Nuggets From Gregory Ellison's Call
--Preeta Bansal
13 minute read
May 26, 2019


Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting a unique and interactive Awakin Call with Gregory Ellison, ably guided by Aryae.

Reverend Dr. Gregory C. Ellison, II is an artist who creates spaces for fearless dialogues. He challenges each of us, "who are you and how will you fight for freedom in your most authentic way?" Fearless Dialogues is a grassroots initiative that creates unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard, heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other by "fearing less." It has engaged nearly 50,000 worldwide in more than five years. Ellison feels that lessening the fear of strangers is central to his walk as a Christian. He engages his fear by practicing "radical hospitality," simple but profound strategies that show people you see, hear and care about them -- a practice he extends to strangers and then to the strangers within ourselves, the voices that call us from deep inside.

We had a unique opportunity to engage in a “Fearless Dialogue” on the call, with active participation by all who dialed in. Here are some of the nuggets that stood out from the call (including a recap of the 5 Deepest Questions):

  • Centrality of seeing: “What we seek to do is to help people to see that which they might overlook, and hear those things which many people might ignore.” “Seeing is so central to the work that we do.”
  • “It’s good to finally see you”: “Whenever we start a dialogue, after customary greetings as people enter into the space, before we even open our mouths and invite people into conversation, we take a few moments to look every single person in the eye.” It can be an uncomfortably long period of silence for some if there are 750+ people in the room. “After that, we say, ‘it's good to finally see you.’” That is a reflection of the fact that the Fearless Dialogues team has been envisioning the possibilities of what could happen when this unique group comes together, when it began planning what kinds of experiments we might use to bring these conversations to life. “By the time we physically enter into space and look people in the eye, it truly is good to finally see them. We've been thinking about them, planning for that moment, and praying for several months.”
  • Radical hospitality: “We also say it because my research and the work we do at Fearless Dialogues seeks to uncover the pain, the trauma, the heartache of being unseen.” As an anecdote, Greg told the story of a recent gathering at Yale Divinity School, where “400 black or brown folks showed up. … We greet people in the parking lot as they are coming in – such that they are greeted at least 3 times before they walk in the front door. We call this ‘radical hospitality.’ … [To one participant] I said ‘it's good to see you my brother’, looking him deeply in the eye. ‘My name is Greg [he shared his name] and I want to welcome you to Fearless Dialogues. Are you ready for change?’” The man turned his head to the side and walked off without saying anything. “Twenty minutes later, he came back to me and said ‘Greg, I really didn't want to be here today, but when you looked me in my eye and called me by name and you said “welcome,” you were the first person in over 3 months to say “it's good to see me.”'"
  • “What we seek to do at Fearless Dialogues is to reiterate time and time again the power of recognizing the humanity (and because we’re people of faith) the divinity in people – allowing the gifts to be seen where otherwise some people may only see problems.” “Fearless Dialogues has transformed how I engage the world. Our work is built on 3 pillars: to see gifts in people, to hear value in the stories of unlikely partners, and to work towards change in self and other.”
  • The practice of seeing gifts where others see problems: “What we've learned is that far too many corporations and organizations and faith institutions and universities rush to the change moment without seeing the people, the stakeholders and hearing those stories as central to the life of the community. Without seeing the gifts and hearing the stories of people, any change that's created won't be sustainable. The work of Fearless Dialogues has become a spiritual practice for me, such that when I'm in grocery store checkout line, I look the person in the eye and say ‘it's good to see you today, how are you doing?’ Occasionally, the person will say ‘I’m having a tough day and you're the first person who's asked me.’ The practice of seeing people – I've been largely influenced by my grandparents who were not lettered in the sense of being graduated from very esteemed educational institutions, but they were very wise people. They taught me you're no better than any other person, and no person is better than you. The practice of seeing gifts where other people see problems is central to my own faith – every person is created in image of God no matter how different we may be externally or internally.”
