Help! I’m Stuck! Part I: What Just Happened?

Whether you are brand new to dialogue, or a veteran, we all have moments where we might feel a bit, well, stuck. We might find ourselves triggered, suddenly feeling filled with emotion or scurrying to be defensive. Or we might simply not understand a person’s response to something we have shared. We might notice the tone of the room suddenly tanks and you simply don’t know what caused it or how to get back to solid ground.

Be assured; it is common -if not inevitable- to find a moment where building bridges gets bumpy! Part I of this blog is about what may be at play when a dialogue gets stuck.

Part II will further outline possible actions to get out of stuck-ness.

Part I: What Just Happened?

  1. Undercutting

    “I am pro-life because my faith teaches me that all forms of life are sacred.” “No you aren’t. You believe it because you think the government should force everyone to conform to your beliefs.”

    When someone asserts something about their own convictions, feelings or reasons for actions, and another dialoguer contradicts it, the dialogue is dismantled. Why? Because building bridges necessitates trust in each person telling the truth about their own experiences better than you can do for them. If one person is permitted to undercut someone’s feelings or convictions, than we lose the vital dialogical commitment of seeking to understand before being understood. Here a dialogue will do well to pause, back up, and work toward collectively re-committing to the legitimacy of each dialoguer’s experiences.

2. Narrative

    “My political party represents those that have been swept aside, that live unheard and unseen. The other side is reprehensible and they overlook the wrongdoings of their candidate.”

    It is striking that I have heard voters from multiple political parties across multiple elections describe themselves and others just like this. Strongly held within us are narratives that we subconsciously affirm and perpetuate. When we have new experiences, what stands out to us are the pieces that endorse already-held beliefs. We are often entrenched in like-minded communities, not to mention the reinforcing efforts of niche marketing and media outlets, we easily get lost in our own biases. Over time, this narrative can solidify into our very core.

    Our most distancing disagreements are often about underlying narratives in our lives that we don’t think about much, but that steer the ship of our decisions and actions. We follow a script that is hard to change, and it is bewildering when we encounter someone that doesn’t follow a script very similar to our own. In fact, it is so challenging that we are often left to either a) deconstruct, then reconstruct our whole life narrative, which is no piece of cake or b) save energy by deciding that people with other narratives are either miseducated or just plain loco.

    As such, needed in dialogue is humility. Specifically needed is a willingness to change, question our own biases, and to take a step back and wonder what else might be at play when we are tempted to make the world simpler by pointing a finger at someone else.

 3. Proximity

    We are often so buried in like-mindedness that we don’t even know “those people” that think like that, vote like that, or believe that crazy stuff. Rest assured, someone out there is thinking the same about you.

    Sometimes we mistake being “open-minded” for being around like-minded people. For example, you may be good friends with people from 7 different faith traditions, but it is entirely possible that if you all self-identify as liberal, you may agree on more than more conservative intra-faith counterparts. I have seen conservative Christians get along more easily with conservative Jewish folks than liberal Christian folks. Take note that embracing diversity and trying to understand people you don’t already understand are at times different things. We have good work to do, and to do it, it takes intentionally placing ourselves in less comfortable, less like-minded environments. It may not be comfortable, but it is fruitful over time!

4. Readiness

    There is such a thing as someone who has been talked into a dialogue, attends, and is not ready. For instance, I often say if someone “needs to win,” they are not ready for the dialogue and would do better to wait to attend until a different season of life.

There is also such a thing as a dialoguer being well-meaning and not ready for certain topics, rather than an entire dialogue. I have seen a dialoguer respond to a question I’ve asked by expressing that they are overwhelmed by the question and cannot answer it. This is a very legitimate - even considerate - response! A dialogue’s success in part depends on the honesty and vulnerability of its participants. In this situation, I validated the good reasons why someone might not be ready to hear the question, much less answer it. I invited those that felt comfortable enough to try to do so before we moved on to a question more palatable for the entire group.

