There are Nonproductive Ways of Listening to Each Other: Deborah Jian Lee on the New Era

Deborah Jian Lee in Junior High School.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Kaleidoscope, a podcast featuring conversations on religion with the people often left out of conversations on religion and politics hosted by Deborah Jian Lee. As each new episode is released, Religion Dispatches will be featuring special remarks from the show’s guests. In this format-breaking episode, Deborah takes us on a narrative, sound-rich journey through her life, work and the origin story of Kaleidoscope. Buckle up for a wild ride of basketball, heartbreak and a secret underground party.

Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist and author of the critically-acclaimed book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism.

She’s a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign Policy, Slate, the Atlantic, Playboy, Forbes, Reuters, GOOD, WBEZ, WNYC and many others. (You can subscribe and listen to the entire interview on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you listen to podcasts.)

Debbie answered the same question posed to all of Kaleidoscope’s guests (read the other responses here):

What is one of the biggest transformations that has occurred for you in this new era?

A common refrain I keep hearing in this new era is that we need to listen to each other, that we need to hear out “the other side.” As someone who straddles multiple cultures and worlds, it’s something I’ve done for a long while, and I’ve learned, especially in times like these, that there are both productive and non-productive ways of doing this.

A few months after the election, I was speaking at a mostly white Christian college in Virginia when a white man approached the mic and started berating me for suggesting that LGBTQ people and other minority groups could claim to be evangelical if they didn’t abide by his definition of “orthodoxy.” I tried engaging him, but quickly realized that he didn’t see my humanity. I reminded him that the gospel of his Christian faith recognized our shared humanity. He and I could authentically connect, but we had to begin with respect. But he wanted a hostile engagement, to hijack the conversation. “This isn’t productive,” I concluded. And I moved on.

There are ways to tell stories from different communities in a manner that both confronts the hard ugly truths and fosters productive and engaging conversation. In this new era, I see how necessary this is, and how it has shaped my approach to stories. It’s shaped my coverage of skinheads deradicalizing from white power movements, and it’s shaped my storytelling in Kaleidoscope, where we unpack stories of people from so many different walks of life, including a black evangelical on the front lines of fighting criminalized poverty, a trans Muslim activist and mosque founder, a Southern Baptist LGBTQ advocate and so many more.