“I know just how you feel” … during my years as a hospital chaplain I often heard that well-intended effort to identify with a person in crisis. More than once, the angry reply came back, “you have no idea how I feel.” The fact is that, no matter how much we may want to enter another person’s thoughts and feelings, we are limited by our own experiences. We really only know how we think we would act or feel in a given situation. Despite our most sincere efforts to understand, a fight with a spouse or close friend can reveal how easily we misunderstand or expect another to behave as we think they should. Empathy is a challenge!

In our polarized world, some have wondered if empathy is a lost art — even more sadly, a lost effort. Social media makes it easy to see photos of my grandchildren in California, my family in Arkansas and of friends scattered all over. Then I smile. That same social media can also carry vile hatred, fake news and cyber bullying. With no face to-face encounter to buffer harsh words, tweets and posts can ignore the destructive consequences of their impact. Even when not intentionally hurtful, thoughtless words may simply betray a total lack of understanding about those whose life experiences are different from those of the speaker.

The respectful give and take of real conversation is very different from that of flinging opinions or slogans into the atmosphere. In this column, I have more than once included the phrase “let’s talk” as an invitation to seek common ground where disagreement seems to be the most obvious conclusion. I did not originate the invitation; it is the unofficial slogan for the local group of which I am gladly a member, One Community United. The goal of OCU is to encourage conversation and new friendships between people who would not ordinarily be in the same social groups.

Though its big-picture focus is the open invitation “let’s talk,” an obvious special focus of the group lies in the area of interracial dialogue and understanding. The tragic, destructive history of racism has left scars and divisions that are not easily overcome. Most readers will have been youth or young adults during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. We have made much progress since then, and many well-intentioned folks think that the remaining issues of racism are primarily the blatant bigotry shown last year by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a KKK march through Rome. But much division and prejudice remain, overtly and subtly. White and black may believe they know how the other feels (or should feel) but unless they are talking to one another, they very probably know very little of the other’s experiences.

Few recent events have so highlighted vicious racial hatred as has the prayer meeting murder of 9 members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by white supremacist Dylan Roof. People of faith recognize the teachings of Jesus to not return violence with violence. Jesus says to forgive 70 times 7. We know we are commanded to forgive, but wonder how in the world we would respond had one of those murdered innocents been our loved one! I most certainly do not know what it feels like to face such profound evil, and I stand awed to think that the killer might be forgiven by those he so hated.

The Hearts United Gathering (HUG III) event sponsored by One Community United offers the opportunity to hear about deep faith and radical forgiveness from the current pastor of Mother Emanuel Church. Thursday evening, in the Wilder Center at Rome First United Methodist Church, 202 E. Third Ave., the Rev. Eric Manning will speak on “Racial Healing and Reconciliation.” The program begins at 6 p.m. and is free. In a hopeful spirit of community, of respect, of crossing real and imagined barriers, of hope and inspiration — I invite you to the HUG event. Additional information can be found on the One Community United web site, by reference to the Sunday Rome News-Tribune, and in flyers distributed through churches and the community at large. How about a HUG?

The Rev. Gary Batchelor is an ordained Baptist minister and active church member. He is retired after a nearly 40-year local ministry as a hospital chaplain. His particular interest lies in issues of faith and culture.

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