The Stories We Tell - A Dialogue on Cultural Differences

“The Stories We Tell”

Rev. Greg Ward and Ian W. Riddell (UUCMP Ministerial Intern)

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula

March 20, 2011


CALL TO WORSHIP (Carol Galginaitis, Worship Associate)

In his small Midwestern community, a close friend was always known as the liberal, one whose opinions were frequently labeled “outrageous.”  Yet, when he moved east, he suddenly became one of the more conservative people in his office and neighborhood.  Which was true?


Joyce Carol Oates just published a book about the death of her husband.  In a recent radio interview, the author said that in her role as Mrs. Smith, widow of Raymond Smith, she was depressed, withdrawn, and incapacitated.  “JCO,” as she calls her professional self, however, continued to teach, write, and speak publicly, showing few external signs of her personal grief.  Which was true?


My father was born to Lithuanian immigrants and grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin.  Although he showed academic promise, when he reached 9th grade, his parents told him he had to quit school and start helping out on the farm.


He had different ideas.  He left home to move into town with his somewhat reluctant older sister.  From that point, he basically fended for himself, finishing high school and continuing on to get his PhD in physics.  Throughout the rest of his life, my father never expected that others would rescue him from life’s challenges and disappointments.  He was a very independent, self-reliant professor, husband, and father.


I paid close attention, and learned what he had to teach.  I, too, put high value on independence, admiring those around me who seemed immune to the opinion of others.  I developed a keen desire to find the “pure” definition of who I was---that is, a definition based solely on my own self-perceptions and image of what I was capable of becoming.  Whenever I found myself overly influenced by others’ views and expectations --- Carol as “smart student,” “patient mother,” “conscientious employee” --- I deliberately fought those “false” characterizations.  After all, others’ opinions were constricted by their necessarily limited knowledge of me.  Only I had the whole picture, only I could truly claim to know who I was.


But is this ever true?  Our actions, feelings, and thoughts mostly occur within the context of relationships with those significant people in our lives.  I am a mother only because of the birth of my two sons.  This very important part of my identity would not even exist except for Jake and Evan.


The same is true of my professional self.  In every job I’ve ever had, in some way I’ve assumed the role of mentor, cheerleader, teacher, trainer.  This, too, is an identity that relies on the existence of “the other.”  In fact, I can’t even claim the mantle of teacher:  this is a title that is only granted by the student when he or she agrees that some important exchange --- of ideas, of values, of history --- has taken place.


My desire to have control over my identity, to “possess” it as something pure and static, is doomed.  My sense of self is a much messier product of what I have done, how others have reacted, and how we have made collective meaning of these interchanges. 


And that last point is very important.  If my father had not rejected his parents’ sense of who he was to become, he would never have left that farm.  He, in essence, learned a bit more about himself because his parents forced him to consider, and refuse, the label of farmer.  In so doing, he in turn changed his parents’ perception of not only their youngest son, but also of themselves as parents with ultimate authority over their offspring.


Perhaps we’re all in the same situation, whether we live on the Monterey Peninsula, in Beijing, or Zurich, or Buenos Aires.  Our sense of self is continually, and messily, shaped by the ways in which others respond to this self.  We, of course, also have this effect on others.  Identity is a dance that is constructed communally, as we approach and withdraw, accept and reject, interpreting and understanding at every step.



Ian:    Please join with us in the spirit of reflection with these words followed by silence and music.

Greg: This reading is by my intern supervisor, Unitarian Universalist Minister, Mark Morrison-Reed

Ian:    The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.

Greg: There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.

Ian:    Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

Greg: It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community.

Ian:    The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.

Greg:           Together our vision widens and our strength is renewed.


Ian:    The bonds that bind each to all is a relationship built from two parts:

Greg: the call of the individual to honor a life that describes who we truly are at our deepest level

Ian:    And an understanding of the world around us – what needs and values are passed on to us by the people and places that claim us.

