Sitting Down in Other People’s Circles

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I had arrived in the city late the night before, and this morning my hosts had driven me and other committee members to the Indigenous Family Centre on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s north end. I remember feeling a little awkward, not knowing what the plan was for the day. Some community members had already settled into chairs in a circle in the centre’s drop-in area, having coffee and talking together. It looked like they knew each other well and come here often. Others like me -- committee members with the Christian Reformed Church’s Centre for Public Dialogue -- mostly “from away,” stand on the outside of the circle looking in, not quite knowing what to do with ourselves.

Later that morning, we embark on a tour of some north-end Winnipeg not-for-profits, listening to some of the stories of transformation taking place in this community, where many citizens have survived tough times, faced discrimination and lived through challenging circumstances. The community has a plan for revitalization, and it is working hard to find ways to allow its citizens not only to survive – but thrive. One of the projects we visit is called “The Winnipeg Boldness Project.” Their bold goal is to transform their community such that every child will be able to enter school ready to learn and thrive in life.

Walking beside me is a young indigenous man from Winnipeg. When I ask him what language I heard some of the individuals speaking at the Centre that morning, he answered that it was Cree. He said the conversation had been about our group and how it seemed like we thought highly of ourselves, standing on the outside of the circle looking in, and not talking to anyone.

The young man’s words cut like a knife. I didn’t really know how to respond so I said nothing in reply. I kept walking, but his words continued to ring in my ears throughout the day and have stayed with me. I started to wonder. What keeps me from sitting down in other people’s circles? What stops me from listening to the voices of people different from myself?

When we return to the Centre later that morning, I quickly take a seat this time, smart enough, at least, not to make the same mistake twice. I greet the man sitting beside me. We chat for a while, and, serendipitously, discover a shared acquaintance from Halifax, someone very dear to this gentleman. We get to know each other a little bit over the course of that day. We worship together in the circle, share in the sweet grass smudge, hold hands in prayer. Later that afternoon, this kind gentleman walks with me to a local bakery where we share some coffee and donuts.

What precious people and relationships we miss out on along our journeys when we stay on the outside of the circle looking in. It can take courage to step out of our comfort zones into the lives of others. What holds us back?

My experience in Winnipeg was a forceful reminder that failure to engage with my neighbours is a failure to give of myself and God’s blessing, and a failure to receive and be blessed. Failure to engage adds to distrust and misunderstanding. While we stand on the outside looking in, wondering whether there is a place for us, others sit on the inside looking out, thinking we don’t want to be with them. Hurts start there. So can hatred. So can wars.

We only discover the truth about each other, and how to be at peace with one another, when we sit down together. As we share experiences, perspectives, a meal, worship, laughter, coffee and a donut, we soon realize we are not so different after all, and that the differences we do have make us richer and can bless us in ways beyond our imaginings.

If you followed the Listening to Marginalized Voices Challenge last month, you had a chance to enter into the circles of people different from yourself. (You can still view the archives of the Challenge.) This blog is also meant to amplify voices from the margins. This is a place where we can wrestle together with what it means to “do justice” in a world in which we’re so good at isolating ourselves from stories from the margins.

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Thanks Rachel for a very good article about where in the circle we sit or stand.  Certainly standing on the outside looking in can give the impression of aloofness to those on the inside of the circle.  And as you suggest, there is so much to gain by moving to the inside.  I would imagine if you had not moved to the inside of the circle, there could be irreparable damage.  But isn’t that what Christian communities and individuals do in regard to the many who are not Christian?  We all to often stand on the outside, judgmentally, looking in, with no attempt to understand who they are, or what makes them tick. We don't "share experiences, perspectives, a meal, worship, laughter, coffee and a donut," as you suggest.  At times we may make an attempt to integrate, but only with ulterior motives.  I like your article a lot, but you could broaden the circle to include many others who may be different from us.  I think that could be why Christianity often gets a bad rep.  Thanks for making us think.

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