When I was in high school, I would go winter camping with a couple of friends. We would stay up late into the night, throwing wood on the campfire while talking about a wide variety of topics and listening to the band Journey on cassette. One topic that would always come up was God. It became our theory, as adolescent philosophers, that if you gathered a group of people around a campfire, the conversation would eventually turn to God. It wasn’t too hard for us to come to this consensus, since there were only three of us, we were all male, and we shared a very similar experience growing up in the Dutch Reformed subculture of West Michigan.
I imagine that if we were to randomly gather several US residents around a campfire tonight, their talk might eventually turn to God, but contrary to my teenage self, I suspect that it’s much more likely that they would instead turn to politics or social issues. As a result, I also envision that before long there might be more than one campfire. And this makes me wonder how we might have dialogue across division in our current environment.
Thirty years after those winter camping trips, I was researching my PhD thesis in Anchorage, Alaska.1 As part of the research, I interviewed pastors and faith leaders in the city. Those interviews revealed that the Christian ministry community in the city is divided by race, politics, competition, and busyness. Some of what I discovered bore a strong correlation to the divisions outlined by Robert P. Jones in The End of White Christian America. Jones notes divisions in the areas of politics, race, and family, particularly in regard to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights, both of which are key divisions in Anchorage. My research also found ecclesiastical divisions such that evangelical, mainline, Catholic, Orthodox, and independent pastors rarely interacted; these divisions seemed to date back to a schism in the last century that split the church along lines related to social issues and evangelism.2
Recent trends in voting mirror these divisions. Polling data from the 2020 presidential election suggest that about 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump and that white mainline Protestants narrowly backed Trump (51 to 53 percent). In contrast, Black Protestants strongly backed Joe Biden (90 percent), and the Catholic vote was split between the candidates. The religious history of evangelicalism offered by Kristin Kobes Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne describes the divisions present in the church along cultural and political lines in a way that echoes these polling data.3
That’s a fact-based snapshot of the bifurcated existence we are living in. But we all feel it as we watch pundits verbally pummel each other on TV. We carry this reality as we struggle to shake off the chill when family gatherings get icy the moment that politics get brought up. We bear witness to this binary way of being each time we read the social media posts of friends flailing at each other in fights over everything. In light of all of these divisions, how do we reimagine conversation?
Long before I started researching faith divisions in Anchorage, I worked at a drop-in center for teenagers called Parachutes. The center followed the guidance of Miroslav Volf, who writes that “life in community means sharing a common social space and taking responsibility for the other.”4 I had been raised in a white suburban middle-class world, and in that shared social space, I encountered youth who were different than me in nearly every way. In that space, I learned a lot about the other, the city, and myself.
Volf’s understanding of community is illustrated by the act of inviting the other into an embrace. He notes that an embrace begins by opening one’s arms and creating space for the other. Then one waits in a state of vulnerability to see whether the other will accept the offer of embrace, which is never coerced or manipulated. If the offer is accepted, the two come together in one embrace, sharing a common space. The act is reciprocal and offers the opportunity to see the other in a new or different way. In the final act of the process, the two open their arms as they separate, thereby retaining their uniqueness.5
Volf’s understanding of community and the act of embrace was particularly visible to me on Monday nights at the Table when two very different groups of youth met to share a meal, build relationships, and discuss a passage of Scripture. One group of teens was from a local church and was largely white, middle-to-upper class, and familiar with the Bible. The other group was composed of youth from the teen center who were a cross section of the diverse population of the city, many of whom were from working class families or had experienced poverty or homelessness.6 They generally were much less familiar with the Bible.
The Table was rooted in a simple question: “What would happen if we gathered a diverse group of youth for a meal and a discussion of a Bible passage?” The meals were provided by volunteers, and the discussions were guided in a dialogue-teaching format by leaders inspired by Bob Ekblad and Miguel De La Torre.7 The goal of the experience was to live into Volf’s sense of shared space and responsibility by hearing multiple vantage points and seeking an understanding of one another and the text. To do this, the youth—and their adult leaders—had to practice embrace; they had to practice making themselves vulnerable, welcoming the other, entering into embrace, and retaining their own uniqueness. The results were beautiful. Individuals from each group formed relationships with individuals from the other; they made bonds; and all deepened their understanding of the biblical text, which wouldn’t have happened without the insights of others. It wasn’t perfect, but it was magic.
Although the model of gathering a group around a Bible passage for the purpose of relationship building and colearning worked with teens, I wondered whether the practice could work with a group of diverse adults. Could this be a method for addressing the divisions we see everywhere around us in this contentious time? For years, I wondered about this. Far too often, the groups I took part in were made up of like-minded adults to the exclusion (intentionally and unintentionally) of anyone that was other. My experience was that when individuals had a strong difference of opinions, even individuals from families or other groups that had once shared social space (such as a church), meaningful dialogue became nearly impossible. I pondered how the Tablemight be duplicated in light of the divisions present in the church communities of Anchorage and throughout the United States.
