Ten years from now, I hope Winston-Salem will look back on events that occurred earlier this month as a catalyzing moment in the life of our city. A collaboration of community members, churches, artists, local businesses and educational institutions focused on discussing difficult issues that affect our citizens during this year’s gathering of the Forum on Faith and Culture on Feb. 8 and 9.

On Friday night, a talented team from Memphis presented “Union: A Musical” to an enthusiastic audience filling the Stevens Center. Afterward, the audience was invited to a conversation with the show’s creators at First Presbyterian Church to reflect on the subject matter — the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that preceded the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — and its legacy.

On Saturday, more than 500 people — including many who attended the play — gathered at Union Baptist Church to talk about issues affecting our city. Pastors and panelists talked about race, racism, inequality, inequity and economic disparity. These were not easy discussions.

I listened as one pastor spoke about Wake Forest University as a contributor to the city’s problems, and I heard others share concerns, express hurt and urge change. I thought about both the difficulty and the promise of finding ways to solve problems together. I sincerely hope that Wake Forest can be partners in the unifying movement many want to see come to our city.

Listening to my fellow citizens, I wondered if there is a real, true solution to the pain and wrongdoing that is plaguing our culture — the vitriol, indifference, ignorance and hurt. Can the transgressions of people against people ever be righted? If so, where does it begin? How does it happen? And how can I be part of it?

As a historian and student of leadership, I have learned that the challenges with no easy answers require first steps based in good faith. Leaders serious about realizing change will invite people different from themselves to talk, and they will make a commitment to listen. This is only the first step, but it is a necessary step, without which change is impossible.

I predict this event will be hailed as a significant milestone toward a stronger Winston-Salem because I witnessed leaders from many backgrounds, races and faiths extend an invitation to talk. And people accepted and displayed great courage to speak their truth.

The biggest, most important battles are won by those with the biggest hearts and those who lead humbly. True leadership emerges from the desire to invite others into conversation. Where pain and hurt run deep, let our compassion and grace run deeper still.

This weekend could be a watershed moment for Winston-Salem. It could be the start of something significant that will wash over us with a mighty wave. I want to be part of that city. I want to be counted among those neighbors. I want to be one of the many who will take the first step.

So I am here. Listening. Hopeful for a unified community.

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Nathan O. Hatch is president of Wake Forest University.

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