  • About seeing and hearing others as a spiritual practice: Greg’s spiritual practice began to incorporate “seeing” others and “hearing” their stories during graduate school, when he was working with incarcerated men who “were faced with harrowing life decisions and I was challenged to see the good and the divine in them even though some of them were murderers and faced with very complex moral decisions.” He described one young man who exploded at his mentor, saying “you don’t know me. My mother is a crack addict and a prostitute and I don't know my father. In order to supply her habit, she would prostitute out of our apartment. I had 2 younger sisters and they were in the same apartment where my mom was bringing men in and out. I started selling drugs to support my mother's habit to protect my sisters so these men wouldn't have to come in and out." Greg said that it would be “very easy to stigmatize and demonize this young man if you don’t know that story. So my faith has been enriched by hearing the complexity of lived experience and wrestling with my own inner challenges. I consider myself to be a mystic – one who seeks to see and feel the presence of God in what many might perceive as the seemingly mundane. And so I’m very largely informed by Howard Thurman who could be found talking to tree or standing on the ocean, standing on the beach in the middle of a storm and listening for the presence of God there. And so while I'm not pastoring a church I feel very close to God on a daily basis as I hear the stories of God's people.”
  • About Howard Thurman and the journey from the head to the heart: “Howard Thurman was one of MLK Jr.'s teachers. History tells us throughout King's life and travels he carried 2 books with him: one was The Holy Bible and the other was a book by Howard Thurman entitled Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman was the first African American to be in the delegation to sit with Gandhi – so he brought some of the tenets of Gandhian nonviolence back to the United States and shared it with those who were central to shaping the civil rights movement.” In reference to the journey from the head to the heart, Greg shared aloud with us this devotion from Howard Thurman: "The Inward Sea.” He said: “As I interpret this devotion, Thurman is saying far too many leaders never access the gifts and the genius that rest within them because of fears of leaving the sandy shores of the status quo. In that inward sea are hard questions we must face. Those hard questions move us from the theoretical to the deeply spiritual. That is the quest from the head to the heart.”
  • Setting the Stage for a Fearless Dialogue: We then began the exercise of a Fearless Dialogue on the call. Greg encouraged us to “think of this space that we are inhabiting now (the virtual call) as a laboratory – sometime things have to blow up and break down in order to break through. Also in a laboratory, your senses are heightened. Call upon memory and sensory ability to move forward in dialogue. And in a lab we use experiments; in Fearless Dialogues we use couple of dozen to help conversation partners that may feel divergent to engage in dialogue.”
  • The Experiment of the Five Hardest Questions: “This experiment is called the 5 hardest questions you face in life. Experiment is a derivation of what Parker Palmer might call a ‘clearness committee’. [If we were physically present, we would] invite people to sit in circles of 5 and ask 5 hard questions. If that question is one that your inner teacher – your angel from your island – feels ‘this is my question,’ then you would respond. Others in circle would listen deeply – not judgmentally or critically or even to pose response – they would listen solely to support you on your journey. After that person responds for about 2 mins, the group sits in silence for about 20 seconds, and for those listening, the time allows a question to bubble up – it should be an open-ended question intended to help the person who shared their truth to see that truth in a slightly different way. And so it’s an open-ended question that invites further discovery. Not a closed-ended inquiry. The person shared will not answer the questions, they just live and love the questions.” The questions get harder as they progress:
    • 1st question – is a question of identity that seems easy initially but as we get deeper into it, it may become much more complex. “Who am I?” Just three words. When you think about the question, you must also consider question of “who I am not”. Who am I when I am not on Facebook or Instagram, or headed to work, around my family. When I look in the mirror, who do I see and what do I call myself?
    • 2nd question – is a question of purpose. “It makes me think a lot of my grandfather, who used to say ‘we sit in the shade of trees we did not plant and we drink from wells that we did not dig.’” This question asks “why are you here?” “I’m not asking why are you seated in your nice office chair at your desk in California or why are you sitting in your lounge chair by the pool listening to this call on this day? I’m asking why are you HERE? What that makes me think about is that some people sacrificed so we could get here. Some people worked overtime, some people prayed long hours. At some point in your life you may have made a split-second decision that got you here and not somewhere else. Some people did not make it this far. How did you get here, and now that you are here, what are you going to do with your gifts while you are here? This is a question of purpose? Why are you here?”
