Shann Ray Ferch: The Reconciling Power of Servant Leadership—Part 1

Shann Ray’s journey from professional basketball player to poet and professor of leadership and forgiveness studies

Shann Ray Ferch (ShannRay.com) teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University, serving as a visiting scholar in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and North America. He also is the author of Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity: Servant Leadership as a Way of Life (Rowman & Littlefield), and co-editor of Conversations on Servant-Leadership (SUNY Press), and The Spirit of Servant-Leadership (Paulist Press).

His novel, American Copper (Unbridled Press), won the 2015 Foreword INDIEFAB Reader’s Choice Award and the Western Writers of America Spur Award, and was a finalist for the 2015 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Literary Fiction, the 2016 Washington State Book Award and the 2016 High Plains Book Award.

A former professional basketball player and Fellow with the National Endowment for the Arts, his American Masculine (Graywolf Press) was a “Three Books Every Man Should Read” selection by Esquire magazine in 2011. In addition, this collection of stories also won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for fiction, the American Book Award in 2012 and two 2012 High Plains Book Awards, for Best Short Stories and Best First Book. In addition, his book of poems, Balefire (Lost Horse Press), won the High Plains Book Award for Poetry in 2015.

An impressive body of work. But centering these apparently diverse interests is a single theme: relationship. Ferch’s work traces the many places and ways people meet each other—in conflict, competition, teamwork, service, violence, trauma, repentance, reconciliation and love. And he sees the redeemed community of Christ as a place of rich possibility to heal the wounds of our day.

Outreach caught up with Ferch to glean his wisdom for our divided times, in the following conversation—which ranges from basketball hoops deep in Indian Country to the mass graves of WWII Czechoslovakia, and from the ancient prophecies of Isaiah to the untapped possibility waiting in our own fractured relationships.

You have quite a résumé. When someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?

I usually say I’m a professor of leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. It’s going to sound too strange to bring it all in at once. My role at Gonzaga ties many of my interests together.

Tell us more.

Well, most of my interests are connected. For example, my first love is poetry. That work tends to draw a community of sisters and brothers who are oriented toward a life of quietness, toward listening. Toward embodying some type of light—working for love, justice, truth, goodness, beauty in the world. That’s a kind of leadership, certainly.

Now if I were to have only one job, it would probably be as a psychologist. That work focuses on the actual togetherness of people’s lives. But for me, the central purpose is the same—trying to listen and build more love into the world in response to the love I’ve received from the heart of Christ.

Tell me a little bit more about your reconciliation work. You’ve traveled extensively to the intersections of significant global conflict and genocide to help teach strategies for forgiveness. Where did that interest begin?

The roots of that work started about 30 years ago, when my wife and I were living in Germany. It was our first year of marriage, and I was working as a professional basketball player. I decided I would try to read all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and all of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work during that year. It was absolutely formative for me, especially paired with my first visit to Dachau, which happened right around then too.

Years later, I found out that during Bonhoeffer’s exile in America, he fell in love with the Black church in Harlem. He realized Germany was losing its soul as he looked at the soul of the Black church. And that realization prompted him to return to Germany in spite of the danger, because he couldn’t stand living here while his nation lost its soul. The inspiration in seeing the joy of the historically oppressed set him on a faith trajectory that eventually led to a concentration camp and his death.

This experience of reading began to draw together interests that I’d had for a long time—from my background in a good though sometimes difficult family, to my experience of life growing up among the Cheyenne people. The links between how people lead and how they forgive in the face of deep injustice or harm began to become clear.

Before we go too far, sketch your family history for us. I understand it is important.

Growing up, my family held a lot of pain. There were deep contrasts. I see now that we had such a need for genuine love and truth and beauty and goodness—the transcendent qualities that we are given from the soul of Christ. We were missing them. We had too much “gnashing of teeth.” We didn’t have a lot of love.

The family was plagued by infidelity, clinical depression and clinical anxiety. The masculine and the feminine were pretty much set against each other constantly. My father and my mother, even though they fell in love early, lost their love. It seems to me now they were almost doomed to it because of their own family origins. I cherish my mom and dad, and with respect for them, my vision of it now is that they were lacking love, lacking wisdom, lacking what I see as the essence of Christ in the world. They lived out an imbalance of love and power.

In any case, they lost each other; they divorced when I was 10 or 11. But then my mother came to believe in Christ through a close friend. My brother and my mom and I began attending a Christian Missionary and Alliance church. Very loving people who were just gentle with each other—beginning with the pastor and his wife. We needed that so much. Honestly, it makes me cry just thinking about it. We all needed that gentleness of Christ.

We started attending Sundays and the Wednesday evening services regularly. You could get up and request a song and have a prayer request. And every service I requested “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not knowing that it’s a Christmas song—just because I liked it. And I would always request the church to pray for my dad.

