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Reflections on Our Encounters in Rome

By: Emily Welty

August 22, 2022

Reflections on Rome: The Experience of Encounter

We arrive in the space, none of us quite sure what to expect. There is a tinge of anxiety that somehow everyone else is better prepared.

This is unlike many of the United Nations conferences or academic conferences that I’ve attended. There is no set of advocacy talking points to achieve, no paper to deliver and get feedback on. 

We are truly here just to encounter one another, without an agenda. Nothing can be gained (or lost) by how we engage—at least not in terms of our professional careers—and this dynamic frees us to simply encounter one another.

I’ve never met anyone in the group in-person before, so there is no chance that I will simply cleave to a familiar friend or colleague. For me, this is truly about being present to a group of strangers. 

Although the experience of being in-person with one another is very different from being online, we vaguely recognize one another. We have affinity if not familiarity.

Yet, our initial conversations are not as awkward as we might expect. We begin by comparing our travel experiences, where we have come from, and how the journey unfolded. As we try to don masks or remove them depending on the changing circumstances (inside, outside, eating, listening) our conversations naturally turn to our pandemic experiences, how it was in our different homes, how it is now. The global nature of the pandemic means no one is excluded from this universal experience.

A continuity between our Zoom conversations and our time in-person was that we pushed each other and ourselves to offer concrete examples rather than theories of how to realize the culture of encounter. The experience of being together began to take shape as not just the container for these conversations, but as an example of the encounter in practice. We were not just talking about encounter; we were encountering.

One of the most powerful parts of our days together was the emergent quality of what was expected from us. On one hand, the public-facing conference served as an organizing principle with sessions dedicated to hearing from particular speakers and panels. But around the edges of the conference, something much richer and more generative was happening. Perhaps because nothing concrete was expected in terms of a negotiated outcome document (as is the case in many of UN conferences) and because the experience was collective rather individualized (no one was bringing a prepared paper to advance their own research or agenda), the conversations between us moved into much deeper spaces. In small group sessions, we found ourselves ruminating over new ideas and giving one another the space to explore without the pressure of reaching particular conclusions.

This left me with a strong impression on how critical it is to have space to muse with other people—and how rare that kind of space actually is. We so rarely come into a forum with strangers and with few external pressures. I wasn’t representing an institution. I wasn’t competing to be noticed. I wasn’t lobbying for any particular agenda. I felt very present to other people in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I found myself scribbling down phrases in a notebook that struck me, not because I wanted to question them or quote them later, but simply because I could feel the magnitude of what they were offering.

When I was in graduate school, I took a course on different kinds of dialogue. The first kind of dialogue we studied was based on a theorist called David Bohm.1 This form centered around engagement (one might even say “encounter”) without any kind of external agenda. As an activist who saw dialogue very much as a tool for social change, the concept of dialogue without a drive towards justice struck me as a waste of time. David Bohm was a physicist-turned-philosopher, a combination I regarded at the time as suspicious at best. I wrote a furious response paper about the privileges of engaging in formless talk without the motivation of outcome. 

It is not lost on me that the part of this conference that was the most meaningful to me—the opportunity to encounter one another without the pressure of making decisions—was precisely the kind of dialogue that I had dismissed most soundly in the past. Our quality of attention was turned towards each other and we heard each other more fully because we were not continually trying to place whether each person agreed or disagreed with us. There was no such thing as prevailing. We could explore ideas without the fear of seeming unfocused or un-strategic.

At the end of the first day, I puzzled over what our time together reminded me of—not quite a conference, not exactly a meeting, not really a party. A liminal space of encounter. I kept returning to a feeling that I had while still in high school, when I spent part of the summer at the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. I had been chosen to be part of a group of almost 50 students from across the United States to live in community and train as public theologians. We took classes, worshipped together, and lived in dorms. It was more intellectual than a summer camp, less assessed than a college class, and more sacred than most of my experiences at a church. A liminal space of encounter with strangers. Prior to arriving at YTI, we were assigned to read The Company of Strangers by Parker Palmer, which served as a common text for understanding how to encounter one another.2 It has been a long time since I thought about that book or felt myself to be an equal participant in the company of strangers. Palmer’s basic thesis is that much of our moral self-understanding of what it means to be Christians comes from our understanding of what public life requires of each of us. Rather than retreating into private enclaves of our chosen friendships and colleagues, Palmer urges us to return to the company of strangers, to the unpredictability and even the weirdness of life with people we don’t know and didn’t choose. While the book was written in 1983 and focuses primarily on the United States, it feels relevant right now after a pandemic and political polarization which has driven a retreat to our most intimate spaces of like-mindedness and familiarity.

The open conversations in Rome, which kept us connected to the core of what each of us shared, also supported us in the midst of more difficult conversations. After I spoke about my Mennonite faith and how it has shaped my approach to violence and war, one participant stopped me in the hallway with a question about the war in Ukraine. He asked me how my faith directs my thinking in situations where so much is at stake and so much violence is actively happening. This is the kind of question that I have a lot of experience answering in the context of an undergraduate classroom or a conference presentation. But the sincerity of this question and the openness of the encounters we had the day before meant that the question landed in a different way. I experienced it not as a challenge but as curiosity and from that place, I felt able to answer in a way that was both honest and vulnerable. Stripped from the assumption that any of us have all the answers, we could better share the life experiences that have crafted our convictions. I understand my own pacifism and I understand his skepticism of it. There was space between us for both of those lived experiences to coexist and inform one another.

Pope Francis centers humility and generosity in his vision of the culture of encounter. Humility returns us to the knowledge that we are not complete without one another, that none of us is truly independent or original. We are perpetually changing in response to one another. Generosity opens us to sharing our stories freely without fear that they will be manipulated, appropriated, or used against us. We assume the best about one another. We trust the stranger to be an angel rather than a devil in disguise.

One of the insights that I’ve continued to consider since our time together in Rome is the value of discomfort. The culture of encounter means that we will encounter ideas and people that may disturb us by pushing us beyond what we know and find comfortable. While we want everyone to feel physically and psychologically safe, it is the moments where we can feel productive discomfort where change might happen. In this way, my early desire for dialogue as a pathway to social change is still true, but this experience has created the realization that sometimes change happens not as the result of debate but in the hallways and over meals where we can immerse ourselves in the strange mystery of a community of strangers.

1 David Bohm, On Dialogue (Routledge, 1996).

2 Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life (Herder & Herder, 1983).