Speaking the truth in love: Engaging in fearless dialogues

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” Jesus taught the crowds during the Sermon on the Mount. But being a peacemaker often means engaging in controversial and difficult conversations that run the risk of confronting one’s own biases and prejudices as well as alienating others, no matter what side of the table one sits. In addition, pastors tend not to be confrontational by nature (and neither do congregations) until they are forced to confront such high-octane topics as racism, clergy sexual abuse, violence, church security, gun control, abortion, sexual identity, homosexuality, gay marriage, politics — you name it. What’s required is “a very particular set of skills,” to steal Liam Neeson’s line from the movie “Taken.”

How can we be effective change agents in the world?

“I don’t know how to change the world, but I can change the three feet around me,” says pastor Gregory Ellison II, recalling the words his aunt said to him years ago. It’s a challenge he’s taken to heart and to the streets as the associate professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He is also the founder of Fearless Dialogues, a grassroots organization that creates opportunities for unlikely partners to engage in hard conversations. The goals of the organization are simply stated as: “to see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and others.”

Fearless Dialogues took root following the pastor’s work in helping African-American men transition out of prison and into society. They were not being “seen, or heard, but stigmatized,” he said. “They felt invisible and muted, judged upon their looks. When a person feels unseen and unheard, it impacts how they see themselves and their identity, and it can have a long-lasting effect on one’s self-worth.”

He started to ask the questions: “How do we talk to each other?” “How can we create spaces to have hard conversations?” “How can we create an environment where people feel welcome?”

According to Ellison, the five most common fears that inhibit and stifle difficult conversations are fear of the unknown, fear of strangers, fear of appearing ignorant, fear of sharing one’s most authentic truth and fear of oppressive systems.

Breaking cultural and personal “sound barriers” can begin with something as simple as acknowledging the other: being interactive rather than reactive. The way a person looks at another person or avoids looking can open or shut the door of communication.

“To gaze at someone for longer than three seconds is to invite people to behold the other as in the image of God, to behold another human being,” he says.

People are longing for these kinds of meaningful spaces, for a better community, to share their stories without feeling judged, he adds. Over the last six years, Fearless Dialogues has worked with nearly 50,000 people worldwide toward that end.

“It starts with addressing the fear that arises between those with power and those without it. I encourage a posture of humility, or ‘less-ness’ to counteract the fear of the other,” he explains. “I ask: How do we connect as human beings? Do you truly see the person in front of you? Do you hear what others are really saying?”

People we don’t understand or who we refuse to see because they induce fear – such as the homeless, the addicted, or someone of a different ethnicity or race – are either contained or discarded. He says. “Every human being has fundamental needs: to belong to others, out of which comes a sense of integrity and self-esteem. Meaningful existence means that I mean something to someone, to others.”

Facing fears together

One of the most important things to remember in any exchange is that everyone is an expert of their own story, says Georgette Ledgister, executive director of Fearless Dialogues. She adds, when we are willing – when we are invited to share someone’s story – we have enough wisdom in all of us to solve the world’s most significant problems.

What is crucial is engaging the whole person when we dialogue, and facing our fears together to move the conversation forward — to give up some of our self-protection. Fundamental to positive outcomes is for all involved to understand that conflict is not negative; it has built into it a creative potential and therefore conflict can be constructive. If we understand this, we don’t have to fall apart in the face of tension that is inherent in conflict itself, says Ledgister.

“We can’t enter into difficult conversations without fear when what people hold dear is challenged or contradicted,” she says. “Fear pops up, it’s unavoidable, but we have to face our fears together and move through them. There is something fundamental at stake, but when we succeed, there’s transformation and epiphany.”

Learning to listen is hard. Reflecting what a person has said back to her allows the one speaking to think differently, and more deeply about her story. Being able to recount the other’s story in one’s own words helps the conversation to grow organically. “I hear you say…” and repeating that person’s truth ensures engagement. As well, asking open-ended guided questions also creates space for one of the most important questions of all to ask another: “What is preventing you from being the person you want to be?” asks Ledgister. “We have to learn to love and live with the hardest questions.”

Another tool that can help conflict be constructive in conversation is for the listener to say thank you when someone takes the time to speak, whether or not the listener agrees or not with what is being shared. Gratitude and verbal affirmation have a way of easing tension.

Learning to see

At the mid council leaders gathering in Chicago last year, Ellison challenged participants to learn to see the other. They were asked if they had hearing eyes. Who did they see? Who don’t they hear? Did they care for the other?

