From Village Squares to Circles of Empathy

From Village Squares to Circles of Empathy: A Way Forward in the Conservative Religious/LGBT Divide?   

“Rather than trying to prove your point or disprove someone else’s point, try to empathize with someone first – really genuinely trying to understand where someone is coming from, where their thoughts and feelings come from, what their history is and their personal story, then watch the magic of how the discourse changes from combative and destructive and dysfunctional to highly functional, productive and creative in ways that you just can’t imagine without having given that a try.”  –Kendall Wilcox, Circles of Empathy Creator

When people look at the current conversation between religious conservatives and the LGBT community, it’s easy to get discouraged. Advocates on both sides of the discussion acknowledge the conflict is not going away anytime soon and may even worsen in future years.

On this and other difficult questions (climate change, vaccinations, suicide, etc.) it’s important to realize that community dialogue is not about simply putting on ‘rosy colored glasses’ and just trying to be nice and stay hopeful.  On most important questions, there are difficult emotions involved – including legitimate fears and often anger. For this reason, efforts at dialogue need to make tender space for concerns and insist on opportunities to thoughtfully explore them.

Making space for concerns, however, is not the same as drowning in them. To breathe some hope into those dispirited about this discussion, we’ve assembled three reasons to stay hopeful at surprising things that may still be possible across this divide in the future. After touching on good things happening across the nation and in Utah as well, we showcase a simple, elegant, home-grown Circles of Empathy process that anyone can do in their own home (feel free to jump down to #3 if you’d like to skip the context – and go straight to what can I do?)

1. Good stuff happening elsewhere. Most people aren’t aware that for nearly a decade, several organizations have been pioneering conservative religious/LGBT conversations across the nation.  Since 2005, for instance, the Marin Foundation has sponsored what they call Living in the Tension gatherings – bringing together committed Christians and those who identify as LGBT for open-hearted, generous exchange.  Andrew Marin reports his extensive experiences in this area in his book addressed to the larger Christian community: Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community.

In a similar effort focused on the evangelical/gay divide, Heidi Weaver at Love Boldly has worked since 2005 to “empower willing Christians and sexual minorities to move towards loving one another boldly.” We’re proud to count Heidi as a friend, consultant and consultant in our own work.

In the fall of 2014, Heidi joined Jacob Hess, Director of Village Square SLC at the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation conference in Washington, D.C. alongside Tracy Hollister Gang of 6(Marriage Equality U.S.A.), Huffington Post blogger/Episcopalian author, John Backman (The Dialogue Venture), gay Christian author, Arthur Peña (A Brilliant Dialogue-er!) and political scientist Phil Neisser (Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences and Chair, Department of Politics, SUNY Potsdam) in a collaborative workshop bringing together Mormon/Evangelical/Universalist/Atheist and Conservative/Marxist leanings to explore the challenges, controversy and importance of “Making Space for Sacred Convictions in dialogue: Threat, Necessity or Opportunity?

Although these kinds of efforts have seen significant opposition from communities on both sides (see A Ridiculous Idea or a Refreshing Possibility?  Diverging Evaluations of Conservative Religious/LGBT Dialogue), it’s also true that we are seeing increasing examples of empathy and respect for the nuance and complexity of the questions involved.  Check out, for instance, these articles – both written by self-identifying gay men: Brandon Ambrosino (December, 2013) Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a HomophobeThe Atlantic; and Jonathan Rauch (December, 2010) The Majority Report.  Jonathan Rauch also recently joined David Blankenhorn in a dialogue on the topic moderated by On Being‘s Krista Tippets as part of her Civil Conversations Project Series.

What more is possible in the years ahead on this front?  We shall see…

2. Good stuff happening HERE in Utah. Early 2015, Utah was widely recognized for the high-profile dialogues between legislative leaders that led to common ground legislation advancing gay rights while protecting religious freedom (see summary here: Did Something Really Good Or Really Bad Just Happen In Utah?)

