On the weekend of October 13-15, over five hundred academics, students, funders, non-profit leaders and organizers gathered at the 9th Annual National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation in Atlanta, Georgia.
I was asked to help kick off the opening plenary and offered a personal reflection and prayer for our work and our work ahead.
Read the poem below or listen to Kevin Coval read it in the audio version.
a call to you who is me
i want to take a deep breath
a step back
or i want to jump back
and kiss myself
as James Brown adlibs
on Super Bad
i got soul
the divine spark
Jews call this spark Ayin
the eternal flame
which each carry
a bit of it and return
to the source once
we are done with this
Muslims think of it as breath
as Ruh – the divine breath
Allah exhales into each of us like a flute
like Eric Dolphy, Yusef Lateef and Nikki Mitchell
for all my jazz heads
i want to care for that spark
the divine breath in all, in each of us
care for it in others
i must also care for it within myself
i want to commend you
for your courage
and being here today
to return to this work
and reconnect with oneself
and one another
it’s time to gut check
and reapply first principals
go back and remember
why we started building
dialoging in the beginning
it was the block i was born on
Jews in sea of Black folks and Puerto Ricans
New Town it was called on the Northside of Chicago
my pops saved the neighbor’s dog who was hit by a car
the neighbor was a general of a Chicago street organization called The Latin Kings
he blessed my family to have safe passage after that
and i walked a neighborhood over
to my Jewish day school
and thought the world could be a bridge
because there was one in my life
the far poles of extremism curl back toward each other.
a purity of race or a purity of thought – both fascistic
as if there were no grey
no jumbled messy brilliant middle
where there are questions and discovery
where there is patience and misunderstanding
we have been ushered into an era of radical un-listening
social media is neither social
and i am no conspiracy theorist
but who benefits from our divisiveness?
i am struggling and reflecting on this today:
why are we so afraid of a conversation?
afraid to sit and breath and break bread
and build with someone not exactly like ourselves
could it be
we are afraid to learn
we might be wrong
our view limited
our foundation challenged
everything we know or knew
like when i found Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
in the public library – thank the Most High for the library – for public institutions
where ideas are FREE and free – and i read
sitting cross legged that Columbus was on some f— shit
after all the sail the ocean blue indoctrination
dude was not the one to point us in the right direction
and i was like dayyyyyyum
so which way are we going?
i call upon our bridge builders
our peace makers
renew your vow
to what you are called to do
there is difficult work ahead
and the world needs you NOW
to show up in a big way
and hold the humane middle
we cannot let the loudest shout us away from our principals
or deter us from our path
it is dangerous to build
listening can get you in trouble
recommit to extending the conversation
invite more people in
to listen and listen. and talk and listen
at Interfaith America
the org – i work with and helped to start over 20 years ago
our vision is a potluck nation
where everyone brings a dish to the table
with their own flavor and spices
their own style and masala
where we are feed by the diversity of the plates
people unlike ourselves offer
it is our job to build the table
to invite people to gather
and sit and bring a dish to share
and not poison those you are feeding
a Nation is not just the differences we like
there will be some tastes at the table we may find off putting
some offal that’s awful
foul by our standards
which means we might not we have to eat it
but can we build a stomach for it
can we at least focus on the sublime key lime coconut pie someone’s Auntie made?
there are radical differences between us
and yet there are universal moments and feelings and desires
we do share.
a prayer, a laugh, a hope, a hug
a desire to sit in your grandmother’s kitchen with something warm on the stove.
i call upon the story tellers
the peace makers
the bridge builders
to articulate our specificity
in order to glimpse our universality.
remind us of the small l in the liberal ideal.
there are things we all want and need
and desire and deserve.
each of us
all our tribes and peoples
across the board and border.
and i can’t believe i’m going to say this shit
i do think there are good people on both sides
and i think good is subjective
and our work in part
is to understand the parts
and that good itself
is a false duality
as the Buddhist brothers and sisters have taught me
we are a wild spectrum of humanity
we are fluid, complex imperfect creatures
who obliterate the binary
who exist beyond the polarities
extremists seek to keep us divided
on some cointelpro shit
but we are universes on to ourselves
each of us going through the known
isolated until we reach out
until we ask
or sit with someone to confide
and not hide our hand or our heart.
it is dangerous to say peace in this climate
to build in this climate
and suggest our future is wound together
that we are connected
that we are inter-connected
our being an Inter-Being as Thich Nhất Hanh might say.
there is an elephant in the room
and there are other animals in the zoo.
perhaps we try to gather and not talk
about what harms us from jump street.
perhaps we try to build
we try to bridge
we try to look in each other’s eyes
and see ourselves.
yourself a reflection
or refraction of my self
why do we think water reflects the sky
or is it the other way around
people are not their governments
not the extremist groups that falsely represent them
we are more
we are much more
now is the time
to accelerate our work
as bridge builders
we are the doctors of this moment
not the patients
we ask for patience.
we see and seek humanity
everywhere and offer a conversation
to try to ensure shit like this doesn’t happen
or at all.
we want to put people in relationship to one another
diverse identities and divergent ideologies.
we don’t have to choose between false dualities.
i see you
i hear you
i see you
i hear you & i to want to be seen.
i am distrustful of those who do not show kindness & compassion.
compassion a key ingredient of this work.
our humanity is being lost in the encampment and balkanization of the polarities
our imagination can offer a better world
a more just and humane society
a democracy for all.
the town center is crumbling
we need to talk with those not in the choir
see them as humans with histories
get into a third space
the dwindling American institution
and be relational with people not like yourself.
twitter finger warriors
how easy it is to destroy
our job is to build
or as i was taught in Hebrew school
to repair the world
to make it whole and holy
As Salam Alaikum
and make peace
Kevin Coval is a Senior Advisor at Interfaith America.