Volume 17 Number 4
Do Talk to Strangers
01 August 2004

Will Jenkins looks at an initiative designed to break down barriers between ordinary Americans and bring communities together.

Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once told members of the US Congress that the most effective way to heal the divisions and wounds of history is to provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds to tell their stories. This process is beginning in homes around the US as individuals share their stories with each other during the Open Homes, Listening Hearts (OHLH) weekend each June.

In Arizona, at the home of William and Lee Storey, about 15 people gathered for dinner and conversation. The guests responded to the question: ‘What about your race or faith do you feel is misunderstood by others?’

A Muslim woman shared her experience of dealing with hostile publicity in the media. She said that her response to negative people is to invite them to have lunch with her, ‘It’s hard to hate somebody you know’. A World War II veteran said he felt his generation shouldn’t be seen as extraordinary. He wanted younger generations to believe that they can accomplish great things too.

An African-American woman described how her co-workers did not expect her to have good ideas and even ignored her comments. An African-American university student told of her classmates’ surprise when she produced good work because they expected her to be lazy. A Christian man spoke of how people of faith are often viewed as narrow-minded or intolerant of others.

After more than an hour of interaction, the group expressed appreciation for the honesty and openness of the conversation. A number said they had learned new things about others. William Storey thought that the beauty of the concept was how simple it was and how the questions got people talking. Lee Storey later said, ‘It was a unique opportunity to speak freely, find commonality and express differences without being combative in these otherwise difficult times. The evening provided a new understanding and appreciation of each others’ hopes, fears, cultures and faiths in a heartfelt spirit of love for one another’.

This is the goal of OHLH—to encourage individuals around the world to reach out to people, with whom they wouldn’t normally interact, by inviting them to occasions in their home or community. In the last few years Open Homes events have brought together hosts and guests from all over the world. From Afghanistan to Australia, Congo to Canada, Pakistan to Poland, people of many faiths, or of no faith in particular, have joined together to break down some of the confusion and misunderstanding through hospitality and storytelling.

In Washington DC almost 50 people came to the home of an American couple, with many guests bringing meals from their respective countries. Animated discussions about cultural misunderstandings, as well as favourite holidays and the meanings of names, filled the summer night. One guest shared how the celebration of Ramadan gave her a special connection with her grandmother. A Nigerian told of his first experience of celebrating Thanksgiving as a guest of an American family. Now Thanksgiving represents a special time to welcome all kinds of people to his home.

‘Hearing others’ answers made me really think about my own background and culture,’ one guest reflected afterwards. ‘I discovered aspects of other cultures that I want to adapt into my own.’

A similar event in Minneapolis drew 27 guests including a local politician, a leader of an Islamic centre, and a professional singer. Small group discussions focused on when people felt excluded as well as aspects of themselves or their cultures they wanted others to understand. This produced a time of heartfelt sharing.

A number of the guests decided to continue meeting in the future to build on these initial conversations.

Lee Storey expressed the feelings of many of those who took part in the 2004 celebrations when she said, ‘If only all people everywhere created an evening of opportunity to express love for humanity through Open Homes, Listening Hearts’. Then perhaps we could begin healing the divisions and wounds of history.

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