Local groups prove dialog on divisive issues is possible

? Members of Calvary and First United churches bridge the Lake Street divide and discover

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By KEN TRAINOR

After last November's presidential election, as the media made much of the great divide separating blue and red states, liberal from conservative, Karen Ard decided to do something about it.

"We have conservative and liberal friends," said her husband Tom. So the two retired school teachers decided to bring them together.

"The idea was to listen to one another."

Not everyone was hopeful. One of their friends, Rev. Ed Hiestand, the retired pastor of River Forest Methodist Church, said he had tried to get a dialogue started at his church, but it hadn't worked very well.

The Ards tried a different structure. You couldn't argue any points, only ask clarifying questions, no rebuttals allowed.

And it worked. No one tried to convert anyone. No one got frustrated because they weren't being heard. In fact, everyone listened better, Tom hypothesized, "because you knew you were going to get the chance to have your say."

Meanwhile, Tom had joined a discussion group at First United Church of Oak Park, started by Bud Hayes (not the coffee guy), called "Inner Peace/World Peace," which developed out of the Friday night vigils protesting the war in Iraq. The group meets from 8:30 to 10 a.m. each Saturday in the First United basement, and, as might be guessed, has a progressive/liberal slant?#34;so much so that participants commented on the proximity of Calvary Church right across the street and the huge gulf that existed between the two world views. No one was optimistic about the prospect of bridging such a chasm. Everyone assumed they had nothing in common.

Except Tom, of course.

He told them about the discussions his wife had organized, and suggested they try something similar with members of Calvary. One of the Inner Peace/World Peace members, as it happens, lived next door to, and is friends with, a member of Calvary Church, so the contact was made.

Not everyone thought it was a good idea, but five people from each side signed on. Everyone agreed to the structure beforehand. The goal was "to learn and practice how to overcome barriers between people, to develop understanding of people with very different views, people we rarely have occasion to talk to, and who, normally, if we should happen to talk with them, it quickly becomes oppositional."

The object of the first meeting was simply getting to know one another by relating the history of their religious/philosophical beliefs. As with the Ards' previous group, only clarifying questions were allowed.

At the end of each succeeding session, they brought out a flip chart and brainstormed topics for the next get-together. Session two asked the question, "What is it about today's society that worries you?"

Stating whether you agree or disagree wasn't allowed. As Tom puts it, "People can listen better if 1) they know they will eventually be heard and 2) they aren't busy forming their rebuttal."

Session three asked, "What does God look like and how does that affect the challenges I'm wrestling with?"

Session four was devoted to the following questions: How have the last three sessions affected me? What has this experience meant? What has surprised me? What can come of this?

"The biggest surprise," Ard said, "was how much affection people developed for those we disagree with and how much we have in common." Participants were already aware of the differences coming in, he added. "It was the commonalities that were enlightening." Only once or twice did people have to be gently reminded of the ground rules. "Are we listening at this point?" someone would ask.

After they started their dialogue sessions last fall, Ard said, he and his wife came across a series of articles in the Christian Science Monitor about other groups attempting the same thing around the country.

"The key is to listen," Ard said. "That's why it works."

It's also been working with another offshoot?#34;people who fall on opposing sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. And Ard thinks it might even work on the divisive issue of abortion.

What can result from such a dialogue? Ard says that while individual perceptions might not be changed, future interactions with people of differing points of view will likely be altered.

"It's helpful in centering your own thinking," he added, "and specific activity may come out of that."

Mostly though, it reduces the hostility and, if nothing else, proves that dialogue is possible.

"We felt real good about it," Ard said.

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