UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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The Truth about ‘Preaching to the Choir’

Having been invited to speak at a university on the subject of men’s violence against women, my heart sank when I found myself standing behind a podium at the front of an enormous auditorium—it must have held a thousand seats—in which was scattered an audience of maybe thirty people in all.

I could blame my host’s lack of skill at turning out an audience, but there was still the struggle not to take it personally, and then the challenge of filling so large a space with the energy of so few, the bulk of it expected to come from me. And then, of course, there was that old feeling of here we go again, another audience of the dedicated, the ones who always show up.

And those stalwart few will complain that the ones who ‘really need’ to be there, the ones you’d give your eyeteeth to change their minds, are not.

“You realize, of course, you’re preaching to the choir.”

I’m glad to say there are frequent exceptions—the crowd of more than a thousand in Milwaukee, when the subject was race, and standing-room-only in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Maryland. But, still, it is a challenge getting people into the room to focus on difficult things.

Except, of course, for those who are drawn to sing.

I used to share their disappointment and frustration, but lately I’ve come to change my tune.

I’ve been considering, for example, the longing for all those people who ‘need it most’ to show up. I think it’s based on a misplaced belief in the power of conversion, that can suddenly persuade someone into a completely different point of view. I suppose it does happen, but if I tried to recall a time when someone just sat me down and talked me out of a reality I was invested in, I don’t think I could.

My worldview, of course, has gone through many changes over the years, but it’s usually a slow and messy business—two steps forward, one back, sometimes three—and it needs something to shake things up enough to loosen my death grip on old ways of seeing.

That something is rarely a speech in an auditorium, unless much else has happened to prepare the way, which leads me not to count on persuading those with no interest in being persuaded. At best I will insert a grain of sand into the oyster, that may someday down the road irritate it just enough to produce a pearl.

But, for that, they must be in the room, and I suspect the disappointment I detect in members of the choir, is that more people do not manage on their own to overcome their shyness or disbelief or fear or whatever else it is that keeps them away. But this is not the kind of species we are, in my experience. Generally speaking, we are not that visionary or brave. We need someone to help bring us along.

Let’s be optimistic anyway, and imagine that we draw not only the choir, but a small group of wannabes and the sufficiently curious. A somewhat larger choir, perhaps, but still, the choir.

What I’m coming to see that I haven’t before, is that this amounts to more than we may think. In fact, most of the time it may be exactly how it’s supposed to go.

That those who most need to be there, and are most needed, are the ones in the room.

The choir, after all, shows up when it’s not convenient, when they have other things to do, make time to rehearse and do the singing, whether the tune is testimony and persuasion or argument, protest, and demand. The choir does the heavy lifting and takes the risks, to speak what others will not, to stand their ground and block the door or fill the hall, staying up into the night to analyze and strategize and organize.

To do that, they must be fed and inspired. They need to hear their voices joined together to remind them who they are and that they’re not alone. They need to learn and practice new ways of understanding both the world and themselves that they have not imagined before. To be encouraged by example.

Because they are walking into a stiff wind as they sing toward a world that does not yet exist.

A while ago, I came to speak at a large university, and the evening before, I met with a group of faculty and grad students and activists from the community. In the room was a young black woman who spoke of her anger and frustration, every day coming up against the wall of white racism, inertia, and indifference. She did not know what to do with all that anger, and was afraid of what she might do that she’d regret.

As I listened, I could feel how young she was, struggling to form and contain and direct the power and intelligence so evident as she spoke. Afterward, as people lingered in knots of conversation, she came up to me and we talked for quite a while, brainstorming things she might do in those difficult moments, such as with the white professor who is clueless on the subject of race, but convinced that he is not.

The conversation was lively and I remember her smiling and even laughing as we strategized and fantasized our way from one thing to another.

And, I think, in the lightening of her spirit, she was beginning to see not a particular solution, but a range of possibilities, that she was not helpless after all, that her anger was a form of power that she could harness and measure for effect, and I remember how energized she became, not because of me, but what was happening between us, the old man in the choir and the newly emerging voice.

I think you could say we had a good time.

And yet, at the start of that meeting, there had been the familiar sight of people looking around to note the friends and colleagues who had not shown up in spite of being invited.

But, in a way, I realize, it did not matter, because whatever she got, it will be multiplied many times over in the course of her life. And for me there was one more reminder of why we go on.

She makes me think of the young woman boldly challenging the president of the University of Missouri to define systematic racism, an exchange that not only led to his undoing, but, more important, created another opening for the kind of larger, critical questions that writers and activists have been working for so many years to bring to a culture that cannot see past the individual.

I ask myself, how did she come to that moment? To know what she knew? To have the courage to speak, to focus the power of her anger with such clarity and purpose? What were those times when she decided to show up, to engage in the conversation, to come to the event or enroll in the course or read the book someone mentioned the other day?

There she is, fifth row back, sitting with a friend she persuaded to come. And while others might be wondering about the empty seats, that’s not what’s on her mind.

I think about her and that moment when she confronted the president of a university and, then, in such a loud, clear voice, how she did sing.

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