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African Youth Leaders Explore Difference, Creativity, and Self-Awareness through Poetry


On August 10th, young leaders from eight East African schools set out to engage in dialogue across religious, ethnic and gender differences at a camp called The African Youth Leadership Experience (AYLE) 2014. The goals of AYLE were: to develop life skills in self-awareness and self care, appreciate and learn from difference, learn how to handle conflict, and develop creativity, leadership, community action and social entrepreneurship skills.

Andrew Nalani, a student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, designed and directed the ten- day camp in collaboration with a local NGO in Uganda and Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE). Below, Andrew reflects on how attending a Courage to Lead retreat earlier this year helped him direct this project.

Three days before the participants arrived for camp, I sat in the quiet of my bedroom, wondering what I had thrown myself into. For two years I’d been designing a youth project to promote peace and understanding, and it was finally taking shape. It’s paradoxical how I was filled with enthusiasm when designing the camp, and now three days before opening I was saturated with fear and self-doubt. “I don’t know if this will work. “What if no youth shows up?” “Who do I think I am, this young, to pull this off?” It was this last question, “Who am I anyway?” that ushered me to the threshold I feared to step over—my own personal place of leadership.

I recalled words I’d heard Sheila Belanger, a nature quest guide on the west coast, say: “Deep hospitality is first and foremost an inward process.” Before I could extend deep hospitality to the youths who’d show up to camp in three days, I had to welcome those parts of me—my fear and my capability—as ushers towards the threshold of my own personal place of leadership.

poemsgavelanguageI began to name my benefactors, those people who have recognized, named and affirmed the gifts that I bring to community. Remembering my benefactors evoked a sense of gratitude within me and reconnected me to the benevolent, courageous and creative parts of my being. I also glanced over the notes I’d kept from a clearness committee for which I was a focus person during a Courage to Lead retreat in February. In that instance, I knew I was held in the same delicate way as I was during the clearness committee process at the retreat.

Memory leads us home to community, and at home, we find courage to be our very best selves. To nurture this courage, I ruminated on David Whyte’s poetry, and two particular poems, Henry Nouwen’s “Work Around Your Abyss” and David Wagoner’s “Lost” in Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead. These poems helped me give language to what I felt strongly within, but struggled to name. What I could not name is what I feared because it was unknown.

I had never been in a place with this much responsibility, for twenty-nine youths from different backgrounds, and staff members who were older than me. I feared especially how this new stage in my life would change me because my interest in youth empowerment is linked to some of my own critical experiences growing up—my ‘abyss’. Nouwen reminded me, I must not be completely absorbed by the pain in my abyss that I “fail to pay attention to the wound I want to heal.”

Poetry inspired in me the courage to swim through the ocean of uncertainty, and offered me a space safe for me to develop the capacity to remain present to my own transformations.

Upon arrival, the twenty-nine students spent time creating community norms and agreements that would support them all in achieving the general camp goals, but also their personal goals and intentions. One of the agreements, “Wisdom is in the questions,” supported the community in asking questions and learning across differences. Another agreement: “To fail is okay,” set the stage for participants to take creative risks without fear of failure.

For the rest of camp, the students participated in experiential activities and workshops designed to achieve the camp goals. Some of the activities included: challenge course, public speaking, transforming inner dialogue to allow growth, intercultural encounter, and conflict transformation. Participants also had a chance to develop their creativity through theater improvisation, community singing, visual arts, crocheting, break dance, and of course, poetry.


On day four, gender day, the males and females had separate programming focused on examining cultural gender prescriptions and the celebrations and challenges of each identity. The women read and reflected on Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” Each of them wrote a poem in response to their reflection on Angelou’s poem, and compiled what they’d written into a collage. They shared this collage of poems with the men at the end of the day.

One participant noted, “I have grown into a person who appreciates herself as a phenomenal lady, and also how to solve conflicts in a beneficial way.” Their enlivened, assertive and reflective presence testified to the new place of power each of them had stepped into for the day, ushered into this place by the grace and healing power of poetry.


At the end of every day at camp, following dinner, the whole community slowed in pace, gathered to hear a poem read by a fellow participant or staff. We then spent fifteen minutes in silent (quiet time) reflection about its message, or about the events of the day. Afterwards they’d share their reflections in groups of six. We opened our first quiet time with Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear,” which ushered the community to another threshold of truly showing up in our gifts and saying yes to the discomfort of risk-taking.

couragedoesntfindus“I am courageous enough to influence my friends and peers for positive change because I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone during AYLE,” one young person mentioned later during camp. I learn from this young person that courage doesn’t simply find us, rather courage is inspired as we wholeheartedly engage with the unknown that scares us, trusting the creative risk we are capable of when supported in a safe community.

