Sunday, September 6, 2015

Deep Listening Matters

A sermon by Katherine Henderson, delivered at United Church of Gainesville on September 6, 2015 as part of a collaborative service with Senior Minister Shelly Wilson.

I am honored to be here with you today, in dialogue with Shelly and all of you. My name is Katherine Henderson. I am a self-employed urban planner and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida. My husband Barron is an Assistant Professor at UF, and our two sons are four and seven. Our family was a part of another large UCC church in North Carolina, so when we moved here three years ago we were thrilled to discover the United Church of Gainesville.

This service is about the transformative power of listening. And this sermon is about listening to the truth about racism and white privilege as spoken by people of color. I offer these stories with humility and an open heart, and the hope that we can continue to listen together.

Over the past year, the shattering realities of systematic police violence against black people and the burning of black churches have finally broken through to me. I am from a primarily white suburb of Boston where we thought it was impolite to talk about race, preferring “color-blindness” to actual discussions of difference and inequity. I moved through the world cloaked in white privilege, viewing racism as a primarily historical and individual problem. The past year’s tragedies shook me awake to the fact that racism is much more systemic and insidious than I had ever imagined, and that through my ignorance I was part of the problem.

So when I heard about a new online course by Patti Digh called “Hard Conversations: An Introduction to Racism,” I signed up. We have explored, through readings, videos, interviews and conversation, everything from the problems with “color-blindness” and appropriation of black culture to institutional racism in our healthcare system, schools, criminal justice system, workplaces, and neighborhoods. This is not only the stuff of history; this is today’s reality. And it is hurting all of us.

A few weeks ago, as part of this course, Melanie DewBerry spoke to our class. Melanie is a professional speaker and life coach who is also a woman of color. Her words were directed right to me—a well-meaning white person scared to talk about race, afraid to be wrong, to offend or be embarrassed. Melanie said: “You are only afraid of the conversation [about race]—I’m afraid in my car, in my home.” Her fear is in response to countless incidents of bias, suspicion and violence against people of color for such offenses as sitting outside too long in their own cars. And then she asked us, the privileged, to “Listen to these stories—to the way these stories serve you. Be conscious that while you are receiving privilege, daily, scores of people will never receive it.”

At the end of the call, Melanie said to Patti, the white activist organizing the course: “If you were standing here in front of me right now, I would bow to you.” She offered this virtual bow in gratitude for the deep listening she had received from Patti and, through her, from hundreds of others. Melanie was grateful for the courage of all these listeners, and for the respect her story received. Being heard did not rewrite her experience, but it did lessen her suffering, at least for that moment.

When we really listen, as Patti did for Melanie, we create a sacred space. We meet the God in another person, and they meet the God in us. The Quaker concept of Inner Light says that in every human soul there is implanted a certain element of God’s own Spirit. This element, known to early Friends as "that of God in everyone", or "the seed of Christ", means to Friends, in the words of John 1:9, "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world". [1] When we listen to each other with humility and empathy, the “true Light which lighteth” every person in the world spreads and grows, bathing us in its peace.

This kind of deep listening does not come naturally to most of us, because our brains are wired to run from any kind of pain, whether physical or emotional. My favorite way of running from other people’s pain is offering unsolicited advice. Instead of communicating love and support, my solutions sound more like “If I were you I would already know how to fix it! So let’s move on.” Actually listening to someone else’s pain with an open heart, without thinking about what to say next, or trying to solve their problem, is a skill that does not come naturally to me.

Sometimes, after just a little bit of listening I get impatient. I jump from ignorance to arrogance, suddenly qualified to figure out the solutions myself and jump into action. Lost, again, is humility—and lost is the transformation that could have occurred, if I were willing to stay in discomfort and let that discomfort be my teacher.

Every one of our human relationships and communities offers opportunities for us to learn through discomfort. Sometimes, in a fit of such discomfort, I will pray, as the great Anne Lamott has taught me: “Help.” And, as you may have discovered, God rarely responds with clear instructions or answers. Instead, God offers us deep listening: "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you." (Jeremiah 29:12). God does listen, and she listens well, even if sometimes I am frustrated by the quiet. God is the best deep listener I know.

On another August evening, I sat at my computer to participate in a virtual conference for the “Hard Conversations” course. We watched a clip from the 1994 movie “The Color of Fear,” in which a mixed-race group of North American men gathered for a dialog about the state of race relations in America. In this clip, we saw an African American man named Victor Lewis become passionate as he spoke about his experience. Finally, he yelled across the room to the white men: "I'm not willing to trust you until you're as willing to be as changed and affected by my experience and transformed by my experience as I am every day by yours."

Silence. The white people in the video listened, deeply, and so did I. It hurt. Just sitting there, twenty years later, my blood pressure rose and my throat tightened. I wanted desperately to scroll through Facebook rather than finish watching the video. But I sat there and listened, because deep listening matters. I took in his words, with humility, as truth. I am beginning to know what I don’t know about systemic racism, and I’ve started listening deeply enough to be changed.

Listening is not always enough. Sometimes a particular situation demands not just our empathy, but also a reply or immediate action to avert danger or harm. But as we speak and act in service of equality for all people, we must keep listening, deeply, to let their experience and voices guide our action, rather than our own ego and judgments.

Deep listening can’t bring back a loved one, or years lost to pain and anger. But it can lessen suffering, making space for connection, healing and hope. And if we listen deeply enough to be transformed, we might learn how to walk forward together.

Will you pray with me?

O God of the true Light that lighteth all the people of the world: please give me the strength to listen, deeply, to the joy and pain of others, including people I already know and people whose stories I have yet to hear. Give me the strength and humility to seek out these stories, to hear them and be transformed. And when the time comes to speak out, direct my words and actions by your grace toward peace and equality for all. Amen.


  1. wow. amazing. thanks for sharing, Katherine.

    1. Thanks Caroline! Sending love from your native land to mine!

  2. Finally getting to read this. Thank you so much for the work you have put into this, and your eloquent words in sharing it.