By the Rev. Richenda Fairhurst
At Annual Conference this year will be a new and unique offering, called ‘Bystander Training.’ Bystander Training is the brainchild of Rev. Terri Stewart and the late Jane Brazell. The two dreamed of a process that would help people to potentially de-escalate behaviors of aggression and bigotry when they occurred.
“There has been a rise of horrible incidents,” Rev. Stewart said. “People feel free to say whatever horrible thing is on their mind.” Bystander Training aims to equip those standing by, and even the perpetrator themselves, with a way to change that.
Bystander Training began with a workshop at University of Puget Sound, and was held more recently on both the east and west sides of Washington State, at Sunnyside UMC and Vashon Island UMC. The Revs. Pat Beeman and Paul Mitchell, who respectively serve those churches, participated in the trainings there.
Rev. Paul Mitchell said he expected the training would help him should he be “…on a train or a bus and overhearing or observing a racist or homophobic comment or behavior.” What he discovered was that the training did that “and more.”
“One of the pieces I wasn’t expecting,” Rev. Mitchell said, “was that we can be a bystander in our own home…in our own congregation. …The work of raising awareness begins in our closest relationships and that’s where we have the most power and opportunity to intervene.” This helps in the stranger scenarios, too. “If you just get up in somebody’s face, you can actually escalate things,” Rev. Mitchell said. By leveraging the power of relationship instead, “we have a greater chance of reaching that person.”
Rev. Pat Beeman also appreciated the opportunity to learn techniques to be prepared for different scenarios a bystander might encounter. “First [Rev. Terri Stewart] presented the basic information using lots of examples. Then, Terri divided us into groups of three and gave each group several scenarios to discuss.” The groups then presented the techniques they had considered and practiced. “The best part was discussing each presentation with the whole group… It was interesting to hear how different people took different things into consideration.”
The training at Vashon Island was sponsored by the church and also the local chapter of SURJ (pronounced ‘surge,’ Showing Up for Racial Justice). It came about when a local activist, who had heard about the training and its United Methodist roots, sent a text to Rev. Mitchell and wanted to learn more. The event came together at the local library, and for Rev. Mitchell, as the group of 35 gathered to talk about and practice true love of neighbor, “this was church.” Following the training, a few attendees wanted to know more about the church and congregation.
While Bystander Training is a brand new thing, Rev. Stewart has long been working in related practices. They have a certificate in Spiritual Direction and have worked in restorative justice processes in King County with incarcerated juveniles for years. Bystander Training incorporates restorative justice principles, blending them with what is called a ‘Peacekeeping Circle.’
Peacekeeping Circles are a practice taught by the Tagish and Tlingit First Nations People of the Yukon Territories. Rev. Stewart learned the technique from Saroeum Phoung, and likens it to a kind of “group Spiritual direction process” where the leader brings people together into a collaborative and safe space where “everybody matters and everyone belongs.”
Rev. Stewart hopes that Bystander Training will enable people to speak honestly and authentically with each other in order to better learn how to be there for others. The training does not do this in theory; it does it in practice. Rev. Stewart is adamant that being lectured to is not a good learning strategy. Participants of the training will actually practice key scenarios so that if they encounter trouble at home, or among strangers, they have practiced de-escalation.
“Being able to confront Uncle Johnny when he speaks racist or homophobic words in a way that leverages de-escalation techniques and your relationship is important because small aggressions grow over time,” says Rev. Stewart. These techniques can also lend strength to the victim, or calm the perpetrator, when an incident occurs among strangers.
For Rev. Mitchell, “There were a lot of takeaways.” Asked to give just one, he said, “Everyone left feeling empowered.”
Bystander Training will take place on Wednesday, June 14th, as part of a day long pre-conference workshop. The location is Camas United Methodist Church, which is just a few minutes drive east of the Red Lion. The workshop begins at 9am. To register for this workshop, RSVP using the Facebook Event for this training. The full day Wednesday training features Bystander Training in the morning and Sanctuary Training in the afternoon. At this point, child care is anticipated. A basic lunch will be provided.
Rev. Terri Stewart brings a wealth of experience in Restorative Justice and is a pioneer in introducing Peacekeeping into institutional settings. Stewart is the Founder and Director of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition, a task force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and is a Founding member of the Peacemaking Coordinating Team of King County.
Richenda Fairhurst serves as pastor of Camas United Methodist Church and is the out-going Peace with Justice Coordinator for the PNW Conference Board of Church and Society.