As acrimony and sharp divisions in politics and society continue to make headlines, a lecture series that opens this week in Billings hopes to teach participants how to bring civility back to our public dialogue.
“We hope to explore the values that help us to build and maintain community in spite of conflict or disagreement,” says Reverend Kim Woeste, the chaplain and director of Spiritual Life and Church Relations at Rocky Mountain College. She was instrumental in breathing life into the Wheatley Lecture Series after more than a decades long hiatus.
She says the intent is to demonstrate civil conversation in action, “How to talk to each other when we disagree about things. Can we continue to have important and meaningful conversations in spite of differing opinions?”
The Wheatley Lecture series is named in honor of a former United Methodist Church Bishop Melvin Wheatley, considered a champion of social justice, the inclusive church, and ethics.
This year’s event will feature a speaker who has an intimate knowledge of conflict. Gary Mason, a Methodist minister from Northern Ireland, played a role in the peace process in his home country. He now heads a conflict resolution organization called “Rethinking Conflict.”
“I try to use some of the models we have used in Ireland to bring competing views into a room and where there are some ground rules where people listen, try to understand, question, digest. But also build relationships as well and build friendships.”
Mason says he’s motivated by this work because as a result, he’s seen friendships built among people who literally were trying to kill one another just two decades ago.
“I do this because I’ve seen too many people’s bodies in coffins, and families traumatized,” he says. “As a person of faith, I want to continue to talk and try to find some meaningful resolution where people aren’t humiliated or embarrassed where people way ownership of a new beginnings and a new process.”
Mason has lectured around the world in political and academic forums on lessons from the Irish peace process, including reconciliation, peace building, sectarianism, and conflict transformation.
Mason is just one of the speakers at this year’s Wheatley Lecture Series that will also feature Rabbi Uri Barnea who formerly was conductor of the Billings Symphony.
The event opens Thursday at 1 p.m. and continues through Friday noon on the campus of Rocky Mountain College.
This event is supported by: Bishop Melvin E. Wheatley, Jr. Endowment, The Yellowstone Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, The Margaret V. Ping Foundation, Humanities Montana, and Rocky Mountain College.