Originally published in Castine Patriot, February 13, 2014
Castine pastors weigh in on community, consensus and bridging the gap
by Anne Berleant
What makes a community more than a group of citizens living within a geographic border? What happens when there’s a disconnect between those putting forth solutions and those they affect? How can a populace bridge differences to work for positive outcomes? How does a community create consensus among groups who have different visions for the town they inhabit?
Whether it’s a comprehensive plan, zoning and other ordinances—historical preservation, for instance, in Castine—or decisions on infrastructure and design, citizens have the opportunity to contribute their opinions through voice and vote at public meetings and hearings and town elections and meetings.
Historically in Castine, a core group of citizens of varying size, depending on the issue, participates in the processes. Many have strong viewpoints on the future direction of Castine and many come from different social, economic and aesthetic perspectives.
In order to step aside from specific issues and gain some insight on what makes a community and concrete steps citizens can take to reach a consensus, three Castine ministers, the Rev. Tim Hall of the Castine Trinitarian Church, the Rev. Charles Stephens of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Castine, and the Rev. Peg Thomas of the Trinity Episcopal Church, agreed to speak with the Castine Patriot. (Father Bruce Siket, of Our Lady of Hope, did not respond by press time.)
What makes a community?
“A community can be a common space that you happen to share,” said Stephens. “Hopefully you share that space because you have common goals of making that space a better space, whether it’s roads, a library or a school…Meaningful communities are those that share meaningful common principles.”
Hall agreed that “communities can be defined by location,” adding, “If we’re looking to see what makes a community strong, perhaps we would seek to measure how strongly individuals identify themselves as members…and the amount of cohesiveness [or] agreement on issues and values.”
How can differences be bridged for positive change?
“Put the debate aside, put the outcome aside for a while,” said Thomas. “We need to listen to each other from openness…Part of what that means is that as we are listening to each other, we’re not thinking about how we’re going to respond. We’re listening openly to hear what the other person has to say, to understand what they’re trying to say and understand their experience.”
All three pastors described the power of truly listening, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.
“We don’t find solutions by asserting power,” said Hall. “Factional will-to-power might be overcome by the need to listen to and respect the needs of other people whom we respect and love—because they, too, are part of the community. In order to bridge polarization within a community, it “needs to admit that there’s something seriously wrong, and then work to establish, through trust, a deep respect for one another and the ability to truly listen to the needs of other people.”
Stephens spoke of the need for “compassionate” listening.
“Oftentimes we communicate with one another through wounds that we have or scars that we have within us to other people’s wounds or scars.
“If there’s really significant differences between what people want in the present or the future, or what they see as the ideal of a community, [they should first] put those [ideas] aside and actually ask questions…or listen…to find what’s coming from the heart, as opposed to the things we say because we don’t want our emotions or heartfelt things to show.”
Stephens gave an example of such a question: “Why are you afraid to have affordable housing come into the community or historical preservation of the community as opposed to something new being built?”
“There’s a place for debate,” said Thomas, “but when we’re talking about community building, that’s not the place.”
What concrete steps can be taken to create consensus?
Different parts of the community, even separate individuals, can have different visions for their community, based on what they value and why they have chosen to live in the community.
“Community building has to do with unity,” said Thomas, “and unity is not the same as uniformity.”
The vision statement adopted in 2010 as part of the comprehensive plan reads: “A year-round thriving community that values our heritage, village character and natural beauty.”
“There are some who say that community success is based on cohesiveness—what brings people together specifically in ways that they self-identify as being in community, and that they care for one another,” said Hall.
Towards that goal, Hall and Stephens both suggested common community events, like potlucks, band concerts, and children’s parades, as a first step towards coming to an agreement on issues.
“Whether it’s over a meal or a community fundraiser for the good of someone who’s ill and needs hospital care or [who needs] heating fuel and can’t afford it. Oftentimes we can learn to appreciate, if not one another’s ideas, at least one another’s work ethics as we’re working together for a common good,” Stephens said.
“Of course, we won’t solve our problems with potluck suppers, but what can we do?” Hall said.
He offered three ideas: first, attempt to clearly articulate what makes the community special, that one can self-identify with and is important to us; second, clearly articulate the ways in which we care for and respect each other; and third, attempt to “identify what is broken now—what’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room?”
“We’ve got to be open to each other and listen carefully,” said Thomas. “If people go into a conversation already firm and ready for battle, it’s not going to work.”
Stephens gave an example of one place a particular individual might approach issues:
“I’m a retired person who came to Castine, loves historical culture and I really don’t want that to change. If it does, I won’t feel good about it, and my property values will drop.”
If this individual is asked to question this belief or principle, then what’s left? Stephens asked.
“People choose not to participate in communities where their identity is defined for them by the community; where their individual values are not respected,” said Hall. “If only a few people participate, or if only polarized factions dominate the discussion, no healing will take place.”
Is change possible?
True listening can be an agent of change, the three pastors agreed.
“People need not disregard their own ideas,” said Thomas, but put them aside so they can listen to what other people’s are [and] how they came to their ideas, and the experiences other people have had.”
“We’re [all] coming from our beliefs of what will make [Castine] better, and if we don’t listen to one another and try to work with one another, [all] of us will be disappointed with the community,” said Stephens. The “common assumption” is “that we share this space and want it to be a good place.”
“Yes, indeed, change is always possible,” said Hall. “Communities continually emerge from this type of crisis when they are able to replace the attitude of ‘My way or the highway’ with an attitude of ‘how can we respectfully meet the needs of everyone in the community.’ I’m optimistic that change is possible.”