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I’m cutting the story a bit short, but a year later, after total resistance, my staunchly atheist, hedonistic father walks into the church on a Friday night. He’s shocked the door is open. There is a light on in the back of the foyer. He walks toward that light. It’s the pastor’s office, and that door is open, too. My father says, “I don’t know why I’m here.” To which, of course, the pastor replies, “I know exactly why you’re here. Why don’t you have a seat.”

And so my dad became a Christian, and my parents eventually remarried each other in that church. A simple light he walked toward, and the ancient truth that God is light.

What a powerful image of reconciliation.

Yes. Miraculous.

Now, my dad loved basketball, and was a teacher. He came from a background of deep poverty to become a principal, but his first love was coaching. He trained my brother and me. My dad was very maverick, very disciplined. We ended up developing massive verticals because of his jump training program. My brother had a 45-inch vertical; I had a 42-inch vertical. Time in his training was all running and dunking and the elegant movement of basketball.

I grew and developed throughout my junior and senior years of high school and into college. Playing basketball for me was very artistic and communal. Growing up on the reservation, the value was about passing and defense, about caring for the team, not just yourself. The game was about serving others. Service was how you led on the court. This combination of values and skills developed and became a large part of my life. I played Division 1 basketball at Montana State University, then transferred and played at Pepperdine University. And then eventually professionally in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga. That was a lot of fun, a lot of joy in those days. And I still play five days a week.

Tell me about life with the Cheyenne. What was your connection with the reservation?

My dad was the connection, through basketball. The reservations are places of love and beauty, great laughter, incredible resilience and powerful, courageous, loving people. From the Cheyenne people and their families my family felt deeply loved when we were on the reservation.

A generation before my brother and I were born, my dad’s closest friend was Cleveland Highwalker, a Cheyenne basketball player. In Montana there are many independent tournaments where you can make a little money playing basketball if you are good enough, and they just traveled and played together. My dad became a respected person in the Cheyenne community, where basketball is a revered part of life—like a modern continuation of their sacred warrior tradition.

Dad always felt comfortable on the reservation. He didn’t see himself as above others in our marginalizing, materialist and imperialist society, if that makes sense, partly because his own background was of poverty. He got how it felt to be left out.

Years later, he came back as a school principal and basketball coach to work on the Cheyenne reservation. He previously had coached for four years on a Crow reservation. And that’s where this sense of possibility for deep relationship across a deep divide began to take root in me. I didn’t know anything about genocide, or the traumatic history that had defined the Cheyenne. I couldn’t understand the tremendous hole in family and sacred life that the Fort Robinson Outbreak or the Sand Creek massacre had made for them—events that were directly part of their immediate history—or the impact of what the Cheyenne call the Battle of the Greasy Grass (known as Custer’s Last Stand in most U.S. textbooks).

It was my friendships with Cheyenne people like Lafe Haugen, Cleveland Bement, Russell Tall Whiteman and Blake Walks Nice that helped prime my heart to understand the dynamics that shape leadership and forgiveness, especially in the presence of profound generational pain and bereavement.

That early experience has obviously shaped how you think about reconciliation. Do you maintain relationships with your friends on the reservation?

Yes, those relationships have stayed strong. It was a blessing to go back just before COVID-19 hit, to help lead a day of forgiveness between Cheyenne, Crows and whites on the Cheyenne reservation. It was very meaningful. We held a Christ-centered ceremony in which the Catholic Church there had a long tradition of trauma toward Native Americans and Native American heritage, and in recent decades had come together with Cheyenne and Crow people to build what I find to be a powerful and unifying mission in which culture and imagery meet in the middle. Eagle feathers encompass the processional cross. At the center of the cross is the image of Christ in the form of and wearing the simple clothing of a Cheyenne Dog Soldier, their traditional self-sacrificial hero-warrior and servant of the people.

Cheyenne and Crow elders gave their blessing, and at one point wrapped me in a blanket—a beautiful symbol of love and care in many native tribes, signifying you’re always welcome here. The presence of Christ is so loving, I find. So present there. It was powerful.

With this early understanding of reconciliation growing, what was next for you?

I wanted to help people in their relationships, so I studied psychology in graduate programs in Los Angeles and Canada, and eventually began working as a clinician. My early practice was mostly spent at a Christian center in Spokane, Washington.

My clientele were people who would routinely be able to pay nothing or $2 or $5 per session for counseling. I found myself working with those whom Cornel West lovingly calls “the wretched of the earth”—a category that I count myself and my family among, because of our humanity, early poverty and difficult history. (More on that in a minute.) Through this, I sought to find and embody a humble, gentle approach to how Christ heals our relationships and us.

