Coming together as one

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By Kirsten Laskey

Eleven years ago, Gene and Phyllis Unterschuetz were in a transition in their lives. They sold their house in a Chicago suburb and bought an RV to go on a trip throughout the U.S. When they revved up the engine, it ignited the beginning of an amazing journey.

The Unterschuetzes decided this trip would last between six month and a year, after which, they would buy a new house and get new jobs.

During this tour, the Unterschuetzes, who are Baha’is, visited Baha’i communities and conducted what is called travel teaching or talks about faith.

They hadn’t been doing it very long when the topic of race and racial prejudice appeared. It was a topic, Phyllis said, that made people nervous. They felt if they talked about race and prejudice, they would look bad, therefore, people were afraid to address this topic.

This is a touchy subject, Phyllis said, because people have been unconsciously conditioned about race. The consequences of this conditioning are that people can say things that hurt others’ feelings.

In the Bahaíi Faith, there is a central social principle of oneness and wholeness in the human race so the Unterschuetzes got started on work to promote this principle.  

Understanding that the human race is one race is a solution to many problems in society, Phyllis said. "We could solve a lot of problems that face us in our society. It is an essential teaching of our religion ... healing knowledge for humanity."

The Unterschuetzes started giving a workshop throughout the U.S. on this Baha’i principle. Phyllis said Baha’is would struggled in their communities with promoting oneness, but for her and her husband, they had the advantage of being outsiders. “It seemed like because we were visitors and not someone who lived there all time, it was easier to get a conversation going.”

The Unterschuetzes did not present their workshop in just Baha’is communities but also in universities and organizations. They have traveled to Indian reservations, areas with extreme diversity and areas with little diversity.

During this time, Phyllis said she and her husband would add their own anecdotes about their own mistakes. After workshop participants told them that these personal stories were the most effective part of the workshops Phyllis said they decided to just tell stories.

They also wrote about their own experiences in a book, titled, “Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.” The book is being published by Baha’i Publishing and will be released next spring.

Los Alamos residents can hear stories from this book during an upcoming reading from 7-8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Unitarian Church.

“The main purpose of the stories are to get people to talk to one another,” Phyllis said.

Once stories are told, other people open up. “When you have people talking, there is a lot of understanding and healing,” she said. “It is a very powerful way for people to gain awareness about how they have been conditioned and how to change it.”

If people are not aware of this conditioning then they cannot change, Phyllis said.

What started as just a six-month journey has transformed into something new. "It's just become our heart's passion," Phyllis said. "We just never quit because it is just an awesome thing when people just open up to each other."

She recalls talking to a group of whites and blacks in a South Carolina town. She said the participants lived side by side but they never sat down with each other and talked about race. So to see people sit down and talk to one another is just one of many little miracles the Unterschuetzes have experienced.

“It’s been such a phenomenal experience,” Phyllis said, “that we never quit. We’re fortunate to continue this. It’s been for us and for people that have been engaged in this process, an amazing journey.”