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Honest and Open Questions as a Spiritual Practice

When I first began participating in circles of trust, the part that intrigued me most was the practice of asking honest and open questions. How interesting. What a revelation! I began to witness just how many interactions were trimmed by the offering of advice or a ‘helpful’ suggestion, after which, the dialogue was over. So often it seemed that our hurried way of engaging with one another undergirded this phenomenon. If we’re all too busy at work and a colleague begins to describe something that’s troubling her, why not help her out by telling her how to take care of the issue? Problem solved!

I went through a period of discomfort with the slow dawning that sometimes, I was the one cutting the dialogue off at its knees. As someone who prided myself on being an empathetic ear, I couldn’t help but be surprised at how often the questions I wanted to ask were along the lines of Have you ever read this book…? Have you ever considering doing …? Poorly veiled guidance-giving in the form of a friendly question.

And so I dove in with gusto. As a righteous worker bee, I recall the effort aimed at asking ‘just the right question.’ I was earnest as I sat listening with steam coming out of my ears, trying to come up with the supportive questions that would offer this good person just the clarity needed.

However, sometimes – once in a while – something would shift and I would find myself in a nearly altered state of quiet. The soundtrack would settle down and all that I was doing was deeply listening for real. Sometimes this happened when I was out walking with someone. I have often told the story in circles of trust, of the intense realization that this practice was getting into my bones when someone close to me said, Can we do that thing we’ve been doing lately, where we go for a walk, and you ask me questions so that I can figure out what I need to do next?

So what made that different from the other approach – that of working so hard to be a virtuous listener?

I’ve come to think of asking honest and open questions as a true contemplative practice. It asks the same of us. As a dedicated spiritual practice, it begins with intention, presence and a particular entering in. It takes discipline. It is both a process and a transformed perspective that’s different from our usual way of being (or perhaps doing) in the world. In short, it takes – well, practice.

Here are some approaches I have intentionally cultivated as I sit or walk with someone who is in a period of discernment.

Settle in. Much as with meditation, the first thing I need to do is to still my busy mind, to quiet the river of observations, judgements, and endless planning ahead thoughts that often unconsciously occupy my daily thinking – to take a few deep breaths and slow down. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Frequent practice with family members, friends and colleagues seems to cultivate an easier ‘entering in’ each time. I remind myself of my role, to hold space for this person. To be there. To be here.

Behold. It’s amazing what it is to notice another human being, to fully take them in. Something that helps me drop into noticing the being in the human being if they are sitting in front of me is to witness their eye color. It can be startling to see how often I miss that particular part of a person and its nuances. I try to hold them in a soft gaze – neither looking directly, nor being detached – just taking in the whole of them as we sit together. As they begin talking, again, I often need to still that river of thoughts and take them in again and again as a whole person – what they are saying, how they are saying it, how their body is moving with what they are saying, capturing somehow the whole picture at once.

Offer an invitation. When I first began this journey, this was the point at which I would begin thinking. I wanted to ask great questions! I still do, and yet the way forward has altered a little bit. Instead of trying to think of good questions, I’ve begun to issue a deep invitation to my own inner teacher, to please respond to the inner teacher in this person sitting before me, and to offer a question from my depths – inviting it to bubble up from down inside me, instead of thinking about it and having it come from my mind. Every time I start ‘thinking’ my way into it, I’ll return to that meditative practice of sitting quietly, continuing to listen with all of me, trusting that the question will come without my working at it, forcing it, or thinking too hard. I issue the invitation to my heart center, though for some, I would imagine it could come from their ‘gut,’ solar plexus or other part of their body.

Stay with it. As the person continues to speak, I find myself looping back through the above, intentionally listening, holding that space without trying to get myself into it, quieting my thoughts, and continuing to issue the invitation, from inner teacher to inner teacher. If they begin to cry, I gently lower my eyes and imagine my heart opening wide, wider, in response to their tears.

Notice the question that bubbles up, instead of the one that thinks its way in. When it happens, I start to feel a question arising. It quite literally seems located from the center of me. It’s often a simple question, though at times it has an unexpected layer or two. Occasionally it’s so different from the kind I might typically ask that it makes me a little uncomfortable. I’ll let the question continue to simmer as I continue to listen.

Is it ‘true?’ I have asked questions that are textbook from the perspective of being ‘honest and open,’ and yet, they have come from my intellect. I recall sitting in clearness a couple of years ago, thinking hard about the right question to ask. When I asked it, as I heard myself, it seemed all wrong, off, rather severe, a little too cerebral – not ‘true’ at all to the situation or the friend sitting before me. A question that comes from my depths in response to the person before me is different. It feels true. If it persists and continues to bubble up as I’m listening, I’ll quietly examine it and then when the person pauses, I’ll ask if they would welcome a question.

Some examples from recent experiences include feeling the way a colleague continued to land on the word ‘intentional’ as he was speaking, using it four times, the way his body shifted each time he said it. What does intentional mean to you? Simple and yet true because of where it came from in me, in response to him.

Another person was at a very difficult juncture and one bubbled up that isn’t my ‘usual kind of question,’ probably a good indication it was in response to her, not my own mind: if you pause, close your eyes, and ask the wise woman who lives inside you to show you the way forward, what does she have to say? I can still see the way in which her whole demeanor shifted as that question was asked.

There was also a time in which a former student called me on the phone at work. Having graduated four years earlier, she was in a difficult place, feeling utterly lost. After about 45 minutes of listening, I felt the question, which was something like this: as you reflect on what you have shared with me, how often do you find yourself living here and how often are you not here, worrying over what you’ll do a month, a year, five years from now, or for the rest of your life? I could describe my perception of its impact and her response, but the point isn’t so much what she did with it – that was her job. My role was simply to listen and ask.

Mantra for the very supportive: it’s not my responsibility. I have to continually remind myself that it isn’t my job to ask the perfect question, nor is it to offer clarity or help the person discern the next part of the journey. It’s not my job to guide this person through an issue or difficult period of their life. As someone who has an internal desire to be helpful (sometimes to a fault) this is a practice of its own!

My role is to hold space without pushing into it, to listen deeply and well, to take in the being of the human being sitting with me, and to invite my inner teacher to respond.

That’s all.

And that’s a whole lot.