Now a little over two months post the AYLE camp, I look back and see not only the participants’ growth, but also my very own. I emerge out of the experience aware that there seldom are easy answers to leadership. The journey is on going and each step in this great unknown calls for courage. For me, reading and writing poetry inspires that courage and provides replenishment along the journey. As an AYLE participant put it, “AYLE is a caring mother, which makes young leaders grow with courage.”

I am grateful to my benefactors, and to all whose words have fed my spirit, and to the communities that have mothered me into a deeper, more authentic, and more courageous place of personal leadership.andrewnalani

Andrew Nalani is from Kampala, Uganda and currently a junior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. He is majoring in religion, and hopes to design an independent study in transformative learning. He is also the student director for the office of religious and spiritual life at the school’s Tucker Foundation. Outside of class, Andrew has volunteered in the area of youth empowerment for the past 3 years.

Pilgrim’s Purpose: Finding Strength and Trust on the Camino Finisterra

val-elcamino1“…even before you sat down with them,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears from your eyes:
pilgrim they called you again. Pilgrim.”
—David Whyte, from Camino [1]

I was drawn to pilgrimages partly out of a deep desire to slow down and partly for a reason I could barely understand or articulate. More than a vacation, I was searching for real healing. I was deeply conditioned after graduate school and law school to ‘make good’, to ‘be somebody’, and the drive that propelled me was simultaneously numbing and exhausting.

I lived for decades with the primary tension of wanting and needing to ‘make a living’ and knowing that life was so much more.  I wanted to travel without a destination or agenda, to allow the fullness of time to unfold, to be lost in the small, ordinary moments, to break bread with strangers and to have that be enough.

I wanted to walk the pilgrim’s path, to allow the uncertainty of the road – the bad weather, the getting lost – to strip me of the illusion of control and shatter my small, meager self. Gradually, traveling called me to look deeply at myself, at my gritty individuality, my selfishness, and at the status and resources I worked hard to acquire.

travel documentsThis spring, I embarked on a sacred journey to explore the little known pilgrimage route from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterra, Spain, following the magnificent coastline of Galicia. Dating back as far as the 9th century, pilgrims have walked the Camino Finisterra to both Muxía and Finisterra as the final stretch of The Way of St. James, El Camino.

The ancient wisdom of India counsels that every journey consists of eleven directions. Between the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west lie the four intermediate directions: northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest. The direction above and below makes ten directions. The eleventh direction is inward, the journey into one’s inner self, the heart center. This inward journey is, of course, lifelong trip.

It is said that El Camino is measured not in miles but in the spirit in which you travel. Discovering the truth of this statement was one of many life lessons on the Camino Finisterra.

Day after day I walk along, arriving just before nightfall to the refugios, pilgrim hostels. I was dirty, my clothes were grungy, and my boots were caked with mud. I was tired of wrapping my feet with Vasoline, moleskin, and lambswool. My left hiking boot was torn to shreds by walking through muck and mud over my ankle and was literally being held together with duck tape.

Valerie's tattered pilgrim shoesI was sick of arriving at the refugios only to find the only bed available is the top of five stacked to the ceiling, the mattress ripped and filthy. I stand waiting in line to use the shower, which is caked with grime and smelly, the walls splattered with dead flies. And I sleep with one eye open clutching my rucksack for fear of having my passport stolen, not letting my boots, as disgusting as they were, out of my sight. I’m beginning to feel like a homeless person, like the poverty-stricken girl of my childhood. Packing and unpacking my sparse belongings and eating day-old food buried in the bottom of my rucksack left me feeling destitute.

I could walk away from all of this, pull out my American Express card and find the nearest Sheraton. ‘Cut and run’ has been my strategy for decades, ‘leave before you get left’.

The next day over breakfast, I stopped to chat with a bunkmate, Cheryl, a quietly confident former school teacher from Dearborn, Michigan. Cheryl said she was on her way back home, having walked nearly one thousand miles on El Camino. She began the walk after her cancer diagnosis.

“At first, it was really hard. I actually had to take a three-week break. I didn’t have the stamina and was hospitalized here in Spain. I was determined to live, and just decided I would start walking, and I did.” Cheryl paused, and I could feel her quiet determination and courage.

“The Camino taught me that I have a purpose, and that purpose starts with looking within myself for the source of strength and trust.”

Later that day as I walked along the Camino thinking of Cheryl, I faced the ‘cut and run’ impulse, and blessed it. I realized that my purpose in walking the Camino was to discover the eleventh direction, and not just to ‘find myself,’ but to be at home within myself, which required less movement outwardly and more movement inwardly.

[1] Whyte, David. Pilgrim. Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2012.


Valerie BrownJoin Valerie Brown for the pilgrimage El Camino, Spain, which departs in September 2015. Please contact her for more information about dates and pricing.

