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'Beloved Community' hopes to bridge the gap
Meetings aim to sow harmony despite disagreements
Laronda Houston, center, explains why she remained in the middle on one of the issues posed during Saturday's gathering. One of the central activities involved a series of statements about which attendants had to decide whether they agreed, disagreed or were neutral.

The Bulloch County Beloved Community group launched its "Bridging the Gap" series of events Saturday aimed at creating understanding and inclusion across differences in the community.

The well-attended kickoff attracted young and old attendees and everyone in between, as well as a diverse population, as hoped for by the Beloved Community Steering Committee.

Stacy Smallwood, the committee's moderator, addressed the crowd that met in the Honey Bowen Building community room.

"It doesn't matter if you've lived in Statesboro your whole life or moved here yesterday, we all live in this community together," he said.

"While there are differences among us that we should celebrate and take note of, we have more in common than we realize, and when we work together, we can achieve the kind of beloved community that promotes harmony and love across the very things that divide us."

The series that hopes to tackle difficult subjects began with a very light-hearted game of people bingo. Participants were handed a sheet of paper as they entered the room and told to seek out other attendees who could initial spots on their playing cards that would meet criteria including "has met someone famous," "listens to rap and hip-hop music," "is a vegetarian," "has a tattoo," "plays a musical instrument" and others.

Ice breaker

The ice-breaker social time revealed enlightening and fun differences and idiosyncrasies of attendees. Even the food selection by those in attendance pointed out taste bud discrepancies when participants chose donated fare from Olive Garden, Coconut Thai, El Sombrero or El Jalapeno.

Committee member Adrianne McCollar opened the event with a welcome, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.: "The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is agape [love], which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. That is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization."

"With this series, we, the Beloved Community, hope to improve relationships and build trust that helps us to move beyond the stereotypes," she continued.

McCollar pointed out that the Beloved Community group originally formed in 2015, shortly after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, to promote better relationships between local African-Americans and law enforcement groups.

"We quickly realized that the challenges of building a beloved community as Dr. King described it were much broader in scope than getting black folk and police together," she said.

That realization, she said, encouraged the group to implement projects that would allow meaningful, awkward and sometimes uncomfortable conversations within the community, which then birthed the "Bridging the Gap" series idea.

To reveal further the differences and similarities that can occur within a community, those in attendance next were treated to a "social barometer" activity. One side of the room was deemed "strongly agree," and the other side of the room was titled "strongly disagree." The middle of the room stood for middle ground - no strong opinion either way.

Differences of opinion

Smallwood read statements and directed participants to move around the room to illustrate their opinions.

"Let's start with a very controversial one: Android is better than Apple," Smallwood joked.

Many in the crowd moved quickly to the left, mumbling "no way" or something similar as they showed their stance on the matter. When Smallwood read, "Small towns are better than big cities," the positions of the crowd shifted, forming new groups.

Some murmured louder than others as they walked after hearing the statement, "In order to have power in Statesboro, you have to have money." The opinions seemed evenly divided between the three groups: agree, disagree or indecisive.

Similarities and differences were shown openly as statements continued to include such topics as the correlation between working hard in America and success, the beauty of tattoos, religion in public schools, the Blue Mile, and relationships between community members and the collegiate community.

"Thank you for going on this journey with us through this activity," Smallwood said afterward. "Some may have been uncomfortable. That's what we're trying to cultivate here: differences of opinion. Some feelings will be stronger than others.

"Even when we have differences, we can recognize our similarities," he said. "And we can work to resolve our differences with love and empathy and respect. We have to address these differences, but we can move forward with our similarities. ... Some of you were standing across the room on some issues, but then standing shoulder to shoulder on others."

Smallwood encouraged everyone to spread the word and to join the group at the first of the "Bridging the Gap" series, "The Town/Gown Divide," Sept. 29-30, Friday evening and Saturday morning, at City Campus on East Main Street. For more information, check out the Bulloch County Beloved Community Facebook page.



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