“How are we a caring community?” This is the guiding question of Dialogue Across UVA, an organization here at school of which I am a part. Dialogue Across UVA is a spinoff of a national program called Sustained Dialogue, which forms intentionally diverse groups of students that meet weekly to discuss issues like gender, race, class, the Greek system, etc. Dialogue Across UVA differs from Sustained Dialogue in that its participants are not only students. Faculty, staff, and contracted workers of the University participate too! After all, the University community is comprised of far more than just students. We are the mere beneficiaries of a massive complex system.
Dialogue seeks to expand the conversation and the conversation partners. It seeks to validate and affirm people’s experiences and viewpoints, to understand where someone is coming from and where they’re going. Above all, participants are part of a grassroots effort to create a caring community here at UVA.
But let’s return to the question. How are we a caring community? Often times it’s easier to say what this doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like hate speech or prejudice, racism or sexism. And I’ll tell you, it sure doesn’t look like the current state of political debate in this country.
That being said, I was recently sitting in Dialogue Facilitator training thinking (as religious studies majors tend to do) about where we find God in this experience. The connection is almost too easy. We’re building our own Beloved Community. Every person present has committed her or himself to facilitating a Dialogue Group because she or he feels passionately about creating a caring community and believes in the power of dialogue to do so. Not all those present were Christians, but their actions are no less powerful in the construction of Beloved Community.
I think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of the term “Beloved Community.” He said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” For King, the notion of Beloved Community meant justice, integration, nonviolence, and love. To accomplish these aspirations, though, there is a requisite certain degree of respect one must hold for all human beings. Building a beloved community requires that we respect the dignity of every person as it has been bestowed upon them by God in the form of the Imago Dei. When we respect the dignity of those with whom we interact, dialogue can happen in a respectful and caring manner.
Let me repeat: Dignity is bestowed upon us by our Creator. It is not a product of education, income, race, or class. It comes from God’s love towards us, Christ giving himself up for us, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us (Moltmann).
“How are we a caring community?” With this guiding question, some ground rules, and willing participants, we can expand discourse in a healthy, productive, and caring way… If only we could expand this dialogue to political debate.
Wait. Political debate?
Imagine a diverse and flourishing community where everyone’s voice is heard and respected. Now imagine a congressional hearing where the goal was not only to draft a functional and effective piece of legislation, but also to validate the opinions and experience of every committee member. Tough to envision?
I think the answer is yes, because it’s a different kind of radical… Jesus’s kind of radical.