5. Work-in-progress with self-awareness (all of us)!

Sometimes we can confuse ourselves more than we can confuse others! That is ok. We may encounter a feeling or response to something someone shares that we simply didn’t expect, or that we do not understand. This is an opportunity to grow, to reflect beyond the dialogue, and perhaps to seek pastoral care or the care of your worshipping community. Have grace and compassion for yourself if you find yourself feeling or responding in a way that takes you off guard. In the same way, please extend grace and compassion toward others for the same reason. In the most effective dialogue, the members are not nearly worried about the specific words shared so much as the heart of what they are trying to get across.


Stay tuned for more thoughts on how to respond when a moment of stuckness strikes!

[mockingbird argument image from Creative Commons]

After the Election: Reflections on a First-time Interfaither

By: Diana Small

These are the expectations of every interfaither when attending a dialogue at Church Lab:

1. Seek first to  understand before being understood.
2. If your faith tradition is evangelistic,  please be transparent about that conviction, yet suspend proselytizing during the dialogue.
3. We refrain from speaking on behalf of traditions not present in the room.  
4. Speak from your personal experience. We do not represent our entire tradition.
5. Carrie is an advocate for all perspectives in the room, curating a safe space for the group as a whole. 
6. Carrie has no agenda or moral lesson  for  the dialogue. We will jointly see where this conversation takes us and find a stopping point, then continue the work at the subsequent session.

These expectations seem simple and fair, but at last night’s dialogue, before the dialogue even started, these expectations needed to be written down for everyone to see. It would be a kind of dialogue that has never happened before at The Church Lab because just last week, the United States experienced an unprecedented and nationally dividing presidential election; its outcome revealing itself every hour as rallies, living rooms, protests, schools and social media pages roaring with diverse personal experience. So, before the Post-Election Dialogue begins, Carrie writes these expectations on a white board--which most Church Lab regulars know by heart--to remind everyone of why they’re here. 

Let me tell you now, there was no great secret to solving the world’s problem revealed last night. Dialogue participants did not leave the two and a half hour conversation with perfect solutions for how to negotiate the fear, anger, mistrust and isolation many U.S. residents are experiencing. But that’s not really the goal of The Church Lab.

The goal is to practice the expectations written on the dry erase board, knowing they are in fact fair, but not simple to practice. In exercising two and a half hours of concentrated empathy, interfaithers hope to venture back into their homes, workplaces and places of worship having practiced listening, seeking understanding, articulating their personal experience, and exchanging experiences with someone from another perspective without imposing  intentions. 

Other irregularities to last night’s gathering: the group of dialoguers was larger than usual, not wanting to turn anyone away, but also, the divisions between even Christian faith groups called for a larger spread of Protestant representation. There were also participants who have never participated in a dialogue before (including me), but when invited, sensed the value and urgency to participate in a safe interfaith post-election gathering. 

Those represented were Protestants across the political spectrum,a Latter-Day Saints member, Shia Muslims, an Ahmadi Muslim, a pagan, agnostic, Native American and unassociated spiritual members with the affectionate nickname of  “the ish contingency.”  Folks of varying convictions and embodiments of sexual orientation and gender identity were present, and thanks to Google hangout, a variety of geographic perspectives was present between Austin, Houston, DC and New York. There was also significant representation missing—representation too long to list and worth lamenting.

The Church Lab dialogues are not a one-stop shop to solving the world’s problems. It’s a gym of sorts; you show up, do what exercise you can today, maybe you push yourself, maybe you give yourself a break, hopeful you’ll leave a little more able. 

And what can I report back to you to bring clarity to your new day, as your Facebook feed piles up? A few simple gifts: I sat on the floor in a living room with twenty other people
(and three on a Google hangout ) and for three hours, my smart phone stayed silent in my backpack across the room. When was the last time I was apart from that device? I met a woman who’s only lived in the United States for five months and she reminded me that there are nations and communities across the world, experiencing their own political upset; there is always unrest about which to be concerned and prayerful, or in other words, this won’t be the last dialogue of this nature. And there were moments when everyone in that room laughed together—over our shared unnerving and over pictures of puppies and babies. 

The world can contain the emotions of every creature as they experience them. It takes practice to care for them and to transition those emotions into fruitful action that will create safer and richer communities. The Church Lab dialogues are the reminder that there is room for me and room for you in this country; we don’t have to fight to determine a winner and loser.

