Bridging the Gap Teaches Students to Have Courageous Conversations

Over J-term, Bethel students attended sessions with students from Hamline University and Oberlin College in order to develop dialogue skills. Students learned how to find solutions to problems and connect with those who are different from themselves.

By Anna Bernin '18, contributing writer

April 05, 2021 | 2 p.m.

Academic highlights
Bridging the Gap was founded to help students in higher education learn how to have courageous conversations in a practical way. Although many people say they want acceptance and unity, sometimes the concepts feel too abstract to apply. Through the Bridging the Gap program, Bethel students worked alongside students from Hamline University and Oberlin College during an interim course to tackle these issues in a practical way: by seeking to understand someone else’s story.

Simon Greer, founder of Bridging the Gap, heard this disconnect was especially an issue in higher education, so he did some research and discovered that part of the problem is that people are afraid to say what they actually think. He also noticed that students want to change the culture around conversation and conflict, and they inspired him to create the first program in 2020. “I want this program to disrupt the system and ultimately change the culture of higher education,” Greer says.
Students from Bethel, Oberlin College, and Hamline University met online over Zoom for the class.

Students from Bethel, Oberlin College, and Hamline University met online over Zoom for the class.

Tanden Brekke, assistant director of community engagement and adjunct assistant professor, led the class and sees the capacity for having challenging conversations as a necessary skill for ministry. The course consisted of three segments: skills, encounters, and application. The first segment included a discussion about the skills needed to have courageous conversations. The second segment is about going beyond labels and interacting with students from different schools to understand them. The third segment involved applying both concepts through finding solutions to different problems, such as social justice reform.

One activity students participated in was a criminal justice reform project, which involved talking with several national and international stakeholders and creating a solution based on the multiple perspectives they received. At Bethel, this project was presented to faculty.

Students also practiced addressing climate change by roleplaying as a character assigned to them. For two days, they acted as that character and had to negotiate with other characters to arrive at a solution. Another assignment included watching a film about race and inviting others to attend and facilitate a discussion about the topic.

One activity during the second segment involved a 20-minute one-on-one conversation with someone a student didn’t know from another school. Hannah Dickinson ’22, a missional ministries major, participated in this exercise. She connected with a student from Oberlin who had differing political opinions and life experiences, but the two were able to develop a relationship and become friends. Their discussion was only meant to go for 20 minutes, but they ended up talking for an hour. 

Dickinson said the hardest part of the course was being vulnerable with others. However, it pays off. “Everyone is worth getting to know,” Dickinson says. “We brush people off because they are different than us or put a label on them and don’t take the time to get to know them.”

Tanden Brekke believes that these types of conversations and issues need to be engaged in ministry, and this course gives students practical tools for how to deal with these types of conversations. “The church doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Dickinson says. “Many people have been hurt by the church, and it has a long way to go to become more welcoming and accepting towards others.”

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