Speaking and Listening to the Motley Pew - by Molly Phinney Baskette

Molly Phinney Baskette ’96 M.Div.

In 2016, my church held an election night watch party. We made two playlists for the big finale just in case, little thinking we’d actually be making slow, sad circles to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” at the end of the night instead of leaping for joy to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”

My church lives in the heart of the liberal bubble of Berkeley, CA. Our congregation is home to UC-Berkeley faculty and students, young families and retirees, boomer hippies who migrated here during the Summer of Love and stayed, and a pew full of young trans spiritual seekers, one of whom coined the phrase “Motley Pew” for our church T-shirt.

Post-election, many of us felt an urgent need to learn how to talk to folks who had voted for Trump. We began exploring the power of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a tool for compassionate engagement with others and a conflict-resolution strategy. It is based on the work of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, which sponsors training events worldwide (cnvc.org).

Name It, Claim It

NVC invites us to identify and name our feelings: restless, apprehensive, despairing, serene, tender, optimistic. Understanding our feelings helps us identify the universal human needs beneath those feelings, needs that might not be getting met – physical sustenance and safety, meaning and purpose, autonomy and community, connection and affection.

Honoring our needs, we are able then to make specific requests of the person with whom we find ourselves in conflict. We are also better able to understand their needs and feelings, and honor requests they may make of us.

NVC began to permeate our life together. The preachers preached it. The children learned about it in Sunday school. It was the theme for our all-ages retreat, and again for our women’s retreat. We also hosted a daylong training sponsored by Bay NVC last fall.

As we learned our new skills, I think we imagined someday chartering a bus from Berkeley to Birmingham, sitting down over jello salad and healing all of America’s ills with some good compassionate communication. One of my members did, in fact, participate in a moderated Facebook group of Democratic women from California and Republican women from Alabama, and has spoken eloquently about how the friendships she formed with the Alabamans gave her new spiritual depth.

Sneaky Divine Motives

For most of the rest of us, those nation-healing conversations didn’t materialize, at least not yet. But our learning was not for naught. God had sneaky ulterior motives for our steeping ourselves in NVC, as She often does. It turns out there were people quite different from us whom we needed to learn how to talk to. They were in our own pew.

In October 2016, a fire had damaged our sanctuary and destroyed the building next to it that housed every other function of the church. For eight months we held worship in a local synagogue, while we renovated the sanctuary and repurposed every remaining closet, junk room, and hallway to carry on the work of the church once we moved back.

Grief Arrived

In diaspora, we enjoyed a kind of camping-out elan, a dreamy and creative can-do spirit. But once we moved back into the sanctuary, the grief really hit, some of us harder than others. The unified blob of the congregation began to spread out along a spectrum, with some people moving into a “preserve and protect” mode, others into a “possibilities” mode around a campus redesign, and a lot of people in the middle confused and concerned.

Some were imagining a state-of-the-art new ministry center, or putting affordable housing on campus to address the cruelty and immorality of the housing crisis in our region. Some wanted to get back to normal as soon as possible, and not further risk the stability of the church by committing to projects with unknown downstream effects or financial strains. Even now, our issues are not resolved, and we’ve been having some very painful conversations about our scope and direction. The “pew” was far more motley than we had imagined, and it threatened to tear the church apart.

Covenant of Respect

In the midst of this, we have been able to draw on our NVC skills to dial down anxiety and truly hear each other. A covenant of respect, which we say aloud in unison at every community meeting, reminds us to speak using “I” rather than an anonymous “a lot of people feel that …” to bolster our position, because even if we are only one person, our feelings and needs still matter.

Recently at our deacons’ meeting, we were all asked to say how long we had been coming to our church, what drew us here, and what kept us here.

One of our veteran deacons, a tall trans woman in her late 20s wearing a studded belt and black rock ’n’ roll tank top, talked about how when she first arrived in the Bay Area, she joined a lot of radical groups, which offered her instant community and purpose.

“But one by one, I watched them fall apart – sometimes really fast,” she said. “It was rough how quickly they turned from camaraderie to vitriol. I wanted to check out a left-leaning church. I was curious how churches stay together for generations, when other communities and institutions fall apart.”

In an age when mainline churches are despairing the absence of millennials, who reportedly mistrust institutions, here was a twentysomething who had actually been attracted to our … institutionality. One of the good things about institutions is: They manage to organize people, a building, and a little savings that make it possible for them to do things like acculturate Nonviolent Communication.

Last month, I preached that no matter the outcome of our decision-making, the miracle is already happening. Not only are we charged with figuring out how to be church at the end of the empire, resisting oppression, facing down religious hypocrisy, becoming a super-diverse body with all kinds of opinionated people in it, but oh, by the way, we also have a 100-year decision to make involving $15 million, give or take – and we are doing it.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, our motley pew makeup, we are still showing up. We are feeding our hungry, visiting our sick, singing side by side, and praying for each other. We are also showing up for difficult conversations, listening, stating our feelings and needs clearly, making requests, and trusting the Holy Spirit will lead us to the wisest outcomes, not for you, or me, but for us.

Molly Phinney Baskette ’96 M.Div. is minister of First Congregational Church of Berkeley. Her books include Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession (Pilgrim Press, 2015) and Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too (Pilgrim Press, 2014).