The pastor of my church in Boise, Idaho, who is also my brother, confided to our congregation one Sunday morning that he found himself avoiding certain topics from the pulpit because he didn’t want to worsen the political divide in our church.
But rather than disengaging from dialog, he wanted to create a forum where people could safely engage in conversation, even when the topics were difficult. He asked us a question, and it wasn’t a rhetorical one:
“What conversations aren’t we having in the church that we should be?”
And then he set out pens and paper, so he could gather our responses.
Now, a few months earlier Joan Blades, a co-founder of Living Room Conversations, had visited Boise and presented Living Room Conversations to a group of local faith leaders. She’d shared how these Conversations could help build bridges between people with different viewpoints. My pastor Trevor Estes was intrigued with the challenge Joan posed the faith leaders: “aren’t you guys supposed to be good at this stuff?”
He and I both attended some Living Room Conversations online and enjoyed the experience. He decided to bring them to our congregation and he asked me to help host them.
So when Pastor Estes gathered all the responses from us that Sunday morning, it was significant to me that they included requests that our congregation should discuss…abortion. Our church is vocally pro-life, and partners with a local crisis pregnancy center. Initially, Trevor and I were surprised there were church members who felt the issue wasn’t being addressed. But what these requests revealed was that some people in our congregation wanted a safe place to discuss the issue beyond what had been possible to that point.
Living Room Conversations had been working on a Conversation Guide on this topic but wondered if it was potentially too controversial. When I made inquiries about it and explained why we wanted to wade into these difficult waters they invited me to help their staff finish the guide with them. Then our church, Vineyard Boise, would beta-test the Conversation.
Thus it was in June of this year, 42 courageous souls came together in our church’s chapel around six round tables. After reading and agreeing to the Conversation Agreements, each table started working through the Guide’s Round Two, topic discussion questions.
As you may know, the Round Two questions of every Living Room Conversations Guide are carefully crafted to avoid debate and encourage experiential sharing.
What resulted in our work with this Guide was significant. One woman shared a story of having experienced an abortion herself. She had only ever told this story twice in her life. The first time, she shared it with a pastor; the second, with a pastoral counselor. Both experiences left her cold, and feeling judged. She had vowed never to share her story again. Yet during this Living Room Conversation, she felt the freedom to share her experience. She left that evening feeling cared for. Pastor Estes had participated in the discussion at her table. He expressed disappointment that the two places he would have hoped and expected that she would have felt cared for let her down. He also was grateful for a new tool that our congregation could learn to use to safely share their stories and experiences.
At another table were two individuals who have helped draft abortion legislation for our state. Although they are unabashedly pro-life, they respectfully listened to the stories and experiences of others around the table. They too felt listened to as they shared their convictions.
One of the Round Two questions in this Guide asks each of us to consider whether we have any “gray areas” in our own position. The purpose of this question is to create a space for everyone to share their feelings and experiences beyond the positions we see represented in the media. The Guide would not even be needed except that abortion has become so sharply polarized–so black and white–that there is seldom any way to even acknowledge gray areas we may have have when it comes to this issue. I know I have some, and it was valuable for me to be able to be honest with the others around my table instead of repressing them and feeling the need to defend a specific point of view.
It turned out that two women at my table both volunteer at a local crisis pregnancy center. One of them shared that if she were pregnant from a rape, she believed she would continue the pregnancy. When the other volunteer shared, she bravely admitted that she had been raped in the past and knew she would not be able to do the same.
It was important that we had the Conversation Agreements–and kept to them. We truly listened to understand. My experience was that this created a sacred place of care in our church that hadn’t existed without a safe conversational tool. We didn’t solve the abortion issue for our country in those 90 minutes–and we weren’t trying to!
Instead, we laid the groundwork to approach each other with compassion and empathy on this issue, and many others that are related to it.
I would have never imagined we could hold a civil dialog on abortion, with truly divergent viewpoints represented, without it disintegrating into debate. Amazingly, at the end of the evening the room broke out in applause–not, I think, out of adulation and praise, but from relief.
The Conversation Guide, “Abortion: For, Against, or Somewhere In Between” is now available on the Living Room Conversation website. I encourage you to thoughtfully and carefully address this topic in this meaningful way. Let me know what you experience and learn. I’d love to hear from you.
Pastor Chad Estes
Faith Communities Partner