I attended a seminar at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in Montreal on Monday. For those of you who don't know (like me before Monday), it is a "learned society and professional association of teachers and research scholars" boasting over 10,000 members who "teach in some 1,500 colleges, universities, seminaries, and schools in North America and abroad." My professors had encouraged us to check it out, so I perused the offerings and found a round table discussion on Monday morning that piqued my interest: Practicing Faith in Graduate School. They promised free coffee and snacks, so how could I go wrong?
There were only three of us that showed up for this particular session, and that was fine with me. I prefer a small group discussion to a person reading their paper to me from a podium any day. I grabbed a juice and a cinnamon pastry and sat down at the table. The facilitator was a pleasant fellow from Pennsylvania who worked as a pastor and adjunct professor at a local college. As the hour progressed, it turned out that he had quite a few stories about how scholars were labeled as heretics in the church community, how the pastors he ran with probably couldn't understood half of the books he reads, how he received a monetary bonus for reaching certain membership goals at his church because that was the only way they could afford him (my chin almost hit the floor), and how appalling it was that his undergrad students didn't know the creeds.
The second fellow, who was a professor at a divinity school in North Carolina, was a mild man who countered with a story of his recent experience of changing to a new church to be with his fiancée, a church predominantly blue collar and military, and finding this a wonderful opportunity for him to relate to others from different walks of life. I liked his open and accepting attitude.
It didn't take long for professor #1 to suss out that I did not have my doctorate, did not know who Tom Altizer was, could not summarize the "Death of God' controversy, and wasn't even a member of the AAR (due to my being the only one present without a badge). The talk in the room soon became a discussion between the two doctorate holders in the room on scholarly topics. I started to feel excluded and that old familiar urge to flee came over me. Whenever the dynamics in a place feel wrong, I often get a strong desire to leave and get away from the uncomfortable scene. It happens when I feel overlooked, misunderstood, overwhelmed, oppressed, underqualified, or threatened in some way. However, I have been learning that fleeing, while appropriate in some dangerous situations, is not usually the best option. I have something to bring. I have something to say. I have a point of view that no one else has, and I need to bring it.
So I brought what I had to that round table discussion, confidently but graciously. I told the learned men that if we can't explain our faith to a 5-year-old or the average person on the street, then what good is our education? I said that being in a minority is good for one's humility. I affirmed the great opportunities that lie in rubbing shoulders with those who are not like us, for we have something to learn from every person, and they have something to learn from us. I pointed out that most of their viewpoints were decidedly American and added that here in Montreal, I counted it a blessing to be in a secular society where one can talk about God and faith to people who have a relatively "clean slate" regarding their religious pre-suppositions. At the end of the session, I thanked them both for the time and their contribution, wished them all the best, and left the room.
That evening I attended one of my classes at university and noticed a difference in how I interacted in the class discussion. I was no longer as timid, measuring every word and hesitating before speaking. I threw in my comments when appropriate, added my thoughts to the discussion, and jumped right in after someone else spoke without having to go over the whole speech in my head first. I brought myself. I stepped forward. I contributed.
Too often, just because we don't look like, talk like, or have the same experience as others in the room, we assume that we don't have anything to add. That is not true. I always have something to bring. At the very least, I can interact kindly and offer an affirming smile or word. Other times, I bring a point of view that others have not thought of. Sometimes, I can turn things from negative to positive by posing a simple question. Always, I pray that I bring the Spirit of Jesus so that his presence is near. And I can't do that by walking away.
Here is a video I stumbled across called, "Dare."
Those are my feet at the top. Stepping in.