Also check out upcoming Courage & Renewal retreats that Valerie is facilitating:

Journey Toward Wholeness 4-Part Retreat Series
(Oct. 31, 2014 through July 19, 2015 near Philadelphia, PA)

Open Heart, Peaceful Mind: A Retreat for Rest & Reflection
(Dec. 28, 2014 – January 1, 2015 near Philadelphia, PA)

Journey Toward Wholeness 2-Part Retreat Series
(March 26-29 and Nov. 5-8, 2015 in Deerfield, MA)

Courage to Lead for Young United Methodist Ministers: A 6-Month Leadership Intensive for Faith Leaders to Renew, Reflect and Reconnect
(May 5-8 and Nov. 17-20, 2015 near Milwaukee, WI)

Journey Toward Wholeness 2-Part Retreat Series
(May 18-24 and Oct. 5-11, 2015 at Ghost Ranch in NM)

Holistic Decision-Making – It’s Not Just for Doctors

Decision-making is something that you can do with either your limited mind and ego, or by letting the choices percolate through your body, emotions, mind, heart, creative self-expression, intuition, spirituality, as well as through the dimensions of context and time – until a decision becomes clear with input from your total Self. Decisions made this way may ‘freak out’ your ego, but they can be truly transformative.”

Rehumanizing Medicine. Pre-order at Amazon.That advice comes from a new book by Dr. David Kopacz, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine. This is a book for people who are willing to change at a personal level in order to be better doctors and clinicians. Download this PDF to read the Table of Contents, Foreword and Introduction.

While Kopacz wrote this book mainly for medical professionals, we found it to be full of great insight and practices for anyone wishing to stay true to themselves in challenging times – in life and work. In that spirit, here is an excerpt – an exercise in “whole-self decision making.”

Making Decisions with Your Whole Self Exercise

We often think of decisions as something that we make with our logical, rational mind. Those of us who have gone through medical education have become decision-making machines, and have memorized and internalized algorithms and flow charts.

However, most important decisions are made with more than just the mind.

We can tap into nine different avenues of experience for greater self-awareness: body, emotions, mind, heart, creativity, intuition, spirit, context and time. Each dimension provides unique information that can be integrated for holistic decision-making.

This exercise presents an integrated way to make decisions. You don’t have to be a medical professional to try out this approach:

  1. Focus on a question you have about a particular decision in your life. Write the question on a piece of paper, or simply hold the question in your awareness. You can now work through each dimension to explore it from different perspectives.
  1. Start with the spiritual dimension. Allow yourself to feel into the ‘big picture’ level of meaning and purpose regarding the decision. How do different aspects of the decision lead to different possibilities for who you are as a person in the world? How might the decision affect your personal mission, goal and values in life?
  1. Next, move to the level of intuition. Do not work or push your brain to think. Let different aspects of the decision come together and separate. Decision-making at this level is almost like watching a kaleidoscope make different patterns before your eyes, as you daydream about what the patterns look like.
  1. Now move to the level of creative self-expression. Do not worry about practicalities or limitations at this point; just focus on what you are drawn to create in your life and with your life. What are the projects you have always dreamed of? Does this decision move you closer to your dreams? At this level, you are more actively engaged, as if you are influencing the way that the kaleidoscope pieces are coming together.
  1. The next level is your heart. Take a deep breath and feel into the center of your chest. Notice the changes in your heart as you examine different aspects of the decision. It may be a great decision, but if your heart is not fully in it, it will be a chore rather than a joy. See if you can notice a feeling of your heart opening or closing when you work with the decision.
  1. Now you can move to your mind and intellect. Your intellect is great at focusing the information from the other dimensions into a concrete plan. Maybe you are dreaming about being an astronaut. That may be very unlikely to happen, but you can ask yourself if there are any alternatives that capture the essence of being an astronaut. Maybe you could learn scuba diving – a more realistic way to explore another realm. Once you have this attainable dream, you can use your mind to think, develop a plan, organize and reality-test your dreams.
  1. After your intellect has shaped the input from the other dimensions, how do you feel, emotionally, about all of your options? Are you excited about the intellect’s proposal, or has it taken all the fun and adventure out of it? Feel back and forth through different aspects of the decision.
  1. Finally, you arrive at the dimension of physical reality. There are a few more steps before implementing your decision. You can use body awareness as another tool in making decisions. As you explore different aspects of the decision, what do you notice in your body? Are there butterflies in your stomach from excitement or anxiety? Do you have a headache, or feel dizzy or tired? Are you having a feeling of panic? Do you feel more alive? Does your body feel more solid and connected? Take notice of how your body responds to your decisions. Using body sensations can be challenging. Your body might be panicking over a decision about which the rest of your Self is very excited, but which calls for a lot of change at the physical level. Not all anxiety is bad or to be avoided. Sometimes the best decision for you is the one you are most anxious about. If you are patient with your bodily feelings, you will notice that you will pass through different waves of sensation and it may take a while to get to how you really feel deep within your Self.
  1. From the physical dimension, expand your awareness to consider your context. How does the context of your physical environment and your social situation provide new information about your decision? If you are moving forward with a change, how can you mobilize resources and support?
  1. Now, consider the temporal dimension. Can you implement the decision right now? Will it take years of planning because it is a long-term goal, like becoming a doctor? Are there many steps that you will have to negotiate and organize over a period of time? How does the decision fit into the timeline of your life?
  1. Now that you have gathered information from these nine different dimensions, the work of integrating them begins. You could do this in different ways, maybe just by an overall gestalt feeling, or by a vote from each dimension. At one level, you may feel incredibly excited. In another dimension, you may be terrified. How do you work with both of these contradictory feelings? That is the work of integration.

