Courageous Conversations or ‘Unlearning to Not Speak’

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

I remember a moment, back in the early days of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition, when I should’ve spoken up, but didn’t. Rev. Alvan Johnson, the Coalition’s first president, a friend to our congregation, had invited a guest to speak at a board meeting. She was African American. I can’t remember what she said, but I do remember another coalition leader, a priest—a white man—interrupting her, saying her talk wasn’t on the agenda and “could we stick to the agenda, please.” I was mortified. Not only was the priest contradicting our leader and insulting a guest, but the racist symbolism of a white man demanding that a black woman stop speaking was embarrassing and infuriating. There it was, right in front of me—a chance to find my voice and say “this interruption is wrong.” I didn’t speak. Nobody did. The woman sat down. I confronted the priest later, but the moment when it would have made a difference was gone.

Have you had an experience like that? Someone is speaking—it could be anyone—a spouse, co-worker, boss, friend, another member of the congregation, a total stranger. It could be just the two of you or you could be in a larger group. The speaker makes a statement you disagree with, or they behave in a way that makes you uncomfortable. For some reason you remain silent. Your disagreement remains unspoken. Your discomfort remains un-named. Later, you think about what you might have said, how you could’ve been more forthcoming, more courageous. You know exactly what you should’ve done in the moment. But the moment is gone. Familiar?

This sermon is about what the poet, Marge Piercy, calls “Unlearning to not Speak.” It is about finding our voices. And not simply finding our voices, but using them to speak our truths; believing that when our voices remain hidden and our truths go unspoken, the quality of our lives and the quality of our relationships suffer; and trusting that when our voices actually speak—when our mouths or, in some cases our hands, form the words we long to say in the moment—when our truths issue forth from us—as difficult and challenging as they may be—we give ourselves and those around us the opportunity to grow—to grow stronger, more vibrant, more spiritual and spirited, more attentive, more compassionate, more honest, more wise.

I want to address three aspects of unlearning to not speak. First, the long, slow process, the challenging life-work and, in my view, the spiritual imperative of finding our voice, of learning and loving who we are and having the confidence and even the desire to contribute who we are to others and to the life of the community. Second, the challenge of the present moment: how do we find our voice in the instant when our values are at stake, when we know we ought to speak but it feels safer to remain silent? And third, conflict. The stronger our voice, the more distinct and vivid our voice, the greater the possibility others will disagree with us. How do we insure others don’t remain silent in the midst of our truth? All this is relevant to the life of a healthy congregation. How do we live with and even invite a healthy level of discord, dissonance, difference? How do we conduct courageous conversations?

This is a truth claim for me: we each have a voice—an essence, a center, a foundation that is precious and sacred. When entering into worship or prayer I often invite you to “find that place inside, that place of comfort and solace, that place where you know your truth, where you voice is strong.” I believe we all have that place. We access it differently. Some of us go there with great ease; some with great difficulty. Some of us feel welcome there; some of us feel unwelcome, in part because the journey there can feel dangerous. I identify this place as the heart because it is more than thought and point-of-view which I associate with mind. It is the place where, on our best days, in our best moments, mind, body and spirit are one. Our voice speaks from this place.

There is something primal, instinctive and childlike about our voice. This is because we are born with it, at least in a raw form. Young children speak with it, at least in its raw form. Marge Piercy reminds us of this when she writes, “She must learn again to speak / starting with I / Starting with We / starting as the infant does / with her own true hunger / and pleasure / and rage.” As infants and children we possess it, yet we somehow grow more distant from it in adolescence and adulthood. This came up in our online sermon talk-back this week. Diane Clokey mentioned that children express a kind of wisdom with their lives, though we adults don’t always have the patience for it. I think she’s right. I’m mindful that many great spiritual thinkers have reflected on the wisdom at the heart of children’s lives. There’s an oft-quoted New Testament scene where people are bringing children to Jesus. The disciples tell them “don’t do that!” Jesus corrects the disciples, saying “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” I’ve always heard these words as a proclamation that children possess something many adults have lost. Children are often much closer to the heart than adults. They don’t need to find their voice because they’re already speaking with it.

Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature.” He writes, “few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the [adult], but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of [adulthood].

For a variety of reasons we grow distant from the raw, impulsive voice that spoke through us as infants and children: the voice of our own true hunger, pleasure and rage, to use Piercy’s words. Developmental psychologists tell us one of the central tasks of adolescence is to learn and follow the rules of the larger culture, to be part of the group. From a societal perspective this is appropriate. This is how teenagers make the transition to adulthood. And yet, in the midst of this process of learning and obeying the rules, we risk losing our voice. Along the way there are paths we might have taken, but we didn’t because it would’ve required us to break the rules. And if we did take them, we may have been punished for doing so. We may still feel shame for harboring desires and passions that the larger culture regarded as inappropriate. Sexism and homophobia told us what roles to play and who to love regardless of what was in our hearts. Racism told us how to behave, where we could go, who we could relate to, regardless of what was in our hearts. Coming of age, in so many ways, is a process of being boxed in, shaped and molded by external forces. In my case, living with an alcoholic parent was one of those forces that boxed me in, required me to keep silent at certain times of the day. If we are not vigilant, we grow more and more distant from our voice, our truth, our deepest self.  Anne Lamott suggests that along the way there are “rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go into. When we have [finally] gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and taking it in—then we will be able to speak in our own voice.”

