A Room Where the Controversial Is Welcome
Abortion, human sexuality, immigration and other contentious issues will be taken up earnestly this week in the Conversation Room, where speaking the truth in love is expected to go hand in hand with respectful listening.
The Conversation Room is a new feature of the convention in which space will be open for eight 90-minute sessions and one 120-minute session.
The introduction of a designated Conversation Room follows suggestions that there be more opportunities for dialogue outside the delegate sessions.
Ed Diller, moderator of the Mennonite Church USA, said, “Our hope is that the Conversation Room will be a place where conventiongoers can be in dialogue with and learn from one another; where people can develop understanding and relationships and where we can agree and disagree in love.”
The structured conversations will be led by three trained facilitators: Ron and Roxanne Claassen of Fresno, Calif., and David Brubaker of Harrisonburg, Va.
“The leadership asked us to facilitate constructive conversation,” said Ron Claassen. “We are not here to control the content but we are asking people to allow us to lead the process.”
The facilitator’s role will be to prepare participants to listen to each other. “If our motivation is to try to create wholeness, then we are ready to speak and listen to each other,” said Claassen.
Each session will begin by noting the ground rules, which include a commitment to listen and speak with respect. Once under way, the conversation will generally include large and small group exercises.
On Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon the topics for discussion remain open. At the beginning of those sessions, people can suggest topics and participants can choose whatever topic they wish to talk about. There can be more than one conversation happening in the room at one time.
In Columbus 2009, “some of the delegate sessions were pretty heated,” said Everett Thomas, the editor of The Mennonite. “There were several groups who were pushing Mennonite Church USA to change its position on homosexuality.”
At the time, delegates passed a resolution calling for more exploration, conversation and discernment. The Conversation Room represents one venue where that dialogue can take place.
Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, director of convention planning, described the room as “an initiative to hear each other’s voices and get reconnected with each other.”
The Conversation Room, by the number, actually consists of two rooms: 301 and 302.
The room will also be opened for unstructured conversation from noon until 9 p.m. every day (except in the early afternoon, when formal conversations are scheduled). Guidelines for good conversation will be posted and mediators will serve as hosts or be on-call.
According to André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for the Mennonite Church USA, “This will offer a quiet space for good listening and speaking away from the rush and noise of crowded hallways.”
Stoner said that the delegates shouldn’t expect to solve major problems or overcome differences in one week. The program book says, “The goal of these sessions is not to convince anyone to take a different position or to come up with final answers but rather to practice listening and speaking well.”
Planners hope that taking time to practice listening will result in greater understanding throughout the church. “This kind of conversation is what should be happening in the church all the time,” said Stoner. “The hope is that this is only one of the places to do this.”