“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”—Nelson Mandela
When the team for A Journey of Hope set out on its own journey to find a group that could help them boldly move forward to develop a plan to end the sin of racism, there was one group that stood out from the rest, one group that wasn’t afraid to have uncomfortable conversations or challenge others to step outside their comfort zones and get out on the bumpy road of justice and inclusion.
Enter Fearless Dialogues, an organization that is committed to seeing the invisible and hearing the voiceless in its quest for justice and compassion.
In November, Fearless Dialogues hosted its first training session, “Five Fears Workshop,” for approximately 58 people in GNJ. The reception was a resounding cheer for what the grassroots organization is doing to change lives.
An identical session was offered to a new group of GNJ members on Jan. 6, with Part 2 content of the “Five Fears Workshop” scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 15.
This enthusiasm and passion to see, hear and change, all started in 2013 when a verdict found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder charges in the lethal shooting of Trayvon Martin. The shocking decision raised critical questions about the American legal system and the historical and systemic injustices plaguing communities of color. Now nearly nine years later, we continue to face these unfathomable actions and decisions.
Dr. Gregory C. Ellison, II, one of the founders who unofficially dubs himself the “Craftsman of Care,” saw the need for transformative dialogue that embraces difference, cultivates hope and leads to change. Three weeks following the Zimmerman verdict, over 300 unlikely partners from all walks of life gathered at Emory University for the inaugural Fearless Dialogues community conversation.
The team led by Ellison who has a Ph.D. and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, call themselves “animators,” people who bring conversations to life and give inspiration, encouragement or renewed vigor to unlikely partners in dialogue.
“As animators, we vitalize conversations that move unlikely community partners from fear and apathy to self-discovery and culture change.”
Rev. Peggy Holder-Jones of Calvary and Wesley UMCs, who joined the November session, said, “It was extremely impactful with straight-talk, hands-on and mind-structuring exercises preparing us to address a topic which is long overdue. The sin of racism is a constant in our world but should not be a constant in the Church of Christ.”
Holder-Jones, who also chairs the Committee on Disability Concerns and whose churches are boldly serving their communities like Irvington with food, backpacks and grocery store gift cards, continued, “GNJ is intentional by creating this program and selecting a group of motivational leaders to help us move from being ‘fearful’ to being ‘fearless.’”
She continued, “Beginning with conversation allows us to ‘seek understanding not necessarily agreement’ was a statement made by Rev. Dr. Ellison, which caught my attention when the session started. These gatherings will teach us how to see all persons and hear their voices so that in becoming free to see and hear each other, there is an innate desire to make a generational change. I sense that with these sessions we will start to remove the bandages placed to cover up years of hurt, and with these dialogues healing can truly begin so that revival and the work of God becomes truly authentic.”
For Rev. Brian Joyce of Trinity UMC Ewing, he too saw that authenticity and seamless transition from stranger to neighbor.
He said, “My most powerful reflection of that day is this – I was impressed with how quickly and efficiently the moderators moved our large Zoom gathering out of that Zoom lethargy so often present and into intimate, small group conversations, with only two simple exercises.
To create a brave space fit conversations around difficult issues the necessity of moving quickly to such a place is necessary but are not always so easily achieved.”
At Trinity UMC, its members are a faith-in-action community where individuals engage the world through loving service. They believe that there are no spare people—every person is vital to God.
Rev. Dave Montanye of First UMC of Avalon also liked the fluid nature of the session and how open it was to hearing and embracing different stories.
“As a Caucasian, my job was to keep silent. I didn’t want to get in the way of people telling their stories. Listening to stories is engrained into how I was trained as a pastor. I actually would have liked a little more time in the small groups.”
Montanye, who has been a pastor for over 40 years, said he is looking forward to going through the whole process and the possibilities that it will bring. During his ministry, he has worked to create possibilities for others, having worked with groups in Haverstraw, NY, Senegal and Paterson. At First UMC, they host the Blind Center on Tuesday and Thursday of each week, make prayer shawls for others and provide physical, emotional and spiritual support to those in need.
But as he looks ahead to the next session, he said, “Here I am in the second wealthiest zip code in New Jersey, and I wonder what my role is in a highly privileged congregation.”
Dorothy Wetzel, a lay member at Morrow Memorial Church in Maplewood who leads the immigration committee, also sees herself as privileged and now feels a greater awareness of listening and being heard. “Coming from a repressed WASP upbringing, learning about the five fears that stifle conversation gives me hope that change is possible, both for myself and my church. I’m excited to be gaining skills that will help our church have the hard conversations around race that we need to become a truly antiracist church.”
She added, “The workshop reminded me of the power that just being heard can have on someone. So often I find myself focused on coming up with solutions to people’s problems, that I don’t actually make them feel heard.”
Fearless Dialogues is clearly up for the challenges before them. No matter what the story is, this grassroots organization is dedicated to unraveling each story and empowering others to claim it as their own.
“Our hope as we do this work is that we will partner with others to foster strong communities for the common good by creating spaces for unlikely relationships to change the way people see themselves and the world around them.”
As mentioned, the second stage of training is scheduled for Jan. 15. If you have additional questions, please contact Rev. Enger Muteteke, director of resourcing, at email@example.com.