Marcia Eames-Sheavly is a Courage & Renewal facilitator and a university horticulture educator, who has devoted most of her professional time to bringing people and plants together, whether students in the classroom, online learners around the world, or community members from New York to Belize. The recipient of national teaching and writing awards, she presents internationally and has authored numerous publications, book chapters, articles, and recently, a book of poetry – So Much Beauty.

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Welcoming Curiosity









How curious are you?

I like to think of curiosity as a friend to empathy. And, if I go back to the root meaning of the word – the Latin curiosus – I arrive right beside the word care.

Curiosity can be a form of compassion. Done right, it’s a posture of love.

This spring, it feels more important than ever for me to stand in this posture of curiosity – to welcome curiosity as a guide as I look toward my upcoming retirement in June, asking it to help me be a better listener, friend, family member, citizen. How can I practice my curiosity in a season of transition?

I find our Courage & Renewal Touchstones to be a helpful guide to learning how to welcome – and make a home for – curiosity, the kind that is careful and empathetic, that learns “to respond to others with honest, open questions instead of counsel or corrections.”

By holding this space of curious questioning, which is ultimately empathetic and careful, we can “hear each other into speech” rather than pushing an agenda or trying to force an easy fix.

Denise Levertov’s poem “A Gift” gestures at the kind of compassionate curiosity I want to live. She writes:

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm…

I trust that we will all hold our questions with the care they deserve, protecting and warming these “songbird eggs,” hearing each other into our lives.

What questions are you holding in your hands, yours or others?

What does curiosity look like in your life?


Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S.Make space for your curiosity and ask your own open, honest questions at a Courage & Renewal program. Find a program near you.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

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Announcing Our New Executive Director

The Center for Courage & Renewal is pleased to announce the selection of Terasa Cooley as its next Executive Director. She will join the team on May 30, 2017, with a brief overlap with Terry Chadsey who is retiring after eight years. The selection was made after an extensive national search and selection process.

“Terasa’s experience with human and collective transformation is a great fit,” said Ken Saxon, a Courage & Renewal facilitator and Board member, who led the search committee. “She’s a proven change agent who has advanced important work in the world in complex networked organizations, and one in particular.”

Terasa formerly served as Vice President for Program & Strategy at the Unitarian Universalist Association (Boston, MA) where she was responsible for all program offices, advocacy campaigns, board reporting and strategic initiatives. In her 12 years with UUA, she also held positions as District Executive and Director of Congregational Life. From 1990-2005, Terasa was a senior minister in Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, and Hartford, Connecticut. Most recently, Terasa was an organizational development consultant with a special focus on organizational diversity and effective board functioning. Her clients ranged from local to international non-profit organizations, including Think Equal, The Precious Project, Heller School of Management, and The Sanctuaries DC.

Terasa noted, “In this time of political polarization and social and personal insecurity, people are desperately looking for a way to bring about wholeness within themselves and in the world surrounding them. The Center serves just such a need. To help lead an organization that brings practices to the world for deep social impact will be immensely gratifying.”

At the UUA Terasa oversaw the work of the international office which included an NGO in India and a UN affiliated office, so she greatly looks forward to engaging with the Center’s world-wide network.

The search committee voiced their enthusiasm:

“Terasa possesses an innate appreciation for the principles and practices that distinguish Courage & Renewal,” said Courage & Renewal Board Chair Estrus Tucker. “She has an engaging vision for our collective future.”

Ileana Jiménez shared, “I’m overflowing with excitement about this appointment. I’ve been on a number of searches and rarely do I feel such a clear sense of a person who will take us to a new level of innovation and creativity. Terasa has an awakened quality of consciousness.”

Added Loie Lenarz, “When I think of Terasa, I think of the quote by Frederick Buechner because her deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Terasa received her doctoral degree from Hartford Seminary where her focus was on strategic planning and leadership development. She earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School and her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas – Austin. Terasa is incredibly excited to move from Boston to Seattle and to explore the Pacific Northwest.

This press release is available for download here as a PDF

A Short Interview With Terasa

Q: What do you know about the Center for Courage & Renewal so far?

The work of Parker Palmer came to me in my first year of ministry, offering much needed wisdom to one trying to build a religiously diverse community of spiritual sustenance. The Company of Strangers was the first book of his that I read. I often gave out copies of Let Your Life Speak to those struggling with life’s questions and I have used his methodology in much of my teaching and training throughout my career. My own spiritual life and sense of calling has been immeasurably informed by Parker’s gentle exhortations toward wholeness.

Q: You mentioned to staff that when you left UUA, you didn’t expect to stay in the spiritual arena. But then you saw this job opening. Could you say more about that?

After years of working with the ethereal goal of bringing about spiritual transformation, I was craving a chance to help create much more substantial change in the world. You know: concrete, measurable things! But the deeper I got into my exploration of this opportunity the more I realized that I still feel called to help people work with their deepest selves, as that is the only way true change really happens.

Q: What are some other ways you have felt connected to Courage work?

I come from a family of teachers and so The Courage to Teach was very inspirational to me. My mom taught for fifty years, starting out in a one-room schoolhouse in Texas when she was 17. I was inspired by her ability to embody a curious presence. My grandma was a circuit teacher in Minnesota in the 1920s and 30s. Both women had to really embody a kind of teaching that was separate from institutional structures. They knew how to live from the inside out, and I admired that immensely.

Q: How did you end up in ministry instead of teaching, then? And why did you shift from leading congregations to working in the national association?

My call to ministry actually came when I was in college and working on political campaigns. I worked for a very progressive state office holder who constantly wrestled with the compromises the political life forced him to make and I became very disillusioned with that world. I majored in English literature and was encouraged to pursue an academic career, but that felt too distant from real life for me. I started going back to a UU church and found myself very drawn to the world of meaning making. UUism is a very liberal and social activist denomination and was a comfortable fit for someone who was not traditionally religious. So it was kind of a process of “not this, not this, but this!”

After 15 years serving congregations, I became absorbed by the question of how institutions can change and what kind of leadership change requires. I did my doctorate in strategic planning and wanted to take this learning further afield. I was asked to become a district executive where I could teach other congregations and leaders what I had learned. And then I was recruited to become the national Director of Congregational Life to oversee a major structural organizational change. From there I became the top strategist for the UUA and loved engaging with all different kinds of programs and helping align them with an outward facing message. Can you tell there’s a theme of engaging with change here?

