Civil…. Dialogue…. What a concept!!

Young Asian woman is emotional as she talks. A mid adult African American man and two Hispanic young women are sympathetic and concerned as she talks. The group is sitting in chairs in a circle.In our current climate, I find it very challenging to bring up any issue facing our nation in discussion with fellow parishioners, friends, and even family members. It seems that the most important issues, like immigration, race, health coverage, or income inequity and poverty, are understood from a one-sided view with little interest in understanding or valuing another’s perspective.  And, I am really as guilty as the next person! I find it easier to just talk about the weather and non-controversial issues than to seek to understand why my family and friends come to such different conclusions than I do.

It was this current climate that prompted me to participate in the Civil Dialogue on Immigration sponsored by the Office of Life Ministry in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The experience proved to be well worth the commitment.

One weekend last summer, over 20 volunteers gathered at St. Patrick’s Church in Tampa to participate in a facilitator training workshop presented by two Catholic Relief representatives, Chris West and Joe Hastings. Chris and Joe created the civil dialogue process we would be using at the session, which they have used in other locations across the nation. We learned some basics of effectively facilitating group discussions, some facts about the immigration of individuals by country in the Tampa Bay area, and the Catholic immigration principles that our bishops use when responding to issues of immigration.  It was emphasized that our main goal was to provide a safe environment where all would feel respected and welcome to express their views.  Success would be measured by whether the participants left with a better understanding of others’ perspectives.

The next day we held the Civil Dialogue session at St. Patrick’s Church in Tampa. Over 80 individuals from parishes around the diocese were assigned to smaller groups with two facilitators.  Our moderator set the tone by reviewing the purpose of the dialogue as an opportunity to listen and learn from one another on the topic of immigration. He covered the ground rules which ensured that we were there to understand, not persuade: we would speak for ourselves (not for a group); we would not be critical of others’ views; we would listen with resilience – “staying with it” even if some things might be hard to hear; and remember that each person is sacred, a dwelling of the Holy Spirit, a child of God.   After getting a commitment to abide by these ground rules from each person at the table, the participants shared their own immigration stories.  How beautiful it was to hear others share how and why their own families traveled to our country. Many came because of hunger (think: the Irish potato famine), economic opportunity, escape from persecution or dictatorships, or for adventure and new opportunities.  This simple sharing brought all into the experience of immigration as opposed to only looking at people who are currently immigrants.

Our moderators shared the five principles from church teaching with regard to migration:

  1. Persons having the right to find opportunities in their homeland
  2. Persons having the right to migrate to support themselves and their families.
  3. Sovereign nations have the right to control their borders. (Wealthier nations have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.)
  4. Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection.
  5. The human dignity and the human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected.

There was a lot of reaction to these principles, some expressing a level of surprise that the Church acknowledges the rights of countries to protect borders. A few commented that they have never heard that principle from the Pope or the Bishops.

We followed by sharing how events related to immigration have affected us personally and what, if any, personal experiences we have had related to recent immigrants. Finally, we asked “what is at the heart of the matter for you?”

What followed was a rich dialogue that revealed personal experiences that clearly influenced each individual’s current views. Within the groups, people shared openly their struggle with wanting to do the right thing and care for the stranger, but also feeling a need to respect laws and uphold a measure of fairness. When we peeled back the surface level ‘public positions’, individuals began to share why this issue is important to them and what values they hold that are touched by this issue. Here we could find common ground among people who had different perspectives but had commonly-held beliefs.

Were we successful? When participants were asked to share one thing they learned or gained from today’s dialogue, they shared comments such as:

  • “I learned about the various challenges facing immigrants beyond the documentation process.”
  • “Everyone has different perspective but everyone wants to be respected.”
  • “There is a need for more dialogues like this in our church communities and in our communities.”
  • “I gained a greater understanding of the issue by hearing others’ views.”
  • “We can find common ground and values even when our conclusions are different.”
  • “Talking about such controversial issues is possible!”
  • “There were many opinions and many solutions but we all want to make the USA better.”
  • “Solving the problem of immigration should start with each individual.”
  • “This was a great experience. I learned a lot!”

For me personally, I learned that this a complex issue that surfaces conflicting feelings and values as a practicing Catholic. While polarization is becoming so deeply entrenched, opportunities to listen and learn the “why” behind others’ views can only have a positive impact as we move forward.

Where do we go from here? Our facilitators gathered again on Monday evening to debrief about the dialogue and talk about what’s next.  Can we implement more civil dialogues on a smaller scale in our local parishes? Can we use this process to discuss other issues?  These are all under discussion and hopefully will come to fruition.   In light of current events in our country, this civil dialogue process brings me hope that we can move forward together toward greater understanding of one another.

Loretta Rieman is a CCHD Intern in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.


Going Deeper!

Visit WeAreSaltAndLight.org for helpful resources on reaching out, such as Questions to Facilitate Encounter, A Guide to Dialogue on Difficult Issues, and Encouraging Civil Dialogue

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