A Glimpse into the Life of RCF in 2020

Well, “What a year…” Is an understatement! Who would have imagined what we now know of the world – face masks, social distancing, end of the handshake, quiet roads and fuel in the car, Zoom … and more Zoom … with endless days and nights at home!

We were blessed with two grandchildren, born to two of our daughters during lockdown – how will their generation remember this time of uncertainty, change, and loss for so many? Loss of life, of health (physical and mental), of livelihoods, of traditions, of touch and social interaction, to name a few. Yet also a flourishing of nature, boost to the environment, time to pause, to re-evaluate, to rediscover forgotten past-times, and be with those we love or share our social bubble. Here at Rose Castle Foundation we too have faced challenges, but not let the pandemic beat us down! Our commitment to equipping and mobilising a generation of reconcilers has shifted from in-person encounters to the virtual space.

We asked: “How can we build trust virtually across deep divides?” We know the ingredients in a physical space – genuine welcome, shared meal tables, storytelling, deep listening, respectful questioning, informal socialising, learning from one another outside as well as in the classroom, processing in small ‘home’ groups, mentoring, walks and talks. How do these and other elements map on to the virtual environment?

Despite having to cancel our residential programmes for the year due to the Covid pandemic, we have jumped at the opportunity to host regular online scriptural reasoning across five continents, addressing current themes like pandemic and plague; end of life; leadership through uncertainty. We have convened most of our alumni cohorts around issues of the day, such as Black Lives Matter; freedom of expression; mental wellbeing; democracy and electoral process. We have spoken and facilitated at numerous international gatherings including the UN General Assembly; G20 Interfaith Summit; European Forum on Refugees and Migrants; USAID’s Evidence Summit; and Horasis Global Visions meeting for business, government and social leaders.

In all these, and more, we have re-discovered the power of face-to face encounter, even if through a screen.

One of my favourite philosophers is Emmanuel Levinas. He reminds us of the significance of face-to-face meeting. We see a vulnerability in the other, as well as a potential friend. All the more so when the face is that of a stranger – one we do not yet know, who may not be like us, or even like us. Do we welcome or resist them? Smile or wait? Love or hate? “The face, in its nudity and defenselessness,” argues Levinas, “signifies “Do not kill me.”

My husband and I spent the first year of our married life living with the Tuareg nomads in the Sahara desert of northern Mali. This was before the era of the mobile phone, let alone the internet! In the world of scarcity (people, food, shelter, water), strangers on the horizon can be vital bearers of news and supplies from the outside world, or they can signal attack. When the Tuareg see a faraway person, they do not know if they are friend or foe, yet always they offer shelter, company, food and water. It is this act of hospitality – their welcome of the stranger – which transforms even a potential enemy to a respectful guest. The unspoken rules of hospitality are that you never violate your host. Hospitality trumps hostility. We read of just this kind of hospitality in the Bible and Qur’an, with Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers in the desert. In their case, the visitors turn out to be angels sent by God, or even God Himself (depending on our tradition). Abraham and Sarah realise they are not just the hosts of three strangers, but the guests of a divine visitation, bringing news of a long-awaited child.

So even in this era of digital connecting, we can still welcome one another, create and facilitate shared spaces marked by deep listening and respectful questioning, learn from one another. We can be generous host and risky guest to one another. We can communicate abundantly through our faces – a smile, a nod of encouragement, an empathetic glance, tears shed, vulnerability shared, hopes offered. This is easier in a small group setting such as a breakout than a large plenary, but there is a time and place for each – processing what we hear, sharing more intimately, planning together in breakouts; feeding back, questioning and learning from one another in plenaries. The latter, especially, requires expert facilitation – one who notices, includes (and at times limits!) those who wish to contribute, whilst making space for the listeners and those who prefer time to reflect.

This is not to say the world of digital communication is easy, nor will it ever replace meeting in person. Many speak of the exhaustion of screen meetings, loss of the ‘spirit’ of encounter – the energy we gain from another’s presence physically with us. We miss physical touch, the spontaneity of conversation, rather than the raised hand on Zoom to indicate permission to speak!

At RCF we often describe reconciliation as healing what is broken – relationships especially. This year has taught us that it IS possible to to meet across divides – physical as well as ideological; to welcome strangers - those not like us; to create spaces of encounter marked by deep listening, respectful questioning and mutual sharing; to read scripture together; to build trust and form friendships; and to collaborate around issues and challenges of the day.

To support this further, we are developing an interactive virtual environment for you to connect around and across issues and divides that are important to you – be they racial, political, religious, ideological, geographic, socio-economic and/or all the above and more. It will be the locus for ongoing trainings and reconciler formation, accompanying but never replacing our residential encounters.

And speaking of the latter, the refurbishment of Rose Castle and surrounding estate has continued throughout most of this year, delayed a few months by lockdown restrictions, but still on track for a grand re-opening in 2021. We can’t wait to welcome you all, and to share this abundant, beautiful and peaceful part of the world.

Until then, we continue to meet face-to-face online, never forgetting the power of a smile in welcoming one another, often across challenging divides! The pandemic has exposed many of the fractures within our societies, but our vision is of a generation of reconcilers, equipped to cross the divides within their spheres of influence, not through compromise, but through a better quality of disagreement.

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