Christians compassionate toward migrants and refugees can prevent or de-escalate heated arguments during holiday gatherings by developing empathy for disagreeable relatives and staying out of lecture mode, an immigrant advocate and former college debate coach advises.
“Your loved ones did not sign up for a Ted Talk” on immigration for Thanksgiving or Christmas, said Brittani Farrington during a recent webinar hosted by Women of Welcome.
Farrington, a Women of Welcome team member, spoke with moderator Sarah Quezada and viewers during the Nov. 12 livestreamed event titled “Conversation Prepping for the Holiday Table.”
Farrington said she understands the temptation to counter anti-immigration arguments with a flood of expert references, statistics and Scripture verses about welcoming the stranger — because she often has taken those approaches herself.
“But as persuasive as I thought that might be, it does not necessarily move the needle.”
What can make a positive difference, she said, are responses based on kindness and empathy and which avoid personal and partisan attacks. These are good approaches to keep in mind at family gatherings.
“Many of us are imagining someone who says something we are really uncomfortable with around the dinner table, and we don’t know what to do,” she explained.
The first thing to do is determine if the friend or relative has any level of compassion for immigrants and refugees, she said. “If there is a baseline of compassion, there’s often a conversation that can be had there. If there’s not a baseline of compassion, what I try to do is say something small that builds empathy.”
She recalled a conversation when someone complained about “having to press ‘1’ for English” on automated phone systems. A proper response — and one Farrington said she wished she had used at the time — might be to express sympathy for those struggling to learn new languages.
“It’s not combative. If anything, it defuses the situation, and a lot of other people are probably really thankful it brought the volume down,” Farrington said. “And it opens the door to show you are the kind of person who is open to these conversations without coming in swinging with all your talking points.”
Quezada, who oversees community engagement for Women of Welcome, said it’s helpful for her to remember that arguments don’t necessarily have to have winners and losers, an idea she said is promoted in I Think You’re Wrong But I’m Still Listening: A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations, by Sarah Stewart Holland.
“It’s this idea that could we instead start a journey. Could we plant a seed? Could we have a conversation that’s enjoyable enough that people learned something and that they would come back?” Quezada said. “It also takes the pressure off me to present all my statistics, stories and data. You don’t have to if it’s an ongoing, relational conversation.”
The goal is not to avoid disagreement but to steer clear of offending others, Farrington added. “Did they walk away feeling hurt? Or did they learn something? Did they feel respected? I think that’s how we can reframe a ‘win’ here.”
It’s also helpful to avoid criticism of the quality of argument made against immigration, she said. “If you take someone at their best instead of just jumping to correction, then both of you will learn more.”
The core fear informing opposing points of view also must be considered, Farrington said. Often it stems from concerns about personal, family and national safety.
“If you take someone at their best instead of just jumping to correction, then both of you will learn more.”
“A lot of us have fears because of safety, and that’s something I can empathize with because I also want my family to be safe. But once we engage the core fear, there’s so much room for commonality and understanding.”
Finding areas of agreement with friends and relatives opposed to immigration is key to establishing productive conversation, she said. “It’s so good to get on the same page in some way.”
Determining a person’s faith perspective also can open a lot of doors to healthy discourse, Farrington continued. “If the person we are talking to is also a Christian, the common ground is the belief that immigrants are made in the image of God. If you start the conversation there, it shifts the whole tone. It’s really hard for the conversation to be quite as heated.”
In some situations, what isn’t said is most important, including taking a partisan approach, she reminded. “Immigration is so much bigger than a candidate or a party.”
Quezada said nothing will dampen dialogue faster than making it about politics in the heat of the moment. “We all know that you can shut down a conversation with certain sources or candidates. It really distracts from what our goals are in these conversations, which is to grow toward a more welcoming worldview.”
Farrington said it’s helpful both to avoid trying to prove superior knowledge on the topic of immigration and to admit when that knowledge is limited. Christians also should remember that the ultimate outcome of these discussions is outside their power. “That’s ultimately the Holy Spirit’s work.”
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