fear what they are trying to do together, they can only tell you what they are trying to avoid. In neighborhood organizations, that is often crime, speeding, etc. But when the headlines fade and the fear subsides, those folks don’t have any reason to show up any more. There is a similar fragility in churches built on fear.
– Fear and anger are kissing cousins. Some marriage therapists have said that anger is a secondary emotion which is always rooted in fear. Whether that is overly simplistic or not, anger and fear are related. Since very few people deal with anger well, we would all do well to recognize and explore our fears if we are going to have healthy relationships in our families and in our communities.
There is one other observation I wanted to offer but could not say to the people at that event because it was sponsored by the city:
– The most often-repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.” Jesus especially told his followers frequently to do their best to avoid fear. Like most raw emotions, we can’t always avoid feeling fear, but we can recognize it, confess it, and prayerfully ask God to address our fears and replace them with trust, hope, faith, courage, or other gifts of the Holy Spirit.
As we come this month to the end of a grueling season of political campaigns, and as we head toward a time of giving thanks and of anticipating the coming of Christ among us, I pray that we can do that work of recognizing and confessing our fears, asking God to transform our fears, and building our community and our church on the gifts which God offers us for strong, powerful relationships.