[This post is part of a series reflecting on my summer internship with The Marin Foundation.]
I’ll be honest: I doubted whether Living in the Tension gatherings were possible.
I’m saying I doubted this no less than a week ago. This was, mind you, after I attended a series of these gatherings last year and observed they most certainly are possible. Last summer, I saw a wide spectrum of people come to meet and discuss topics ranging from same-sex marriage to personal testimonies to Chick-fil-A. Nevertheless, in the stretch of time between the end of last summer and the start of this summer, I began to doubt the entire endeavor to the point that, as I prepared to co-lead our most recent LITT last week, I felt a growing anxiety about what would happen. The formula for discussion (sit a diverse group around a table in order to talk through a difficult topic) felt more like a recipe for disaster. Do you remember the last time a political argument broke out at your Thanksgiving dinner or how it feels when a theological debate interrupts a church potluck? That was the kind of discord I anticipated, and I knew I’d be stuck in the room as a host for the full ninety minutes. At best, it would be awkward; at worst, explosively combative.
What actually occurred—what usually occurs at The Marin Foundation’s LITT events—was something magnificent and groundbreaking. These meetings have a kind of capricious brilliance about them, an adrenaline rush that comes from the creeping knowledge that each conversation has every reason to erupt into bickering and hostility. (That hasn’t erupted in any of the meetings I’ve attended. I think people come with something greater in mind than squabbling.) People who see the world differently, sometimes dramatically so, agree for ninety minutes to take each other seriously, valuing what they might learn from each other and respecting each person’s voice. It may be that you have to experience it to believe it.
Okay, so here’s a recent example of why I love these things, even though they really do stress me out, like growing experiences tend to do. At last week’s gathering, we were talking about the marriage equality movement in the United States. As is often the case in conversations like these, one position gained momentum in the room and made it increasingly difficult for alternative positions to gain equal footing, regardless of how each person there felt. Someone spoke up to change the direction: “Let’s imagine what a conservative evangelical pastor would be thinking and feeling in this conversation. What might they want to say?” After a few people made hypothetical comments, one man who had been silent opened his mouth: “Actually, I happen to be a pastor at an evangelical church, and I…” From there, a dialogue erupted—a dialogue in which the parties held their equally strong convictions in a posture of listening and empathy, asking genuine questions and giving heartfelt answers.
I know this sounds like a Pollyanna gushing, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m still in a honeymoon stage with an organization I’ve come to admire. But what I’ve observed in my time living in Abilene (statistically one of the most politically conservative counties in the country) and Boystown (a neighborhood in which certain streets have light posts emblazoned with rainbows) is that people talk and think and vote in significantly different ways in different parts of this same country. It’s like people are speaking different languages in different states, and homogenous groups often converse about their opponents in the language of stereotypes and straw men. Those who represent a different worldview feel distant and alien to the extent that it becomes nearly impossible to take them seriously as human beings with human fears, desires, and stories. (Does this sound familiar to you? Do you ever feel as if people who vote differently from you on something like same-sex marriage can’t possibly be rational or compassionate?) When someone at this Living in the Tension gathering challenged everyone in the room to put themselves in the shoes of a “conservative evangelical pastor,” it was a step toward empathy and humanizing what felt like an other to many people sitting around the table. When a real live evangelical pastor spoke up, it was a much bigger step toward empathy and humanizing that potential other, especially when everyone listened and took his words seriously. It’s the same when sexual minorities speak up, when Christians or non-Christians speak up, when parents and friends and children speak up: The conversation leaves the realm of the theoretical and becomes constructively, inescapably, sometimes painfully practical.
Can I say one more time how gigantically intimidating these gatherings were for me before I saw how well they can go and how valuable they are? I’m not being cute when I say I greatly prefer the safety of a keyboard and a computer screen. I’ll take on a thorny comment thread any day without batting an eye, but I find it enormously scary to talk with people who disagree with me in spite of the fact that they’ve given just as much (or more) thought to these questions as me. I’ve found it’s always, always worth the discomfort, since sharing a room with dissimilar people teaches me in a way books and lectures and TED talks can’t.
Today, I’m grateful for people who honor and bless one another by taking the risk of engaging in open, honest conversation.