Series looks at collective civility and compassion

Living civilly, compassionately and ethically as a community is the theme of the “And Who Is My Neighbor?” series — presented by the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-Act), Wilton Clergy Association, and Wilton Library — beginning next week.
The Rev. Jane Field, director of spiritual formation at Wilton Presbyterian and Zion’s Hill youth pastor, said the series invites residents to pause, come together and consider a better way to live as a community “at a time when town meetings are marred by vitriol, our disagreements quickly escalate to threats of lawsuits, swastikas are etched on our schools’ lockers, and voices from the sidelines of our children’s athletic events scream for cutthroat competition and winning at any cost.”
Wi-Act member Stephen Hudspeth said the theme of this year’s series came from “a variety of different sources” — particularly the discovery of a swastika at Wilton High School back in September.
“Wi-Act had a steering committee meeting and there was a great deal of concern about the incident, especially because it re-occurred 10 years after the original incident back in 2004,” he said.
“There has also been some concern about what goes on at some of our sports events. People in other towns have made comments that Wilton parents have become particularly aggressive in sports.”
Mr. Hudspeth said the steering committee decided it was time to “re-raise what it takes to be living in a community — not just in civil discourse, but in compassionate discourse with each other.”
“Steve came to the Wilton Clergy Association meeting in November and shared what Wi-Act had been talking about, and the clergy were eager to be a part of the planning,” said Ms. Field.
“We felt that the world’s great faith traditions all had important things to say about how to live civilly and compassionately in a community, and so we were happy to jump in and get on the bandwagon.”
Ms. Field said that “as a clergy person in town,” she hopes attendees of the series “come away with a renewed commitment to do community differently and be willing to practice civility and compassion.”
“We could turn the tide and have our interactions — whether they be on a soccer field or in a town meetings or in a school hallway — take a different direction,” she said.
“My hope is that instead of polarization and wanting to be right and win at all costs, we could learn how to listen and respect one another and understand that we can still be in community with someone even if we are different or disagree with them.”
The four sessions of the series will take place on Tuesdays, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., in Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room. For information or to register, visit or call 203-762-3950, ext. 312.

Ethical community

Sarah Azaransky, assistant professor of social ethics at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, will lead the first session, on March 10.
During her lecture, Ms. Azaransky said, she will talk about how “living ethically” can help a community transform an “us versus them” mentality into “we.”
She said she will also have attendees do “some kind of personal reflection on who they are as a community and where they want to go.”
“One of the things that I’ll discuss is how a moral life has a personal dimension and a social dimension,” she said, “and how they’re connected to one another.”
According to Ms. Azaransky, discussions and meetings like the ones taking place in the series are examples of how the social dimension of a moral life is formed in a community.
“Through conversations like these, we’re reflecting on moral values and how to develop ways of discerning between competing moral claims with an eye towards thinking about ethical communication,” she said.
“Ethical communication is how we talk to one another and how the way in which we talk really shapes the kind of community we’re in.”
Ms. Azaransky said ethical communication is fundamental to “responsible thinking” and “responsible decision-making.”
“The process in and of itself helps to develop relationships in communities,” she said, “and I think the fact that Wilton is having these sessions is indicative that they’re thinking about that, which is part of the process, too.”
“Responsible relationships,” which require learning how to “disagree well,” are essential to ethical communication, said Ms. Azaransky.
Being in a responsible relationship involves learning that disagreements happen and learning how to deal with them when they do, said Ms. Azaransky.
“Good, important moral reflection can emerge out of conflict, so it’s important to look at ways in which conflict can actually be productive,” she said, “and learn how to handle conflict instead of allowing it to be something that stymies discussion or stymies communication.”
Ms. Azaransky said she looks forward to hearing from and talking with members of the Wilton community on Tuesday.
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to come to a community like Wilton, whose residents are thinking self-consciously and reflecting morally,” she said.

Upcoming sessions

While the first session in the series will focus on “things that can be done and practices that can be put in place for communicating with each other,” said Ms. Field, the second session will focus on how the community works with its youth.
Led by Kevin Meehan of Ambler Farm, Youth Services Director Colleen Fawcett and Assistant Superintendent Charles Smith, the second session on March 17 will look at ways the community can and does give its youth community-building skills.
On March 24, the third session, Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann and Dr. Kareem Adeeb, Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut board president and leader of the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies, will discuss how to disagree while still fostering community.
On March 31, a panel of local clergy will lead the final session with a presentation on “what the world’s great religions say about civility and compassion and living well in community,” Ms. Field said.
Members of the panel are:

  • The Rev. Arnold Thomas (Wilton Congregational Church)

  • The Rev. Shannon White (Wilton Presbyterian Church)

  • Father Reggie Norman (Our Lady of Fatima)

  •  The Rev. Jason Coker (Wilton Baptist Church)

  • Rabbi Rachel Bearman (Temple B’nai Chaim)

  • Swami Balgopal (Hindu Mandir Temple)

“We’re hoping to have a lay person from the Islamic Institute join as well, but that hasn’t been finalized yet,” added Ms. Field, who said the fourth session will remind people “of what their own faith could bring to them as a resource” when faced with differences, divisions, conflicts, or hostility.