Practicing Civility in the Central Valley

August 27, 2012

By the Rev. Brandon Austin
Pastor, St. Paul's UMC, Manteca

Election season is well underway! This year billions will be spent on the campaign effort as pollsters, pundits, pontificators, and proponents weigh in on the issues and candidates of choice for our nation's upcoming Presidential election. Already, negative ads blister the media and sear our imagination. Each candidate and his affiliated political action committees (PAC), to say nothing of their bombastic spokespersons, say offensively what many think, and willingly offer their thoughts for others to speak to, when the occasion presents itself – as long as the outcome means victory for their candidate at the polling stations on Election Day, of course. So sad that we have come to expect this of our leaders, support it in some way, or that we have at least settled for it – our political ends by any means! Shall we employ greater demons in pursuit of a lesser angel of deliverance? 
How can and how will the Church be prophetic in these days? Dare we raise political issues from within the Christian faith community? How can our faith provide for a more creative exchange of political ideas? How do we practice the "separation of Church and hate" in civil discourse?
Since Wednesday, Aug. 15, 30 or more members of St. Paul's UMC in Manteca, California have begun to engage practices of civility using a resource developed by Faith & American Politics, Inc. prior to the 2008 election and titled Liberty and Justice for All (available at The authors of the curriculum provide faith communities with a variety of exercises and communication techniques, while inviting participants to bring their political passions to bear in the context of small group and large group discussions.
A DVD and the participant booklet provide the content, while a facilitator's manual guides the process. Within each session there are opportunities to voice one's political thoughts and faith stance in the context of triads (one person speaks, one listens and records the main ideas of the speaker, and the third person monitors the time). After each session, each participant is paired with a different small group member for the week to discuss a topic of mutual interest and to learn more about their dyad partner and how they came to be where they are in their faith formation and political stance.
In all contexts – large group, triads, and dyads – participants are urged to practice the communication tools and techniques called the "Civility Toolkit."
Participants include homemakers, a retired bank vice-president, several retired school principals, school board members, teachers, a neonatal nurse, a retired probation officer, a developer and contractor, and a guest who joined the workshop after his first visit to worship! As pastor of this Central Valley congregation, I am amazed that so many have responded to this exercise in faith and trust.
I've been here long enough to know that the range of spiritual/political passions of most of those who signed on for the 7-week workshop (it ends on Sept. 30) run the gamut in both intensity and perspective, and I am delighted to be with people so highly committed to God through the Church, and to their respective political interests – and who dare take on this faith adventure! My prayer, and I believe this is the prayer of the whole group, is that in some small way, we are able to offer this practice in civility as a corporate gift to the larger community, to the Church, and to our families.
Please feel free to contact me about the study! You can reach me at or 209.823.7154.