Reflections on “Open and Affirming” – What does it really mean?

23 Jan

The catch-phrase of the ECM is that we are “open and affirming”- and we hear that phrase a whole lot around here. Sometimes I wonder if we pause to reflect on what this means in practice. When I think of open and affirming I think well, the open part is pretty self-explanatory. Anyone is welcome, at any time, regardless of who you are, where you come from or where you are going. Simple enough, and in practice, very true of the ECM’s Ministry of the Hearth. Having worked here a year now and involved for even longer, I have seen the ECM openly embrace people of all backgrounds, faiths (or no faith traditions) and I have seen many people find a home-base community here.

Open and affirming go hand in hand, but I think the affirming part is more complicated and deeper than the open part. Sure, anyone can come in the doors, but what happens once you enter those doors and become involved is what matters. The people here affirm you for exactly who you are, without judgment. People here become intimately involved in one another’s lives and as they deepen their relationships they further affirm the uniqueness of one another.

SO you just read the word “affirm” about a billion times in these previous paragraphs. But what does it really mean to “affirm” someone. According to the dictionary, “to affirm” means the following:  to state or assert positively; maintain as true; to confirm or ratify; to  assert solemnly, and to express agreement with or commitment to; uphold; support. Most basically it means to declare that something is true.  What this tells me is that affirmation requires a genuine knowing of other. ECM is an affirming community. This means that people here take the time to build relationships with one another, to pay attention to the strengths that people bring to our community, to recognize and appreciate the gifts of the various individuals here and to be able to genuinely express that recognition to one another.

In my opinion, affirmation is the step beyond open. It is the step that turns an open community where are all welcome into a community where all are valued, appreciated, and most of all, known. Once we know one another we are able to speak truth to what we know. We are able to affirm (speak with truth, conviction and knowledge) what we value about each and every person we build relationship with here in this very special community.

An important aspect of “open and affirming” that I feel is often overlooked is the fact that as a Christian Ministry we are rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. What better example exists of someone who was radically open and affirming? Jesus offers us numerous examples of listening to people, of empowering people to share who they genuinely are and loving them for that. He shows us that building communities that are open to everyone regardless of who they are, where they come from or where they are going is a truly radical act, a truly Christian act, and that in those communities people are valued, loved, and affirmed.

The best example of where I see ECM’s affirmation in action and reflective of Jesus’s affirmation is in the Young Adult / Student Leadership Team.  We meet once a month, and this year we began the tradition of starting each semester off with a team-building retreat. The Leadership Team runs all of the ECM programming. They are the young adults that organize veggie lunch, faith forum, sexuality education, peace and justice programs, the Fair Trade market, the Alternative Spring Breaks and other areas of ministry.  Some of them also even serve on the board. This is a team of dedicated, intelligent, passionate young men and women. The LT, for me, exemplifies how ECM is an open and affirming community. They are not only open and affirming to one another, but they are on the front lines of being open and affirming of each person that enters our doors.

At our August retreat I think everyone’s favorite part was the affirmation circle. We do this at the end of each monthly meeting too, and it is sort of a standard ECM practice at many events. This is where we get a chance to recognize what we really appreciate about one another, and to state that openly in a safe and loving environment. Sometimes the affirmations are small things like, “I really appreciated that you sent such an encouraging email to everyone, and I affirm you for that” or sometimes they are deeply rooted in a relationships two people have with one another are statements like “you have been there for me through one of the roughest times in my life, and I affirm you for that.” The circle does not end until everyone has been affirmed. And usually everyone wants to affirm everyone – that is the level of love, appreciation and respect this team has for one another.

The LT exemplifies the work it takes to truly be able to say we are an affirming community. And I don’t think it is a bad thing that affirmation takes work. To be able to affirm someone with both conviction and love it means paying attention. It means listening to others, taking the risk of truly sharing yourself with others and genuinely investing in the openness of this community.

The principles of being open and affirming are what I love most about the ECM. As the ECM continues to develop as a campus ministry I am proud to say that the guiding principles of being open and affirming will always be with us. The ECM as an open and affirming space is deeply rooted in our history, and it is what will guide our future; it is, in my opinion, the absolute core of our ministry of the hearth.

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Teresa Zaffiro has been Development Coordinator of the Ecumenical Campus Ministries at KU for about year.  Her undergraduate degree is in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on environmental justice and American Indian Studies from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She spends lots of time organizing around environmental issues and has spent time living in the Ihanktonwan Dakota Nation (Yankton Sioux reservation) in South Dakota.  Passionate about grassroots organizing, social and environmental justice, cross-cultural collaboration and helping create and sustain open and affirming communities like the ECM, she is also member of the Unitarian Fellowship of Lawrence.  She loves living in the town of Lawrence, and enjoys getting to know all of the interesting people she meets at the campus ministry.  In her spare time she enjoys reading, biking and running, hanging out coffee shops with friends and spending time with her “wonderful” partner.

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5 Responses to “Reflections on “Open and Affirming” – What does it really mean?”

  1. Molly Kirk January 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    I enjoy working with you Teresa!

  2. lisa zaffiro January 23, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    Truely an example of how the world should be

  3. Bruce Chapman January 24, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Wow. Nice run-down on this current issue. I can add no more; indeed, this says much well enough for me. “Practicing the Faith” is cutting edge and consequently our challenge. Our student Cabinet at its weekly meeeting last night considered ways to interact with and begin to relate to and with local Occupy movement folks some of whom dwell in tents in the shadow of Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee–.5 mi. from our campus ministry/Westminster House. Openly afffirming Occupy here perhaps exemplifies Christian praxis.

  4. Mary November 28, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Love reading your post. thank you for sharing your loveing kind heart we need more of you in this dark world.
    there is so much light we just got to search for it now.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Courage of Sharing Spiritual Journey : Blue Boat - March 30, 2012

    […] retreat was based on the theme “Exploring Your Spiritual Journey”. As you may know from my last blog post, we are truly open and affirming – people of all faith traditions or no faith tradition are […]

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