In November of 2016, the political climate in the United States had reached a level of discourse that left myself and many of my friends feeling disconnected and emotionally obliterated.
Regardless of what people believed or how they voted, we could all agree that what was happening in our country was causing rifts in friendships, marriages, and families in a way I had never experienced. This deep feeling of disconnection made me realize that even though I thought I was involved in my community and even though I possessed a certain level of empathy, I had a lot to learn.
I live my life around a few principles that have helped shape my adulthood. They are usually phrases that I have written down, hung on the walls of my home and office, or inked on my skin. A few of those words are “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” “The personal is the political,” and the “Micro is the macro.” Stephen Bailey, left, and his husband, Brian Fletcher
For me, these phrases push me to understand my role and responsibility in my relationships and in my community. It is my belief that if each of us took charge of our own role in our interpersonal relationships that the entire world could come together and form real bonds based on love, connection, and understanding.
Throughout 2017, I started having hard conversations with people in my community that didn’t look like me, that didn’t operate in the same circles as me, and had completely different life experiences than I did. I made friends with transgender people, Muslims, black women, Republican men, people who moved here and had no friends, angry teenagers, seniors, and all kinds of people that we assign labels to. I spent time in southeast Fort Wayne, in Warsaw, in Angola, at Dupont, in Wabash, and anywhere else I could create real conversation.
What I found is that everyone just wanted to be heard, and that through simple conversation, real healing and understanding could take place. I realized that I couldn’t solve the problems of the world and I certainly wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind about what they believed. What I could offer was real conversation to the people I met and interacted with in my community each day.
Out of this, Conversations at Hickory was born. I decided to create six dinners that would stretch out over 2018. I would cook a meal from scratch that catered to everyone’s dietary needs, people could sign up for one of eight seats, and we would come together to discuss one topic. I created a website and pushed the information out on social media. I wondered if anyone would even be interested, but what I found is that there was a real hunger for human connection. The entire year filled up in less than 24 hours with a waiting list for cancellations.
In February, we had a gluten-free dinner and talked about the effects of grief on our lives. In April, we discussed our interpersonal relationships over a chicken dinner. In June, we had a vegetarian brunch with mimosas and talked about how politics had impacted our lives. In August, we had Bloody Marys and discussed God over brunch. In October, we had a fresh dinner and talked about being an introvert versus being an extrovert. In December, we wrapped up the year with a gluten-free dinner and discussed failure versus success in our personal lives and careers.
This was a powerful experience for all of us. People showed up as strangers and left as friends. We would often spend three to four hours at the table and then people would often break into one on one conversations around the house. During those six dinners, we welcomed everyone from age 22 to age 74. We had a wide variety of people from all kinds of different beliefs, ethnic groups, economic status, and relationship or parenting status joining together.
I watched people shedding tears in front of strangers. I saw people of completely different backgrounds genuinely listening and affirming one another in their views. The letters and messages that I received after each dinner from participants changed my life. When I looked back on everything I accomplished in 2018, Conversations at Hickory stood out as one of my proudest moments.
This movement has spurred three others to create their own dinner conversations in their homes or organizations. To see the conversations continuing after 2018, leaves my heart feeling incredibly full.
There is something magical about sitting at a table and breaking bread with a stranger who is willing to let you into their personal space. In a world that is often divided while pretending to feel connected 24 hours a day on social media, Conversations at Hickory was a breath of fresh air for so many of us. I had no idea, until I sat down at the table, how much I was craving real connection.
The ingredients for creating community is more than a dinner table, fresh food, and a little wine. It really comes down to the intention of the people that come together and their willingness to be vulnerable. That only comes with the ability to earn their trust through a listening ear and words of affirmation. What I loved about watching these conversations unfold, is how the conversation never went quiet. There was a thread of genuine listening and talking that went hand in hand with each brunch or dinner.
In order to earn the trust of our neighbors at large, it often comes down to being willing to create a safe space where vulnerable conversations can happen. Listening is often more important than talking. Communication is a two way street and I have found that it is more important to be heard than to be right.
We cannot look to our politicians our religious leaders or even celebrities to create good communities for us. It is our responsibility to find our role in the narrative of who we are as a collective whole. Our personal actions impact our relationships and our relationships become the fabric for who we are as a community. When we see our individual role in our community, it is easier to understand what we can do to make it better.
To keep break it down, conversation creates connection and connection creates community. If you add in a genuine love and curiosity for what life is like for those that we share our streets with each day, it’s possible to see our city and ourselves in a whole new light. I encourage everyone to start a dialogue. You might just find your answers in the voice of a stranger.
This story was originally published in the Spring 2019 Thinking Out Loud magazine by Trinity English Lutheran Church in downtown Fort Wayne.