Fearless Dialogues (Gregory C. Ellison II) -- A Review

FEARLESS DIALOGUES:  A New Movement for Justice. By Gregory C. Ellison II. Foreword by Parker J. Palmer.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xiii + 170 pages.

                We live in a polarized age, where productive and transformative conversation rarely occurs. We seem more at home talking within our silos. We may feel better about ourselves being on the correct side of the issue, but we nothing really changes. In part this lack of conversation is due to a fear of the other, including the stranger. We have, apparently, learned too well the warning of our parents, that we should not talk to strangers. But change and transformation, will require a willingness to sit down with the stranger and with the person with whom we do not share common perspectives. It will require an ability to listen, and pay attention to people who get lost in the crowd, allowing them to speak for themselves. To get there, we need wise guidance and a process that will remove boundaries and move toward justice in the land. Such a process is available to us in the form of “Fearless Dialogues,” a program developed by Gregory Ellison, the author of this particular book, which introduces us to this process, by which we can extend radical hospitality in transformative ways.

                The author of this book, Gregory Ellison, is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology. Writing from both his professional foundations and from personal experience, he introduces us to "Fearless Dialogues," a program/methodology that he developed after watching and participating in conversations that ended in frustration, and the participants no better off. This program is, according to Ellison, a "grassroots nonprofit initiative committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other" (p. 6). The key is overcoming fear through "lessness." That is, through a "posture of humility, perceptiveness, and intention not to lord power over others." (p. 7). There are three pillars to this process: see, hear, and change. With these pillars comes the recognition that "purposeful engagement and sustained change are not possible while community partners remain unseen and unheard" (p. 12). This point is important to understanding Ellison’s rationale for the program and to its success. Throughout the book, Ellison speaks to the need for unheard voices to be heard. He tells personal stories about what it feels like to be ignored or have one’s ideas not taken seriously, even though another might be lauded for sharing the same ideas. We all know that there are persons ready and willing to engage in conversation and who then dominate the conversation. Look at any group event. Who is doing most of the talking? Who is silent? Are there people who want to enter in, but who can’t get any one to notice them? This process is designed to overcome that problem so that more voices can be heard, and change becomes possible.

One of the voices that Ellison brings into the conversation is his Grandmother. Although she is without an advanced education, she brings much wisdom to the table and thus becomes one of our teachers. One of the lessons learned from his Grandmother is that if all are to be heard in these conversations, there must be a willingness to embrace failure and engage with intentionality. For conversation to take place, space must be intentionally created.

To move toward transformation, there must be an extension of radical hospitality. That requires moving beyond the fear of strangers, but as noted above, we have learned our lessons from childhood well. We are greatly concerned about “stranger danger,” and therefore we fail to engage. While it might be wise for children to be careful around strangers, as adults it’s time to move beyond our fears. To do this, we need to understand the kinds of strangers we encounter, each requiring a different response. He speaks here of four kinds of strangers—public strangers, familiar strangers, intimate strangers, and finally the stranger within. It is important, according to Ellison, that we not become paternalistic in our attempts at offering welcome to strangers. Thus, there are four acts that move toward greater openness: "placeholding, beholding, holding, and moving." Each represents one of the four kinds of strangers, and "sets the table for life-altering encounters and unforgettable moments of Fearless Dialogue" (p. 40). 

Movement in dialogue requires us to recognize the "unacknowledged all around us." He uses the term "plopping" to describe the death-dealing reality of being ignored or unacknowledged. He recounts a doctoral seminar, in which he, as an African American man, was essentially dismissed by professor and fellow students. I found his chapter dealing with invisibility to be both challenging and important. Here again dialogue can open up creativity and hope. 

The dialogues center on five questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my gift? How does it feel to be a problem? What must I do to die a good death? Each of these questions take us deeper into our own existence, so we might others, as they share their own journeys. Of these five questions, the one that stuck out tome was the one asking how I felt about being a problem. That’s a question we rarely address, and yet it seems so central to our conversations. I know that as a white male I have certain privileges that affect others. I understand this, but that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable with it. I don’t enjoy being the problem. Yet, to move forward with the conversation I need to face that reality. In the course of these conversations, we also must face three threats to hope: despair, apathy, and shame.

         I find this program intriguing. It seems to offer a path beyond our usual debates that go nowhere. It seems to offer a path that will take us into the lives of those who are strangers, perhaps so we might encounter the stranger within. It offers a structure that appears to allow for all voices to be heard. It offers a path into and through and beyond the fears that keep us apart. I know that for my part, I’m tired of yelling at others. It doesn’t do us any good. Some of us may find it entertaining to watch pundits spout their opinions, talking over one another, but at the end of the day nothing has been accomplished. Despair, apathy, and shame remain with us. So, I’m thankful that Gregory Ellison has provided us with a pathway that might actually make a difference so that bridges rather than walls can be built.   As Parker Palmer puts it in his foreword to the book. He invites us to look at ourselves through the lenses provided by the author, so that we “can come to terms with our own failure to see, truly see, certain individuals because they are not of ‘our tribe,’ or because they frighten us, or because they don’t fit our notions of beauty or propriety. Only then can we truly begin to see ‘the other’” (p. ix). 

           The book itself is an introduction to “Fearless Dialogues,” which means I have more to learn. But, this is an excellent start that opens my eyes to new possibilities for a word that is increasingly fractured. I believe it will do the same for you, if your willing to take a few risks along the way.


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