Much less attention, however, has been given to other less glamorous dialogue efforts on the grass-roots organized by Utah citizens working for a more thoughtful civil space.  This includes the Reconciliation & Growth Project – a group of 8 therapists who have been exploring sexual orientation-faith conflicts in counseling practice and potential areas of common ground.  Out of these conversations they have developed this remarkable document:  Best Practices for Mental-Health Professionals Helping Latter-day Saints Respond to Same-Sex Attractions. We are thrilled to have 7 members of this group – Shirley, Marybeth, Lee, Jerry, Jim, David & Dave headlining our inaugural Village Square event on June 18th at the Salt Lake Acting Company.

Many of these same individuals are also involved in a broader Circling the Wagons effort, which includes yearly conferences that bring together diverse perspectives on same sex relationships (see archives for the 2015 conference focused on Courageous Conversations).  Accompanying these conferences is a larger larger coalition of individuals spanning these same socio-political and religious diversities.  This group recently created another powerful document: Standards Of Ethical Communication And Conflict Resolution as a tool to help facilitate thoughtful conversation more broadly.

Different members of this coalition have also initiated video projects to capture the nuance and complexity reflected in actual experiences and stories of various individuals.  This includes Kendall Wilcox’s Far Between project and Ty Mansfield’s Voices of Hope project.  Although coming from different philosophical perspectives on same sex relationships, these leaders share an interest and common purpose in inviting greater empathy and understanding of the various life experiences, options and pathways available. Parallel community-building efforts – Mormons Building Bridges and North Star – also reflect the same difference in perspectives. Although the specific differences between these efforts are profound and significant, from personal experience with the leaders of both projects, we can vouch for their genuine, larger interest in deepening community, understanding and empathy between individuals with diverse experiences on these complex questions.

If you’re looking for them, there are beautiful gems of example everywhere you like.  For instance, this from TedX Talk by Erika Munson with Mormons Building Bridges:

“Turn around and face each other Utahns. Share your stories. Be more than that person who gives a distant wave and tight smile from the end of the driveway. Find the neighbors or coworkers who scare you the most –from the “narrow-minded” Mormon…to the “radical” lesbian activist — get to know them . Invite them to the barbeque, throw them a baby shower, get your kids together for a playdate, Sit next to them at the soccer game; ask them to volunteer at school; be interested in the life of their family…None of these activities require changing your convictions about marriage, but they will make our communities more harmonious places and enrich our lives.”

3. Something powerful you can do YOURSELF. Okay. Let’s get on with this, right!?  Now that you’ve got a few hopeful glimpses of possibilities ahead, let’s talk about something YOU can do yourself, with your own friends, neighbors and associates – and in your own living room (or someone else’s!)

On the most basic level, Living Room Conversations is a simple approach that involves two co-hosts inviting two friends each to enjoy an evening of conservation and relationship building.  You can see an example of a recent Living Room Conversation between Mormon and gay neighbors – as reported in the Huffington Post here. If this kind of an evening sounds intriguing, we provide additional details of this approach here.
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For those who want a more in-depth and extended process, a Utah native, Kendall Wilcox, has put together a similar process that leads people through a more extended experience across 8 weeks.

Circles of Empathy are 3-10 person discussion groups that “help participants sort through their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs while practicing empathy and healthy interpersonal boundaries:

They constitute a practice, or a way of approaching the religious/sexual/gender conflicts through self-reflection, open-ended conversation, and empathetic support. This kind of processing of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs requires practice for both the person who shares and for those who listen. And this practice can help you increase your skills of empathy, bearing frustrations, holding tension, and [potentially] embracing paradox and ambiguity.

If you’re interested in trying this out, many details are available on the Circles of Empathy website.  Here’s the basic gist of it:

Those who want to form a circle simply commit to each other to meet eight time to discuss a different fundamental question at the heart of these conflicts.  Each time you meet, just follow the simple process and adhere to the guidelines explained on this website. No special training is required. You could meet over a weekend or once a week for eight weeks. Each time you meet, a participant volunteers to lead the discussion by following the process and guidelines. As participants follow the Circle practice, they experience a deepening awareness of their own feelings, beliefs, and experiences as well as an increased empathy for how others experience the religious/sexual/gender conflict.

Although Circles of Empathy have been used almost exclusively for sexual orientation-faith conflicts, a pilot is being planned for soon to apply this model to relationships between Mormons and Former-Mormons. If you have interest in that application, contact Kendall (kendall.wilcox@gmail.com) or Jacob (jzhess@gmail.com).