The process of integrating information from different dimensions into a holistic decision is a skill you develop over time. It is the same process that goes on at all levels, whether you are engaged in personal growth and the pursuit of self-knowledge, working with an individual client, developing your practice, or working for social change to transform the culture of medicine. This holistic work of examining, valuing and balancing different kinds of information is the work of transformation.

DKopacz300Excerpted with permission. Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine, by David R. Kopacz, MD. Chapter 10, Holistic Decision-Making (Ayni Books, Winchester, UK, 2014). This book launches November 28.

This book launches on November 28. You can pre-order at Amazon:

Looking for your own professional development? See upcoming Courage & Renewal programs and retreats for Health Care Professionals.

To Change Teacher Attitudes, Change School Climates

“School was a stressful place and it affected me physically and mentally,” said David LaBrie, a French and Spanish public high school teacher. This was at a time when morale at Lin-Wood High School couldn’t have been worse. Colleagues were bitter, cynical and unhappy. You could feel the distrust in the air.

“I tended to stay in my classroom and avoid interaction with my peers. I feared for my job. I assumed the worst when an administrator would ask, ‘Have you got a minute?’”

littleprince-businessman2When Courage to Teach was first presented to Lin-Wood faculty, David barely paid attention and did not sign up to participate. He remembers, “I passed it off as another worthless activity that we were forced to sit through when ‘I [was] busy with matters of consequence,’ just like the businessman in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel, The Little Prince.”

But after the first retreat led by facilitators Jean Haley and Anne Riley, another teacher, Heather Krill, urged David to reconsider. He joined the rest of the two-year series.

Courage to Teach transformed David into a more confident, content, and caring teacher.

“The Courage to Teach retreats were a safe place to reflect on why we became teachers in the first place,” said David. “My stress level has dropped and I have become happier overall. The skills I acquired have vastly improved my daily interactions with students, faculty, administration, friends and family.”

davidlabrie-cropThe experience helped David reconnect with his own identity as a teacher as well as with his fellow teachers. He said, “The touchstones allowed for genuine discussion and reflection in a safe, supportive and confidential atmosphere. Through the process, I learned to listen deeply to another person with without prejudgment, without waiting to jump in with my own thoughts. I respect that what they want to say is important to them.”

Heather also noticed that David was changed. “David didn’t buy into it right away, but now he’s the one who, if I start to get a little punchy at faculty meetings, will just touch my elbow and gently ask, ‘What would Anne say?’ He reminds me to be open.”

The long-lasting effects of Anne and Jean’s Courage to Teach are felt all throughout Lin-Wood High School. The atmosphere is more harmonious than ever before. Relational trust in the classroom and a deepened sense of community has moved their educational mission forward.

David said, “The students reflect the behavior of the teachers who participated in Courage to Teach. Student-teacher confrontations are rare. This overall atmospheric change has made for a supportive learning environment, which in turn has resulted in greater student success.”

In 2013, Lin-Wood High School was named Best Small High School in New Hampshire by U.S. News and World Report. Data collected by Antioch University New England showed an overall increase in student achievement and staff morale.

What is good teaching?

teachingisanart“Teaching is an art form,” David replied earnestly. “You need to have a passion for your subject and for children. You need to be healthy in mind, body and spirit. You need to recognize that each student is an individual with their own specific needs, problems and aspirations. You hold your expectations high and watch the students ‘rise to them.’ You have to compartmentalize all of the administrative-political ‘noise’ and teach from your heart. If you do that, it won’t matter what the newest flavor-of-the-month educational directive is—you and your students will learn and grow.”

RESEARCH REPORT: pdf Courage to Teach in New Hampshire: A Ten-Year Retrospective (2014). Courage & Renewal facilitators Jean Haley and Anne Riley report on a decade of Courage to Teach, studied in collaboration with Antioch University’s Tomey Center of Business Management’s and underwritten by the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

Curious about Courage to Teach programs?
Learn more and sign up for an upcoming retreat!