Greg: It is important to honor our individual truth – what is in our own heart and mind that cannot be denied.

Ian:    It is important to be true to the greater whole from which we emerged, who tended to and taught us, supported and shaped us to carry those values into a new generation.

Greg: Which is true? 


Ian:    I was born in the United States, an error of fate I can hardly be held responsible for.  But at six months my family moved to Kingston, ON, a small university town a few hours north of Toronto, Canada.

Greg: I was born in the United States, in Los Angeles, CA, oblivious to the ways in which this country would inform and shape me into the person I would grow up to be.

Ian:    My identity is very much Canadian – despite moving to the states twelve years ago – first to support my partner’s career and, now, to develop my own.

Greg: I was the son of a truck driver and a teacher – both staunchly individual in their approach to life.  Both of them  imparting on me a clear sense that what they were doing was so I could have the opportunity – I might even say, ‘responsibility’ to do something more with MY life.  Clearly an ‘American’ ideal.

Ian:    I was born to a university professor and an accountant - both of whom clearly lived out a sense of fairness, cooperation, and a sense of loyalty to uphold the common good.   They taught me patience, thrift, and community service – clearly Canadian values.

Greg: I felt the call to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister, in part, because I failed at becoming a true ‘American’ as it had been strictly indoctrinated into me.  I wasn’t driven by the pursuit of a lucrative career.  Money, or status, or personal achievement didn’t motivate me.  I didn’t want to conquer my destiny or dominate my field of interest.  I wanted something that seemed to be missing in my life.  And missing in my world.  I wanted a sense of belonging.

Ian:    I am in the midst of preparing for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, in part, because the need to express my own, unique experience of the path to freedom and health called me to temper the needs of the communities around me and find pride and glory in that understanding.

Greg: I have been most drawn to the 7th principle – seeking to work for and believe an interdependence which was never emphasized in the ruggedly individualistic world which I was in taught my pledge of allegiance.

Ian:    The principle that speaks to me most is our denomination’s first: the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  Understanding the worth and dignity of others was naturally bred into me.  But to fully accept such indisputable worth and value as mine – to claim it and give it voice – not just when I sing – but when I speak and step into leadership.  Learning that love and worth and value will be there for me even if my own convictions take me beyond popular – or common – agreement, is what I am learning to trust.

Greg: When I accepted the invitation to do my internship at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto with Mark Morrison-Reed, the thought about going to another country hardly entered my mind.  I was glad to be leaving the west coast.  It was the kind of adventure my rugged individual soul had grown accustomed to. 

Ian:    When I crossed the border into the states, it was because not being with Mark was not an option.  But I came with some reluctance.  I had brought with me the stories I had learned about the United States and Americans.  I grew up, as most Canadians did with, a good understanding of the United States—we couldn’t avoid it: TV, music, movies. The Dukes of Hazard, The Cosbys, School House Rock…  And I’d taken a class in high school on the parallel history of Canada and the US.

Greg:           I was eager to explore a place I knew virtually nothing about.  I wanted to take what I knew and use it and take what they could teach me and bring it back for my career. 

Ian:    I thought I knew more than enough about the United States and Americans.

Greg: I never got the sense that living in Canada would be all that different than living in ‘America.’

Ian:    Americans were revolutionary, individualistic, aggressive, stupid, proud, pushy . . . and the United States had lots of guns.

Greg: What I knew about Canada I learned from watching the Olympics.  I thought that Canadians all played hockey, rode on the luge and were good at curling – things I assumed they learned because they weren’t able to play real sports like baseball and football. 

Ian:    When we arrived in Pennsylvania I had a chip on my shoulder about being Canadian and living in the United States. I felt superior to all these people around me who said “yins” and thought that football was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Greg: When I arrived in Canada, I was sure someone had broken the thermostat.  And it was only September.  I couldn’t believe people really lived that way – voluntarily.  And my first few weeks I listened patiently to people tell story after story about how they’d lived through ‘the worst snowstorm in 40 years… And they would all finish by saying, “Oh, but you’re from California… you wouldn’t know about suffering.” 