Q: How will you begin to gain an understanding of the Center’s work and the work of the global Collaboration?

What I’ve learned through all my experience of change is that relationship is key. Change processes are necessarily emotional and must be recognized as such. That’s why I’m excited to start getting to know people by going on a listening tour. When I can’t meet face to face, I like using video rather than phone. I want to experience the myriad kinds of applications of Courage work that people are engaging in.

Q: What can you tell us about your global/international experience?

In my last position I oversaw the work of the international office and was introduced to a whole new world of global consciousness. I became struck by how limited our North American vision seemed to be and was inspired by many of our global partners for the courage they showed. I traveled to India to witness the work of an NGO that we managed and came away with a very different understanding of social change.

Q: Do you have a favorite poem or quote that reflects your views on courage, social justice, or leadership?

I’ve always been inspired by Vaclav Havel and all that he teaches about hope in the midst of despair. One of my favorite quotes of his is “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” Especially with what we are faced with today it is a constant reminder to me of the demand for courage.

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On Labyrinths and Better Paths

From my office window today, like most days, I can see the park across the street, birds searching together for food, neighbors walking their dogs. But today I can also see a construction crew pouring a new concrete path in front of Pilgrim Chapel and the parsonage office where I work.

The old path was made up of large, bumpy stones, so the challenge of walking between our two buildings has been to step carefully over large rocks jutting from the ground without spraining an ankle. I’ve learned to walk around the rocks through the grass, rendering the path itself pointless. The old path had appealing form but pitiful function. I’m glad to see the new path today.

I’m reminded of a retreat I took last year in Georgia, at a retreat center located amidst deep woods, walking trails, and a large pond. At the edge of the pond was a walking labyrinth with a path made of fine sand. My first day at the retreat, I walked over to the labyrinth, took off my shoes and socks, and began what I intended to be a peaceful, contemplative walk around the labyrinth. No work. No worries. Just a restful, peaceful sequence of moments along the path.

But almost immediately I stepped on something sharp. And then again, something stabbed my foot. I looked down. Covering the entire labyrinth path were hundreds of spiky round balls, the seed pods from the sweet gum tree above. There was no way to walk the path without stepping on them, no tiptoeing around this problem.

Richard Rohr writes, “Contemplation builds on the hard bottom of reality—as it is—without ideology, denial, or fantasy.” Thinking of this labyrinth, I can’t help but wonder: If I cling to my ideology and ideals, would I see this fouled-up labyrinth and just walk away because it is not up to my standards? If I cling to denial, would I try to tiptoe around the seed pods, insisting I could have my peace without needing to address the problems beneath my feet? If I cling to fantasy, would I walk the path and step on the seed pods, using the power of positive thinking to pretend that the stabbing pain does not bother me?

So my plan for a peaceful walk was thwarted. I had to adjust my expectations. My walk in the labyrinth suddenly shifted to something that felt more like work. This is not what I had in mind. Every step now required me to stoop down, pick up a few seed pods, and cast them out of the labyrinth. But I began to notice that as I curved around the center of the labyrinth again and again, I could look to the outer rings and see my progress, then look at the inner path remaining and see all of the work that remained. It hit me then: perhaps picking up the seed pods had not thwarted my contemplative walk. Perhaps this work had become my prayer.

Perhaps the path to peace is only possible by first recognizing the true condition of the path, working to remove barriers and restore order, and then, only then, after having done the hard work of clearing the path and reaching the center, is it possible to turn and discover a path that is clear, that is open, that is peace. And perhaps the path will not stay cleared. Perhaps it requires ongoing work, sustained attention, and an acceptance of the cycles of things. Perhaps small portions of peace can be found every step along the way.

I don’t know about you, but my life tends to grow cluttered rather quickly and easily. When I reach the end of a year and try to make plans for the upcoming season, I often struggle to clear away all that has accumulated, both in my mental and physical spaces, in order to find time to reflect, give thanks, plan, and dream. But I know I need that time, because beyond all of the other demands of life and ideas for making a living, I know what I ultimately seek is peace—peace of mind and peace on earth.

In other words, I seek a clear path, a better path, a path that is being cleared.

So I know there’s work to be done. Some of the work is like the seed pods: work done in solitude, one small problem at a time, leaning over it, lifting it up, and placing it out of the way. Other work is like the path being built outside my office today: work that requires the help of others, people who know how to help remove large rocks and pave better paths. And we work together in part because not everyone is afforded the ability to make or remake his or her own path. And we work together based not on ideology, denial, or fantasy, but simply from a deep acknowledgement of the work that is required of us right now, on the ground beneath our feet, on earth as it is.

An alum of the Center’s Courage to Lead for Young Leaders & Activists, Andrew Johnson is a writer, speaker and community activist living and working in the midtown area of Kansas City, Missouri. He is the executive director of Pilgrim Center, a public chapel providing an open space where neighbors connect and build a stronger community. For more info you can visit or

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Welcoming Spring

Here in Seattle, we are drenched in record-setting amounts of rain. Learning to welcome what’s in front of me – this season of transition into spring, into change – is blurred by an overwhelming sense of saturation.

I wonder if you feel this way, too. It’s not just the literal change from winter to spring. Wherever you are, whether the weather is rainy or dusty, cold or humid, it seems that the collective landscape of our lives these days is inundated.

Inundated with exhaustion, anxiety, concern. Inundated with the desire to stay connected to each other in a time when we have so much on our plates.

How do I welcome a new season when I am bogged down in details and concerns? This is another way of asking: How can I welcome change?

Staying open to welcome even when we are overwhelmed is vital to our wholeness. Giving and receiving welcome is the first of our Circle of Trust Touchstones and for good reason – it’s where we start. It’s how we begin.

I am standing here in my own mud season learning how to welcome the change that our seasonal deluge brings, its great beckoning to spring.

“Blackbirds” by Julie Cadwallader-Staub is a guide for me in this season, evoking a lovely posture of welcome for this time of change in the year, and in our lives:

I am 52 years old, and have spent
truly the better part
of my life out-of-doors
but yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings
just feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

Oh if we lived only in human society
with its cruelty and fear
its apathy and exhaustion
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
so that when, every now and then, mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we manage to unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.

Where do you find “rustling, ruffling quietness” in your days?

Which surprises in nature help you welcome the change in seasons?


Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Embrace and celebrate welcome at a Courage & Renewal program. Find a program near you.

mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

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Finding Chutzpah to Attend to Anger and Grief

This blog features an article originally published on Kolbe Times. With Dan’s gracious permission, we share this article with you today.

As I write this, my life is strangely on hold for three months. I can’t say I am comfortable with the feeling. It comes down to May 9, 2017: the day that the province elects a new government. In these past months, I have become a BC Green Party candidate for one of the Kamloops ridings in the British Columbia election. How does a priest become a politician? From where might a new calling emerge?

For me, it was in quiet circles of self-reflection with friends and participants in programs I have been facilitating these past years as a freelancer in a lineage of ‘Circles of Trust’. These circles are distinguished by principles and practices intended to create a process of shared exploration. It offers a rare chance for people to find safe space to nurture personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it. I find that this approach has the power to transform individuals, families, workplaces and communities.

In rich collaborative learning, our growing network of facilitators has been prepared by our mentor and friend Parker J. Palmer. Parker is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and is an American writer, speaker and Quaker activist whose work spans education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books.

I have deeply benefited from a profound circle of colleagues these past two years. We have been meeting at the activist/spiritual center on the Appalachian Trail: Kirkridge Retreat Center. Any movement requires a space where private language can be tested until it is ready for public exposure and criticism. This thoughtful community has served me well and I hope I served others nearly as much.

In all of these experiences, I became aware of a strong emotion denied the light of day. I awakened something I had suppressed. It is anger. I can more clearly name it now as indignation, sorrow, and heartbreak. It is an experience of the tragic gap between my realism and idealism: an inescapable reality of the human situation… if we dare to love. As I faced into it, it just felt awful. I could not shake the vision of what I had avoided: the tragedies of dying species, fading employment for so many, rampant injustice and consumerism, the futility of war, a warming planet, growing income inequality, and a failing social system. I could not shake it. It liberated something in me wanting to be free.

Circles of Trust call for attentive awareness. We try to gently face eye to eye what we are feeling, thinking and sensing in the present moment. We sense the wave action rocking the boat that comes embedded with navigational information. One of the touchstones of these circles:

“Attend to your own inner teacher… as we explore poems, stories, questions and silence in a circle of trust, we have a special opportunity to learn from within. So pay close attention to your own reactions and responses, to your most important teacher.”

I continue to deeply value the individual work of transformation in these circles. I love the remarkable people who show up seeking some connection with inner wisdom and a revelation of truth. Yet, I noticed another longing linked to the anger. It was a yearning to share with a larger active movement for societal transformation.

I’m responding to that calling, I carry no judgement of the work I have been doing. I still feel a strong pull to be in these circles. I sense I will return to my facilitation role when this phase of life has been fulfilled. When will this be and how will I know it? I have no clue.

I trust this strong motivation to travel ‘up the river’: to the place upstream where government legislation, regulatory power, and community decision-making happen. It is a guarded realm. It is the place from where much of the ‘down river’ issues continue to be created – for good and for bad. I wanted to show up there and try to affect what I can. I did not hear an inner voice. I wish I did. I do have access to what I call a low grade sensation of direction. It is a prompting to pray and play in this active way for these next years of my life.

A gift appeared along the way, in the form of a poem by the late Bill Stafford. I have only made use of this inspiring poem for one program to date. At that program , the poem spoke to me in the way that only an honest poem can. The words of the closing stanza are the ones that most resonated:

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

– an excerpt from William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

My lovely friend David was a close friend of the late poet Bill Stafford. He introduced me to Bill’s poems which continue to reveal truth to me. Reading this poem aloud in a small circle of seekers, I recall a distinct awakening. A truth came from my remote important region. It remains the humble giving of a proper and clear signal about what I believe. I return to this poem when I doubt my decision to run.

All this is a tapestry that weaves into grief. Most serious life changes do. Two important men in my life died within a few weeks of each other. I said goodbye to my mentor and spiritual director, Jim. Days later I touched the warm and dead figure of my father. I dream of them from time to time. Their deaths activated a latent energy that is carrying me now, a year later. Grief arrived with a surprise of clarity.

Jim charged me near the end of his life to speak up. “Dan, it is time.” I was no longer a young fellow with potential, as he chided me gently. I was a wisdom-speaker in the community. Chutzpah arrived with Jim’s words.

So begins the next generational shift of my life. This next phase I understand to be essentially generative. It is co-creative activism in this Green movement of societal change by political process. I don’t know how it will transition in three months. I do not know why it has taken this expression. It has. I trust. It feels right.

About the Author: Mentored by activist Parker J. Palmer, Dan Hines serves as a Courage & Renewal facilitator and leadership consultant for individuals and for business, educational, and religious organizations. As co-founder of the intentional community, RareBirds Housing Co-operative, he has a passion for exploring alternative living and a more sustainable relationship to the land. He is an Anglican priest involved in local social justice, environmental activism and grassroots political work in British Columbia. Dan is currently the candidate for the BC Greens in Kamloops North Thompson for the next BC election, May 2017. He also serves as the BC Greens Forestry Spokesperson.

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Narrative Imagination: An Activism of Radical Empathy

Photo by Richard Ha [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 

“Were any of you tear gassed at the airport?”

“Did you get back from the march ok?”
“Do you have your emergency numbers memorized?”

It’s strange, living in these times, exchanging the above phrases with my friends engaged in nonviolent activism. We text each other back and forth at the end of the day, across the country, activism comrades. We feel the urgency, we meditate on quotes like these:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Bishop Desmond Tutu

Or that meme floating around:

Remember sitting in history, thinking “If I was alive then, I would’ve…” You’re alive now. Whatever you’re doing is what you would’ve done.


We swap ideas, affirm each other, urge one another to refuel for the long haul, and hold each other accountable. Yesterday one of my activism comrades across the country shared with me that he reached out to a Yemeni colleague, a fellow scientist in his research lab, to offer support and solidarity in light of the recent Muslim & refugee ban issued by the Trump Administration.

As is our activism comrade practice, I thanked him for his actions and wished him well before his next demonstration. As I turned away from my phone, I planned on offering the same support to Muslims in my life and those from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, the seven countries affected by the ban.