Love is the Most Powerful Weapon

Hip-hop artist Prince Ea sits in the rubble of a home in St. Louis and tells us “the world is coming to an end.” He paints a picture that could end with despair, but inspires us instead with a wholehearted challenge:

Instead of trying to change others, we can change ourselves.
We can change our hearts…

Once we truly LOVE we will meet
anger with sympathy
hatred with compassion
cruelty with kindness.

Love is the most powerful weapon on the face of the earth.

Robert Kennedy once said that
few will have the greatness to bend history
but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.
And in the total of all those acts
will be written the history of a generation.
So yes, the world is coming to an end
and the path towards a new beginning starts within you.

When it feels like the world is coming to an end, or you’re facing the end of an era in your life, what would shift if you thought of that end as a beginning? A beginning that starts within you?

It takes courage to love, to “change our hearts,” as he says.
It takes courage to say something should end and to do something about it.
It takes courage to “change a small portion of events.”
It takes courage to start the change within you.

Take courage.

Warm regards,

Terry Chadsey
Executive Director

P.S. You can discover your own courage by attending a Courage & Renewal program.


mail iconToday’s blog is a mirror of our monthly Words of EnCOURAGEment e-newsletter. View the whole thing online and if you’re not a subscriber yet, sign up so you don’t miss anything!

A Better Way to Talk About Difference


Sherry Watt was looking for a way to navigate difficult dialogue around cultural difference, topics like race and religion that can start dangerous fires. “I needed a way to approach these contentious issues in the classroom without being consumed by it,” she said.

Courage & Renewal gave Sherry a framework for changing the classroom into a space where students could think about their differences together instead of against each other. “The Courage work helped me see that I don’t need to make something happen; instead I create a container and hold a space for people to explore a difficult topic.”

Sherry Watt7-12-12 photoAs an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at the University of Iowa, Sherry teaches the next generation of educational leaders—graduate students who will go on to serve in the roles of administrators and student affairs practitioners in higher education institutions. Sherry’s courses on multiculturalism equip students with powerful strategies to engage difference in learning settings and beyond.

In Courage & Renewal, ‘Third Things’ are a device, such as a poem, song, or story, that inspire us to reflect on our personal experiences through the lens of universal themes. It occurred to Sherry that something like racial inequality could be a Third Thing through which students view themselves.

Instead of setting up an adversarial relationship between people of color and white people, she could invite everyone to tell the truth as they experience it and learn from others’ truths. With careful facilitation, such dialogue might build toward a collective understanding of what it means to live in a racialized society, how we can make that change.

“Or in the case of my students,” Sherry said, “How can they go into the world and create environments that nurture college students?”

When difficult dialogues aren’t conducted well, there’s a lot of guilt and shaming, Sherry points out. Controversy and marginalization dominate the conversation.

“This has the greatest impact on the people who are part of marginalized groups, but it affects all people, including those of privilege, who interact within the institution.”

And in the world at large, when people feel like they don’t have a voice, we see cultural clashes like what has happened in the protests over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

“Using the Circle of Trust Touchstones, I introduce a kinder, gentler way of engaging around something that’s very ugly,” Sherry said.

In the case where a young man’s life is lost like in Ferguson, there is little consolation.

“These topics feel very personal to students. They want to target each other, or they want to target me. When I introduce the Courage principles, it shifts that target. It helps us find more productive and less volatile ways of engaging. It facilitates a sense of being in it together.”

For example, Sherry recalls this past semester when religion was a source of polarization in her classroom. There were many students who were passionate about their beliefs and others who felt oppressed. Before diving into another dispute, Sherry put the Touchstones on the table and lightly refreshed them.

  1. Give and receive welcome.
  2. Be present as fully as possible.
  3. What is offered in a circle is by invitation, not demand.
  4. Speak your truth in ways that respect other people’s truths.
  5. No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other.
  6. Learn to respond to others with honest, open questions.
  7. When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.
  8. Attend to your own inner teach.
  9. Trust and learn from the silence.
  10. Observe deep confidentiality.
  11. Know that it’s possible to leave with whatever you need and that the seeds planted here can keep growing in the days ahead.

A student opened the conversation. She said she was sorry that her religion—something she loved so much—had hurt so many people.

“It was a beautiful moment where she wasn’t taking responsibility for her whole religion, but just expressing her sorrow. And the other students noted how expressing her sorrow opened up a space for them to heal a little bit of the hurt they had experienced,” said Sherry.

“There are so many different ways to apply the Courage work,” Sherry said. “It has value for transforming how people engage around tough topics—not just race and religion, but other tough issues as well. It has the potential to help people think together. It creates space that supports their authentic self-development.”


