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The World Café Goes to Church!
by Karen Speerstra

Tucked into a Vermont hillside, Christ Church in Bethel (Beth-el which means house of God) welcomes "old Vermonters" and "flatlanders"—those of us who are newer to Vermont—through its red doors. The folks who regularly turn up on any Sunday morning, rarely number more than 30, of all ages. So, imagine my surprise when, on average, sixteen people chose to sit down at Café tables in the Parish House, next door, for sandwiches and conversation following four consecutive Sunday morning worship hours in March of 2002.

We called our three twenty minute Café rounds: Christ Church Ministry of Conversation and Deep Listening: for Lenten People on Their Pilgrimage Toward Easter. The Café process is now so engrained and comfortable for the Christ Church folks, that whenever an event is suggested, someone will invariably say, "Let's do a Café."

The comments gathered from the four events were recorded in a little booklet designed to be a meditative tool for those who were not able to attend, and to document our conversations and insights gleaned from the four newsprint table cloths each week.

Robert helped me design the events and, although he was skeptical at first, about the "loose agenda," he—and a few others equally unsure of how this would all go—agreed that it's something that now "belongs to our parish." Money has even been appropriated to buy card tables so we can recreate our cafes without borrowing furniture! One of our four tables was positioned in the only bay-window area of the two open and adjoining rooms in which the events were held. After observing that particular table over the course of 12 total rounds of different folks who sat there, I was amused to notice that window table was always the last group to wind down their conversations. Regardless of the table host or the participants, it was, without a doubt, the most hospitable spot, with more light, and a bit more leg room than at the other tables.

Robert and I came up with four questions to launch the conversations and he and I acted as hosts. I was present for more of the "process stuff" and he, for the "content stuff." The four questions mirrored the four texts in Lent:

John 4:7: "The Woman at the Well" (Jesus stops to rest at Jacob's well and has a conversation with a Samaritan woman.)

Question: Can you remember when you were part of an authentic conversation? What was unusual about it?

John 9: 1-13 "Healing the Blind Beggar (Jesus, using only his own spit and some clay and a man's trust, restores the sight of a beggar, blind from birth.)

Question: "How has your vision changed? Think of times when you were 'blind' or 'partially sighted'--how did you learn to see?

John 11 "The Raising of Lazarus" (Jesus is called by his friends Mary and Martha to heal their brother, but when Jesus arrives, Lazarus has already been buried.)

Question: Think of times you've experienced great change. How have you died and how were you resurrected?

The text for Palm Sunday was the Passion Story from Matthew 26

Question(s): Christ's entry into Jerusalem was both triumphal and humiliating. Can you think of times in your life when you have both won and lost? When have you, like the disciples, experienced love or courage in the midst of overwhelming anger or fear? Have you, like the disciples, felt abandoned? What happened?

The shared responses, insights and further questions fill a 15 page booklet.

The first session elicited some interesting comments about listening and authentic conversation more apropos, perhaps, for general Café consideration, than some of the comments gleaned from the other three Sunday sessions. So, with the Christ Church participants' permission, I include some of our collective comments inspired by the text of Jesus talking to the woman at the well.

Authentic Conversations:

Require respect for other persons; a willingness to accept what they say, along with their limitations.

Have no agenda and are not rehearsed

Are not about lying or being arrogant or set in one's ways; they are not about judging others, nor are they about trying to impress. And they are not necessarily about convincing someone of your point.

Involve risk

Are wide-ranging and need not be focused

Evolve: there are no right answers and the outcome is not pre-ordained

Often occur in non-ordinary circumstances: e.g. around a campfire, while traveling, on an overnight, when a parent senses time is running out, at a funeral or a wedding or a birth

Can take place in a one time meeting—on a bus, in an elevator—a chance meeting that offers a safe openness

Happen when we keep an open mind

Can show up in survival situations when lives truly depend on authenticity

Are straight-forward, not elliptical

Imply a sharing of one's very self.

Deep Listening:

Involves matters of the heart where the listener and the speaker's roles intertwine

Can be recognized when you experience true validation

Means giving your whole attention to another

Is based on trust

Embodies compassion and caring

Happens when one is engaged in the conversation, the subject matter, the shared experiences and nothing else matters

May not be as easy in large families

Means remembering that each person has a unique life experience and may not be talking about the same thing, even if the topic is the same

Means listening to everyone at the table—whether it's a dinner party or a café setting

Is about being open and empathetic, but not necessarily coming from the same place

Demands full attention

Signifies an honoring presence

Authentic Conversation Can Be Challenging:

It means you must stand on your own two feet.

Authenticity may show itself through disagreement.

Crises may bring out who the speakers really are.

As in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, it might mean calling someone's bluff.

When Are Authentic Conversations Likely to Happen?

As we grow older

In speaking with children

During major life-change times e.g. approaching death, a marriage, a birth

Between individuals rather than in groups

When we are present: when we can focus and clear our own mind.

Shared Insights:

If you spend your whole life trying to avoid being embarrassed, you miss opportunities for authentic exchange.

When you have a 'real' conversation, it's as if you were sent there at that time to be of use.

Knowing flaws can bring freedom.

Authentic conversation makes room for the 'other' and people are revealed.

When we speak of antiques, the word authentic means it is not a replica.

When we meet in authentic conversation, we find meaningful long-term relationships: parent/child, spouses and partners, friends.

Family is sometimes the place for authentic conversation—and sometimes it isn't.

Sometimes silence is inauthentic. For instance, when we confront racism.

Knowing flaws can bring freedom.

Fear keeps authenticity at bay, as does good manners and the need to be "nice."

Additional Questions to Ponder:

What initiates authentic conversations?

What if being authentic is to say something critical or difficult?

How do you know the person speaking is speaking from the heart and not saying, for example, what you want to hear?

For an authentic conversation, is it necessary for everyone to have a basic knowledge of the topic?

Why are conversations frequently one-sided?

Is there a difference between conversation and dialogue?

Why don't we have more?

As we moved through the twenty minute rounds, people became very aware of how their conversations deepened and how insights got stitched together in deeper and sturdier ways. Several people who attended the Lenten Cafes said they had never experienced conversation in such a deep way before—and it was such a treat to be truly listened to. One told me later how different she found it to be than most social conversations where you stand, and move somewhere else if you find it boring. Or in any way uncomfortable. "At first, I admit, I felt 'stuck' there for 20 minutes, but then I began realizing I was one of four people responsible for how interesting this was going to be."

We collected a few comments later to share with people as a post-script to the four events. The comments of Christ Church parishioners could have come from any group, in any Café setting. But because they came from people who had, at that point, sat in four different café sessions, their comments may, in some ways, be even more insightful. The process and the resulting booklet have been shared with Vermont's bishop and other area state-wide church leaders, by way of introducing them to what Christ Church people found to be authentic conversation.

Here is what Christ Church people said when the cafés concluded:

"We got to be like family."

"People really opened up, didn't they? I guess it was because they felt safe."

"I caught myself this week thinking, 'Why am I so happy? Oh, it's because I'm really looking forward to more good café conversation next Sunday.'"

"Even outside the Parish House, we're doing more real talking, it seems."

"Most of you have a college education and express deep thoughts. I don't--and I have no deep thoughts, but I decided to come anyway and I'm glad I did. Maybe I do have some deep thoughts."

"Were the Cafes meaningful? Why else do you think I came to all four?"

"They provided a chance for us to have intimate conversations about our spiritual journeys. I have craved this kind of conversation, as I think most of us do!"

"I was shy about coming, but something kept drawing me."

"I valued the companionship and the rich sharing."

"I don't think we've ever had anything like this before in this church, where people were so open to one another."

Borrowing from that final speaker, may I add: “I don't think we've ever had anything like The World Café before on this planet—where people are so open to one another."

And now, as each of Christ Church's Lenten Cafés ended, we pray, "Guide our conversations and deepen our listening, one to another."

Karen Speerstra is a World Café Pioneer who lives and writes in Vermont.

Reprinted by permission from The World Café Community Foundation at

Tags: cafe, conversation, dialogue, discussion, harvest, listening, world, world cafe

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I founded a new church in Middleton, MA and our worship is called a "Conversation Cafe." Each week, we tackle a different theme and topic and have an intergenerational discussion.  :-)

That is awesome, Marie! Let us know what you are learning. We are cheering/praying for you. Tim


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