As I sat with my notebook, running through a mental list of colleagues, classmates, family friends, housemates, and other connections, I realized something pretty shocking: I have no close connections, that I know of, who are Muslim or are from the seven banned countries. Not one. I’ve never met for coffee with an Iranian, never worked side by side with a woman in a hijab, never shared meals with a neighbor born in Libya or Iran. Never.

Sure – I once had an elementary school classmate from a Muslim family. And I’ve been an audience member at interfaith dialogue events where I ate really good hummus with other white people at the end of a talk: I admit now, humbly, a paltry attempt at true solidarity or friendship. But no one in my present, daily life. I’m not proud of this, but it bears sharing because I suspect I’m not the only one.

In fact, my guess is that many of the people who support the Muslim ban and refugee block, and even the border wall, have never been close to a member of the groups affected by that discriminatory legislation. How could you know those affected, hear their cries, experience their kinship, and still be against them?

In her book Cultivating Humanity, philosophy & ethics scholar Dr. Martha Nussbaum writes of growing our capacity for what she calls “Narrative Imagination,” that is, entering into the stories of others by practicing (and it does take practice) a sort of radical empathy. Says Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the motions and wishes and desire that someone so placed might have.”

What would it be like if my family was being bombed in their homes and turned away from a chance at safety? What would it be like if my family had lived legally in the United States for years and was suddenly forbidden to return to their lives, loved ones, and jobs? Wouldn’t I desire safety, too?

Last night at a rally ”No Ban No Wall! March for Muslims and Allies,” I heard a Syrian woman speak in tears to a crowd about her brother, who, because of speaking out in favor of democracy, is no longer safe in Syria. He has courageously spoken out for democratic values we mutually held, but is barred from being with his family. Remarkably, his sister at the microphone still had faith in this country. She said over the booming PA system, beautifully, desperately, “I know, because you are here, that I did not make a mistake in coming to the United States. Thank you. Thank you for being here.”

It is an anemic understanding of the world to imagine that I can be free, while my neighbors are not.

It is my own failing, privilege, and circumstance that has led me, stunted, to this point of not knowing well a single Muslim, Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Somalian, Sudanese, Syrian, or Yemeni. It makes me sad. It’s embarrassing. But it’s a fiction to believe that my own story does not cross paths with that of a Muslim, a refugee, or an immigrant from one of the banned countries. It is an anemic understanding of the world to imagine that I can be free, while my neighbors are not.

In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King wrote:


In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.


Objectively, philosophically, I care for the families affected by the ban, but following the call of Nussbaum and King, it is my job to follow the thread of interrelatedness and understand how it connects to me and my own family. So I called my senator, who at the time had released no public statement about the ban (see the Tutu quote on neutrality, above). I thought, if this senator cannot connect to the suffering of these Muslim families, perhaps I need to take a different approach. Perhaps, like me, he has family in the military who will also be affected by this ban. Perhaps he understands that breaking relationships with these countries will likely mean more danger, more deployment, more violence as a whole. I made 10 calls that day, but for the final one, I took a different approach, trying to evoke radical empathy.

Brad, a staffer probably no more than 20, answered the phone in Washington, D.C.

“Hello. My name is Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer. I am a constituent and a voter in Wisconsin. I am calling to urge my senator to be brave and come out strongly against the Muslim ban and refugee block.”

Great. I had my lines down, I thought. I’m a level-headed strategic activist and I got this.

Photo by DRieselman [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

“Severing relationships with our neighbors in the Middle East is a national security issue for everyone. I have family members in the military who I love, and it puts my family at risk. Also, an irresponsible, hasty transfer of power putting Steve Bannon on the National Security Council affects my family. It puts them in danger. Please…”

My voice cracked. And then I, who I thought was a seasoned and rational activist, started sobbing on the phone to Brad. Brad probably has an internship with the Republican senator I was calling. Honestly, Brad probably looked similar to me, a white midwesterner who had already forgotten their own immigrant story only a few generations removed. Brad stayed on the other end.

“Please,” I creaked and gasped, embarrassed, apologizing in spite of myself.

“Please ask the Senator to be courageous and speak out against this irresponsible, unjust ban and to urge the President to reconsider Bannon. Please ask him…”

I swallowed, picturing my military relatives.

“Please ask him to protect my family.”

Our wishes and desires – for stability, for a family free from harm, for a country that will listen to our cries – are bound together.

Though I’m largely safe and enjoy unquestioned citizenship thanks to dumb luck of where I was born, my tears and those of the Syrian woman at the microphone are similar tears. As I thought of my own family at risk, I thought also of the hundreds of families torn apart by the ban, by refugee denial. As Nussbaum wrote above, our wishes and desires – for stability, for a family free from harm, for a country that will listen to our cries – are bound together.

I finished my plea. On the other end of the line, Brad paused and said his script quickly, quietly, to close the call. “I’ll pass it along to the Senator. You have a good day now.”

Did he feel anything?

Photo by Amanda Hirsch from Brooklyn, NY, USA (Black girl magic) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If logic and reason about the justice imperatives of our Constitution are not enough to make my Congress listen, what can I do but share my basest self, my real fears, my understanding that these refugee and immigrant lives are indeed part of my own garment of destiny. Locked in with the fate of my own family.

It is my job to feel this fear and helplessness, and to cultivate my Narrative Imagination, a radical empathy for those Muslims, immigrants, refugees I have never met. To build relationships with them. To stand beside and behind them and amplify their voices.

I texted my activism buddy at the end of the day, as we do.

“Well. I sobbed on the phone with Brad at the senator’s D.C. office today.”

I had betrayed the level-headed, strategic, rational activist and scholar I thought I was trying to be, for the more human, fearful, more real and raw version of myself. The truth is I’m profoundly disturbed right now. I feel deep grief. I’m physically ill. And I’m convinced the world needs this emotion along with my action – marches, protests, boycotts, calls. This emotion may be an antidote to the dehumanizing political structures that privilege some (like me) and marginalize others (like the Syrian woman at the mic). Emotion helps shock us out of “legislative mode” and into “human mode” to build Narrative Imagination, radical empathy. It’s powerful, and we need it – both to hold tight to our mutual humanity, and to get liberatory work done in our government.

*Note: Some names and identifying details of those quoted have been slightly altered to protect safety and identity.

Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer is a social justice writer, facilitator, and speaker.

