Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #169. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 30, 2021; in print Aug. 1

Promises made: easy. Promises kept: not automatic, often ignored.

In May I wrote about an ad, “Community Leaders Committed to Creating Place Equity,” that appeared – with 70 signatures – in the St. Cloud Times on April 17. The statement was prompted by the killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center on April 11. “While this event did not happen in our community, we are not immune from its implications.”

The ad continued: “Many of us are in pain, many of us are conflicted, many of us are angry, many of us are tired. But together we remain committed to securing a deeper understanding of the problem and creating solutions that lift us all.”

One thing was clear: The usual response wasn’t working. Simply being spectators any longer wouldn’t do. What could change the narrative?

The April ad identified an action step: “Create a Safe Space for Brave Conversations: Create a space (virtual or in-person) where youth, friends, family or neighbors can share what they are feeling and support one another” – where, in short, we can be cut loose from every stereotype (of which there are plenty to go around on all sides).

Last Tuesday that promise – “we remain committed” – was kept.

At the St. Cloud Public Library – itself an invaluable safe space model for our region – “Safe Spaces: A Year of Community Conversations” was launched. Pastor James Alberts spoke on behalf of those who, in the April ad, had made the pledge.

Safe Spaces is an initiative grounded in the conviction that honest and open conversations about sensitive and difficult issues – not denying, evading or papering over them – are crucial if we are to have safe and thriving communities.

Yes, it’s an initiative, but it’s also … an app!

Currently, 85% of adult Americans own smartphones. Initial expectations that interconnectedness would bring us all closer together have been dashed by conspiracy theories, misinformation and affinity groups who listen only to what they already think. Too often our phones provide space safe for comfortable conversations, not brave ones.

Safe Spaces (; click on “add SafeSpaces to homescreen”) is designed to facilitate a variety of communication styles, all of which aid in the creation of a new narrative. It provides guidance for both one-on-one conversations and conducting small groups.

It also offers the opportunity to debrief what you have learned and what the next steps could be. The app makes it possible to track and share activity, progress, challenges, lessons, opportunities. Safe Spaces is aspirational, but it is also data-driven. There will be evidence for how we are doing – and for what works and what doesn’t.

The immediate goal: to engage over 5,000 people between now and next June in deep conversations that build human connection. The longer-term goal: to change the narrative of “White Cloud” to an inclusive and hopeful future for every person in this area.

The key terms are honesty, openness, safe conflict (yes, you read that right: safe conflict) – all of which are prerequisite to deepened understandings of one another and our unique individual and collective experiences.

The conversations are not chit-chat. They are grounded in genuine curiosity – the curiosity we all naturally have, even if we’ve let it atrophy: Not just “How are you?” but “How was that for you?” “Could you tell me more?” “How did that make you feel?” “What happened next?” And, of course, deep listening. Likely, not everything you hear will make you feel good. Discomfort is the clue to search out the stories beneath what it is that’s making you uneasy.

You may be apprehensive that the more we uncover our uniquenesses, our differences, we’ll move farther apart. But one of the worst tricks we’ve played on ourselves is to suppose that diversity is a threat to community. How did it happen that we’ve made it bad to be different?

Alberts led the group gathered at the Library in some safe space exercises. What don’t we know about each other? How does such conversation dispel our ignorance not only about others but also about ourselves? What does it mean to carry our safe space with us? We’re not confronting racism and hatred head-on. We’re establishing relationships – which means we’re no longer spectators.

Relationships have a gravitational force that pulls us out of our habitual orbits. We may not yet be “family,” but we are on the road to “community.”

Today begins my 15th year writing for the Times. From the beginning my theme has been “the renewal of human community.” Many of the 168 previous columns have highlighted contributions to such renewal by persons, institutions, initiatives. Alberts has lived here two and half decades and has seen it all. He’s hopeful. Never have I been more hopeful – or more grateful – than I am for “Safe Spaces.” Get the app!