2011- Big Tent: Respectful dialogue: Initiative seeks to improve communication

INDIANAPOLIS (PNS) Taking off from the Big Tent theme, “Grow
Christ’s Church Deep and Wide,” the Peacemaking Conference was called
on to consider its theme, “Growing Christ’s Peace.”

Conference plenaries July 1 opened with worship including music and
prayers by guitarist David Gambrell, associate for worship, with Sharon
Youngs, communications coordinator for the office of the General
Assembly, on guitar and keyboards.

In the first plenary, Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and
Justice Ministry, focused on the theme of 1 Peter 3:11 — “Turn away
from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.” Lisherness led
participants to consider the call to peacemaking, which she said “is not a
project to be completed and checked off, but a vocation.”

Using the biblical story of Esau and Jacob — their estrangement over
Jacob’s deceit and their reconciliation after years of Jacob living in exile —
Lisherness placed in relief the behaviors that led to reconciliation and peace.

Weaving together biblical texts and contemporary stories of reconciliation
between enemies and courageous behavior in the face of terror, she
demonstrated that the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” is a claim on
our lives, not just a nice behavior.

Participants were asked to discuss what happened in their various encounters
that turned conflict into peace and reconciliation. The group responded:
time, persistence, understanding, repentance, courage, humility, sharing
experience, respect, silence, empathy, connections, risk, humanizing.

The theme took on practical significance in the second plenary, when J.
Herbert Nelson, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in
Washington, D.C., spoke on “Restoring Our Confidence to Speak Truth
Freely While Loving Unashamedly.” Nelson addressed the tendency in the
church to say, “We cannot talk about political issues in the church. That’s
what’s killing us.”

He reminded the group that decisions that deeply affect our lives are
made by politicians and can only be decided through political process in a
society like ours. How can we not talk about schools and teacher quality,
college loans, health care, Medicare and Social Security, marriage, zoning,
transportation, and so on if we believe that God cares about and loves the

“The claim that we cannot talk about politics in the church is dangerous
because it leaves our voices silent,” Nelson said. “Then those who are
willing to talk endlessly about it in the halls of legislatures and then often
decide or not but then say it’s our fault. We wanted it that way, because we
were silent.”

Nelson shared his experience of a conversation with a person over a topic
of disagreement. As they discussed the issue respectfully over pancakes,
they discovered that neither of them knew enough about the subject to do
more than roughly identify the problem. From that experience, he concluded
that “often when we talk about our disagreements, we get deep enough to
honestly admit how little we know instead of asserting how much we think
we know. That is a risky place to be,” he said.

“The issue,” said Nelson, “is not whether to talk but how to talk,” which has
led him to launch the Respectful Dialogue Initiative (RDI) still in its infancy.
The goal is to train Presbyterians how to lead respectful dialogues on issues
in their churches and communities.

This process, he said, is built on biblical principles and John Calvin’s
conviction that Christians are called to help shape society through public
life. Communities that have respectful dialogue on the issues affect decisions
positively. RDI can do this, Nelson said, “by offering tools to facilitate
political views for productive community based outcomes.”

RDI goals include:

* training a minimum of 200 Presbyterians from across the country each
year to lead respectful and non-partisan community discussions on political
* encouraging active listening among RDI participants;
* leading participants in deepening political conversations in their

community for more informed voter participation;
* building new political alliances among persons in local communities
that are not solely defined by political parties; and
* promoting the development and sharing of ideas without fear.

The foundation of the process, Nelson said, will be prayer, “which centers
us spiritually, enables us to better listen to God and to others, builds respect
between us, and builds community.”

On that foundation the RDI program will build the components of training,
dialogue, discernment and transformation.

RDI is not a reinvention of the wheel ― “Guidelines for Conversation
in Times of Disagreement,” published by the Presbyterian Peacemaking
Program in 1992 ― but builds on the work we have been doing in the
peacemaking community, Nelson said. It takes the work the PC(USA) has
sought to do on internal church matters into the public sphere, so that we
may be faithful to our vocation of peacemaking, he said.

Parrish Jones is a Presbyterian minister and free-lance writer in St.
Augustine, Fla.. He is covering the Peacemaking Conference at Big Tent for