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Welcoming Hope

How have you been welcoming hope these days? I’m finding that the need is great today to welcome hope in myself and those around me. 

As I’ve been staring with a heavy heart into what feels like a widening “tragic gap” (what Parker describes as “the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible”), I’ve been prompted to wonder, How do I move to welcome hope back into my life? 

Since this is a perennial question, I turned to a few wise leaders for inspiration on how to welcome hope.

I cultivate hope as an unshakable inner state of being, not a promising outer state of the world.

I take my inspiration for this from Václav Havel, who wrote:  

“The kind of hope I often think about…I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond it’s horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed.” 

– Václav Havel, from Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huizdala as quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities 

I strengthen my own faith in hope, grounded in courage.

In a recent blog post, Estrus Tucker shared stepping stones of courage from the life and wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. One of these stepping stones is Dare to hope. 

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in Strength to Love

Later in the book, he wrote: “Evil and pain in this conundrum of life are close to each of us, and we do both ourselves and our neighbors a great disservice when we attempt to prove that there is nothing in this world of which we should be frightened. These forces that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage, which is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities. This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”

Guided by these words, how might we dare to hope? 

What does welcoming hope look like for you?


Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. Cultivate your experience of hope at a Courage & Renewal program. Find a program near you.

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A Few Thoughts on Complacency & Repair

This blog features an article originally published on Susan M. Glisson’s Sustainable Equity blog. With Susan’s gracious permission, we share this reflection with you today.

In an increasingly polarized social and political climate, I’ve been searching for sources that attempt to analyze what is at the heart of the discord that appears to exist between so many of us. I believe that the vitriol and division are deeper than that which exists between the political parties, which was reflected in the recent acrimonious election, though they are a symptom that has its own side effects.

For too long now, we as Americans undervalued being informed, a condition which generally comes from a rigorous education with training in critical thinking. For too long we have settled for corporate-driven media, owned by a small number of folks, who have made fortunes titillating us with every salacious rumor about “celebrities,” such that our election cycles now seem much more like an American Idol competition than a serious investigation of values and policies that care for each of us and support our unity. We’ve replaced those sources with social media, which too often isolates us in our own echo chambers of reinforcing and not always accurate self-narratives. And we have avoided or ignored talking about the painful parts of our history, the patterns of which, if studied, reveal a deep divide founded in racial discord, in a mentality that values one group over others (in our case it has looked like white supremacy; other countries have manifested their hierarchies of human value in other ways). (And by the way, “whiteness” and racism haven’t just harmed and dehumanized people of color; they have dehumanized “whites” too.)

We have valued dollars over people. We have disconnected ourselves from the land and from the water that supplies our basic needs and from each other and from Spirit, which renders us diminished in soul, empty and angry. But because we haven’t valued critical thinking and authentic connection, we too often lack the tools to understand why we are where we are and what we can do about it. And so we anesthetize ourselves with literal and figurative stuff we don’t need and which doesn’t fulfill us (just go check the profit margins of the self-storage industry or say the comments section of any news article).

We have become complacent, which means literally to please one’s self, self-satisfaction in spite of or because of ignorance of actual dangers. In short, because we do not really know ourselves or each other deeply, we do not truly know each others’ sorrows and joys. So we do not know what others have experienced that causes them to make the life choices they do. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we do what we do!

Here’s the good news. Complacency is cured by proximity and authentic connection to others, especially to those we deem “not us.” We can repair the damage we have done to ourselves and to our country. We can “come home to” ourselves and to each other, as the Latin origin describes “repair.”

I’m not speaking of an industrial project, on massive scales, mechanized and largely independent of human involvement. I’m talking about the grassroots, community-level kind of work we must all do. We can punish and exclude based on who others voted for or we can try to understand, to empathize, and to embrace.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that, “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.” We need time to fall in love with each other. To listen deeply to each other, one-on-one and in small groups, face to face, as Puanani Burgess says. Nothing else will replace this everyday, local work.

And here’s how such a conversation might go: ask each other first, “what your highest hope is for your community?” Allow as how you might not know everything and would like to understand where the other person is coming from. Ask open and honest questions, ones you don’t know the answers to. Do this over and over again until you build the muscle memory of respectful and civil and truthful conversation, until you create a new pattern of interacting that is healthy and whole and second nature to you. If we commit to such a process, synergy and consensus about what we should do together will emerge. I promise because I’ve seen it happen every single time a group has done that hard work of listening and learning together.

When we do this, we will create the world our children deserve, because justice, as Cornel West has said, is what love looks like in public.

Susan M. Glisson is the co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity, LLC. You can learn more about her work and background, and explore these valuable resources on building movements. To dig deeper, you can listen to a NPR story featuring Susan’s work with Sustainable Equity and the “Welcome Table” model.”

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Know That It Is Possible: Dreams in the Desert

Today we hear from two Courage & Renewal facilitators, Tara Reynolds and David Henderson, as they offer their reflections on their recent experience presenting at the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools’ (NESA) Fall Leadership Conference.

The attendees included educational leaders from around the Middle East and Southeast Asia who work primarily in private schools serving both Western expatriates’ children and local families in places such as Beirut, Lebanon; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The conference was held in Doha, Qatar and was attended by approximately 500 administrators, board members, and educators.

Tara and David were invited to deliver a keynote and facilitate two three-hour Courage to Lead breakout sessions. As NESA Executive Director, David Chojnacki, stated in a planning call last spring, “These schools are successful at academics; our graduates go to the best universities in the world; we’ve done data. We need to renew our hearts – we need to ask ourselves, ‘To what end?’”

Using the Circle of Trust approach, Tara and David offered some insights into that poignant question and how it may relate to school leadership.

David and Tara Reflect…

This conference took place before the recent US election. Since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented American pandemic of “othering” across many ideological divides. We asked ourselves, “Does discussing this experience in the Middle East and the life-changing impact this had on us even seem relevant compared to what our hearts have felt after November 8th, 2016?”

We have come to understand that what we experienced in Qatar has significant relevance to what we feel now. Ivan Illich said, “At heart, hospitality is a helping across a threshold.” If there is anything America needs today, it is a deep sense of hospitality; the following reflections document a glimpse into the gracious hospitality which invited us across a threshold into the beauty, love, and courage of being human. These experiences on the other side of the world have come to be hyper-relevant in crossing the thresholds of our own broken hearts here at home.

