The power of coming to a conversation with an open mind and heart

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
Kimberly Williams, far left, executive director of Good Shepherd Volunteers, and GSV's community in Chile — Liana, Madeline and Katie — set off to their midyear retreat in San Felipe. (Provided photo)

Santiago, Chile — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.

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In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emergence of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit- empowered people.

– Richard J. Foster, from Celebration of Discipline

What does it mean to be a "Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people?" Over the past seven months, I've explored this question alongside my two fellow GSVs (Good Shepherd Volunteers) here in Chile through our shared commitment to one of the four tenets of GSV: community.

Our community had a midyear retreat March 3-5 in San Felipe, where the Good Shepherd Sisters established their first house in Chile over 160 years ago. It seemed appropriate that in the birthplace of the sisters' mission in Chile, we gathered to revisit our initial hopes, intentions and commitments from the beginning of our service year and to reflect on how they had been unfolding over the first six months.

The executive director of GSV, Kimberly Williams, traveled from the United States to facilitate. The theme of the retreat was listening: listening to God, ourselves and others to set new goals as individuals and as a community for the second half of the year.

A view of one of the gardens in the Sisters of the Good Shepherd retreat house in San Felipe, Chile. (Katie Delaney)

Among beautiful gardens and the sisters' peaceful retreat house, we had an opportunity to listen to God and ourselves in quiet prayer time and reflection. I have been trying to cultivate time and space for such quiet reflection over the course of the year as a part of my commitment to another tenet of GSV, simplicity, so I welcomed this invitation. During our free time, I enjoyed reading articles Kimberly shared with us, coloring mandalas or merely resting and enjoying the scenery.

Another intention for the retreat was to listen to each other. Using a photo-reflection activity, we had an opportunity to reflect on our experience as GSVs over the past six months. Kimberly laid out a number of stock pictures on the ground and invited us to select images that most represented the four tenets and our overall expectations of our GSV year. Before sharing the meaning behind our photos, Kimberly encouraged us to really consider the other person's point of view and imagine being in her shoes.

Each person took a turn explaining her pictures, speaking openly without interruption. This was a beautiful opportunity to both hear and be heard, with the images providing a visual snapshot into the other person's story. It was powerful having other people serve as witnesses to my experience as well as empathizing with and learning from others. How rarely we take the time or space for such authentic sharing in our busy culture.

After sharing as a group, we took some time to decompress and debrief one-on-one with Kimberly. Later that evening, we came back together with the intention of talking about our community. Over the course of the year, we faced some challenges that I did not think we had completely resolved. With this in mind, I felt a bit nervous as we got closer to the conversation.

Katie Delaney, center, and her two fellow GSVs, Madeline, left, and Liana, during one of the retreat's shared-listening exercises. (Provided photo)

Kimberly opened with a prayer, inviting the Good Shepherd to guide our hearts and our time together. I immediately thought of a quote from one of the excerpts she had shared with us, Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster: "Issues are approached with an assurance that the mind of the spirit can be known. They gather in Christ's name, believing that his will will be fleshed out in their midst. They do not seek compromise, but God-given consensus."

Starting the conversation in this way helped me feel we were creating an environment of trust, courage and unity grounded in Spirit. It didn't eliminate all of my anxiety, but remembering that we weren't alone, that God was active among us, brought a sense of hope and comfort for what could be.

Kimberly continued to model this approach to listening and sharing. If an idea came to mind for a potential topic to discuss, she presented it to the group with an openness to discuss it or let it go. She spoke to her belief that we could all discern what felt right to share and speak to. In tandem, I witnessed my community members practice courageous and vulnerable sharing of their own experiences in community.

Katie Delaney, left, and Kimberly Williams rest during a tour of the sisters' gardens in San Felipe, Chile. (Provided photo)

It quickly became clear that much of my experience was based on my assumptions. I had interpreted my community's interactions over the course of the year according to my opinions of others' intentions rather than asking what their intentions actually were. Finally hearing my community members' experiences from their own perspective changed my perception of our dynamic.

The next morning, we came back together to set goals that would honor our individual hopes and needs and also help us to grow together as a community. Honestly, I wasn't sure this was possible for us at the beginning of the retreat. I wholeheartedly believe that our practice of listening laid a foundation for the possibility of hope and healing.

This process showed me the power of coming to a conversation — and other people — with a truly open mind and heart. When I enter a conversation with my point of view completely decided or with a fixed opinion that I am right and the other is wrong, I close off a chance for growth and new possibilities to move forward. With multiple perspectives, we create a fuller picture of what's really happening. It is important to honor our beliefs; I just hope I can continue learning to do so in a way that also seeks to understand others' beliefs. Can I consider why people believe what they do? What experiences have shaped their opinions? What needs may be yearning to be met?

Katie Delaney's visual reminder of her goals to explore two values of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in her remaining time as a volunteer: mercy and reconciliation. (Katie Delaney)

It seems that now, more than ever, we have a surplus of opportunities to practice this type of listening: in our homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship, and local and global communities.

Our practice isn't perfect, nor will it ever be. Foster encourages us to acknowledge that "we are fallible human beings and there are times when, despite our best efforts, our own prejudices and fears keep us from a Spirit-led unity. Sometimes we simply see things differently. … If this happens, my counsel is that we be kind to each other."

With kindness, may we ask, listen and seek to understand. We may be surprised by what we hear.

[Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer in Santiago, Chile.]

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