Note from the Editor: This article is the third in a series which will offer guidance to women who hope to become more politically active on the issues that matter to them, including religious freedom.
Part III: Fighting With An Open Heart
One of the most intimidating things to do is to expose your beliefs (and therefore yourself) to judgment from others. How do you face people who oppose, maybe even hate, everything you stand for?
The short answer is that you do it with love.
I met an unforgettable woman while praying in front of a local abortion clinic. She was there almost every day. As women were on their way in, she offered encouragement and help to keep their child; as they left, she comforted them with words of mercy and hope. For those who did change their minds at the last minute, she continued to keep in touch with them and help them as she could through their pregnancies and beyond.
On one of the rare Saturdays she couldn’t make it, a staff member started to harass our group. We ignored him, though his behavior made us feel nervous and angry. When we shared our experience with this woman, she reacted with joy. “I’ve been praying that they would send him out!” she said. She recounted a conversation she had with this young man: “I love you,” she said. “I don’t want you to love me, I want you to hate me,” he replied. “I can’t hate you. Jesus loves you and He is the one loving you through me, so it is impossible for me to hate you.”
Ultimately, the two of them became friends. There were a lot of us outside that abortion clinic, but only one of us was able to make a difference in the young man’s life: the one who responded not with anger, fear, or any concern for herself, but with love. She alone was able to break through his defenses and touch his heart.
You and I have got to learn to respond this way to those who oppose us in our activism. It does not come naturally or easily for most of us (certainly not for me). As I mentioned in my last post, few people get involved in grassroots movements because they are overflowing with love and joy to share. But if we don’t open our hearts, we prevent ourselves from being able to make connections with others, and it is in those connections that change happens.
For most of us, loving our “enemies” doesn’t come naturally. It takes a lot of grace, a lot of prayer, a lot of practice, and a lot of time to be able to respond to others like that woman did to the clinic worker. So do not give up if you’re not there yet. I’m not, but I’m learning. Here are some personal “rules” I wish I followed all the time:
I. Before you engage:
- Remember that your opponents are people. If you find yourself thinking of that girl from Stop Patriarchy merely as an opponent, you’ve already lost. Ditto for if you’re thinking of her as simply an opportunity for you to flex your debate muscles, or a potential “convert.” It is easy to objectify people on the other side of an ideological divide. In reality, she is a woman with a name, a history, hopes, dreams, desires, gifts, and a dignity all her own.
- Remember your purpose. All you have to do is be a friend to the other person: that means, in part, speaking the truth in kindness. You are not responsible for single-handedly changing their mind about religion, the Constitution, contraception, or anything else.
II. Learning to listen:
- Listen and ask questions first. When someone expresses an opinion that differs from your own, ask them why they think that. Really try to understand them better. Don’t try to trap them with your questions, and don’t give them the third degree. Just be sincere and let them know you care about what they think.
- Express empathy and acknowledge common ground. Perhaps they’ve had bad experiences with religious people. Perhaps they decided to have an abortion because they were in a crisis situation. Listen carefully to and empathize with whatever hurts or struggles they share with you.
- Look for areas of common ground, no matter how small. They think contraception is necessary for women to lead happy lives? You want women to lead happy lives, too. They think people shouldn’t force their religion on others? You agree. Look for areas of commonality and point out anything that you have in common.
III. Share with respect:
- Share, don’t teach. After you’ve listened, you can share your own point of view. Try to do so with language like, “what makes the most sense to me” or “the reason this seems different to me is…” Using this kind of language avoids putting the other person on the defensive, so they can listen to you with a more open mind.
- Be generous with your respect. If you’re prone to emotional reactions, practice not responding at all until you can do so calmly and respectfully. Even if you don’t think the other person deserves your respect, be generous and give it to them anyway. Do not make assumptions or use cop-outs: straw man arguments, name calling, etc. Apologize when you are wrong. Imagine your mom can see you, if necessary.
Following these tips works really well for ordinary conversations, be they in person or online. When you’re in an actual debate or engaging with the media, of course your style will need to be a little different. For example, that may be the time to teach rather than just “share.” But if you can remember to see people as people, no matter what they believe, then you’re well on your way to becoming the kind of advocate this world desperately needs.
Laura Doroski is a homeschooling mother to 3 young children. A graduate of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA, Laura founded the college’s Catholic Student Union and Students for Life. Because freedom of religion, women’s and family issues are now inextricably linked, Laura is doing what she can for the sake of her kids to speak out about the consequences of women suppressing or circumventing their reproductive systems and denying life to their own children.