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Safe spaces to speak encourage dynamic ideas

8 November 2013 | by Dionne Gravesande

Our Head of Church Advocacy looks back on the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, South Korea and reflects on the importance of listening without an agenda.

I’m always amazed how much information I pick up in the corridor on the way to, or coming from, the main meeting area. 

It’s a kind of informal space where you can be yourself and don’t have to ‘rehearse’ your pitch - you just engage with other people on neutral territory.

You could, of course, argue that the Busan Exhibition and Conference Center (Bexco) is hardly neutral territory, since the agenda before the member churches is complex and diverse.

Yet the corridor is a mixture of languages, culture, dress, friendship and hospitality: one trying to accommodate another with love and patience.

The best meeting spaces

However, some meeting spaces can at times be awkward, reserved and one-dimensional places, with the same few voices dominating the conversation.

It seems to me that people function best in an open, honest and safe space, where ‘naming and shaming’ is not the headline act.

A short video clip featuring Dr Rowan Williams, shown in the pre-assembly, made it clear that what's needed is an ability to really listen.

  • Listening and hearing are not necessarily the same thing.'

Listening without an agenda is hard. It requires you to lay down your judgement and ideology and, for a moment, to step into someone else’s shoes.

That can be quite uncomfortable and scary. But could it be that from the flow of testimonies and ideas, a new idea is birthed in an open space?

I’ve discovered listening and hearing are not necessarily the same thing. Here in Busan, that dynamic is especially difficult if you are negotiating religious and theological language as well as transcending ethnic languages, too.

Reaching agreement

But listening is key to achieving a common vision on gender and climate justice for the millions of people living in poverty. 

My experience here is that the question of what we need to do to achieve the ecumenical vision of peace and justice is tackled in both the meeting room and the corridor - but the corridor lends itself to more truthful response. 

Unless we find ways to create trust and safe spaces for the tough conversations - ie gender justice and dialogues between the faiths - prophetic and pragmatic dynamism will not happen.

Justice, as one speaker said, should not be an optional extra for the Church - it's core to the ministry. And so my prayer remains: God of Life, lead us to justice and peace.

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