It Was a Week of Listening . . .

This past June, I joined other church leaders, farmers, foragers, justice advocates and theologians for the Wake Forest School of Divinity Summer Institute in Swannanoa – or as we called it throughout the week, Katuah, the Cherokee name for these parts of Western North Carolina.

The Wake Forest Divinity School website describes the Summer Institute beautifully. “The Katuah bioregion is renowned for its biological diversity – a fitting metaphor for the rich ethnic, geographical and theological diversity among participants who’ve attended this course. The unifying belief in the midst of this diversity is that God is still working to renew the face of the earth, and that we are called to join God in that good work.

Indeed, this imaginative work of partnering with God requires deep listening and invites a diversity of voices. Throughout the week, I was especially grateful to listen to the powerful voices of two of our teachers, Rev. Dr. Christopher Carter and Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III.

Dr. Carter is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of San Diego and pastor of the Pacific Beach United Methodist Church. He charted new ground for us as he explored ways to liberate our food systems, histories, theologies, and hearts from oppression and racism. In the process, he communicated his groundbreaking theology and practice in ways that allowed room for all ideas, and provided space for his pupils to slowly come along with him in his journey.

One technique Dr. Carter shared was one I was familiar with: the compassion practice. The practice involves taking a subject and listening without judgment to your own triggers, anger and emotions that come up when facing it. From there we tend to them, personify them, and listen to them as a form of practice. In the past I’ve experienced this practice with young people, while Carter was trained to apply it in conversations about race.

When he did, it made me wonder about extending compassion practice to other environmental issues. Like race, environmental issues like climate change can be so overwhelming that they make us shut down. In our current political environment, there’s so much animosity and demonizing of the “other” that continuing to step into conversations with people that aren’t like minded – putting ourselves in the way of other people’s ideas and practicing awareness of the emotions that arise – is a necessary step.

Likewise Dr. Brown taught about ways that food, ecology, racism, health and social challenges and the economy are connected. In 2015, Dr. Brown launched the Black Church Food Security Network, which combats food insecurity by providing support to help congregations begin growing food on church-owned land. Dr. Brown created this network “linking Black Churches and Black Farmers to create a community-controlled, alternative food system based on self-sufficiency and Black food and land sovereignty.”

While the week was focused on food systems, it was clear that this required exploring the root causes of racism, climate change, pollution, sexism, homophobia, poverty and violence. It was an overwhelming week to say the least, and yet I left feeling hopeful and invigorated. The creative leadership of Dr. Carter and Dr. Brown, and the eager listening of the participants, is a testament to a future of possibility. In a time when we are tempted to surround ourselves with ideas we already agree with, I had the chance to leave the echo chamber and experience diversity, liberation, collaboration, grace, and deep humility. May it be ever so.

To learn more about the Wake Forest University School of Divinity’s Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative, click here.

To learn more about the compassion practice, click here.


Scott Hardin-Nieri

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