Invited for dinner? Southerners know better than to bring up politics or religion. Two Upstate women have turned this unspoken rule on its head by creating My Neighbor’s Voice, a monthly dinner gathering for the purpose of asking tough civic questions. Instead of encouraging debate or discord, the founders insist the meals center around a Southern mainstay: hospitality.

“We have a built-in way in the South of welcoming people,” says Victoria Chance, a retired teacher, who along with her friend Mary Anne Inglis (currently teaching English as a second language and wife to former U.S. Representative Bob Inglis), began hosting dinners soon after the 2016 election. “We had to give voice to the voices that weren’t being heard in our world, because things were happening that were—unusual. I mean, for me, that was a surprise election!”

Both women felt a strong desire to seek the deeper story at the root of cultural division. Mary Anne adds that, “We felt like we were losing the thread of what we are as a people, as a country. We wondered what we were going to do, what could we do that would be a positive effort.”

But where do you host such conversations? For the two friends, that was the easy part: just have everyone over for dinner. The table became the great equalizer, and My Neighbor’s Voice was born. To attend a meal, one is either invited or signs up via the website. On the third Thursday of most months, up to four volunteer hosts open their homes to a trained moderator and eight attendees. The menu is intentionally simple, keeping focus on the conversation.

As eating begins, the moderator produces a deck of curated listening cards and a timer. Victoria explains the process: “Your first question may be, ‘What are your ideas concerning gun legislation?’ Bam. You’ve got three minutes. You say everything you want to say about gun legislation. And then you will pass the deck to the next person, and they will draw the next card which may read, ‘How do you think the legalization of same-sex marriage influences our communities?’ Three minutes. They say whatever it is they’re going to say, and the next person draws. No one in between may say a word to you. No one may ask a question. All you have to do is listen to the voice speaking. And then by the time you do four rounds, you’re relaxed. You’ve learned you can’t give that answer you’ve just worked up. Because it’s on to a new question. Finally, you just let go and listen to your neighbors.”

The dinners sometime culminate in yelling or awkward silence . . . right?

Wrong. Mary Anne insists the gatherings always end well, often with people trading phone numbers and business cards during the break between the meal and dessert. “We’ve had some really sweet times around the table, with multigenerational, multi-everything . . . with people saying things they would not say to their families. Usually there’s a tension in that first round until everyone can relax into the safety and trust. Remember, you’re not dropping one of these questions into the middle of a family dinner unprompted. There’s a method to the hospitality.”

My Neighbor’s Voice recently expanded their mission of listening and hospitality into Colorado, with a branch led by Victoria’s graduate school friend Russell Evans. The three intend to continue to grow My Neighbor’s Voice by seeking out more diversity and work to replicate their idea nationally. They often speak to both civic and religious groups.

“Not only is this a civic opportunity, but for us it is deeply spiritual,” Victoria reflects. “Because maybe it feeds the greater good. If we have an agenda beyond hospitality, it is serving the greater good for good.”

Something to unite us all around the table, listening. Face to face.

Illustration by Karen Schipper