The Ministry of Two Chairs and a Listening Heart

 In Articles, Research

A nonprofit in San Francisco has found an interesting facilities model for its efforts to nurture human connection and build community.

Two chairs and a city sidewalk.

On May 7, 2015, Sidewalk Talk “set up chairs and signs, offering to listen to any passerby who wanted to be seen and heard.” Chairs faced each other in pairs, with one chair empty, the other occupied by a trained and skilled listener.

Since that day, Sidewalk Talk has grown to 4,000 volunteers worldwide, with chapters in more than 40 cities and 12 countries. More than 12,000 people have been listened to, with 400 of these people referred to low-fee or no-fee mental health support.

The organization’s webpage describes how all this got started.

“In the Fall of 2014, two San Francisco therapists shared a vision: to help heal that which divides us through the fine art of skilled listening. They gathered 26 of their colleagues, practiced listening skills and came up with a curriculum and model for listening on the sidewalks together.”

Sidewalk Talk emphasizes that one need not be a licensed therapist to volunteer, but training is required. Also, in order to use the Sidewalk Talk name and participate in the community, volunteers must always listen with an already certified Sidewalk Talk city leader and chapter.

Thank You for Listening

This sort of innovative and skilled listening might have been welcomed by one former Catholic interviewed for a study on the disaffiliation in young Catholics from the church. As the young man told his interviewer: “Finally! I’m glad to actually finally tell my story. I have never really sat down and told anyone. Thank you for listening.” (Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, Saint Mary’s Press, 2017)

In a podcast interview, Sidewalk Talk founder and director Traci Ruble discussed the 100 percent volunteer-led organization. A trained psychotherapist with 25 years’ experience, Ruble said that people are “yearning for space to be seen and to be heard,” space where they do “not need to have it all together, all sorted out,” or to choose a side or have the answers.

Sidewalk Talk does not have a faith-based or religious orientation, but churches and other faith organizations might benefit from studying and reflecting on its principles and practices.

The trademarked mission statement for Sidewalk Talk reads:

“Our mission is to nurture human connection by teaching and practicing heart-centered listening in public spaces. By engaging a diverse and inclusive community of volunteers our culture, relationships and world are transformed.”

A few other nuggets from Ruble’s podcast interview:

  • Heart-centered listening honors “something that is unwitnessed and [that] needs to be witnessed.”
  • “Hard, dark feelings” are important and should not be ignored.
  •  A person “needs to feel safe to feel grace.”
  • “It is in the connection [with another] that we know our soul.”
  • Radical listening changes speaker and listener alike.

To that last point, in an article for Thrive Global, Ruble offers an anecdote that illustrates this shared benefit.

“I remember being in sticky, hot Birmingham, Alabama, with twenty volunteers, sitting on the sidewalk for our listening bus tour after the last election. An older gentleman had been observing us for some time. He approached me and asked me what we were doing. It was clear from his ball cap that we didn’t share the same political views. But we didn’t talk about politics. His eyes got misty as he told me his wife of 30 years had just left him. He shared how guilty and alone he felt. He was in a great church congregation but it didn’t feel OK to share his heartache there. He was alone and trying to ‘do it by himself.’ Except now he wasn’t. He was telling me. He thanked me and gave me a hug. Perhaps he went on his way feeling a little lighter and kinder. Perhaps he would risk sharing that Sunday at church and get the support his heart clearly needed.”

Thrive GlobalNov. 6, 2017

Bob McCarty, coauthor of Going, Going, Gone, states in his book Faith Talk: Having Conversations That Matter with Youth (Saint Mary’s Press, 2018): “In the language of relationships, the importance of active listening cannot be overemphasized. Foremost, this means giving young people our full attention when they speak to us. Not being heard isn’t the sole reason for disaffiliation, but it is an important factor.”

Going, Going, Gone states: “To listen and to hear the stories of those who disaffiliate from the Church are essential and constitutive dimensions of what it means to be a community of faith.  .  .  .  Each person who disaffiliates has a name, a story, and longings of the heart and mind, and all are grateful for the opportunity to have their story heard.”

Providing that opportunity, it seems, may be as simple as pulling up a chair and listening.

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