Tara Reflects…

Somewhere in the skies between Iran and Bahrain I noticed the announcements coming in Arabic, then English. I stood up to stretch my legs and realized how quickly—in the course of a single day—one can become foreign. I felt both at home and a part of something larger than myself as I watched the man in the seat in front of us assist a frail woman in a sari, lifting her bag into the overhead compartment. A simple gesture helped me trust that I was on the right path. As men walked by dressed in beautiful thobes of glowing white, I longed to touch the fabric. Instead I rested my gaze, adjusted my scarf over my shoulders, and turned to wonder about how much we can assume about another by the vestments one wears.

Upon arrival in Doha, it became clear that NESA could have written the guidebook to extending welcome. Unaccustomed to this level of attention, I felt a little sheepish as I walked through the lobby and was greeted by the hotel staff with “Good morning, Miss Tara!” I wanted to hug the chambermaid who folded hand towels into the shapes of different animals each morning—instead we exchanged notes of hospitality and gratitude on slips of paper left on the pillows.

The conference got underway and the energy shifted as over 500 people arrived and engaged in a powerful learning environment, every detail thoughtfully taken care of by the NESA staff. I tried to let go of my ‘not enough-ness’ and walk through the space with my head held high.

In reality, the thought crossed my mind more than once: What can you possibly offer these global leaders, Tara, that they don’t already know? Each time I released the thought and practiced the keynote in my head I breathed a little easier. I trusted in my heart that we had something valuable to share.

From Effectiveness to Faithfulness: The Quest for Institutional Integrity

The night before the keynote I slept lightly, not sure half the time if I was awake or asleep. I woke groggy and as we made our way down for our sound check in the ballroom I started to get butterflies in my belly. I tried to remember my colleague Holly Wilkinson’s loving words, Shift those butterflies into your heart, radiating your inner light outwards. It helped.

The room looked enormous. We were asked to clear out so that security could do a search of the space with their bomb-sniffing dogs. I wasn’t sure if that was comforting or not. After choking down some breakfast, we were on.

A man named Clay Hensley of The College Board introduced us. I had my back to the room before going on stage in the hopes that it would stop spinning. While David has all the relevant degrees and has taught AP Courses, I was surprised to feel content with Clay’s introduction of me as a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and Co-Founder of WholeHeart, Inc. I felt proud. The time had come and we stepped on to the stage. I looked out over the sea of beautiful faces of people from all over the world, their eyes on us, eager for ways to bring courage and renewal into their own schools.

I approached the microphone, nervous but steady. I was ready. I had practiced. I knew the content was of the highest quality and so I started to speak. With a heart full of gratitude, I started to speak.

Howard Thurman’s words grounded me; Parker and the Mobius Strip gave me confidence. We guided the room through an exercise where they were asked to think of someone in their lives who encouraged them show up as their full, integrated selves. We invited them to speak the name of that person out loud and in that moment I was washed over by a wave of powerful goodness, as reverent voices whispered names of beloved people who made the difference in these leaders’ lives. My eyes filled with tears.

David and I danced gracefully together through the session: his research and stories landed my cultural and philosophical pieces into the classroom. The deep respect we have for one another was evident. My gentle presence mingled with his capacity of heart and humor; my experiential pieces wove well with his stories of teaching and leadership.

I could see the audience was engaged and intrigued. I could feel the hunger for this work. The moment had arrived and we met it with love.

Shifting Sands

On our last day in Qatar I insisted on getting out into the desert, and we hired a local man named Nassim to drive us out beyond the dunes. Being there opened me. Something shifted inside—perhaps it is still shifting. I know without question that I am changed.

What was it that called me there in the first place? A new adventure? A new landscape? I wonder about the barren monochromatic vastness that resonates with me around the end of my 16-year marriage.

Nassim said that he knows where the soft sand is and where he can drive. There were roads even where I saw no roads. “Each dune has a name,” he said. There is so much my eyes don’t see, I thought.

Something that surprised me was that the desert was full of trash. I expected to see a pristine paradise of soft white sand and was shocked when Nassim suggested to me to put my shoes back on as he pulled a piece of rusty metal out of the sand two feet from where I stood. “See…it’s not safe. People have no respect.” He was one of the few people we met who was actually from Qatar. He told us that most of the city of Doha used to be desert until about 15-20 years ago. The waters of the Persian Gulf are relatively shallow around the shores of Qatar (about 3 feet deep) which has enabled man-made construction to now extend out into the sea. If you dig in this desert you can find water not far under the sand. For this reason, the desert is also littered with seashells.

I scattered rose petals from Vermont in the wind, a blessing for something new to grow in the arid places of my heart. We bumped along until we came to an inland sea. The water is incredibly salty, warm, a beautiful shade of blue. Nassim brings his 80-year-old father there several times a week. On the other side you can see Saudi Arabia.

I can’t stop weeping when I think about this desert. I think it might be grief for the parts of my life that are ending mixed with joy and wonder for all that is to come. The garbage and the glory. All of it.

David Reflects…

There were so many things that remain with me from this experience. I am sure I was channeling Gomer Pyle of Andy Griffith TV fame when I was constantly feeling, “Gaaawwwllly – she-zam – look at that!” But I did my best to look less than the country bumpkin I felt constantly. First of all, Tara would have pretended not to know me, and secondly, the Center and perhaps the US State Department would pretend the same. But from the moment we began to descend into Doha’s stunning airport, new realities bombarded my psyche and I remembered Camus saying everyone needs to experience the “angst of the traveler.” Clearly, Camus had watched Andy Griffith.

While driving the freeways leading from the airport to the area of Doha known as “The Pearl,” I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. We arrived late in the evening and the freeway was lined with hundreds of 75 foot tall light poles covered in small lights that were a variety of changing colors – it was stunning from the air and as we were driven to our hotel. We learned the next day, as we noticed small engraving underneath all the lights on every pole, that the engravings were scripture from the Koran; this was the beginning of several days of intense tutoring in what was an almost non-stop immersion in what cultural humility might mean for me.

I want to share three very brief stories of what this journey meant.

