Building a Family Around Dialogue

OTL alums (from left to right) Andrew Kalemkarian, Leon King, Sue Gilmore, Derek Kaser, Eufemio Pagan, Tom Tamburello, and Kim Gegner (far right), with Director Kristyn Komarnicki, second from right, at the Eastern University dialogue fishbowl

By Kristyn Komarnicki

A couple weeks ago I met up with six Oriented to Love (OTL) dialogue alums who had agreed to model loving dialogue for a group of Eastern University students. We’d been invited by the university’s director of student life, as part of their “Perspectives” series, which features presentations on divisive topics. Like at an OTL dialogue, each alum answered a challenging question, and after a few minutes the others responded with further questions or comments that sought to clarify and deepen the conversation. Unlike at an OTL dialogue, here we had an audience, and were compressing into one hour what would normally stretch out over several days. Despite the time constraints and the presence of outsiders, their authenticity was evident to all, their respect for each other palpable, their answers deeply thought out and beautifully articulated. The students sat riveted.

I felt so proud to be there with these half-dozen men and women, representing a range of theological positions on sexuality—some who identify as gay (both married and intentionally celibate), others who identify as straight (both married and single)—and was deeply moved by their enthusiastic desire to demonstrate loving dialogue for the students. Even though our presenters came from five different dialogue groups and most of them had met for the first time that evening, they immediately bonded and knew how to talk about deep, personal, and tender things with each other—even in front of an audience.

When I thanked them afterwards, commenting on their ability to connect with each other so quickly—and to share of themselves so generously—with each other (and the audience of young people), one man said, “It’s because you trained us so well!” I deflected the praise, because these men and women were clearly smart and spiritually mature before I ever laid eyes on them! But when he persisted and I took a minute to consider it, I realized that he was right. The eight-week process we take dialoguers through, from the application to the question-coaching to the dialogue itself, is indeed a powerful training that gives people the courage to bring their best and truest selves, elevates the conversation on the divisive topic of sexual and gender diversity in the church, and nurtures relational trust that results in real community.

The Oriented to Love dialogue gives people the courage to bring their best and truest selves, elevates the conversation on the divisive topic of sexual and gender diversity in the church, and nurtures relational trust that results in real community.

As head facilitator, I’m the only one who knows all 108 of our dialogue alums. But when individual alums from different groups meet for the first time, they already “know” each other, in a way—that is, they recognize each other, speak the same language, extend the same kind of trust and goodwill that, say, a firefighter from one area of the country might extend to another from a different region when meeting for the first time. They may disagree on many things, but their common experience of having entered into and come through a dialogue connects them at a core level. Each one knows what it means to bring his vulnerability to a brother in Christ and see it received with love and appreciation. Each one knows the joy of connecting—through listening, laughing, and sometimes crying—with her sister in Christ across deep difference. They know the wonder of hearing, and seeking to understand, the experiences that have shaped the beliefs of their spiritual siblings. They know the enormous value of approaching the “other” as learner rather than teacher.

Oriented to Love is indeed building a family, 12 brothers and sisters at a time, and that family is slowly but steadily spreading out across North America, into the churches and communities to which they return. The love they take with them—and the shalom that comes from being seen, heard and respected by their “other”—ripples out into the world. After the Eastern University dialogue fishbowl, the director of student life told me how much it had meant to some of the students to see that kind of non-defensive, loving, heart-level conversation modeled for them. He said he’d seen some really “poor ways” of talking about these topics, but our seasoned—and well trained!—dialoguers had shown that it can be done differently. They did it with the tenderness of a brother, the open-hearted trust of a sister. That’s the Oriented to Love family we’re building, a family for which I am deeply grateful.

Kristyn Komarnicki is the director of Oriented to Love, a program that uses dialogue as a framework for transformation and a catalyst for unity in the church, building community through mutual vulnerability. Learn more here, and consider applying for an upcoming dialogue!

Related reading:

Jesus Never Said, “Tolerate Your Enemies.”

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