Last weekend I had an opportunity to join with other progressive Christians in Portland, Maine, for the annual gathering of the Alliance of Baptists. It was a refreshing few days of meeting new friends, reconnecting with old ones, and taking time to examine our own practices, habits, and prejudices. During the opening session on Friday morning, the speaker tried to get a sampling of the mix of people in the room. He asked who had come to Portland from the South (however we wanted to define that) and about 70 hands went up. “Who lives in the Northeast?” he continued. About 50 hands went up. “How about the Midwest?” Only one or two. “The West Coast?” Thirty more hands in the air. “Has anyone come from Canada?” A few more hands. Aware that he may have left some folks out, the facilitator asked “Where else have people travelled from to meet with our Alliance family?” One person stood and announced that she was from Morocco. A couple others came from Latin America. “Is there anyone else? Have I left anyone out?” the presenter asked. After a brief pause, one person hesitantly raised her hand. When asked what region she had come from, she announced “The Mid-Atlantic.” Instantly, 40 more hands shot up in the air. She was clearly not alone, but it wasn’t until this woman spoke up that others in the group were able to claim their shared regional identity. Some of the Mid-Atlantic members had undoubtedly raised their hands earlier and joined the group from the South, while others more closely aligned with the Northeast—though neither of these groups were a perfect fit—and still some just waited in silence until the first woman gave them an invitation to stand up and be counted.
This simple icebreaker got me thinking about the many aspects that make up our own personal identities—some obvious to all, others more private—and the power that can come from naming and living into them. Racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, the economic resources of our families of origin, religious background, and education all contribute to shaping who we are. So do the less visible parts of us—the burden of deep loss that comes with the death of a loved one or separation from a spouse; depression, anxiety or mental illness; an invisible, chronic physical condition that limits your ability to participate in activities you enjoy; an addiction or dependency that you’ve struggled to keep hidden from friends, coworkers or families; questions and doubts about faith and life that you’re afraid to give voice too because they might separate you from people you care about, but who may not understand.
It has been my experience that the parts of my identity which I typically work hardest to keep hidden are actually points of strength and character. Often, when I finally work up the courage to live into that “invisible” element of myself, I learn that I am not alone—but have actually been surrounded by friends with shared experiences, or at least understanding spirits, all the time. Like the 40 hands that shot up to join the woman from the Mid-Atlantic, there may be people sitting in silence around you at work, at church, or in the public square, who understand more than you think, but are waiting for an invitation; They’re waiting for someone to speak up. Are they waiting on you?