grappling with unity

Natalie RIngsmuth, director of #UniteCloud

The goal was to find an area of the world she thought she might have a hard time welcoming. After teaching in inner city Atlanta, she ended up doing ministry at the federal prison in St. Cloud, MN. It was a liberating experience. The prisoners had nothing to hide and wore no false visages of perfection. To her, the prisoners were more than just criminals… They were people, not so different from her.

Natalie Ringsmuth is the director of #UniteCloud, a St. Cloud-based activist group which works to bridge the gap between diverse communities in the St. Cloud area.

The most freedom I ever experienced in church… was in jail.
— N.R.

Through her work in the prison, Natalie came to understand that she in fact shared a great deal with the prisoners. Many of them were parents, as was she. They were human, they made mistakes, something she’s certainly privy to. “I could be them…” she says.

A firm sense of justice pervades her work. In a world not easily defined in black and white, Natalie sees a stark difference between what’s just and what’s not. Empathy is the road to justice. (See upcoming post on wrestling with this idea.) By seeing the world from another’s perspective we come to recognize the larger overarching problems of society. The prisoners she worked with were there because of choices they’d made, but what was it that led up to that choice? What role did societal-level injustices play in creating the circumstances in which that choice was made?

Perhaps circumstances at hand and one’s environment can in some capacity rob individuals of their human ability to survive, thrive and love.

Natalie is driven to address these big picture problems but balances it with interpersonal work alongside individuals in the community.

#UniteCloud works in an environment fraught with tension as St. Cloud is seeing a growing wave of immigrants and refugees. Many come from predominantly Muslim countries. This influx is prompting contentious dialogue, debate and communication breakdown as the question of identity is brought to the forefront. What does it mean to be an American?

The debate circles around the center point of values. It’s nothing new that increased levels of immigration bring with it a greater sense of fear. Locals perceive their cultural values to be at stake when other cultures with different values arrive. Natalie hopes to use education as a way of highlighting the humanity behind these culturally diverse worldviews and to focus on the similarities between us as people.

It’s an education in seeing diversity. Natalie says that once diversity is present in a community, there are only two paths forward. One path is to cast out the diversity; the other is to have more of it.

So the question comes down to “Now what?” She says that many of the current problems stem from shallow understandings of those around us. Addressing these problems involves two approaches. One is having community education opportunities. #UniteCloud organized an event called “I Don’t Mean to Offend You, But…” in which Muslim residents of St. Cloud answered tough questions from community members about their faith and culture.

Going hand in hand with education, is the importance of recognizing one’s own biases. Recognizing our blind spots empowers us to work towards a more holistic change.

Natalie says that without a change of heart, the community cannot truly change. It’s unsustainable for us as a community to look only to our leadership to make change. It’s up to us as individuals in conjunction with our neighbors to create the change we want.

Enacting this change is rarely a straightforward process and involves the exploration of questions central to our very identity as a community and as individuals.

Conversation is perhaps our most valuable tool in sorting through our communal differences. Natalie tells the story of her interactions with a local radio station host who represents “free speech on steroids.” His rhetoric falls outside the realm of acceptance for Natalie. Much of what he says, Natalie regards as harmful and dangerous, though she does see a bright spot.

“He’s at least having these conversations…” If we’re not talking to each other, then we have no hope of doing better in the future. We need nuanced discussion in order to highlight what we don’t yet know.

If we are to progress communally, we must be willing to see the humanity in each other. Though this is not a substitute for earnest debate and disagreement.

Natalie’s work is a complicated balance between reality and idealism. In working against the spread of fear, she recognizes that some fear is justified. But what is the source of the fear and what is prompting it? “If we could start to look at fear for what it actually is instead of just assigning it to certain people groups or religions, I think that would be much more healthy” Natalie says.

Groups of people we assume to be monolithic in terms of their values and beliefs, are almost always highly diverse. We must value the diversity of each individual person if we are to create a healthier community.

It’s messy work. But it’s human work. It’s contentious work, plagued by our shortcomings but it’s worth trying. We’re really not so different from one another. The challenge comes in not ignoring our differences, but confronting them in a way that constructively moves us forward rather than entrenching us in the past. This is Natalie’s hope.