‘MADA’: Strangers gather to talk over dinner and find common ground

November 2018 Posted in Community, Food & Drink

Diners at the first MADA event at St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in Silverton. Melissa Wagoner

By Melissa Wagoner

Nine strangers were recently asked to find two things they all shared. Gathered at a Make America Dinner Again (MADA) event held at St. Edward’s Episcopal Church in Silverton, the group suggested one item after another – all were rejected.

“We all have children,” someone sang out.

“No.”

“We all have pets.”

“No.”

“Surely, we all have hiked at Silver Falls State Park and visited the Oregon Garden.”

No and no – until the group finally gave up.

This dinner of individuals from all around Silverton, was held on Oct. 14 and was the first of its kind in Silverton – but not in the US.

MADA – an organization which helps communities organize dinners like this one in cities across the country – has held dinners of strangers from coast to coast with the express purpose of helping communities become less divided through the discovery of common ground.

“Before social media, we socialized with the people around us – neighbors, colleagues, the other kids at school or the parents of your kids’ friends,” St. Edward’s Vicar Shana McCauley described. “It meant that we often had opportunities to speak with people who had different perspectives than we did.”

McCauley – whose concern about the negative effects social media is having on society runs deep – recently learned about MADA on a radio show and was instantly inspired.

“[T]his story came on about a woman who, after the presidential election in 2016, was deflated by the vast political gulf between the right and the left,” McCauley recounted.

“She wanted to do something positive to bring the country together, so she offered a dinner party, bringing diverse people together for a meal.”

McCauley felt that St. Edward’s church – which, according to her, considers itself the “via media,” or middle ground, between Catholicism and Protestantism – would be the perfect host for an initial set of four trial dinners.

“As a church that finds its identity in the theological middle place, the idea of these dinners just made sense for us – to offer people dinner and a safe space to meet others in the middle,” McCauley explained.

“It is not, however, a chance for political or religious evangelism. We know that we are bringing together people who have differences. It is our goal to help them find their commonness, not to try to change the part or parts of them that are different.”

With these goals in mind, McCauley set about finding potential guests who would be willing to disclose their political leanings – allowing her to ensure a politically diverse group – and also willing to try something new.

“I’m hopeful that we build a new neighborhood,” McCauley said. “It’s hard to write someone off that you know and I’m hoping to know some new people.”

At the dinner – which began with a meet-and-greet over hors d’oeuvres – the guests were encouraged to introduce themselves to at least two people they were not previously acquainted with, without bringing up the topics of politics and religion. Then they moved to the table where they were encouraged to formulate any expectations or concerns they had about the gathering.

“I hope tonight I will get to hear the voices I don’t normally hear,” entrepreneur Hilary Dumitrescu said.

David Foster agreed adding, “What I would like to see is the whole community being able to discuss their beliefs,”

Although dinner was a mixture of light-hearted conversations of the guests’ own choosing, after dinner McCauley got down to business with a set of questions suggested by the MADA organizers, which she tailored to the group.

“How much does religion influence the way you vote?” she started.

This question kicked off a flurry of conversation from the group in which the religious backgrounds ranged from Protestantism to Catholicism to Judaism.

“I’m a priest,” McCauley started them out, “religion and Christianity is really important to me but I don’t think I vote this way because I am Christian.”

Fellow cleric Otto Bass agreed adding, “Being a pastor informs my thinking but it doesn’t possess me.”  

From that subject the group moved through the topics of education’s influence on voting, particular political passions, women’s issues and tolerance. Each subject brought with it thoughtful discussion from all sides of the room and, although there were differing opinions, a decorum of respect.  

“It doesn’t seem to me like we’re diverse,” real estate broker Dixon Bledsoe marveled at one point.

“Oh, you are,” McCauley answered back.

When the dialog eventually died down, McCauley concluded the evening with dessert and an impromptu discussion of community issues broke out.

“People think they can hide behind the mask of social media,” Bledsoe said.

“In groups like this, where you can talk, you have built in social filters but on social media people feel like Oz behind the curtain – but they’re not.”

“I’m a Catholic, I’m a registered Republican, I feel I’m conservative but I don’t want to be labeled by that,” Fred Vandecoevering said.

“I volunteer at a food bank, I volunteer at a homeless shelter, I have grandkids I care about. If you can’t find the time to find out what I do as a person, I can’t wear that responsibility.”

As the evening drew to an end, the entire group agreed that – although they did not solve any problems per se – the evening had been a success and they had finally discovered the commonality they had searched for when the night began.

“Where we intersect is we love our families and we love our country,” Bledsoe said with finality.

“We have common ground.”

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