How did FES “Connect to Exchange to Change”?

Excerpt from the AEU Spring Dialogue. The full text can be found here.

Last May, Future of Ethical Societies met in Asheville during Memorial Day weekend for our yearly conference. The title of the event was “Connect to Exchange to Change.” Forgive if it sounds a little hokey, but if Ethical Culture holds building ethical relationships as a core ideal in its communities, why not dive into it with some intention?

FES is a unique space within Ethical Culture because it can have a range of newcomers and return attendees and that does not affect the depth of the conversation or the hugs. Five minutes into a car ride, who else starts talking about white supremacy in service spaces? And not in a “let me one up you with my wokeness” sense but let us share our testaments in how I or we struggle with being human.

Appreciating the Effect of Mountain Light Sanctuary

One implicit theme of the conference was offering a reprieve from the current political climate. Sure on the way to the Pisgah Forest you drive past Confederate flags, ‘We Buy Guns’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ signs, but all that is worth it in order to witness blue mountains, and sleep in an open-to-the-elements room where you can hear, smell, and taste the creek running by. Mountain Light Sanctuary is a reasonably priced gift, warm and engaging. It is a place on its own spiritual quest as it continues to build and rejuvenate itself. See the just-completed compost toilet and yetto-be-finished outside shower. This place was the conference as much as anything else we did. Thirty-five miles out of Asheville, I couldn’t tell you a better place to stay.

Saturday Resonance, Some Small Service

Saturday is usually the heart of the conference, it is when we do the workshops, the service, and get out into the town. Our morning kicked off with some yoga led by Anya Overmann, and I led a mirroring activity. Then we did some resonance activities led by Justin Taft-Morales.

Now resonance is an interesting idea. It taps into the humanity of us telling our story, how sharing has been part of our experience as a species, and that when we tell stories, our brains mirror one another. So we need to honor our storytellers, and maybe build a space where we can feel safe sharing our story. We need to give resonance, telling the storyteller how their story impacted us, what emotions or reactions they called inside of us. What we do not do when giving resonance—we do not ask questions, we do not immediately share a story of our own, or try to interpret what the speaker said.

(I failed my first time because as organizer I was handling other fires and missed my instructions. Favio shared his story about experiencing the earthquake which devastated Port Au Prince, and I immediately, came with “the triumph and renewal in your story was fascinating, you really embodied a new lease on life.” No one told me immediately I was wrong, but Justin and others modeled the correct way to do it—hone in on a moment, recount the feeling it gave you. I learned my lesson, the old fashion way, messing it up with the best of intentions. )

Later we went into Asheville and into a “worker-owned/community powered space,” Firestorm Café and Books, where we participated in a book-toprisoner mailing. We got a tutorial on how to wrap the books, what information to provide, and went to work cutting and folding grocery paper bags around various incarnations of prisoners’ requests. We did not debrief this activity but in a way it was its own reflection and answered its own question: how just or humane is a system that disconnects people from family, friends, and community, restricting access even to these paperback and glue-banded portals to the outside world?

Platform and Gathering

Every year, we share a platform with our host city. The platform is an interesting phenomenon because each time we have little idea what we will talk about until literally moments before. We explored our guiding theme of relationships with the Ethical Humanist Society of Asheville. Ariel, a representative from the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO), spoke about he manifestations of humanism in his two homes and how dictatorship and authoritarian rule breaks down civil society, making it harder to maintain and grow humanist community. Dominque shared about North Carolina and the divide of its political state, and how the intentional impact of relationships between political, racial, economic identities can change the atmosphere for the better. Favio shared his story (mentioned above) about the earthquake to this audience, and Justin invited the audience to practice giving resonance. This time I got it right, I responded to the moment he felt split in half—on one side was death as in those who died from the earthquake, on the other side was life as in those who survived. I relayed I felt at that moment being split between two worlds. Then the audience broke into small groups and shared stories about connecting to someone or struggling to do that and then they gave resonance to one another. Again, FES brings out the funky and the possible of Ethical Culture. Who else could get a group of adults and make them find harmony by humming together in a circle, before taking the collection. At Firestorm, we met a couple traveling, preparing to part ways possibly for good, trying to live out fully each moment together. We shared with them who we were and they seemed interested. We invited them to the platform and even though we gave them the wrong time they still came back to see us! Later, they accompanied us to our Sunday community meal, hosted by Asheville member Rich Wasch. At one point Joy McConnell began telling her story of how she and her husband healed together from wounds of trauma; she, an abusive household, and him, the scars of serving in Vietnam. She talked about shadow selves, self-forgiveness, reparenting. All the while, after a few glasses of hospitality, I thought more of resonance and how I could give my own to Joy but then I noticed one of our new guests listening deeply and nodding, and then she shared how like Joy she had suffered abuse as a child. The conversation continued, and I simply sat back and watched the space we had created and how these two new honorary members were able to inculcate themselves in this space so quickly. We of the FES may struggle as a group in many ways, we are disjointed, separated, preoccupied, but we do have something that Ethical Culture needs to hear—and maybe others too.

–Christian Hayden, Future of Ethical Societies