Ian:    We were surrounded by people who said things like “you’re not from around here” and mocked the accents of non-Americans – ‘out,’  ‘about,’ ‘tomato,’ ‘pasta,’ ‘sorry.’

Greg: It took me awhile to get used to people saying things like “we have to stay on ‘shedual’ and follow the process.”  And when I looked confused, I often got ‘the look.’  The look that can be summarized in one sentence and that I got almost every time someone discovered I was from south of the border: “Just because you’re from the States and you think you can control the rest of the world doesn’t mean you have the right to control the way we talk too!”

Ian:    I remember sitting and watching television a day or so after 9/11. George Bush was speaking before a joint session of congress. President Bush took a moment to thank all of the United States’ allies who were aiding them in their time of need. He thanked Great Britain, whose Prime Minister was sitting in the room, and Japan, and many other nations large and small. But he didn’t mention the US’s closest neighbor and largest trading partner: Canada. Canada, where thousands of US citizens were stranded at that moment—diverted there when US airspace was closed after the attacks and being taken care of graciously by their Canadian neighbors. Bush wasn’t alone here. I routinely encountered an almost total indifference and ignorance of Canada and Canadians by many of the US citizens I met.

Greg: It was hard for me to see this experience every day.  And even though I was beginning to see the truth behind the hurt, it was difficult to go without the one thing that was missing in what I needed them to show me: a sense of belonging.  The interdependent web of existence – of which I longed to be part.

Ian:    The neglect of worth and dignity being offered was hard.  But I also began to meet Americans who didn’t follow the stereotypes… who weren’t in lock step with the ideas coming from Reagan and Bush.  Which made me feel like it might be possible – even necessary – to support and cultivate a new approach… a new, more commonwealth way of thinking.

Greg: During my first year in Canada I encountered one thing in particular that began to change my way of thinking.  Everywhere I went I saw giant billboards advertising Cuba as the vacation destination.  They showed white sandy beaches with beautiful blue ocean and gentle, hospitable people.  I grew up being told that Cuba was a desolate rock that people were sent to when they went crazy.   Which was true? 

Ian:    I met people who kind and generous, selfless and humble.  Some were in the Unitarian Universalist Churches that I served.  But there were many who weren’t.  This was different than what I assumed: that Americans were revolutionary, individualistic, aggressive, stupid, proud, pushy . . . and everyone owned a gun.  Which was true? 

Greg: It was in the context of a Unitarian Universalist community that I began to wrestle in earnest with the mixed messages I was hearing around me.

Ian:    It was in my call to the ministry that I believed I could find the truth.

Greg: And I also began to realize I had been carrying those mixed messages inside me.

Ian:    It was in community that I began to realize part of my call was to sort out how others were from how I was taught they were.  And how I am different from how I was taught to be.

Greg: The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.

Ian:    There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others.

Greg: Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

Ian:    It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community.

Greg: The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.

Ian:    Together our vision widens and our strength is renewed.


Greg: I thought that Unitarian Universalism could be that essential community where my vision widened.

Ian:    …And my strength renewed…  That it could hold differences and offer reconciliation and understanding.

Greg:           And then it happened.

Ian:    In the period between 1996 and 2001…

Greg: Most of the period I was living in Canada

Ian:    The Canadian Unitarian Council seceded from the Unitarian Universalist Association.  (It was all Greg’s fault).

Greg: Others have suggested that as well.  And even though I can’t claim responsibility, the concerns that were at the heart of the split paralleled my own personal experiences

Ian:    Even though I was just being introduced to Unitarian Universalism at that time, I could understand much of what brought the two organizations to fight.

Greg: Years of financial agreements left the UUA feeling an unfairness in subsidizing Canadian congregations in ways it wasn’t subsidizing American congregations.

