Tennessee pastor tackles political polarization

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Jennie Hobbs recently joined a small circle of people sitting in chairs, while about 100 others watched, and responded to a prompt designed to urge calm on a controversial topic:

“That’s what I know about immigrants, and that’s where I learned it.”

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Pastor Nathan Malone had invited Hobbs, a member of The United Methodist Church of Christ for two decades, to the session.

The nationwide polarization has shaken many social institutions – including schools, families and churches.

Disturbed by his perception that Americans have become terrible at talking to people they disagree with, and inspired by a recent book that details a strategy for the task, Malone hopes to introduce the approach to the wider community. .

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His Christ United Methodist Church is one of the largest in the region, and since the inaugural session he has held very structured conversations in his church around often difficult topics.

The approach, as it is implemented in these “3 circles of practice”, offers a vision of communication particularly relevant to the Gospel tradition: it suggests that, faced with someone who sees the world differently from you , the essential task is not to convince or even come to an agreement, but simply to listen well.

“If more Christians lived the way of Jesus Christ,” Malone said by phone, “I believe more people would want to follow Him.”

Microphone in hand, Hobbs, who through her work in human resources has helped people immigrate, recalled over the phone telling her small group discussion and all the observers in the room that being an immigrant is “really, really difficult” and that it takes a lot of courage and determination to immigrate to another country.

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When his two minutes were up, the second part of the structure kicked off. Listeners could ask questions, but they had to start with the words, “I’d be curious to know” – and their question would effectively give the speaker an extra minute to respond.

Questions Hobbs’ interrogators were curious about included how much immigration can cost and whether the immigrants she works with had come legally.

Hobbs said the forced conversational structure, whereby all answers had to come from a place of curiosity, made her feel “safer” than she had anticipated and felt “empowered” to say what she thought.

Malone, the pastor, discovered the book “3Practices For Crossing the Difference Divide” in the summer of 2021. Malone returned to the book’s website and invited its authors, Jim Henderson and Jim Hancock, to host a recent session of discussion. Malone also took a course to be a “referee” – trained and certified to lead discussions in which each adhered to three specific practices:

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— I will be exceptionally interested in others.

— I will stay in the room with difference.

— I will stop comparing my best with your worst.

Tony Walliser has pastored Silverdale Baptist Church for more than two decades.

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He recently said over the phone that “2020 and 2021 have been the most stressful seasons in my entire ministry.”

Amid the pandemic, Walliser worked to cultivate a vision of Christianity that he said transcended partisan politics.

But, as with many churches, the contours of those partisan politics found their way into his congregation of about 7,000 members.

“You have the mask or no mask, okay. You have had every possible extreme within the church. So what did we do? We created services just for people to wear masks,” Walliser said. “We had certain services where if you don’t want to wear a mask and don’t want to social distance, we can do that as well.”

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He said the criticism came from everywhere. Some people said, “What, are you trying to kill us?” But others felt the government had nothing to do to prevent the church from meeting in person.

Walliser sought solid ground on which everyone could agree and argued that the church should stand on “the rock of Christ.”

“Obviously we’re pro-life,” he said. “We believe in the sanctity of marriage and we teach it.”

But there are many ways to express Christianity, he said. Abortion may be the main concern for some. Others, he said, focus on caring for the needy or welcoming the immigrant.

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“All of these things are legitimate, biblical things that our church is involved in,” he said.

Walliser said he thinks politicians view Christians as an electoral bloc.

“And I don’t like being manipulated that way,” he said.

Walliser said he tells people not to choose sides.

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“I tell people, ‘Vote your values,'” he said.

The denomination to which Malone’s church belongs fractures along flashpoints as if the church should sanction same-sex marriage. Some people see the breadth of ideas of Christianity housed in The United Methodist Church as diluting its power and identity.

Amy Ziegler sees quality as a virtue. A former teacher and longtime participant of Christ United Methodist Church, she attended Malone’s 3Practice sessions.

Barry F. Howard