Candice Ray didn’t know what to expect when she joined the Tough Topics group at Christ Lutheran Church in Valencia. The 8 week session was focused on mass incarceration, a topic she admittedly knew little about.
Yet, curiosity and her willingness to learn prompted her to join. She was somewhat reserved during the first meeting, but quickly joined in on discussions about incarceration, rehabilitation and the church’s role in that process.
“I love discussing social issues and this group dealt with how Christians can attack these issues from a Biblical standpoint,” said Ray. “I didn’t come in with expectations, but felt these topics are rarely talked about at church and wanted to be a part of it.”
Like Ray, other church members joined the group, which began last fall, with a mind to discuss the topic in a Christian setting.
The group, Tough Topics from the Christian Perspective, was started by Lindsey Gaudioso, church member and college student working on a Master’s degree in social work. Gaudioso said she wanted to provide a place to have difficult discussions about complex issues.
Gaudioso said she was motivated to start the group by her experiences working with individuals suffering from systemic oppression, including incarceration
“These are complex issues that affect a lot of Americans, it can get heated,” Gaudioso said. “But for me, my faith means representing and serving those that are oppressed, that was the example that Jesus showed. I wanted to offer a space to talk about that.”
From the outside, it may seem a Christian discussion group would not offer varied opinions. Gaudioso explained, that wasn’t the case. Attendees ranged in age from 24 to 76, from varying socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
Some attendees had personal experiences with incarcerated family members, others came from law enforcement backgrounds and shared that perspective.
“You learn so much from other people and it was such a friendly atmosphere to do it in,” explained Rich Bryne, who joined the group and has attended Christ Lutheran for 6 years.
Attendees tackled subjects relating to drug abuse, morals, religion’s role with incarceration, rehabilitation, and ideas as to whether incarceration exists to protect society or punish the individual.
“Not everyone agreed, but it was a wonderful group, we were able to laugh and it didn’t stop people from feeling passionate about their opinion,” said Gaudioso.
Byrne said he felt listening to other opinions was valuable, even if he didn’t agree with them. He explained having a place for people to voice their opinions “helps them to feel heard.”
“We saw it in the last election, people were vocal on both sides, but some were silent and feared being judged,” said Byrne. “When that happens, people get to a boiling point, and maybe act out in negative ways. This is a safe way to discuss differing opinions and see how the other person’s history brought them to that perspective.”
Listening and loving
Ray said she felt the discussion group was especially important in the context of a church community because the church, while it works to serve many, wasn’t always aware of the needs of that population.
“I personally don’t know of a lot of organizations that are working to help those coming out of the system,” she said. “I think it’s important for the church to help others, including people transitioning from incarceration.”
Gaudioso explained the church is similar to that of a family, oftentimes it is difficult to discuss those issues with family members. The weekly, hour and a half discussion sessions were geared to help people voice their opinions, but also discuss the topics in a welcoming environment.
“What better place to have this discussion than among people who profess to love one another,” said Byrne. “If there were more safe places to have discussions, maybe we would see less acts of violence.”
Both Ray and Byrne said they felt the group was a safe environment to have a heated conversation. The Tough Topics group begins their next 7 week session Sunday, focusing on poverty and homelessness.
“Its important to bring up topics that are uncomfortable for people to talk about in a safe environment,” said Ray. “It’s also a place to find ways to make change for the better.”
For more information or to join the group contact Lindsey Gaudioso at firstname.lastname@example.org.