Then, about 27 years ago, I was hired at Gonzaga University in my present position. Drawing from my interests in reconciliation, I created a class called Servant Leadership: Restorative Justice and Forgiveness, and it set me on a remarkable path. Isn’t it interesting how teaching can be one of the best ways to truly learn something? I began to travel widely to places of conflict and genocide, learning and co-facilitating restoration and amend-making. I had the opportunity to go across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas. You know the names of many of the infamous places, these terrible genocide sites worldwide, including some that were very powerful for me such as the site where those of my own German blood genocided those of my Czech blood at Lidice outside Prague, and here in America, such as the Sand Creek massacre of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho.

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I found a quiet connection in my own family history to genocide and reconciliation that helped give shape to how I understood what beloved relationships can be. As I worked to understand servant leadership and forgiveness in the face of staggering harm, I started to dig into my own generational history. And a strange story began to emerge. It’s a simple story, but profound for me.

My grandmother Catherine, probably the most beloved member of our family when I was young, immigrated to New York City from Czechoslovakia, where she married my grandfather Herbert, whose German parents had come here. They wed right in the middle of World War II—a Czech woman and a German man marrying during the precise time that Germany was making no secret of genociding Czechoslovakians in Europe.

Eventually, I visited the site of the Lidice Massacre. Hitler destroyed an entire Czech town, murdering all the men and boys above 16 years old by firing squad behind a barn. He wanted to make an example of the town, in response to the Czech resistance assassinating one of the key architects of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich—the “Butcher of Prague.” Heydrich had directly called for the organized killing of all Czechs, and after many months of planning, the resistance took him out with a British-made bomb. (Like many egotistical leaders, Heydrich was arrogant and drove his green Mercedes coupe with the top down through the countryside every Tuesday at three o’clock. The resistance simply hopped around a bend and tossed the bomb in his car.)

In retaliation, Hitler decided on a spectacle. The town of Lidice had nothing to do with the assassination. But Hitler killed pretty much everybody there and razed the town, putting a landfill over it and planting the ground. He killed the men. The pregnant women were forcibly aborted, some killed, and most of the remaining sent to concentration camps. The children who looked Aryan enough were put in Lebensborn, a program where they were adopted into SS families to be raised as good Nazis. The other children, all 82 of them, were gassed to death in vans known as “soul killers” in Russian. And all that is, of course, only the barest overview of the unspeakable things done.

And from that dark backdrop of their immediate national heritage, this pair enjoyed a loving marriage of more than 50 years. Their gentleness, their toughness, their relationship’s combination of love and power was honest and inspiring.

Servant leadership demands both love and power, doesn’t it?

It does. Sometimes when things are inflexibly rosy or glossing over real issues, they lack power. On the other side of the equation, an overemphasis on power without a balancing and nurturing of gentleness will inevitably lack love. The first lacks teeth. The second is all teeth. Neither is the way of Jesus, in my view, or true servant leadership.

Martin Luther King Jr. observed that love without power is anemic and sentimental, and that power without love is reckless and abusive. This is why there is a need for love and power. King connects forgiveness directly to that balance.

So, how practically do we work toward achieving that balance in our own lives and leadership?

One of the first things I’d encourage leaders to consider is how the roles of feminine and masculine are integrated in their community.

Interesting. That wasn’t the answer I expected.

No matter what our theology of gender or leadership, I think we all can agree the image of God is uniquely shown in both masculine qualities that often get center stage in our churches and belief, and feminine qualities that many of us tend to sideline or take for granted. Male and female are made in the image of God, and I believe this oneness from Genesis shows they were made to be in balance, in harmony.

Don’t hear anything I’m not saying—I’m very aware that gender in the church is a complex conversation—but we need to create room as leaders for our community to benefit from love and power, from true strength and true, nurturing gentleness. I believe the masculine deeply engaging its nurturing side and the feminine boldly sharing its strength reveals the transformative unity of God.

But somehow, qualities that are more named as feminine get erased or made invisible in much of Western Christianity, at least that faith whose tradition is rooted in the culture of the Northern European colder countries. (Interestingly, I have noticed that in the warm weather cultures throughout the world there is often a better balance.) But many of us in the West have exclusively understood God as a distant and demanding father figure. Is there an aspect of unknowable strength in God that is true? Of course. But when out of balance with the deep nurturing love that God embodies throughout Scripture, we get problems.

In my experience, Christian leaders often find it hard to balance authority and rationality. Gradually right relationships can become less important than right doctrines—when I believe Scripture is clear that one is to be held with the other. The extent to which we cut off the God-given feminine or the God-given masculine qualities in ourselves or in our faith, determines the extent to which we harm each other and ourselves, the degree to which servant leadership becomes difficult or impossible.

In Part 2 of the interview, Shann Ray Ferch talks about the role of listening in forgiveness, what he learned about love and respect in marriage from his father-in-law, and the keys to healing and reconciliation in our divided nation.