This diary is dedicated to Father Paco Vallejos, who has facilitated my own journey from tolerance to empathy.
Several weeks ago, I interviewed Bishop Gene Robinson, a leader in the modern civil rights movement. Bishop Robinson, who delivered the opening inaugural prayer, is the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop. You can read the first installment of the interview here.
LR: My second question for you is a little bit more spiritual in nature. As a Bishop, how do you help individuals to move from a spiritual state of tolerance to one of genuine empathy?
GR: I think first, we have to talk about tolerance not being enough. I have a friend who says the only thing you really have to tolerate is hemorrhoids.
LR: (Big laugh.)
GR: And that kind of says it. You tolerate something that is unpleasant, unwanted but you have to learn to put up with. So when we talk about greater tolerance, whether it be around racial lines, or gender lines or sexual orientation lines, you know, its not much of a step forward. I mean, tolerance beats violence and negativity by miles! But tolerance is not the end that we’re seeking. I believe that we need to celebrate the diversity of races and gender and sexual orientation, and so I will never settle for tolerance only because I think that is far short of what we can do and far short of what is needed.
LR: Well one of the amazing things about your sermon that you gave at Temple Beth Shalom to a bunch of people who were mostly not Episcopalians because we’re mostly Jewish, is that I think every single person in the Congregation who was listening thought that you were speaking directly to them. I just wonder how you accomplished that.
GR: That’s every preacher’s dream of course, is hopes that it will have that kind of effect. You know, I have a way of going at sermons that has served me well. I try to figure out what my questions are in relation to a passage of scripture, and what questions are raised for me in light of that scripture, and then I wrestle with them out loud and let other people listen in to my own struggle with those questions, and trust that at the end of the day, we human beings have far more in common than that which separates us. If I can be honest about my own struggles, then others will find a way to hear their own struggles in my story.
LR: So there’s a universality to struggle itself, even if I have not had the experience of not being able to love the person publicly that I choose to, at least I can empathize with your struggle because I’ve struggled in some other way and struggle is struggle.
GR: That’s exactly right. In an odd sort of way, I don’t think I’ve ever said this before but do you know that’s how method acting works. An actor is assigned a role that they feel like, that they just can’t identify with and so the method acting school of thought says find something in the experience of this character that you’re playing that relates to something to you like that and then use that to become the character. I have no idea what its like to be an undocumented worker taking the risk to try to swim the Rio Grande to come into this county but I do know what its like to gear up for something that it feels impossible that I will ever find. I know what its like to be poor. I know what its like to need to support my family. I know what its like to set off on a very difficult journey. And I know what its like to live in fear that someone is going to completely bring to an end my very fragile existence. All of which I can identify with and therefore know a little bit about what it must be like to be that person coming across the border.
LR: You know, that’s very interesting. I never thought of the connection between empathy and method acting before. But it’s really interesting to me because as a community organizer, I’ve borrowed heavily from improvisational theater theory.
GR: Oh, right. Right!
LR: So, there’s a wonderful book called Impro by a man named Kieth Johnston. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it because its pretty obscure? I think I’ve read it about…I must have read it and slept with it under my pillow for years. And I found that what he was saying about how to accept…how when people are talking to you…how not to block their communication and to accept what they’re saying so that you’re open to their story as being just essential to trying to pull community projects together.