The other night, I watched the MSNBC special on the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller. He was shot in 2009 in his church by a man who was obeying God’s order to stop the killing of unborn babies. 

And, not long ago, I watched a video of a North Carolina pastor who wanted gays and lesbians rounded up in an electrified pen and left to die. 

It’s difficult to understand how church people could have so much hatred in a religion that is supposed to be about love and caring. 

But I do know at least one minister (and, of course, there are more) who is trying to do something about hatred and violence: Rich Lang at University Temple United Methodist Church. He has always been a progressive activist, but there’s something he’s doing that I think is particularly important: bringing people together to talk! 

He’s started the Common Good Cafe. On Thursday nights, he’s been bringing people together to listen to a speaker for about 20 minutes and then he breaks people into small groups to talk.

After 20 minutes, Lang tries to get people’s attention, but it’s very, very difficult. The volume continues to rise; the energy gets higher and higher.

Obviously, people are enjoying themselves, even though they resist it at first. (I know that when I give a workshop and ask people to get into small groups, a look of horror comes over their faces: She’s going to make us talk! But then, they always love it.)

 

Small-group dynamics

The thing about talking in a small group like this is that people are always much more polite to each other. It’s being face-to-face with people that makes a difference. You listen; you respond — you don’t rant and rave. 

The small group is effective because you make real social connections. In particular, in a small group, you can talk about personal experiences. How often do we get to do that? We’re usually discussing something in an abstract and impersonal manner, so we don’t get to know each other.

And at work, we need to keep up that image of success — act like we know what we’re doing, that we know what we’re talking about. But a lot of the time, it’s just show. People just don’t get to be real.

But sit together in a small group, face-to-face, and you drop that artificial image. You get to be real, and you make connections. 

Face-to-face connections are a way to combat the anger and hatred that seem to be permeating our American lives. If you’re in charge of running any groups, try it — it really works. It’s particularly effective after a public lecture. 

You know how it goes: The speaker goes on and on, and then people line up at the mikes to “ask” questions. (Half the time, they’re not questions but disguised personal opinions, which we’re not really interested in.) Instead, after the speaker, have people get in small groups and talk among themselves and decide on a question they want to ask. It’s magic! 

 

Experiment at home

But don’t just wait for formal situations to try this. Contrary to the usual admonitions, it’s safe to try this at home! 

My husband and I have what we call “news night.” Everyone brings a news story or item that has caught his/her eye that week to talk about. The interesting thing is, that no matter how different the news items are, a theme emerges, giving us interesting stuff to talk about. 

Think what it would mean if we talked to each other more. One of the reasons it’s nice to shop in local independent stores is that you get to know the owner of the business and have good conversations. 

And, of course, this kind of activity is even more important to us. We’ve experienced violence here in Seattle with the May 30 killings that started at Café Racer.

So when you go through your day, remember to have congenial conversations with people. Have people over for a “news night.” Get people to break up into small groups to really talk. 

Somehow, we’ve got to do something about the atmosphere of hatred and the resulting violence. And though it seems insignificant, talking to people with caring and dignity can make a difference.

CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.”