So part of finding our voice has to do with recovering and nurturing something that has been with us since the womb. That’s the starting place. But the goal is not to return to our childhood voice. The goal is to locate, again in Piercy’s words, that true hunger and pleasure and rage and incorporate it into our adult lives. The goal is to locate the creativity,  spontaneity and playfulness that lived with us as children and mingle it with our adult knowledge and skills; meld it with our adult ability to analyze a situation, to discern justice and injustice. The goal is to dig deep and recognize that somewhere in this mix is my heart. Somewhere in this mix is my voice. And then listen. What does your voice—your actual voice—sound like on your tongue? How does it feel to enter rooms once forbidden? Listen. Slowly learn your voice. Practice. Your words may be new and strange-sounding. It takes time to get them right. So give it time. They will come. And remember your voice doesn’t only speak in words. How does it look when you paint a picture or snap a photo? What melody does it sing? What dance? What poem? What prayer issues forth? What hope sustains it? What world-view does it express? What joys? What fears? What truths? Practice, practice, practice.

Then we come to those moments when we aren’t practicing, when something deeply important is at stake, when someone has done something that makes us feel uncomfortable, when some truth we hold dear has been violated and we feel compelled to speak. I’m trying to understand what happens in these moments; I confess I’m not sure I do. I’m trying to understand why sometimes in these moments my voice dries up, remains silent, and why sometimes I muster the courage to speak. There’s something elusive about these moments. It all happens so quickly. I recognize, in me, anxiety, nervousness, sometimes fear, sometimes excitement. My heart races. Old inhibitions come to visit—inhibitions against “rocking the boat” I thought I had unlearned decades ago when my father became sober. I start grasping for the right words—or the right words start grasping for me. Will they come? It’s as if there are two powerful identities battling to control my vocal chords—the young adult who has learned to follow the rules, fit in, maintain peace and order, please those in authority; struggling against an emerging, older adult who believes he stands for something, wants his life to mean something, wants to live with integrity and, in Emerson’s words wants his ‘inward and outward senses to be truly adjusted to each other” as they were in his earliest years. One identity says it’s safer and easier to keep the door closed. The other says open it—you’re allowed!—let your voice speak!

It all happens in the blink of an eye, but this is a pretty accurate description of my inner world when confronted with the need to break my silence. The greater the stakes, the more uncomfortable I feel, the more difficult the inner struggle. And I’m still not sure what finally moves me from silence to speech, what opens the door, what lets my voice out. In the heat of the moment it’s not a conscious decision. Speech, when it comes, just seems to come. And I notice it comes more easily with age. But I also know that I practice my voice a lot. That’s one of the privileges of being a minister whose vocation is to speak from the heart regularly. I get to rehearse, over and over again, the things that matter to me, my values, my sense justice. So, in those heated moments the words come more easily these days.

So, maybe its courage. But more likely it’s practice. So it strikes me that one of the purposes of our congregation ought to be to give people opportunities to practice their voices.  At our annual meeting in May we agreed on a vision statement which says: “Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be the vibrant spiritual home to a richly diverse and growing congregation.  Members and staff will share our many talents, skills, and gifts to ensure our financial strength, to nurture a soul-stretching, heart-centered, open-minded community, and to work toward social and environmental justice. Our ministry and mission will be transformative and far-reaching.” Vibrant and diverse, soul-stretching, heart-centered, open-minded: this language speaks to me of a congregation of people whose voices are strong, who know their truths and are willing to speak them aloud.  And, of course, such a congregation is bound to run into disagreement and conflict. That’s good. It might not feel good, but it really is. There’s a conception out there that healthy and thriving congregations are always at peace and their members exist as one, harmonious body; everyone gets along; people are like-minded. Wrong. Boo. Not true. Boring. Let’s shift the paradigm: a healthy, thriving congregation is one where there can be conflict and where the people understand conflict as an opportunity not only to work together to find creative solutions to problems, but to deepen their relationships and their spiritual lives. In healthy, thriving congregations people are willing to have courageous conversations. They can do this because they have found, or are finding, their voices, are able to speak with respect to each other when they disagree, and recognize that the lively interchange of ideas and opinions leads to personal and collective growth. In healthy, thriving congregations, people with strong opinions are very willing to listen deeply to others when they disagree because they are curious to see how their truths change in the midst of other truths. Conflict managed well is not a threat to one’s voice. It is a path to the flourishing of one’s voice.

As we move forward into summer, as we settle into our newly expanded meeting house looking forward to growth, looking forward to fulfilling our vision, let us support each other in unlearning to not speak. Let us celebrate courageous conversations.

Amen and Blessed be.


Piercy, Marge, “Unlearning to not Speak,” in Sewell, Marilyn, ed., Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) p. 21. (italics mine)

Luke 18: 16b.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflim Company, 1957) p. 23.

Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 201.