Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Power of Listening

As a congregation we have recently engaged a consultant to help us discern our future together both in terms of our shared mission in Richmond Hill and how best to utilize our building for that mission. It's significant work. After all we have been handed a legacy that extends back to the early days of this community over 200 years ago with Methodist circuit riders.

Housed in a beautiful sanctuary built in 1880 along with a Christian Education building constructed in 1957, this congregation has watched Richmond Hill grow from a village north of Toronto on the route between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe to a vibrant and diverse city (even though it' calls itself a town) in the GTA. The changes around it over such a long period have left it as an aging congregation in a building complex in need of lots of upkeep. This would be challenge enough but we are in the original village core of the town that is trying to find a new heritage-inspired identity. Add to that the reality that our community is much more spiritually diverse than in its Christian heyday. Clearly we need to do significant discernment.

And we need to do significant listening. We are part of a four part process which begins with a series of "Listening Circles" held in people's homes. Our main task is to listen - to each other and to the prompting of the Spirit within each of us. Our consultant reminds each group that we are trying to avoid "group-speak", that is the bane of many a visioning process when only one or two ideas come out because as a group we get excited by what one or two people offer and then we all start contributing to those ideas, forgetting completely that we have some of our own. "There will be time to explore ideas in the next part of the process," she tells us. "This is a time for all voices in the circle to be heard. We all have wisdom to share." And she is right. Over  the last month I have heard significant wisdom shared. And as I have mostly kept silent, holding the circle in prayer, I have heard Wisdom speak to my heart.

One thing that our consultant has us pledge to is to not debate statements and ideas as they come up. I'm so glad she tells each circle this. As people start to jump onto what someone has said you can feel "group-speak" begin. You can also feel the true power of hearing each other begin to ebb away as people feel their safety compromised, no longer truly free to share what is on their heart. When we maintain the no debate principle, there is a greater depth to the listening, and the sharing.

In the world today I feel we could all use the benefit of "Listening Circles". We need to create safe spaces for people to share what is on their hearts without fear of judgment or recrimination. In recent days as more and more media attention is given to the question of "cultural appropriation" I have been struck by how much talking is happening and how little deep listening. An Indigenous or other racialized person will raise the question of appropriation and right away non-Indigenous, non-racialized (that is white) people will start speaking, justifying their wearing of x-outfit, or painting in y-style, or writing in the voice of z-group, saying it's free speech, or it's intended as a compliment, or "we live in a global village". The voices of the dominant culture are loud. No one is listening to what Indigenous and racialized people are trying to say. The status quo is being threatened.

I say "Amen" to threatening the status quo. That status quo has kept lots of people on the margins, disempowered and disenfranchised. If as white folks we stop talking and start listening we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change how we interact with each other. We may actually come to a place where we offer each other mutual love and respect. Then we will appreciate culture and share together rather than appropriating . We will listen to each other's stories, dreams, loves, hurts, hopes, fears, and in the process of truly letting another person's viewpoint touch our hearts, we will be changed forever.

As we continue to engage in "Listening Circles" with each other as a congregation I can hear some of that happening. Would that it happen in the other circles of our lives.

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