Ian:    Canadians were learning to speak out about their growing understanding of their own unique history . . .  with ties to England and Iceland and not just Boston.

Greg: The UUA grew in its understanding of its own need for “a forum in which it could strongly and unequivocally speak out from within its own national cultural context . . . and not couch everything in international terms.” (Donna Morrison-Reed)

Ian:    And Canadian’s needs around anti-racist, anti-oppressive work does not grow out of a history of slavery and failed reconstruction but out of a history of Metis rebellions and residential schools.

Greg: I also learned one of the blind sides of the UUA – trapped in their cultural thinking – was a failure to really know and respect the unique differences of Canada as a country – and Canadians as people.

Ian:    I began to understand the failed relationship as a part of a broader Canadian reaction to terms of the partnership feeling dictated rather than negotiated.

Greg: And so in July of 2001 the CUC voted to formally separate from the UUA

Ian:    And this is the context in which I began my work in Unitarian Universalist congregations and my path toward ministry.

Greg: And this is the context in which my internship, my encounter with Canada, was steeped.


Ian:    Despite the cultural heritage, important to me, often being dismissed or ignored, I grew slowly to realize that my picture of the United States, of Americans, was simplistic and reactionary.

Greg: Despite often being judged by the country I’m from rather than the individual I am, I came to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the way Canadians saw the world

Ian:    I came to see that what I knew about the United States and Americans was a part of the truth—but only part.

Greg: It became clear to me that the US saw power in personal wealth more than Canadians who valued common wealth.

Ian:    I came to know that my American friends, despite what their government was doing, cared about their neighbors and their neighborhoods and the welfare of the people around them. And that some of the ways Canadians understood Americans to be were simply not true.

Greg: My three years in Canada taught me that the purpose of my work needed to include an allegiance to the common good instead of the narrow allegiance to personal best.   

Ian:    And after almost 12 years, we are still here. I am more than I was before.  In part because I am working to claim my personal power, so that I can better serve the common good.


Greg: I see new possibilities in myself and this – my cultural home.

Ian:    I see new possibilities and hope in this new place.

Greg: And his is why we need to learn to engage with our eyes – and our hearts - open

Ian:    Why hearing others’ stories and encountering their lives…

Greg: - especially the lives of those who are different than we are

Ian:    … is so crucial to changing our hearts

Greg: and moving us toward the beloved community.

Ian:    When we encounter our classmates.

Greg: other members in our community

Ian:    The woman bagging our groceries.

Greg: The man living on the street.

Ian:    The people picking our food.

Greg: Or serving in the Navy.

Ian:    When we encounter strangers.

Greg: Especially when we encounter strangers.

Ian:    What do we do? - - - Do we take what we know

Greg: …the color of their skin.

Ian:    … the shortness of their hair.

Greg: … the pattern of their speech.

Ian:    … the country they’re from.

Greg: to define everything about who they are – and, therefore, how we should treat them.

Ian:    Or do we hear the wider call?

Greg: See the unexplored possibilities in them

Ian:    Become curious about them, and honest about ourselves.

Greg: listening to their stories with a loving mind

Ian:    Learn to tell our own story from an examined place

Greg: Which is true?

Ian:    Indeed, which is true?


Greg: Last year at the UU Minister’s Convocation in Ottawa Canada, we conducted a service of reflection on the split between the CUC and UUA. 

Ian:    Although it wasn’t entirely a service of reparations and reconciliation…

Greg: It was a clear statement that the split had brought about learning…

Ian:    And a new awareness was emerging

Greg: Of who we each are

Ian:    And who we could be together.

Greg: We struggle sometimes to truly believe that the central task of the religious community…

Ian:    … is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.

Greg: Which IS true!

Ian:    But that is the one truth that we need to set us all free.

Greg: To the glory of life.

Ian:    And the triumph of love.