A Time to Engage

By Ruth Ann Angus

Ten people signed up. Ten who were willing to try 12 sessions of learning “how to live nonviolently.” It was mid-April and with daylight savings time in effect, it was easy for some who traveled 30 miles from another town to meet with the group at the hall of the First Christian Church in Morro Bay, California. At least part of their journey was in daylight and by the time the session was over it was really only dusk. What made them come?

“I heard you say there was some type of nonviolent training you could offer,” Jim said, “at the lecture John Dear gave in San Luis Obispo. I felt I needed that in view of what was happening in our world.”

That was the gist of the email message I got a few weeks after bringing John to town. I must have mentioned “nonviolent training” during my introduction. Well, now I was on the spot. I guess I had to do it—offer the “Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living” workshop. A little prayer to Jesus, and a blanket email out to the mailing list and behold, ten people signed up. The pastor at First Christian said yes to using the their hall and gave me the key. Then I sat down with the book and began to plan.

I bought supplies: ten little black and white notebooks so the class could journal—you know, the kind some of us had in college to write in our answers to those awful tests; marker pens, crayons, craft paper, glue, tape, flip chart pad, candle, matches, name badges, incense, CDs for music, coffee for the coffeemaker. The church hall had an easel and a podium and 12 round tables for use. Everything was ready, but was I?

Reviewed all 12 sessions in the book and realized that it contained both the facilitator guidelines (me) and the lessons and readings for the class. That would not do! I didn’t want the group to obtain any answers to the situations by having access to the wording for the facilitator. Thus, I made copies of all the pertinent and needed elements. Lots of work at the copy machine! In the long run I am glad I did it that way because at least for one exercise the notes to the facilitator would have given away an answer for at least two people in the group to win a prize. I wanted this group to learn—to come to the realizations I knew they could come to without any suggestions. And this worked. It actually worked too well.

In the beginning the ten people spread themselves out to four of the round tables and I stood at the podium. But each session, more and more of them began to sit more together, and for most weeks the group split between two tables and I could shuffle them around for various purposes. And I, every now and again, would leave the podium and take a chair at one of the tables and sit.

I spent part of my work week making up the necessary things that needed to be written on the easel pad and then at the sessions taping them to the walls. We did the role plays, we split up for ten-minute chats with our partners, we made drawings. I wrote up a scenario for a role play for one session and each person played each part. Some were so good in their parts I thought I had founded a new theater group. I made up fancy Nonviolent Academy Award Certificates for several of the group. We laughed and laughed. And sometimes we cried.

We found because of everyone’s schedule we were not going to be able to do 12 weeks in a row. So we split it up as best we could to make sure no one was left out. If someone did miss a session, I caught them up via email and chats on the phone. The entire month of June saw us not being able to meet. I worried that we would lose momentum so I made a PDF of the reading materials and included some other articles on nonviolence and sent that out via email weekly. We reconvened in July and as the group came through the door, listening to the music and getting their coffee, one by one moving chairs and making space and everyone sat at one table!

Why am I emphasizing this? Because what had begun to transpire during the early weeks was “a talk around the table.” We couldn’t keep to the time limits of each of the elements of the each session’s material. The need to verbalize was intense. Sometimes the plan to only meet for one and a half hours stretched to two and half hours. And there were calls to one another between meetings and calls to me and emails and emails and emails. Pretty early on I realized not to quell the “talk.” If this is what is needed for people to embrace the concepts of nonviolent living, I am surely not going to be the one to stop it.

So in spite of daylight savings time all of us drove home in the dark, except we were really no longer in the dark. We had a light lit inside of each of us that has not gone out.

This workshop solidified ten people from very diverse walks of life who ordinarily would probably not have ever met each other. It has made permanent friendships. It has led some of us into forming new peace organizations. It has become a living thing, because now more than ever it is a time to engage.

Talk Around the Table grows in Morro Bay beginning in March.