Sherry Watt has been a Courage & Renewal facilitator since 2007 and has worked at a number of higher education institutions. Sherry finds her calling in designing and leading educational experiences that involve strategies to engage participants in dialogue that is meaningful, passionate, and self-awakening. Read more about Circles of Trust in Higher Education Multicultural Initiatives. Contact Sherry Watt.

Asking Honest, Open Questions, Resisting the Need to Fix, & Letting the Light In

This past weekend, 22 Dinner Party hosts came together for our first-ever host retreat in Point Reyes Station, CA: a tiny town on the coast just north of San Francisco, replete with Douglas firs, foggy mornings, and clear-skied afternoons. One part wellness retreat, one part skill-building fest, one part The Real World for adults (sans the scandal,) the weekend was–if we may be so bold–straight-up magic.

We’ve known from the beginning that successful hosting isn’t about having the perfect thing to say at any moment, or offering help or guidance–and it most certainly isn’t about being an expert. But it does require that we really show up. Hosts have to be willing to model the same vulnerability that we ask of everyone at the table, while simultaneously avoiding the urge to speak at every moment, or to become a dominant voice. We have to listen without distraction, and engage in a conversation, rather than a series of rehearsed narratives. It requires that we be, in the words of today’s bona fide meditation gurus and the many peddlers of those age-old principles, really and truly present.

Going into the weekend, we had three goals in mind: First and foremost, we invited everyone to get their self-care on. We opened with a morning devoted to going inward: yoga and meditation and indulging in the finest cornmeal pancakes known to humankind.  We reflected on the very real men and women who’d brought us all together, and on where we are today, and where we’d been. At the group’s decree, “Monday AM” was on the list of things we were to leave behind.

Second, we wanted a chance to share what works and what doesn’t, and to dive into the “how-to’s”: How do you create a space that’s both casual and intimate (#chillpotluckvibes), and simultaneously invites people to go deep? What do you do when someone’s steamrolling a conversation? What’s the difference between an open and honest question and one that’s really advice-giving in disguise?

And finally, the host retreat was our first chance to bring together folks from across tables, and to begin to paint the canvas together. We wanted to walk away knowing that in five years, we’ll be able to look back on the weekend as a turning point: The moment the seeds of a movement first took root. We may not have a crystal ball, but we’re willing to place a bet: Mission accomplished.


A few takeaways:

  1. Be. Don’t do. Ours is a culture obsessed with to-do lists: An obsession we share, as one look at our post-it collection will prove. The compulsion to “do” goes beyond the occasional temptation to give advice, or desire to fix, or to correct (all of which should be squelched, pronto.) We want to be the perfect host. We want to make everyone feel instantly at ease, and taken care of. We want to say the perfect things, and create the perfect space, and cook up a main dish that could leave any foodie salivating for more. Among the themes of the weekend was letting go the constant need to do.
  2. Ask honest, open questions. We were joined over the weekend by the amazing Karen Erlichman, a facilitator with the Center for Courage & Renewal (an org we’ve gushed about before, and that it’s safe to say we’re a teeny tiny bit obsessed with.) Karen shared the distinction between open questions and closed ones, and questions you know the answer to, and questions whose answer you couldn’t possibly guess. It can be tempting to ask a question that’s actually a suggestion: basically anything that begins with the words, “Have you tried…” Asking honest, open questions means focusing on the present tense, rather than the past: “Where are you now,” rather than questions about the past, intended merely to satiate your curiosity. It means lifting up words and phrases you hear: “Say more about that,” and “OMG, I’m so glad you said that–that really resonates.”
  3. Invite silence. As a general rule, we’re not fans of rules. But one thing we do mention when someone’s joining a table for the first time is that folks are never under any obligation to speak, and that we don’t believe in awkward silences. Yet we’re hardly immune from the compulsion to fill silence, and the tendency to feel uncomfortable the instant a conversation pauses. We were reminded again and again over the weekend of the value of silence, and those rare moments that you can block out the noise, and really listen to yourself. There’s a difference, of course, between silence and feeling silenced, so for those of us who are prone to continually speak up, resisting the urge to jump right in can give someone who hasn’t spoken up in awhile a chance to speak. It can be as easy as starting or closing a dinner with a meditation, or simply making a conscious effort to allow space in between questions and different conversation threads.
  4. Hold opposites. “Hospitable and charged,” “silence and speech,” “forward movement” and “ugly truths,” “#chillpotluck vibes” vs. “#realtalk,” making space to laugh and to cry, a recognition that every one of our stories is different and that ours is a shared story. We got paradoxes aplenty, which can be challenging when our impulse is to put things in neat little boxes, and constantly categorize. Here, we apply the great law of improv: Yes and, y’all.
  5. Let the light in. Srsly. Yes, this s*#@ gets heavy. No, we don’t have any interest in pretending otherwise. But “have fun” is, to us, way more than the kind of empty directive found at the bottom of a 10th-grade science assignment. To keep people coming back–hell, to keep coming back ourselves–we have to want to be there. And that means laughing as much as we cry, and forging real friendships, and balancing the light and the dark.