Then I began to hear about gatherings of pastors going by the name Preaching Peace who were making possible the kind of open sharing that I had imagined.8 Since 2014, Preaching Peacegroups have gathered pastors to build relationships, discuss the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the week, and ask one another how to preach the passage for peace. These groups, which started in Tacoma, Washington, are now in fourteen cities around the world. The group in Tacoma has sponsored shared youth ministries and the group in Nairobi, Kenya, has promoted interreligious dialogue. The potential of the model intrigued me. Could this be an adult version of the Table? Could this be a way to hold a dialogue in this divided time?9
In the fall of 2020, a Preaching Peace group began to be gathered in Anchorage. In the months since the group has started meeting, the magic mystery of the Spirit present at the Table can be felt in the weekly Preaching Peace gathering. The group is diverse in race, gender, educational level, and religious expression, with leaders coming from the evangelical, Pentecostal, and mainline Protestant traditions. After a recent Zoom meeting, my wife commented on all the laughter coming out of my office as we met. I shared with her how fast the hour goes by, how wonderful it is to hear all the different insights into the text, and how much fun we are having. As I talked to my wife, my cofacilitator sent me a text that read, “It is refreshing to start something we don’t have to fight tooth and nail for . . . and people [are] moving other pieces of life to make this a priority.”
After years of wondering if we as a people could hold meaningful discussions during this disjointed decade, Preaching Peace gives me hope. The simplicity of the gathering is what makes it work. The goals of relationship building, colearning, and asking how to preach peace puts everyone on the same plane. The agenda is open, which allows so much to happen. People are free to share from their church tradition, area of expertise, and perspective because diversity is expected. Thus, conversation happens without the dualistic debating I’ve experienced elsewhere. With the stated goal of building relationships, participants come expecting to do just that, which allows the posturing found at other tables to take a back seat. With the word peace hovering like a benediction over the gathering, in both our name and as our central question each week, a noncombative environment becomes the norm rather than abnormal.
On those winter camping trips of my youth, one of the songs we would sing along to as it blasted from the boombox late at night was “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, a catchy upbeat anthem of hope in this “lonely world.”One night at Parachutes that song found me again. An outreach worker from another organization asked me, “Why does every street kid in Anchorage know all the lyrics to that ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ song?”
The kids certainly didn’t know it from growing up with the song like I did, since it came out in 1981. It’s possible that they heard it on classic rock radio stations or that they encountered it in its various revivals on television. But I like to think that the answer is its dual themes of hope and perseverance—two traits street-involved youth and pastors need to continue carrying on.
Hope and perseverance are also feelings that have been in short supply in our world these past few years. It would be easy to look around at our world today and want to give up. Rather than persevering in hope, we could easily press eject and descend into despair. Instead of opening our arms to the other, it often seems preferable to cross them, lean back, and watch the world burn.
But what if we looked for ways to find social space to share with the other? What if we adopted an open-armed posture to those with whom we have differences? What if the simple act of gathering around a fire, a table, or a Zoom screen to discuss a few verses of Scripture could lead us out of our rancorous reality? What if we chose not to stop believing that a different way is possible?
- See Kiekintveld, “Join Me in the Commons: Towards a Contextual Urban Ministry Education Model for Anchorage, Alaska” (PhD diss., University of Pretoria, 2019).
- See Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2016); and see David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal: Reconciling Evangelism and Social Concern (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007) for the twentieth-century split.
- See Frank Newport, “Religious Group Voting and the 2020 Election,” Gallup, November 13, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/324410/religious-group-voting-2020-election.aspx; Rob Boston, “Assessing the Religious (and Non-Religious) Vote in 2020,” Wall of Separation Blog, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, November 12, 2020, https://www.au.org/blogs/2020-religious-vote; and Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Liveright, 2020).
- Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 98.
- See Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 140–45.
- See Moni Basu, “Most Diverse Place in America? It’s Not Where You Think,” CNN, January 11, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/12/us/most-diverse-place-in-america/; Kathleen McCoy, “Hometown U: Data Show Mountain View Is Most Diverse Neighborhood in America,” Alaska Daily News, April 6, 2013, http://www.adn.com/article/20130406/hometown-u-data-show-mountain-view-most-diverse-neighborhood-america; and Matt Tunseth, “Anchorage Public Schools Lead Nation in Diversity,” Alaska Daily News, May 23, 2015, https://www.adn.com/education/article/anchorage-melting-pot-diversity/2015/05/24/.
- See Ekblad, Reading the Bible with the Damned (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Ekblad, “Reading Scripture for Good News That Crosses Barriers of Race/Ethnicity, Class, and Culture,” Interpretation 65, no. 3 (July 2011): 229–48, https://doi.org/10.1177/002096431106500302; and De La Torre, Reading the Bible from the Margins (New York, NY: Orbis Books, 2002).
- See “Frequently Asked Questions,” Street Psalms, https://streetpsalms.org/preaching-peace-info/; and “Preaching Peace (Register),” Street Psalms, https://streetpsalms.org/preaching-peace-2/.
- Eliza Griswold notes that one of the practices employed in Christian and Muslim “deprograming efforts” and dialogue in Nigeria is reading Scripture together. She writes, “At first, I did not believe that such a simple practice could actually work. As an outsider, I doubted that words on the page, no matter the color, could make a substantive difference as to how people viewed one another” (Griswold, The Tenth Parallel [New York, NY: Picador, 2010], 71).