He cites the example of how he was in a checkout line at a grocery store when he addressed the cashier by name, gave him eye contact and engaged him in conversation. The cashier explained that he had been working for six hours straight and that not one person, not one customer, called him by name or looked at him. It was as if he didn’t exist to those he served.

Much of what we communicate to the other is unspoken. How we physically address an individual or a group can be as powerful as words. How we “see” a person or a group can dismantle the power and social conditioning that has shaped us individually and culturally.

Ellison says to gaze intentionally and lovingly at someone is an invitation to see the image of God in that person and to affirm him or her without words. We are taught not to see certain others. To see can make us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.

“To gaze lovingly at someone is to say that they matter without justification or explanation. To receive that loving gaze can be difficult for leaders who are accustomed to giving such attention but who are not accustomed to receiving this physical affirmation,” says Ledgister.

One of the exercises practiced during workshops with church leaders is to gaze lovingly into someone’s eyes for 45 seconds. The initial response is, “It felt awkward, uncomfortable, but then it felt warm and loving and was deeply moving,” Ledgister reports. The one receiving that gaze then is asked to look lovingly upon the other. She says, taking the time to see one another, to seek and hold one’s gaze, is crucial for transformation to happen.

Making people visible

Sheldon Sorge, the executive presbyter of Pittsburgh Presbytery, who participated in the mid council leaders gathering, has taken the three-foot challenge back to his presbytery. “We learned practical measures as to how to project love through our bodily demeanors; we practiced gazing into another’s eyes lovingly. It was a remarkably intense experience to do that. It heightened for me the awareness of the way I look at someone, how it matters, how eyes tell a story.”

He agrees that pastors tend to avoid difficult conversations too often or lose opportunities to heal divisions and build something new.

Before attending the mid council leaders gathering, Sorge had received reports from some African-American women serving in the predominately-white presbytery that they had not felt seen or heard. “It’s an ongoing challenge,” he said, “to make sure I address others by name and be intentionally attentive to them as well as with young people and service people. We tend to take them for granted. I’ve focused on making people visible.”

Sorge also carried this challenge out into the Jewish community in Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life massacre last fall. The relationship with the Jewish community had been more strained and difficult since the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divested stock from companies that were involved in building the wall in Israel.

“Much of the Jewish community felt betrayed by my church, and by me by extension, over the last four years. I made my hope for reconciliation known. When we gathered with other faith communities after the massacre, we were all Jewish the day they were under attack. My efforts to reconcile began with offering a positive, affirming, loving gaze with the rabbis of the community,” Sorge said.

Principled negotiation

Edmund Freeborn, a pastor from Lehigh Presbytery in Pennsylvania, has worked with scores of pastors as a clinical pastoral educator. Trained in organizational development, he works with pastors to approach conflicts – whether individual, systemic or cultural – with dignity, sensitivity to the other and ultimate civility.

“To avoid conflict is disingenuous to the gospel,” says Freeborn. “In the practice of principled negotiation, one of the major tasks is to educate the other and oneself regarding each of one’s interests and clarify established values, beliefs and norms. Pastors notoriously avoid conflict; they are institutionally seduced to preserve the institution as it has existed and that’s the norm in any congregation, but that is not faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Struggling with the hard questions in a pastor’s particular situation requires the freedom of conscience and faithfulness to the tenet that the Presbyterian Church is reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God, even as there is an adherence to core beliefs. Conversations that are essential in our culture, he says, include the growing disparity between rich and poor, the ongoing battle with racism, sexism and the stewardship of creation.

“The future is going to require some heavy lifting,” he adds. “We can’t give in to the American tendency toward unprincipled negotiation and power politics. We have to have principled negotiation and a greater world view.”


The ultimate goal for engaging in fearless dialogues is transformation. But what does such transformation look like? Ledgister says transformation happens when the relationship between those who have participated in challenging conversations has gone through a change.

“We’ve moved one step further than we were before we came together and there is more movement to be made in the future. We aren’t looking for perfection; we are looking to be proactive, to move away from what wasn’t working before,” she says. “Micro steps happen, possibilities are open, we are more conscious, more awake.”

Most importantly, she says, is that we slow down and live our lives in 45-second increments: to stop, to see, to listen, to be a little less fearful, to confront conflicts and seek out the creative, constructive change that is within our power to achieve. “We can generate enough hope if not for change tomorrow, for change next week,” says Ledgister.

Sherry Blackman, a journalist, poet and author, serves as the pastor of The Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, as well as a truck stop chaplain at the Travel Center of America in Columbia, New Jersey, a validated ministry of Newton Presbytery.