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Relationship building takes time and patience
Nan showed me that to build relationships, you must first establish trust.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s, Nan grew up in a city rocked by racial unrest. As was the case for so many white children of the day however, her parents “protected” her from what was happening around her. As an adult, Nan taught herself about the Civil Rights Movement, and in 2009, she returned to Birmingham on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage, an 8-day civil rights journey, which I help coordinate. There she saw her childhood home with new eyes.
“It’s like I grew up in an entirely different place,” she remarked after touring the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “I didn’t know any of this was going on, and yet we lived so close to it.”
As Nan faced the ghosts of her past and opened herself to the stories they told, she was both amazed that her parents could have hidden these dramatic events from her and dismayed that there was so much they hadn’t taught her. Her experience on the pilgrimage crystallized her already deep commitment to working for racial justice.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister serving in the multi-racial Sea Islands of South Carolina, Nan sought opportunities to build bridges between people of different races. Fascinated by the compelling story of Laura M. Towne, a white nineteenth century Unitarian missionary who, in 1862, started the first school for formerly enslaved West Africans on St. Helena’s Island, Nan worked to establish deep connections with the former Penn School’s successor, now called Penn Center, a non-profit organization committed to preserving Gullah-Geechee heritage.
She started by quietly putting herself in positions where she could develop relationships with Penn Center staff, such as showing up to events they sponsored and renting space from them to host her congregation’s board retreats. Nan then took the next big step.
“I’ve rented office space at Penn Center,” she told me one day. “We don’t have a church office, and I thought this would be a good way to get to know people there and for them to get to know me.”
Renting office space sounds like a simple thing to do, but in this instance, it required a deep commitment to relationship building. She explained to me that, in many ways, Penn Center is a closed family system, and they don’t readily trust outsiders, especially white people. They have been disappointed too many times to count and tend to rely on each other, even sometimes to their detriment.
Nan was one of those outsiders. However, that didn’t stop her from doing what she felt called to do. She didn’t go barreling in, though, saying “Here I am! Listen to my great ideas. I can fix everything that’s wrong with you!” She just quietly showed up to work, greeted people she saw without disturbing them, and went about her business--something Catholic nuns of my past would call a “ministry of presence.” Warm, welcoming, and waiting for the right opportunity to step into.
Over time, the staff of Penn Center began to know and trust Nan as a reliable presence, a person who not only showed up, but did what she said she would do. When she heard that they wanted to renovate the original Penn School bell that was once used to call students to the school from the fields, she offered to help raise donations, efforts that ultimately provided the bulk of the funds for the project.
To show her support in other ways, she organized tables each year for the annual Penn Center Gala, a formal fundraising event in which the organization honors supporters by inducting them into what they call the 1862 Circle. In the past, this has included such dignitaries as Congressman John Lewis, actor Phylicia Rashad, and author Pat Conroy.
But Nan’s commitment was not just as a fundraiser. She encouraged her congregation of mostly white members to volunteer with the social programs offered by Penn Center, and they became involved in everything from reading to local children to working at an associated organic farm.
Nan broke down barriers, not by using a sledgehammer, but by having the patience and persistence to help them melt away. In 2013, when Penn Center chose to induct Nan’s congregation into the 1862 Circle, she knew she had won their trust.
Nan is steadfast, rock-solid, compassionate, and gentle, as a minister and as a friend. In situations where it’s essential to establish trust, Nan has taught me to step back, focus on building relationships, and be patient, knowing that things will unfold in due time. Her powerful story is evidence of that.
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