Oriented to Love: How to Dialogue In The Midst of Great Differences.
The more time I spend looking at and analyzing our current culture, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that for the most part, we have lost the ability to have peaceful, respectful and meaningful dialogue in the midst of great differences.
Three weeks ago, I rolled into Chicago for a dialogue/conference known as Oriented to Love. This dialogue brought 12 different people (plus two amazing facilitators) to peacefully and lovingly engage in the (oftentimes polarizing) topic of Faith and Sexuality. The Fourteen of us all identified as Christians but that is where our commonalities ended on paper. We varied in Age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and theological stances. We all walked into that dialogue with our own convictions and while I believe we all left with the same theological stances, we walked out with a deeper understanding of how people arrive at different conclusions and how we can love people and dialogue with them despite being in different places than they are.
First, when you are having a conversation with someone who holds a different position than you do, you should go into the conversation wanting to learn. If you go into a conversation for the sole purpose of wanting to be right or to “win” an argument, then the conversation is over before it begins. You must listen. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason, we should listen more than we speak. Ask yourself the question “what point/perspective does this person bring to the table that I am blind to/have not considered?”
Secondly, set your pride aside. There are things/positions I hold in my life that I am convinced will never change and to be honest, I’m content with that. But in that contentment, there must be a willingness, and it’s a willingness to be wrong. At a certain level, you must be willing to accept that you could be wrong. It is arrogant to assume you know everything about a topic when you are walking into a conversation. The conference really allowed me to put this in practice. Being willing to be wrong allows you the freedom to focus on what you can learn, because you are investing in something other than just being right.
Third, don’t invalidate the experiences and history others are bringing into the conversation. You can disagree with someone without invalidating their experience. What can their experiences teach you? For example, there was an older white gentleman there who came out as Gay in 1984. I wasn’t even alive yet! And I came out in 2008. Him and I differed theologically but his lived experience impacted me a great deal. He was there during the AIDS crisis that claimed so many lives while the church (and most of the world) turned a blind eye. He was fighting for rights and equality for all people long before I even knew why that was important. His lived experiences helped pave the way for me to be as open and free without much worry of repercussion in this area of my life. Understanding someone else’s experiences allows you to see how they arrived where they are. Even if I don’t agree with where someone lands, it costs me nothing to respect their experience, and it’s an added benefit if I learn from it.
Fourth, know when to hit the pause button. This means learning how to regulate yourself, your emotions and how to communicate when you need a breather if things are getting tense. One of the 14 people in the circle was a charming young lady who spoke freely in a way I found refreshing. At one point we were talking about the different meanings of the words “affirming, acceptance, and approval.” Those words meant different things to us in practice and I found myself getting worked up as her and I were engaging, and it was very noticeable to everyone else that I was about to tip over to a place of frustration. Once I sensed that, I stopped the conversation and said “hey I’m sensing myself getting to a place of frustration which means I am no longer engaging in the best way and I don’t want to disrespect you so can we table this for now and come back to it if need be?” Everyone agreed and we took a break. I walked up to her and asked her for forgiveness if it felt like I was coming for her. In an area that I did very well offend her, she showed me grace.
Fifth, talk TO people and not AT them. The 14 of us were sitting in a circle next to each other so no one was directly across from someone. I watched two ministry leaders examine Romans 14 in way that left me speechless because it wasn’t an argument. They held to their convictions, but they explored that passage while talking to each other and not at each other. It reminded me of something I practice in my own life. If I am experiencing conflict with someone or trying to work through an issue, I make it a point to sit next to/beside them to remind myself that we are coming alongside each other to talk about something, and not to talk at each other. People can tell when you are for them or are there to be against them. Talking to people instead of at them is a great thing to practice in all areas of your life. I
Sixth, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Most people associate vulnerability with weakness, but it is a strength and a gift you can offer to others. What the fourteen of us did over the course of three days was give each other the gift of vulnerability. We peeled back the curtains behind some of what drives our positions. Whether its unhealed trauma, deep wounds, biases, past hurts, etc....We peeled back the curtains. When we did that, I stopped seeing thirteen strangers and found myself in a room with broken but beautiful people who all had something different to offer me in terms of perspective. When you are vulnerable, you allow people to see the real you and people respond to that.
Lastly, Love your neighbor! When you get to know people in a deep way, it is easier to love them. That means investing in the lives and thoughts of people who are different from you in thought or being. When you invest, you care, and it is easier to dialogue when you genuinely care. In the last hour of our time together, we took turns washing each other’s hand’s and saying a blessing over the person’s who’s hand you were washing. I washed Ben’s hands. And I cried during it, because despite our theological differences, this man became a brother in Christ to me during our time together. Standing across from someone you have differences with and washing their hands was powerful because the strongest thing between us wasn’t the table or the bowl. It was the act of love being practiced in that moment. I promise y’all, I will cherish that moment for the rest of my life.
I have been back in Texas for 16 days now and I have thought about all my co participants every single day. A few times, I’ve cried because I miss them and the experience we shared. I learned a lot about myself from those 13 other people who were all different from me in one way. Some of them I know I will see again at other conferences or just as friendship grows. However, It is bittersweet to know that due to how life works, the 14 of us will most likely never be in a room together at the same time ever again on this side of eternity. (Typing that sentence just made me cry). But it is so comforting to know that we walked away from each other in love and peace after engaging in some of the most difficult topics that the Church and the world are facing today.
Jeshua, Mara, Jody, Timm, Dave, Tom, Brad, Hannah, Megan, Mama Nancy, Ben and Kristyn, thanks for dialoguing through differences with me. I carry a lesson from each of yall as I continue my work. And to round it out, a special thanks to a guy by the name of John that was also on this panel. You were my rock, support and source of encouragement. Our bond is sealed. I Love yall.
Henry W Abuto