The Church Lab dialogues are the assurance that understanding is possible and that peaceful engagement can be the social norm, but we must consider the lives of those who are most different than ours. We cannot forecast the future, and there’s a vast array of opinions. But we can name the moment we’re in, meditate on the kind of moments our neighbors may be in, reach out and ask, “How are you today?”  

“You Cannot Hate Someone You Know” – meet Mac, a Native American TCL Inter-faither

By: Diana Small

Mac is a healer and fighter for justice with a beautiful laugh.  Mac hosted me in her apartment on the campus of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary to share with me a little about herself and her participation in Church Lab. As a newcomer to Church Lab myself, I asked Mac to tell it to me straight, giving me and readers the opportunity to learn about the Who and What behind this unusual interfaith group.  

“What I see in Church Lab is a lot of people who have a closer understanding of the beauty in the others around them who may see the world in different ways. They’re not only taking away something that they’re learning from that person, but they’re also somebody who’s going to be standing alongside them when they need a friend.”

When Mac moved to Texas from New Mexico, she was shocked and distressed over the lack of attention contemporary Native American culture and history received in the state. Now a graduate student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Mac works to raise awareness about Native American culture, history and current events. (Right now that means supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests happening in North Dakota, and getting other folks on board to help.) 

Mac is a pastoral counselor, social activist, storyteller, theologian, filmmaker, and the list goes on and on. 

“I try to speak the language of the people I’m working with. I can speak fundamentalist Christian, I can speak Islam, I can speak Judaism…Not as well as a native speaker, but I do have an appreciation for a lot of different kinds of traditions.”

Mac was raised in two emphatically pagan traditions herself. Her father is Northern Cheyenne and Lakota and Mac’s mother is a Scottish immigrant who practiced ancient pagan religion. When Mac decided to attend the College of Santa Fe, a Jesuit school, to study religion and pastoral counseling, her parents’ could not wrap their minds around their daughter’s decision. 

“They told their friends I was studying to be a teacher, they were so embarrassed!” 

With her degrees in religion and counseling, Mac’s worked as a counselor for intergenerational trauma before it had a clinical name. Her father grew-up in an abusive Presbyterian-run Native American boarding school and this influenced Mac’s desire to help others heal from their abusive histories. The intersection Mac has found in Church Lab has been meeting members from other faith groups that are also navigating intergenerational trauma including refugees, multi-generational homeless families, and multi-generational marginalized families of color. 

“The members of Church Lab are very gracious and open-hearted. People are able to talk about what they believe and, my impression is, it goes-off something that native people believe very strongly in: You cannot hate someone you know. The more you develop friendships with people, the harder it is to see them as ‘the other.’”

Investing in intergenerational trauma has even nurtured within Mac a greater sense of empathy and compassion for her father, having a better understanding of how his trauma shaped him.

Now back in school, Mac’s a part of creating the first ever Native American Student Group at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary to educate her classmates and future pastors in Native American culture, with the hopes of creating more allies for Native Americans. 

“In order to be an ally, you really have to love someone enough that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. That means you have to get to know them. Make a friend!” 

To get to know some of Mac’s better, here’s some films and books she recommends:

The Wind is My Mother by Bear Heart with Molly Larkin

Thirty Days on an Indian Reservation by Morgan Spurlock

Dakota 38 by Smooth Feather Productions

Update on our Project in Burkina Faso

Please pray for Bosco as he meets our BuildOn rep for the village site visit TODAY in Burkina Faso!!!

This will potentially greenlight our partnership with this org, and the beginning of our work toward building a school for the village of Bassiama II. May everyone's travels be safe, conversations uplifting and informative, and all requirements met with ease.

May Bosco, BuildOn and this village community be greatly encouraged and able to celebrate the beginning of these partnerships, and possibly the beginning of girls and boys having access to education!!!

Why Dialogue Matters: Living in the US as a Muslim

The Church Lab recently held a very special dialogue in which 3 Muslim special guests shared their voices about living in the US in our current climate. This is our first ever recorded dialogue, and all participants agreed that even as dialogue is a vulnerable practice, this special conversation is worth sharing. 

We hope you'll give it a generous listen here

Please keep the spirit of dialogue when listening; we seek to understand before being understood and honor one another's perspectives as legitimate experience.