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How overcoming resistance to 'Dwelling' led to breakthrough in listening to neighbors

“I've talked to people that I never would have talked to before. And it's been amazing.”   Ginger McArthur,  St. Peter’s Church, Livingston
Nina Nicholson

Ginger McArthur was part of the team that got St. Peter’s, Livingston started in the Going Local process in March 2015, but by that summer she had encountered a challenge that dampened her initial enthusiasm. “We were ‘dwelling’ on the same passage of Luke every time, and I didn’t get the point,” she said, referring to “Dwelling in the Word,” a practice in which a group focuses on the same passage of scripture for a period of time, to allow it to unfold itself to them.

When the need to care for a sick family member put restrictions on her available time, McArthur decided “This is going no place, it’s just another waste-of-time kind of thing,” and dropped off the Going Local team.

Six months later, in a workshop at the 2016 Convention, she gave Dwelling in the Word another chance. “It was like, all of a sudden I was hit by a bolt of lightning. I get it. I see it,” she said.

“Everybody will get it but you get it at your own pace,” she said. “Some people get it right away and other people, like myself, it takes a little bit longer.”

Soon after, McArthur decided to give St. Peter’s Going Local team another chance. Her fellow team members, Angie Ratkowitz and Ruth Portela, had begun exploring an experiment involving listening to members of their community – a definition they expanded to be anybody they meet. "We feel our community is wherever we are at whatever time," she said.

As McArthur began to practice intentional listening, she quickly discovered that what she learned when she overcame her initial resistance to Dwelling in the Word also applied to the resistance she felt listening to strangers. “You can listen to somebody, but the thing is, do you really listen to somebody,” she said. “That’s the big key for me in dwelling. You can read the verse, or you can really read the verse, and feel it and get into it, and that helps you with your listening techniques too.”

McArthur had an pivotal experience when she went out of her comfort zone to strike up a conversation with the woman seated next to her on a bus. The woman was a stranger to her, and “Any other time I wouldn’t have said anything, I would have just sat there,” she said. But remembering the listening experiment, she decided to treat her unknown seat mate as a neighbor and talk to her. The two ended up having a long conversation and discovering a rapport. “It was almost like she needed to have that conversation,” McArthur said. Now, the two women look for one another when they’re on that bus, and a relationship has developed.

McArthur says that like her initial reluctance to Dwelling in the Word, her initial reluctance to talking to people she doesn’t know has vanished: “There’s something inside me that’s pushing, pulling, tugging me towards getting out there,” she said.

Another thing that eased her resistance to interacting with strangers was her realization that the effects of her listening would spread naturally and organically beyond those people with whom she was able to interact directly. “Rather than looking at it as ‘I’ve got to touch the whole neighborhood’,” she said, “I feel that if I can touch one person, then that person can touch one person – and so on.”

“I’ve talked to people that I never would have talked to before,” she continued. “I find it’s changed the way I see people, the way I talk to them. My discussions with people now are not so much ‘how’s the weather’ or ‘what are your kids doing today’ but it’s more about who they are and where they’ve come from and what they’re up to and trying to see exactly where the Spirit’s leading them. And it’s been amazing.”

McArthur hopes to share her newfound enthusiasm for talking to neighbors with her church as she, Portela and Ratkowitz broaden their experiment to include their congregation. Two Sundays each month from May through August – when their rector, the Rev. Elizabeth Wigg Maxwell, is on sabbatical – will be devoted to Morning Prayer with a Going Local theme. They’re also asking their congregation to read and discuss Alan Roxburgh’s book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World.

“It’s not really something new to them,” said McArthur. “They’re probably going local every day in their life. It’s all in the way we listen to people.”

“We all have stories,” she added. “And if we can just learn to share each other’s stories, to look at each other as human beings and not tag them as ‘you’re this religion’ or ‘you’re that ethnic group’ but just as human beings, and the Spirit is in all of us. It doesn’t show the same in all of us, but it’s there, and let’s try to understand it and see where we can go together to carry the Spirit forward.”