Why are hundreds of Colorado Springs residents so excited about the simple act of sitting down with others and talking over dinner? And what is there to talk about when dinner guests include members of the citys evangelical churches, Jewish temples, and black, Latino, business, and gay communities?
The answer to these questions can be found in Food for Thought gatherings. This grassroots effort is easing tensions in a divided community by creating safe places for honest dialogue among people who come from different parts of town and hold opposing positions on a host of social, moral, and political issues.
Launched two years ago, Food for Thought recruits community members who are interested in meeting with others in small groups of 8-10 people for three dinners in peoples homes. Food for Thought assigns varied individuals to the dinner groups, trains group facilitators, and provides materials for discussion and debate.
As of May, around 230 people were meeting in 23 dinner groups, with new groups scheduled to start in June and September.
Now I am less inclined to stereotype people and more willing to listen, said one dinner participant. Another said, As the group developed, our discussions became increasingly substantive and forthright.
In addition, Food for Thought has signed up around three dozen Community Partners, including churches, temples, businesses, the media, and educational and civic organizations.
Community Partners, who agree to promote the dinners and recruit participants, include the Colorado Springs chapter of the Christian Management Association, the Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, and evangelical publisher NavPress, which donates office space to Food for Thought.
The effort has received positive reviews in a wide range of national media, including New Age Journal, evangelical magazines Moody Monthly and Discipleship Journal, and National Public Radio.
And many residents of Colorado Springs say Food for Thought is an essential part of healing the wounds in a city torn apart by disagreements over the growing presence of evangelical parachurch organizations and divisive issues like gay rights.
SINCE THE LATE 1980s, dozens of evangelical groups have moved to Colorado Springs, making it a kind of evangelical Vatican, with more than 70 national and international ministries located here.
In 1991, Focus on the Family moved to the city, bringing with it founder James Dobsons unique mix of helpful tips on parenting and conservative politics. (Focus is not a Food for Thought Community Sponsor, but some Focus employees have participated in the dinners.)
Dobson voiced support for Amendment 2, the controversial gay rights limitation measure that was approved by Colorado voters in November 1992 and was struck down in May by the U.S. Supreme Court. Consequently, Focus was a regular target of protests and bomb threats, and many community residents began to see all evangelical ministries as members of the Religious Right.
Before Amendment 2, the community was oblivious to our existence, but after Amendment 2 they were afraid, said Vineyard pastor Steve Todd, who is also president of the Colorado Springs Association of Evangelicals, during a seminar at the recent meeting of the Evangelical Press Association in Colorado Springs.
One barometer of how bad a public relations problem evangelical groups here face is the fact that this November Colorado residents will be the first in the nation to vote on whether to remove all state property tax exemptions for thousands of churches and non-profit organizations. Signatures to place the amendment on the ballot were gathered by volunteers, including many Springs residents who are fed up with evangelical groups.
In the intimate settings of the Food for Thought dinners, politically moderate evangelicals and others can meet face to face for a chance to compare perceptions with reality.
In the two groups my wife and I have been a part of, talk has alternated between social issues and spirituality, and serious conversation has shared time with expressions of compassion and moments of laughter.
This is about the only way people can sit down with others and learn and share, said one dinner participant. Were not going to get a clear picture from the media, or from the competing advocacy groups, who are more interested in making people mad than communicating the truth.
For information on Food for Thought, write to P.O. Box 2033, Colorado Springs, CO 80901-2033, or call (719) 531-3500.
STEVE RABEY is a freelance writer who was religion editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph from 1991-95.