Lennon FlowersWe’ll be heading out to eastern PA for our East Coast host retreat, September 26-28. There are still a couple of spots free for folks looking to start a table of their own, so email if you want to reserve a spot.

Huge thanks to everyone who gave during our Indiegogo campaign: You all are what made these two weekends possible. On behalf of all of us here in Dinner Partyland, thank you.

This blog post originally appeared on Learn more about how Lennon Flowers and her team are transforming life after loss from an isolating experience into one marked by community support, candid conversation, and forward movement.

Dialing in to a Circle of Trust

Montana's wide open spaces

Wide open spaces that isolate. Tight finances and long travel time. That makes it hard for pastors to leave their congregations for one retreat, much less a seasonal Courage to Lead series. But the value of connecting rural clergy with each other was too great to ignore. We wondered if there was another way  to build on an introductory retreat experience…by phone.

Can the sense of community and transformational learning generated in a Circle of Trust retreat be deepened through a series of participant/facilitator conference calls without additional face-to-face contact?

The answer I found was a resounding “Yes!”, according to a group of 43 western pastors who participated in an experimental project beginning in 2008. Each pastor attended an introductory Courage to Lead in-person retreat in Montana followed by a series of five “virtual book groups” based on Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness.

Their “up until now” conference call experience had left most pastors skeptical that the group follow-up calls would be worth participating in at all. I promised the calls would emulate the retreat format they had learned in a Circle of Trust, including large group discussions, journaling and small group discussions. To encourage deeper connection, I created multiple call groups from each introductory retreat that limited participants in each group to six. (A complete description of call mechanics can be found in the link that follows this post.)

Throughout the call series, I gathered participants’ qualitative assessments of the experience and later clustered those comments into themes. To avoid creating what I feared might be a dry write-up of results, I decided to communicate findings through “found poetry,” a new research reporting method I had discovered in which words and phrases from participant responses are crafted into verse in keeping with the themes they expressed.

Although there were some glitches to the groups, participants said that the practices and trust developed in the in-person retreat and the call format made deep communication possible – despite their original skepticism. “Irony,” a poem that includes multiple folks’ comments, communicates this evolution of feeling about the value of the calls:


I miss eye contact—
that I do miss.
Visual cues
are so important
that I was kind of
I was surprised
(the calls)
were as effective
as they were.
I was surprised
the phone
could be used to get away.
Wonderful irony
that this little
bane of our existence
could become
a way in(to) retreat.

The series also deepened participants’ practice with what we call “honest, open questions.” A consistent theme in their responses was the power of this practice to move their counseling relationships with parishioners in a positive new direction. Many said the innovative way of questioning shifted their own role from unrealistic and unsuccessful “fixer” to rewarding and empowering “witness” in support of parishioners uncovering their own spiritual resources.

A number of poems are devoted to this theme, but the most dramatic testament to the value of honest, open questions came from a pastor who used these questions to help a suicidal parishioner. She related that one day a member of her congregation had called in desperation, telling her, “I don’t want to live. I can’t fight the system. Everybody hates me.” The poem tells the story of what happened before she remembered to stop “fixing” and ask honest, open questions:

I had a parishioner
suicidal mode:
I was asking
and when I got
too aggressive,
___­­­­___ cried,
“You’re not
helping me!”
I reflect on
my past ministry:
I was naturally
curious and aggressive,
and it makes me
to cringe.

Later, the pastor reflected on how using honest, open questions transformed a future call and may have helped saved her parishioner’s life:

As I sat with _____ in silence over the phone, my training in spiritual direction and honest open questions came back. I realized my spirit was already trying to have a conversation. I needed to get out of my judgmental head. I began to slowly ask _______ honest open questions that invited him to explore what_____ really needed. As I did, the situation on the phone deescalated.

Today _______ is still here. When _____ calls, I just listen … listen for feelings. Using the new skill caused me to look back on my old way of working with parishioners in crisis.

Facilitator Chris LoveTo learn more about creating virtual retreats, you can purchase a copy of the journal, Teaching and Learning from the Inside Out, edited by Margaret Golden, in which a longer version of this article first appeared. Individual articles are also available for purchase.

Chris Love is a Courage & Renewal facilitator from Corvallis, MT. She brings a background in education, marketing and organization development to the work and has facilitated Circle of Trust retreats for clergy, educators and health care professionals.

