Last year, my husband and I attended a very unusual dinner party. It was at a complete stranger’s house with no one we knew. The food was soup and bread, and there wasn’t any wine or beer. But we left filled with wonder, empathy and a sense of peace.
It was called the Amazing Faiths dinner and it was part of an ongoing series hosted by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. The concept was simple — gather people with different backgrounds together for meal and conversation — but very thoughtfully executed.
I admit that I sort of expected to walk into a room and find a perfectly balanced assortment of the American religious melting pot: a Jew in a kippah here, a Sikh in a turban there… I expected us to wear nametags with our names and religious affiliations listed on them.
Instead, I encountered a home full of people whose identities were far more nuanced than any label or religious symbol could encompass. This is a reality that — we could all stand to remember — stretches beyond the realm of religious identity to political affiliations, nationalities and the many other ways we may be demographically divided, too. You could talk to 100 Republicans and get 100 different perspectives. You could speak to 50 people from New York City and hear about 50 wholly different life experiences... The assumptions we make about others based on a simple label are so often unproductive and downright harmful.
Our dinner conversation was quite intentionally structured, and that’s why this gathering of very different people was so successful. The discussion leader had a stack of cards with her, each of them bearing a question intended to invite contemplation and revelation. She passed the stack to the person on her left, who took the top card, read it aloud and answered it. The rest of the room was instructed not to add any comments or ask any questions, but to simply listen. Then the stack of cards traveled around the table, with each person taking up to five minutes to answer the next question in the pile and receiving the full attention of the room while they did so.
This active listening is incredibly rare — indeed I don’t think the average American experiences it more than a few times in a given month. So often, what we call “conversation” or “dialogue” is simply each person waiting for their turn to speak rather than truly taking in what is being said.
The questions that we considered throughout our evening were things like “What do you think happens when we die?” and “How have you experienced forgiveness in your life?”
These questions provided an opening for the people around the table to talk about their own religious journeys, their struggles, their passions and a myriad of other deeply personal yet relatable things.
One woman talked about being part of a devout religious sect, only to have her husband of 10 years (with whom she had raised five children) suddenly announce that he no longer believed in their religion’s tenets. She talked about the reckoning that had to happen and the turmoil this created for them, but their ultimate decision to stay together and to find a new spiritual path forward.
Another guest talked about growing up with an atheist father who took her to Bible camp because she had a crush on the pastor’s son. Decades later, she identifies as both Episcopalian and Buddhist, and has a Rastafarian son.
Another person at the table was a lifelong atheist, but she talked about the ways she found meaning and purpose in her life without the presence of religion.
This dinner was a truly transformative experience. It was as if, in stepping into this stranger’s house, I had entered another world — one where political divisions disappeared and the lines between different religious and cultures blurred. People were simply people.
Just a few hours after it had begun, the dinner concluded and we stepped out into the chilly evening air, returned to our normal lives again. The conversation stayed with us though, and is fresh in my mind to this day.
So what does all of this have to do with building strong towns? As I write this, we are one year into the presidency of Donald Trump, which has brought many of the political, racial, geographic, gender and class-based divisions in America to a head. I know that we will not make headway on our goals of economic strength and financial resilience if our communities remain divided by these sorts of boundaries. If you want to rally your neighbors around creating more productive streets or talk to your city councilor about a more responsible municipal budget, you won't get very far if you’re unable to truly listen to the people you’re hoping to persuade. If we don’t know our neighbor or our city councilor — and really know them beyond their exterior labels like “Catholic,” “senior citizen” or “lives on the poor side of town” — we’re not going to get much done.
Sitting at that illuminating dinner table last year surrounded by complete strangers, I longed to create more environments like it. We need so much more space for nuance and diversity of perspective — and I’m happy to say that Strong Towns is one movement that offers it.
If you ever read a headline on our site or glance at the biography of one of our writers and start thinking “Oh, so this is that kind of article” or “I bet she’s one of those sorts of people,” just stop. Our writers are urban, rural, Mormon, atheist, gay, straight… A full 40% of Strong Towns’ membership doesn’t even identify as politically right or left. We work really hard to be a place for discussion that doesn’t fit neatly into any of your preconceived boxes because we know that the change we seek isn’t going to come from one political party or one type of person.
These conversations have to transcend the internet though. It’s time to start getting to know our neighbors, our family members, our colleagues, and in doing so, to commit to listening — really listening. And maybe over a meal is the best place to start. Come in with an open mind. Avoid shouting your opinion. Prepare to be surprised by what you hear.