When I was director of Person-to-Person, a prison visitation program started by Mennonite Church Saskatchewan in the early 1970s, the V&C Room (Visitors and Correspondence Room) was often a place of holy space. While the prison system has a strict policy of nothing in and nothing out, God seemed to have little interest in following those guidelines. In a place so sealed off for protection and control, when volunteer visitors and inmates gathered around small tables for communion over coffee and KitKats, often the Spirit would show up freely and turn strangers into friends.
I was reminded recently about this holy space between people when I attended the book launch of Betty Pries’ new book, The Space Between Us: Conversations about Transforming Conflict. As we continue to find ourselves navigating the world of not-quite-but-I-really-wish-it-was-post-COVID-now, we have come to see how our collective experience plays deeply into the polarizations of our times.
Recently, listening to NPR News, I heard that vaccination rates in the United States can be directly tied to voting patterns of that last election. Districts (ridings) that voted in favour of Joe Biden had higher vaccination rates, while those that voted in favour of Trump, had lower rates.
Vaccinations are widely accepted and encouraged across the political spectrum in Canadian federal elections (with nuance of course), but as hospitals are being stretched to the limit of capacity for care and as our health care system edges towards buckling (at least here in Saskatchewan), there are protesters outside hospitals, demanding a return to pre-pandemic realities. These are deeply disturbing and disheartening scenes to witness. The people who have borne the brunt of this pandemic do not deserve this reaction; they deserve our praise and deep gratitude for caring for our citizens and community members! Thank you.
Yet, we find ourselves unable to move past the impasse. Families, communities, friends and congregations have been divided by the pandemic and the responses. This is causing serious harm in relationship, and in illness, as the fourth wave spreads through the unvaccinated, especially children and others unable to receive vaccines.
So how do we reach “those” people who refuse to do what is right for the common good? How do we convince “those” people that their behaviours are having such a dire impact on the community and in our health care system?
When we are as polarized as we are, and when we are so certain in our own perspective that the other must be wrong, it is hard to imagine for a moment that their fear, however real or perceived, is directing their actions as much as our fear, real or perceived, is directing ours. Even when we have logic, facts, and reasoning on our side, acknowledging our own fears, and how they impact who we are, will create space to acknowledge the fear of the other.
At the small table visit in the V&C room, not every connection between a volunteer and inmate was a mutually transformative experience, however, when both inmate and volunteer were vulnerable enough to create space, sometimes the Spirit of transformation would create something beautiful, new, and good.
Ryan Siemens is executive minister of MC Saskatchewan.