In an age where strife has become common and meaningful civil discourse has become scarce, now is the time to foster conversations about peace and tolerance. On Thursday, March 8 and Friday, March 9, Rocky Mountain College hosted the Wheatley Lectures, a two-day series of talks with guest speakers from in and outside the Billings community. Supported by the United Methodist Church, the Margaret V. Ping Foundation, Humanities Montana, and associated RMC staff; this year’s theme for the talks revolved around “Creating Community in Fracturing Times: Returning Civility to Civil Dialogue.” Civil dialogue is participating in meaningful conversation where people may not always agree, but they are willing to listen and discuss in order to understand each other better. The Wheatley Lectures presents a forum in which members of the RMC and larger Billings public can engage in such dialogue.
The Wheatley Lectures stem from the principles of Melvin E. Wheatley, a Bishop of the United Methodist Church who died nearly ten years ago yet whose message continues to become ever more relevant to today’s America. Wheatley was known for promoting dialogues across cultures and faiths different from his own in order to establish connections. He aimed to strengthen communities through acknowledging a community’s diversity, whether ethnic, political, religious, or cultural. He believed in diversity as something that enhances a community and that people have a moral opportunity to foster civil discourse instead of build ideological walls.
Wheatley was also a controversial figure known for appointing the first openly gay pastor for the United Methodist Church in 1982. According to RMC president Bob Wilmouth, “The memory of Bishop Melvin Wheatley is a driving force for peace and open-mindedness in our community, and Rocky Mountain College is proud to host this event.”
Originally, RMC hosted the Wheatley Lectures as an annual event. Kim Woeste, RMC’s chaplain who serves on the new Wheatley Lecture Committee, spoke briefly about bringing the event back.
“The Wheatley Lectures are something that started quite some time ago,” said Woeste. “A group of people set up an endowment; they gave money to support the idea of lectures. After ten years or so of doing lectures, they just quit happening; As Bob [Wilmouth] had mentioned, about three and a half years ago he met with the clergy group who were like ‘Whatever happened to the Wheatley Lectures? Why haven’t they been going on?’ And that really inspired Bob to get the ball rolling.”
Woeste explained that the Committee is made up of clergy from the United Methodist Church and three people from Rocky Mountain College. From the church there’s Rev. David Burt, who also serves on the RMC board of trustees, and Rev. Kama Hamilton Morton, who is the minister at First United Methodist Church. On the RMC side there’s art professor Mark Moak, history and political science professor Tim Lehman, and RMC senior Sadie Michael.
Moderated by Rev. Dr. Matthew Carlton, the Assistant General Secretary of the Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church, the talks covered a range of issues and how people are encouraged to address them in a civil manner. Speakers included the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, the Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, and the Rabbi Dr. Uri Barnea.
The Rev. Dr. Oliveto is the first female and openly lesbian pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. In addition to speaking out on LGBTQ issues, Oliveto also uses her platform to bring attention to homelessness, civil rights, injustice, racism, sexism, and immigration issues.
The Rev. Dr. Mason is the founder of a non-profit based in the United Kingdom called Rethinking Conflict, which works “in the field of conflict transformation, peace building, and reconciliation.” He spent nearly three decades serving as a Methodist clergy in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Dr. Mason travels internationally to share his experience on conflict resolution, social justice, and community transformation.
The Rabbi Dr. Barnea is a retired orchestral conductor and the son of Holocaust refugees. Originally from Israel, Dr. Barnea became a U.S. citizen in 1982. He has been a Billings resident since 1984 and led the Billings Symphony as the music director for twenty years before retiring in 2004. Dr. Barnea has been outspoken on human rights issues throughout his career.
All three speakers brought their unique insight on the nature of civil dialogue to this year’s Wheatley Lectures.
Woeste asserts that events like the lectures are vital because now more than ever, “we need to figure out how to talk with each other. How to talk with people that we disagree with, how to be respectful, to listen, and to learn from one another how to change.”