Friday, October 13, 2017

Learning to Listen—A Spiritual Practice

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to [God’s] Word, so the beginning of love for [our brothers and sisters] is learning to listen to them…Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As I have listened to young adults over the years, I have noticed an increasing desire among them to engage in authentic community and a longing for deep spirituality. And yet, far too few are finding either of these in the places where they look. Christian communities that desire to engage these young adults (who are largely absent from their worship and community life) have little experience and few resources to engage these young adults. Despite these desires, neither congregations nor young adults are looking to the deep resources of Christian spiritual practices, which have sustained community and spirituality for generations. And central to these practices are intergenerational relationships in which people can speak and listen, and have their deepest truths (and deepest pain) heard and taken seriously.

For the past 5 years, I have led the Vocation and Formation First Year Experience program at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, WA. In this course, which we designed as a year-long retreat, we connected our diverse community of first-year students with faculty and student mentors and introduced them to individual and communal spiritual practices from the Christian tradition. As we built and refined this curriculum, we found that existing resources in Christian spiritual practices were scattered, often laden with denominational and cultural assumptions, and either too simplified or too complex to be useful—particularly in a context with both Christian and non-Christian students. As we designed, tested, and adapted these materials, we found the underlying practices to actually be extremely accessible, both to the students and to the adult facilitators. Not only did the students learn spiritual practices to deepen their devotional life, but through engaging them they developed deep relationships with peers and mentors—practices and relationships that paid off in vocational discernment and in forming a larger community of practice.

In January 2016, Trinity Lutheran College announced that the spring semester would be its final semester and that it would close following graduation in May. With all of the great work in the Vocation and Formation curriculum, I couldn’t bear to see these resources not able to be shared as this particular program came to an end. So, with one of our partner congregations, we applied for an FTE Vocational Curriculum grant to allow me to refine these materials and our learnings into a concrete resource, and then to test those resources in a variety of contexts in order to better adapt them beyond the Christian college environment in which they developed. We now have engaged portions of this curriculum to connect young adults to elders one congregation, as part of a gifts discernment campaign in another, to train young adults to engage with teenagers, in a seminary with students interested both in their own discernment and in resources to engage youth and young adults, and most recently in a retreat setting with high school students and leaders from 5 different congregations of different denominations. Though I had a hunch that high school students would connect to these practices (which had originally been designed for college students) the impact they had at this retreat were powerful and quite surprising.

The core practice of the Vocation and Formation curriculum is a listening and story sharing practice we call “Holy Listening and Testimony.” This practice is adapted from FTE’s “Calling Congregations” resources, and centers around two-minute story rounds around a given prompt. Participants are given two minutes to think silently about “a time in which someone took you or your gifts seriously” and develop a two-minute story to share with their partner. The speakers are encouraged to “testify” to the truth of their lives as they share their stories—and that their stories matter. Each partner has two minutes to tell their story, as their partner silently “listens to the other person’s story as if it were scripture.” Then the partners switch roles.

In the college course, we introduced Holy Listening in the first session, then each of the weekly sessions opened with a round or two (with different question prompts) so that by the end of the year all of the students had engaged with each of their classmates and mentors (many several times). In this retreat with High School students from different congregations and different schools, many of whom did not know more than one or two other students, we used the practice early on as a way to help them get to know one another and to quickly build a sense of community on more than just a surface level. My young adult and elder adult facilitators were amazed at how open these students were to share with them and with one another. Students were telling deep stories of mentors and lack of mentors, of the people and communities that supported them and/or failed to support them, and sharing some significant challenges that they were facing in their lives—and finding connections with other students that neither of them expected. Several shared that they had never been listened to in this way before in their lives, and that it was a deeply moving experience. After four or five rounds in the course of an evening and morning, this group of strangers quickly formed into a community. But it was in the second practice we engaged that the power of this experience really came to light.

At an FTE Christian Leadership Forum in 2015, Dr. Patrick Reyes led the forum participants in an exercise he calls “Human Statue” that was influenced by his work in Latino youth organizing and the practices of the “Theatre of the Oppressed” movement. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Reyes became assistant dean for academic affairs at Trinity, and helped us adapt the “Human Statue” practice into our Vocation and Formation work. In this practice, participants identify several “issues and pressures” that they and/or their communities are experiencing, such as homelessness, drug abuse, violence, family expectations, etc. They then select one issue they feel called to work on and collectively create a “human statue” tableau to represent it in some way. When the facilitator says “freeze” the other participants who are not in the current statue view the representation their peers have created and offer reflections and commentary on what they see. The facilitator then may invite the participants to engage with the “statue” in a number of ways to deepen the reflection and experiential learning.

On this recent high school retreat, the students identified a long list of issues and pressures (many connected to the stories they had been sharing with one another in Holy Listening). Out of that list they identified two they wanted to address: “mental health” and “constant negativity.” They split into two groups to create their human statues, and came back together to share them. The mental health group created a powerful statue depicting depression, drug use, and isolation—including one brave teenager who stood outside in the snow by herself looking in the window. The debrief revealed that mental health issues were a common struggle among the teenagers and the people they are close too—there wasn’t anyone in the room who wasn’t connected to the challenges of mental health in one way or another.

When the second group built their statue to depict “constant negativity” they set up a classroom with a range of dynamics including gender and racial disparity, and lots of tense interactions. The real power of this practice came through in the debrief of this second statue, as the students unpacked what the sources of “constant negativity” were in their lives, and why they chose a school setting to represent it. As the students reflected together, they began to share stories related to the Marysville-Pilchuck High School shooting in 2015, and realized that they were all impacted in one way or another by this tragedy and that it still was causing challenges for them as individuals and for the community of which they were a part. Though they were attending a variety of middle and high schools in the area at the time, this community trauma impacted each and every one of them. They could see the deep effects it had had on the community of Marysville as well, including the sense of “constant negativity” and the challenges of mental health. For many, this was the first time they were able to discuss this publically and they found common ground in their shared pain. As they continued to reflect, the students were frustrated by the ways the school and community had poured attention and resources into the students early on, but that they felt like the message now is “move past it” and that there was little that they could do to change that. By that afternoon, however, the students had begun to claim agency over their challenges, and to start to organize themselves for community action. Out of this experience, they have decided to meet together twice a month to continue to build community, engage in practices together, and create positive change in their community around this and the other issues that affect them.

It was abundantly clear to me, and to the adult mentors, that the spiritual practices of Holy Listening and Testimony and the Human Statue exercise were foundational in these young people coming together, sharing their stories, recognizing their common struggles, building community, and seeking out powerful ways to respond. Similar outcomes had happened among the college students at Trinity, but I was quite surprised at the way in which these practices quickly opened up, and catalyzed, this group of high school students toward powerful action. As I continue to develop and refine this curriculum, I’m excited to see the ways in which it can be adopted and adapted into a wide variety of contexts—and I pray have similar impact on young people, and the Christian communities that engage with them. These resources, now called the “ALIVE Toolkit” (ALIVE stands for “Accompanying Leaders in Vocational Exploration”) will be released with no charge under a “Creative Commons License” and can be found on my website: I hope you will find them useful in your community, and please share stories with me as to how you are adapting them, and the impact they are having.

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