The New York Times Interviews Parker Palmer

New-York-Times-LogoOn September 4, the online New York Times posted an interview with Parker, Reclaiming ‘We the People,’ One Person at a Time. In case you didn’t see Parker’s note about it on Facebook, we’ve reposted it here.

Click to read the New York Times interview with Parker Palmer.There’s an interview with me in [the] online New York Times that focuses on my book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy.”  If you feel so moved, please leave a comment at the end of the interview, and share the link with your friends.

The interview was conducted by , Times staff columnist and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN). “Solutions journalism” is a welcome alternative to the media’s long-time habit of reporting social problems without any attention to how they are being or might be solved. The result? Many of us feel overwhelmed and powerless to effect social change.

But there’s hope on the horizon! A new generation of journalists—committed to using the media to empower as well as inform—are devoting considerable skill and energy to achieving that goal. I’m grateful to know two of them: David Bornstein and Courtney Martin, also a co-founder of SJN [and also a board member for the Center for Courage & Renewal].

David has written a superb book called “How to Change the World” which you can learn more about at And Courtney’s fine book, “Do It Anyway”, which I’ve praised here before, is at

As for “Healing the Heart of Democracy”, it’s now out in paperback, with a new Introduction and Discussion Guide. You can learn more about it here,

People Can Change

To celebrate the paperback release of Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, we’d like to share a story from the book’s new Introduction. This is the first time Parker tells this story in print. It’s about forgiveness and hope.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In March 2011, shortly after I sent the final draft of this book to the publisher, I had an experience that brought to life much of what I had written about. I participated in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., and led by Congressman John Lewis. The pilgrimage began in Birmingham, Alabama, moved on to Montgomery, and ended in Selma, where we marked the forty-sixth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a pivotal event in American political history.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process.

edmundpettusbridge-1965When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.

The 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was led by John Lewis, then twenty-five years old and chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As leader, he was one of the first to be beaten by the police, who fractured his skull and left marks he bears to this day.

It left another kind of mark on me in March 2011 to follow the seventy-one-year-old John Lewis–U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1987, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom–across the bridge where forty-six years earlier he had led others in a courageous exercise of people power.

John Lewis

During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of themes that are key to this book:

  • the centrality of the “habits of the heart” that we develop in the local venues of our lives;
  • the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy;
  • the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and
  • creating the kind of tension that might arouse “the better angels of our nature.”

The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this county at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multi-generational stream of “underground” activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.

With the exception of such places as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, every stop we made on the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage was at a church–the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma–where we heard sermons, sang songs, and felt history.

Through study, practice, and prayer, civil rights activists had prepared for action in places like these. And when those actions brought the wrath of the politicians and police down upon their heads, the activists returned to these places to heal, regroup, and act again.

The few white Americans who were aware of the black church prior to the Civil Rights movement generally discounted its political relevance. As a boy growing up in an affluent white suburb of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, I remember being told by a white clergyperson that African American religion was all about “pie in the sky when you die by-and-by,” a phrase used by capitalists who were unconsciously and ironically parroting Marx’s notion of “religion as the opiate of the people.”

“Pie-in-the-sky” was a racist, dismissive, and profoundly ignorant characterization of the role of the black churches in the United States. In fact, these churches birthed a form of social activism that eventually transformed the lay and the law of the land. Like the tiny church I wrote about in Chapter II of this book, these churches had long been helping oppressed people develop habits of the heart that empowered them to become participants in the democratic process.

At the end of the Pilgrimage, after we had marched across the bridge, we boarded a bus to take us to the Montgomery Airport for the flight home.

By happenstance, I sat just behind John Lewis and one of his staffers where I overheard Lewis telling a story.

In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.” They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.

In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?”

John_lewis_official_biopicLewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”

As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member.

Then, in a very soft voice–as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him–Lewis said, “People can change . . . People can change . . .”

At that moment, I felt as if I had seen deep into the soul of a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” I saw the faith in our shared humanity that has kept John Lewis on the march for all these years, despite the abundant evidence that we are capable of being unloving, untruthful, and unjust.

I thought of this good man again on June 25, 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Lewis had helped make possible with his own blood, sweat, and tears.

As I say in the Prelude to this book, “The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good.”

When I heard John Lewis say, “People can change… People can change…,” I felt a sense of hope, not simply for “them” but for me.

The belief that change is possible–personal as well as social change–can keep us engaged with this endless experiment for the long haul, doing whatever we can to help democracy not only survive but thrive.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Healing the Heart of Democracy: Now available in paperbackThe new paperback edition of Healing the Heart of Democracy, released August 25th, 2014, includes two new features:

(1) a chapter-length Introduction with Parker’s latest thoughts, from which the story above is taken;

(2) a detailed Discussion Guide with links to videos related to key topics in the book.

Watch videos of Parker J. Palmer and singer Carrie Newcomer in the online discussion guide.


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