The documentary Welcome to Shelbyville illustrated the human side of bigotry in a small town in Tennessee.
Misunderstanding is Natural
Seeing news stories of terrorism in Somalia, previous residents wondered whether violence would come to their town along with recent Somalian refugees. Residents interpreted the recent immigrants’ practice of haggling for prices at stores as aggressive instead merely a different cultural practice.
As a church pastor described the anguish his congregants felt about the thought that refuges would threaten the lifestyle they’ve known since birth, I felt a mix of sadness and empathy.
Watching all of this, the misunderstandings seemed so natural and I thought that if the different groups could only sit down with each other, share their perspectives and listen, then prejudice would start to slip away and cooperation could emerge. I longed for it deeply and was touched to see just that in the second half of the film.
Anger Becomes a Gateway
The story of reconciliation recalled experiences I have at a community meal that I run in Western Massachusetts. I overheard one community member get angry at another because she failed to guard his food pantry bag as promised when he left to wipe down tables and put chairs away. My immediate impulse was to intervene and try to fix the problem, but something told me that this is exactly what should be happening and that the container of the gathering would facilitate a resolution.
My hope is that the preparation and dismantling of the space becomes one more arena for the development of relationships. At the final council circle, he apologized for losing his temper, explained that it is something he is working on and asked the group for support in that process. The person towards whom he expressed anger, along with others, shared similar struggles that we have experienced as well.
Rolling Negative Experience Into My Practice
From a socially engaged Buddhist perspective, we call the transformation from egoism to mutual understanding an awakening to the interconnectedness of life. According to the four noble truths, part of being human is the illusion that we are separate from each other, which results in suffering for ourselves and for others. According to the Zen Peacemakers formulation of the classic Buddhist precept of not being angry, we vow to “transform suffering into wisdom” and “roll all negative experience into my practice.”
Therefore, I don’t see prejudice as something bad to be eradicated, but rather as a Dharma gate. It is a starting point—an opportunity—that could lead to deeper enlightened connection if we only embrace it as such.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta