From Sunday, Jan. 18 through Sunday, Jan. 25 Christians throughout the world prayed for unity in churches. This ecumenical week of prayer was first started in 1908 by a Catholic priest and has evolved to include many denominations. Each denomination marks this time according to its prayers and traditions. Many churches gather together for ecumenical prayer services — now readily accessible to more people online through platforms and technology which have become an integral way to connect people of faith during the pandemic.

In addition to prayers in churches for unity this week, unity was the theme of the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. I believe that most Americans breathed a sigh of relief in a peaceful transfer of power and that there were no riots or violent demonstrations in D.C. or in state capitols around the U.S. The attack on our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 and the escalation of violent demonstrations throughout cities in the U.S. have deepened the divisions among us.

But as the beautiful young poet, Amanda Gorman proclaimed in her poetic recitation at the inauguration of President Biden, “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.” You can read the full transcript of her poem, “The Hill We Climb” here.

Indeed the theme of President Biden’s inaugural address was also unity. It was a call of hope from the wounds of disunity and prejudice which have plagued our nation for far too long. You can read the full text of his speech here.

As I read some of the poems, speeches, and prayers this week from churches and government leaders, I was reminded of the quote that is often attributed to St. Augustine (the origin is debated) and which was alluded to even in President Biden’s speech:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

I think I realized the crux of the problem we have with unity; what is essential to one person and group is not necessarily essential to another.

Today, as I finish writing this column, many pro-life Americans acknowledge Jan. 22 as “National Sanctity of Human Life” day. Believers set aside this day as a day of prayer for the unborn whose right to life was threatened with the Supreme Court’s decision of Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973 which legalized abortion in the United States.

To me, the right to life from conception to natural death is an essential human right. But for many Americans, including those who now hold the majority power of the legislative and executive branches of the United States, that is simply not true. Under the guise of reproductive rights and choice, many states — including New York — have adopted radical laws that allow unborn children to be aborted up to the time of their birth.

So, I ask, if Americans don’t agree that the right to life from conception to natural death is essential then where do we go from here?

I think I got my answer when I reread the Augustine quote starting from the end instead of the beginning: “in all things, charity.”

Charity is often used synonymously with the word love, especially in biblical principles. But it implies a broader stroke of respect especially for those with whom we may not have any deep familial connections. The dictionary definition of charity is generosity towards others, especially those who suffer; provisions for the needy, and benevolent gifts for those in need.

Most of us practice charity in our everyday life when we disagree with those closest to us. Whether at work or at home- in institutions or in social settings- we often find ourselves in friendships and relationships with people with whom we disagree.

I disagree with lots of people on a lot of things and it gets me into trouble — a lot. But I’ve learned to respect others’ opinions, focus on the things that we agree on, and — in an appropriate time and place — I express the opinions I deem important.

I’ve found the easiest way to end a disagreement is to actually listen to the other person with whom I disagree and find some common ground. I read a public post from a commentator the other day who described this strategy as civility.

Civility refers to common courtesy in behavior and speech. I think it’s a level of discourse that has been lost in the era of social media. Real friends and “Facebook friends” erupt into arguments and even name-calling for expressions of opinions that differ from our own.

The call for unity is a noble goal and a hope that I pray for often. But even if we can’t be united over much these days at least we can practice charity and civility while trying to find a common ground.

We can agree to respectfully disagree.

Unity may never happen in Washington, D.C. I actually think they thrive on chaos. But it can most certainly happen between family members, friends, and others if we respect each others’ opinions, listen and choose love.

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Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen