Laughter, Learning and Listening: Stories from a Gathering of Southern Peacebuilders

Laughter, listening and learning — these are the three things that came flooding back to me as I looked at photos from the weekend  I spent at Kashi with peacebuilders from half a dozen southern states. This gathering was convened by the United Religions Initiative and brought together nearly 30 grassroots activists from  12 different URI member organizations, called Cooperation Circles, and from a handful of groups that were just finding out about URI. I invite you to come along as I tell you about our weekend of laughing, learning and listening!


Sari Heidenreich, North America Regional Coordinator


As the weekend began, many of us were meeting each other for the first time and what brought us together was a shared passion for peacebuilding in the southeast United States.

From the very beginning, it was clear this group of people was special. There was so much laughter, and oh was it good! It was good for our souls. It opened our hearts to one another.  It set the stage for an environment in which learning was meaningful — but far from boring.

As serendipity would have it, the weekend also ended up being a women’s retreat after a last minute cancellation, all the gathering attendees were women. And, while we wish our male colleagues could have been with us, having it be just women brought a really special and unique dynamic to the weekend.


The planning team was committed to creating a weekend where each person’s wisdom was recognized and all participants had the opportunity to raise questions and gain insight on topics that were of interest to them.  And, so, aside from a few guiding questions, our agenda going into the weekend was blank. There were no sessions planned out, no presentations prepared.

Instead, we sat in a circle. And, using a process called Open Space, I invited every single participant who felt moved to, to raise a question or a topic that related to our guiding questions

What started out as a stark, blank wall….

…was soon filled with questions written in colored marker.

Each piece of paper taped to that wall represented a 90-minutes session where anyone who was interested could come to share wisdom, brainstorm, listen and discuss. Questions were raised, such as, “How do you work with people/groups who have so much hate towards each other?”, “How do we manifest a safe place for the champions in our community to share their gifts?” and “How do you dealing with contentions in Cooperation Circles?”

After everyone who wanted to raise a topic did so, participants were invited to move into these sessions. We were also invited to do whatever we needed to in order to bring our best selves — and so you’ll see people contributing to sessions while laying down, while standing, while eating grapes, while receiving Reiki.  The environment was dynamic and alive, as people who hardly knew each other –but shared passion– exchanged ideas.

We learned so much from each other during that time. And the deep learning came with a lot of deep listening.


As I looked back through pictures, I saw people looking intently at the person speaking. I saw bodies leaned toward the speaker.  I saw looks of empathy and excitement. It’s almost as if I could feel people listening to each other.

In the opening night of the gathering, we shared in a candle-lighting ceremony. and did Appreciative Inquiry. We ate incredible vegetarian meals together and dove deep into conversations. We listened to each other’s hearts, shared through stories, songs and silence.

In the closing circle, we tossed a ball of yarn around a circle and shared words of gratitude for each other. What resulted was a web that connected all of us to each other–a web that was woven through a weekend of laughing, learning and listening together.

We compiled a Book of Proceedings from the gathering, which contains notes typed up by any participants who wanted to contribute. With the agreement of everyone who was at the gathering, we are now proud to share these learnings with you! We hope they help you answer questions you’ve been looking for or, perhaps, find a new thought partner.