On Sept. 22, St. Mary’s Parish offered a civil discourse event titled “Enhanced Understanding Through Respectful Dialogue.” Led by Russell Testa, director of the HNP Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Office, the dinner-dialogue allowed participants to explore ways to have a higher, more conscious conversation, even while discussing controversial issues.
POMPTON LAKES, N.J. — St. Mary’s Parish was the site of a recent first-of-its-kind, pre-election Dinner-Dialogue program last month titled “Enhanced Understanding Through Respectful Dialogue.” Organized by St. Mary’s People of Peace Ministry and hosted and guided by Russell Testa, shown above, the evening’s events attracted more than 80 people, both parishioners and non-parishioners, according to Jackie Schramm, director of St. Mary’s Social Justice Ministry.
The daytime facilitator training had a strong showing of 30 participants. Testa began the day by splitting them into smaller groups to discuss which issues in the upcoming election were important to them and why.
In groups with like-minded individuals, the discussion flowed easily and each person had a chance to speak his or her mind without fear of judgment or ridicule. Groups where opinions differed found it much more difficult to keep their discussion on an even keel. Participants in these groups found themselves either compelled to want to defend their viewpoint or debate with others, or were suddenly afraid to be honest in their sharing for fear of the outcome.
Giving the facilitators-in-training this firsthand experience was helpful in introducing the group guidelines and understanding their importance when facilitating discussions that include multiple viewpoints. Armed with their knowledge, they were able to put it to the test for the evening’s dinner-dialogue segment.
More than 80 attendees first enjoyed a delicious dinner, after which Testa thanked the parish for providing the Carnevale Center as a site for the program. He opened the event with a prayer, and then gave an overview of the evening’s agenda, reminding participants that while much of the discussion would focus on the upcoming election and the many different perspectives discussants might bring to it, all were required to keep their comments calm and respectful. Anyone who could not agree to that requirement was free to leave. No one left.
Testa assured those in attendance that no political party or candidate would be endorsed or censured. Some ground rules were established and these, he said, could be just as useful in attendees’ personal lives — marriages, families, workplace disagreements, and the like — as in discussing political differences. The ground rules for the dinner-dialogue small-group discussions (generally, those sitting at each table) included:
· Listen respectfully; don’t anticipate your response when someone is speaking
· ‘Hang in’ even when you don’t agree
· Speak for yourself, saying, for example, ‘I believe…’ or ‘ I feel…’ or ‘My experience has been…’
· Don’t be critical of others’ motives. A person with another point of view is not, based on that, a bad person
· Avoid generalizations, stereotypes, and derogatory language
· Share, but don’t share everything; give others a chance to talk
· Maintain confidentiality of individual and group comments
Most Important Issues
The table groups, under the guidance of a table facilitator, then began to address three major topics Testa proposed. The first one was “What are the most important election issues for you?” As expected, the issues ran the gamut – from immigration, taxes, the national debt, abortion rights and capitalism to greed, war, capital punishment and care for the poor.
Next, Testa reviewed the Church’s and HNP’s roles as they pertain to elections. Among the areas he mentioned were care for creation, our obligation to political refugees, a consistent ethic of life, the need for a preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable (including jobs and disaster relief), peacemaking (ranging from gang violence to a possible war with Iran) and eliminating conditions associated with violence (poverty, ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance).
Testa agreed that at least part of the challenge associated with elections is that our choices are almost always imperfect. He reviewed some qualities one might use to evaluate and compare candidates: competence, character, collaboration, honesty, and humility. But he again stressed that people of good conscience can see issues differently and so, come to different conclusions. Just as our brains have a right and left side, each of which has different skill sets and perspectives, so do ‘righteous minds.’ The so-called left side may be more concerned about fairness and harm to others and the environment, whereas the right side is more guided by respect for authority, the importance of a strong military, and the like.
Effect of Church Teaching
The small group discussants were then asked to comment, within their groups, how Church teaching might affect what they had discussed earlier — the most important issues for this election — and what insights, if any, helped change their approach to the election.
The evening concluded with dessert and questionnaires that the participants completed. Most respondents said they want more of this type of event and enjoyed the open discussion. Eighteen evening participants expressed interest in attending the People of Peace meeting on Oct. 15 to become more involved in this ministry and its work.
The facilitators shared experiences following the event. It was a great learning opportunity for them. Some said there was not enough controversy at their particular table to practice the skills learned as facilitators that day while others had plenty of lively discussion and controversy.
Testa thanked all who attended, and in particular, thanked those who planned the event. All agreed that in this election season of charges and counter charges, the evening was not only a welcome relief, but also a guide worth following in their personal lives.
— Shirley Boardman and Jehda Honculada are parishioners of St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J. The photos of Testa and Gonzalo Torres-Acosta, OFM, behind photo above, were provided by Honculada.