    • 3rd question – is a question of community. What is my gift? “That question sounds pretty easy but far too often we notice that people live out of their talents and they believe they are their gifts. I was a really really dynamic student in science when I was in high school and so I believed what people told me – that I was going to be a physician. I drank the Kool-Aid. So as an undergrad I was living into those talents in science, until a got a D minus in freshman chemistry, and realized those were not my gifts – it is something I was wearing as a badge of honor, but it was not something that gave me great joy and passion and what made me most unique in the world.”
    • 4th question – is question posed by WEB DuBois in classic text, The Souls of Black Folk. How does it FEEL to be a problem? “This is a question of empathy. If you are a leader in some form or fashion (parent or a teacher or working in job and there are others working with you and looking to you for guidance) – at some point you may have been a problem because you think differently, or write differently, or speak differently, or show up differently or allow your faith to animate your life in a different way. So when people meet you they say ‘there’s something odd about you that I can’t explain.’ It may isolate you but it may also make you that one that people gravitate to. What does it mean to be a leader in front of hundreds of people but feel like none of these people know me and the struggles I face? This is an empathy question – because if you can connect to your own problem status, then you can empathize and stand along with others who feel they are problems too.”
    • 5th question – this is a question of legacy. “This is a question I asked on March 12, 2018 as I stood in the pulpit looking down upon my father’s casket. My father was my hero. He was my best friend. We shared the same name. I’m looking at his picture as I talk to you now. I feel his presence on a daily basis. This question drove me as I offered the eulogy of this man whom I sought to emulate my life. It’s a question that was asked by Howard Thurman, and it’s a question I ask myself on a daily basis, ‘What must I do to die a good death?’ According to Thurman, a good death is predicated on living a good life. Life and death are a single respiration. Not what could I do or should I do. But what must I do? What must I be to die a good death. This is a legacy question.”
  • Not Rushing the Answers: Greg finished the exercise by encouraging us not to rush the answers and to love the questions, quoting from Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet.
  • Three Feet Challenge: Greg reminded us of what an elder told him: “You cannot change the world but you can change the 3 feet around you. We invite you to look in the eyes of the people who cross within your 3 feet and share with them your name – call them by their name – and let them know that they matter. This process of seeing those who might otherwise perceive themselves to be invisible and muted – we believe that is one way we can chip away these large oppressive systems that seem too big for little old me to change.”
  • Wisdom from his parents: “My parents were activists who moved to Atlanta. My father is recently deceased. We share the same name. I credit a lot of the insights that govern my work to him. My father was an accountant and he actually made some very intentional choices in his own journey from head to heart. He started off at one of big 5 accounting firms and made a decision to shift and to work with an African American-owned firm and from that space my father began to keep the books of members of the civil rights movement. So he participated in the movement by ensuring that they wouldn't be in prison for tax fraud. Many of the iconic folks in the movement were influenced by him. I saw that journey: this is the kind of craft of my skill set, but how might I employ the resources that God has given me to create good within the community? That's a journey from head to heart. Likewise, my Mother was special educator for 33 years. She worked with those who were otherwise cast off and seen by many as a nuisance. I recall my mother recalling a story of beginning her career here in the public schools in Atlanta – special education kids at that time were still stigmatized. Her first classroom was in the boiler room of basement of school – what must it be like to teach students in a boiler room with no insulation? Kids are soaking wet by end of the day, and also in winter at end of the day they are freezing. Every day, she would tell us that ‘You have to treat people right,’ and she would tell us about these stories of her students. So the span of my education happened both in very prestigious institutions but also on the porches and dinner tables with loved ones who would say, ‘though you have this education you have this responsibility to employ it for the life of your community.’”
For those who want to start a dialogue in their community, visit Greg’s website here. There’s a space to fill out a form and someone from his staff will contact you to begin to think how this might look. For more information about the origins and theory behind this work, check out his book, Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice.

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

Posted by Preeta Bansal on May 26, 2019

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