1. Pinellas

Harmony 101: Lessons in how to love and disagree

ST. PETERSBURG — When it came time to partner up, Valerie Holguin and Sharon Joy Kleitsch turned to each other in the theater's plush blue seats. The strangers each held a postcard, edged in red, that asked them to find something in common.

"Well, for goodness sakes, we're both female, and we live in St. Petersburg," said Kleitsch, with her mop of white hair and necklace of wooden beads. "Now it gets harder."

"I like reading," Holguin offered shyly, and Kleitsch said, "Me, too."

The two women, one 80 years old, one 20, had come to Eckerd College on a crisp evening, two days before Thanksgiving, to be coached on how to love through disagreement, or at least on how to coexist.

After listening to speakers, they were asked to pair up and craft a piece of advice to share.

Holguin, an Eckerd junior with a silver nose ring and a GOOD VIBES AND HIGH FIVES baseball tee, had pushed back her holiday plans to listen. It had been a few tense weeks with her boyfriend, who she'd see the next day.

"Here's a heavy one," Kleitsch read from a prompt. "What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?"

"Me and my friends were talking about this earlier," Holguin said, glancing down at her periwinkle nails. "We talked about the Holocaust. Also, with religion and sexuality, and how far you can take those jokes."

She giggled, a little nervous.

"Right now, my boyfriend is super religious and conservative," she said.

"Wait a minute," the older woman said. "Was he someplace else before?"

"He's always been religious, but now he's really diving into it," Holguin said. "Some things he's said, I think, are way too far, like saying being homosexual is wrong."

The women sat near the edge of the Beninger Theater, close to the stage where some panelists lingered. There was Shari Akram, representing an Islamic civil rights group, who had talked about unfollowing her Islamophobic aunt on Facebook but continuing to call because love was bigger than their rift. And Nadine Smith, director of Equality Florida, who talked about coming out, and then giving her dad chance after chance to reconcile, and being so grateful that she did.

"What was it about your boyfriend that particularly attracted you in the first place?" Kleitsch asked.

"He is really compassionate, and passionate about what he believes in," Holguin said, and giggled again.

They veered off briefly before coming back to Holguin's dilemma.

"I would be honest and say, 'This doesn't feel like it's going to be healthy for our relationship,' " Kleitsch said. "Something that you hide from doesn't stay hidden."

"I think unconsciously we have thrown it under the rug and ignored it, but we keep coming back to it," Holguin said. "I'm like, 'Where does it say in the Bible, where does God say it isn't right?' And he's very persistent. He just says it's there."

Holguin told Kleitsch about growing up Catholic in Phoenix, steeped in anti-abortion and anti-gay proclamations. She said transferring to Eckerd led to tough classroom conversations, ones that pushed her to dissect her own assumptions.

Kleitsch, who long ago left her corporate career to become a community organizer, said she had abandoned Methodism because she couldn't follow the logic of it, the way people sometimes leapt to judgment instead of love.

"We've been together for a long time," Holguin said. So if they had kids, she wondered, what would he tell them?

"Five minutes," a moderator said from the stage.

"What's so big about being right, or my way being the only way, or the best way?" Kleitsch said.

"Is that advice?" Holguin asked, and Kleitsch agreed it was. The moderator called out for everyone to tack their message on a bulletin board, but the two women didn't seem to hear him. They kept talking.

Contact Claire McNeill at

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an Encounters, contact editor Maria Carrillo at or call (727) 892-2301.