It has been an absolutely inspiring past few days, full of new learnings, creative ideas, energetic fellowship, and sparks of inspiration. We ended Gathering with conversation in affinity groups and closing worship this morning, and I'm taking a little space to reflect and write over lunch (while waiting to head to the airport), because I ended up in an uncomfortable situation this morning.
I went to an affinity group about HIV/AIDS and hunger in Africa. I'm not experienced in affinity group models, and was comfortable (for the most part) with the simple model for our groups: simply to gather with others on topics interesting to us, to talk about our experiences, hopes, ideas...very open-ended.
We had one man - the one who had proposed the topic - who dominated the conversation. He has an interesting lens, being a professional economist focusing on health and public policy, and spent significant time in Africa researching effectiveness of various HIV/AIDS development and relief work. Unfortunately, he did not leave much room for others to talk. I think he was approaching the group as a teaching session rather than a discussion.
He said some interesting things, but seemed to believe that his research and his preferred methods of relief and development (through large government programs and broad global initiatives) were the right way to do things. Others in our group started trying to talk about their own experiences (we had all traveled to Africa), both to challenge and to support what he was saying. We had one member get frustrated and fume in the corner, and two or three of us who tried to ask questions and tell stories and bring things to a middle ground, and a couple people who didn't get to speak because we were all working so hard to force our way in.
Things were a little heated, a little frustrating, and a lot awkward.
There were interesting fundamental differences at play: On the one hand, the idea that we can study large groups of people, figure out what is the best way to help them, and then to build programs and incentives around those best methods. On the other hand, the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and individual countries and communities will adopt practices in different ways - or resist these practices!
And I thought about Mama Sara. We who traveled to Tanzania this summer were all absolutely moved by the ways that she influences her community through of her relationships, her passions, and her cultural capital. I know that the Fribergs benefit from large programs, broad initiatives, government funding, global projects and initiatives. But on the ground, they approach their work in a very different way, taking into account particular needs of the community and working with particular people like Mama Sara.
I don't think it is one-or-the-other. We need the big programs and cost-benefit analysis and all of that. This is one way of measuring effectiveness. But we also need the on-the-ground solutions, and people who know their communities, and know how to be effective in the small-scale.
I wish we could have talked more about that, rather than fighting one another and giving up on group process. I was sad that one of our members disengaged, got frustrated with both the topic and the group process itself, without taking the time to listen to others' ideas and experiences nor putting effort into helping our group process. And I am reeling a bit because I even tried reconciling with her after the fact and she blew me off.
I think that I need to use today to remember that big issues of hunger, poverty, health, and development are complicated. There is no one right answer. There might be many conflicting ideas...and they all might be right given particular places or circumstances. And I need to remember that things get heated because we are all passionate about making a better world.
But still. It is a sobering end to a fantastic weekend to leave feeling unsettled. Even if being unsettled is probably a good thing.