Doha skyline seen through the arches at the Museum of Islamic art

First of all, our keynote was Saturday morning and the Friday evening before the NESA folks (an organizational embodiment of hospitality like I have never experienced) took those of us presenting to the Museum of Islamic Art and afterwards to the Souq, a remarkable Middle Eastern market that seems to wind around endlessly between shop after shop selling everything from Calvin Klein boxer shorts to exotic birds and falcons – my second story is about an experience Tara and I had there a few nights later.

As I entered the Museum I was overcome with what some have suggested was some residual jet lag; whatever it was I was not doing well, so I walked outside to the bridge which carries you across water to the entrance of the Museum. I sat watching the people come and go as they entered the Museum and watched evening descend over Doha. Doha is an international city with Islamic people coming to visit from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

As I sat watching this beautiful array of young, old, families, individuals, enter and leave this monument to the ancient greatness of Islam, I was filled with such love for what I was being privileged to witness; on the plane home I wrote the following:

Sitting Alone in Front of Our Sin

The Museum of Islamic Art is on a man-made island –
a pearl inside a pearl inside Doha.
It rises up reminding one of what
the tower of Babel might have been.
Majestic, beige like the desert,
yet modern – like the city surrounding it
while it houses so many ancient remnants
of Islam’s glory, grandeur, and grace.

The people walking in and out
were unlike me.
Mostly slight of stature;
brown, graceful, erect walkers
gliding – holdovers from antiquity.
A pace akin to a nobleman
approaching a prince –
not lumbering forward
looking for a fight.

They would often cast glimpses my way –
furtive and curious
as if wondering why I chose
to be in their place – their art –
their home of brilliance and light
colors and patterns,
fluid like serpents sliding beauty
across sand and everywhere they glide.

I wondered more than they
how did I come to be here
sitting on a bridge to beauty antiquified
in my sandals made for fly-fishing.
But they never moved with mistrust –
just wonder, turning to wonder,
“Why is he here?”
I helped two lads from India
photograph themselves –
we exchanged handshakes, smiles,
“Nice to meet you, suh.”

I was humbled by their generosity
of smile and spirit;
their willingness to meet me on a bridge
to their collective glory.
But then a 5 year old lad
clad in their life
ran by fleeing his mother –
she calling a reprimand in
Farsi or Arabic but just as
fierce as, “Boy, you get back here now!”
I smiled in reverie of our communion
of love and frustration.

While here in Doha,
I smelled fragrant air,
heard ancient songs sung by young voices
from white faces;
and a sad song carried across a lake
made with western machines
floating an ancient eastern dream
as the sun set over the Pearl
and the Persian Gulf
was beauty, glittering boats,
and I knew I had it all wrong
and we had it all wrong
and blue-green eyes
piercing me from behind the sliver of a masked face
were beyond beauty –
a dream of what is beautiful –
a thin veil separating
me and Heaven.

My second story happened two evenings later when Tara and I were sitting in an outdoor café having dinner in the middle of the Souq. We were literally surrounded by international women, men, and families dressed in all sorts of variations of Islamic wear enjoying the Friday evening having dinner, tea and smoking hookahs. Pretty typical evening for me – very similar to anything you might experience in every town across Montana.

As we finished our meal, there was a large, dignified, young Arab man sitting at the table next to us, alone, smoking his hookah. Presently, a young Middle Eastern family came walking by – Dad dressed in western style jeans and shirt trying to corral a lively 5 year old lad, Mom in a full burqa pushing a stroller with what appeared to be a 3 year old girl; a lovely family.

Tara and I both saw the little girl looking intensely at the large Arab gentleman sitting next to us; he was imposing – he looked like he would have no trouble playing linebacker in the NFL. Suddenly the little girl with serious disdain, stuck her tongue out at him; Tara and I both looked at him wondering what would come next. He looked at us and knew we knew what this little angel had just done and he started laughing heartily – we did too; it was priceless. This might be the Souq in the heart of the Middle East, but it could have been a mall in Bozeman, Montana too. What it was for me was a lovely reminder of how similar we are – how beautifully connected we are; a little girl’s brash tongue-sticking-out became a hospitality threshold.

My final story has to do with our first Courage to Lead session on Saturday morning right after our joint keynote; we were wondering if anyone would show up for the session. We were hoping for 25, possibly 30 (I had optimistically made 35 copies of the third things we planned to use). As the break following the keynote ended and folks started arriving for our session, our circle of 35 chairs was overflowing – everyone quickly started helping expand the circle until finally it held 64 folks. I was stunned and since Tara was lead for this session, wondering how this new facilitator would navigate something neither of us expected.

Here’s where I need to offer some kudos to John Fenner, Debbie Stanley, Parker Palmer, and Marcy Jackson for their obvious well done training of Tara’s facilitator cohort – she was masterful as she opened the circle and invited us into a wonderful three hour reflection and sharing using Parker’s Habits of the Heart as a framework for healthy schooling.

Not only did she hold the space with grace, the circle was filled with an international gathering of folks from quite literally all over the world. I was so proud of how she invited these folks to explore what showing up wholehearted might mean for school leaders. Later, some of the NESA folks expressed to us that normally 30 folks at a session is a good turnout; they said the keynote had clearly resonated with this gathering – we recognized another hospitality threshold – matters of the heart resonate across borders that in many ways are illusions.

There are other stories I might share but this is enough; I left there with my heart full.

What does this invite me into given our recent November? It invites me to explore how my heart has humbly helped some across my thresholds and how it has too often not invited others across the threshold of my heart. I cannot stop being a “helping across a threshold”; there is a little girl with her tongue out reminding me how lovely we are; there is a woman in a burqa looking up at me thanking me for the story I shared in our keynote about my Dad in Memphis, Tennessee and how it helped her understand her Dad better; these people are beautiful reminders of what a gift we can be to each other if we refuse to close the threshold of our heart.


Tara Reynolds is a community organizer with a passion for building trust in relationships and organizations. She is a graduate of Haverford College and an alumnae of the Vermont Leadership Institute. She finds joy in the wisdom of children, the beauty of the natural world, and the power of a good open and honest question.


David Henderson currently teaches Educational Leadership at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT, and facilitates Courage to Teach, Courage to Lead and Circles of Trust retreats. He has been involved in pre-K-12 education for over 20 years. He continues to study and research the intersection of the inner life of leaders with their practice of leadership grounded in a heart striving for integrity and authenticity.

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