I'm often challenged in how to bridge differences and build meaningful relationships with those in my community, most of whom are different than me, whether it's in ethnicity, background, or economic class. These differences often mean that those I'm trying to build friendships with have vastly different perspectives on life.
A friend and I recently attended an author talk with Leroy Barber, the Executive Director of The Voices Project, an organization committed to supporting and developing leaders of color. He recently authored the book, Embrace: God's Radical Shalom for a Divided World, and came to Charlotte to talk about it. Though I hadn't yet read the book (it's next up on my list), I was familiar with Barber from his work with CCDA (Christian Community Development Association).
As a white, middle-class mom living in a economically struggling area in Charlotte, I'm often challenged in how to bridge differences and build meaningful relationships with those in my community, most of whom are different than me, whether it's in ethnicity, background, or economic class. These differences often mean that those I'm trying to build friendships with have vastly different perspectives on life. Finding common ground doesn't always come naturally. I've been challenged recently on my need to just learn and listen. Attending this event was a step in doing that.
Barber started off the event telling us about the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, which had just occurred a few hours before. Most of us hadn't heard anything about it yet, and the news added a seriousness to the conversation. After a time of prayer for the situation, Barber spent some time talking about themes from the book, then opened the time up for questions and dialogue among those present. I wish I'd taken copious notes in order to share them here. I didn't. I was too drawn in to the conversations taking place. I found that much of what I learned applied to the cross-cultural work with refugees we do here at Journey Home.
So instead of trying to recall blow by blow, I wanted to share some of the insights I gained from the time:
- First, friendship is key. When you have a real relationship with someone, you give them the benefit of the doubt. You don't jump to biased conclusions based on hearsay. When you KNOW someone and care for them, many of our normal societal divisions just fade away.
I was struck by how true this has been in my experience with refugees and immigrants. At one time, the debate about immigration was purely economics and statistics to me. But once I built relationships with the mom from Burma, the single dad from Congo, the asylum seeker from Zimbabwe, the family from Afghanistan, I could no longer view the issues in the same way.
- Second, friendship must be intentional AND a priority. During the conversation that night, several participants pointed out how easy it is to talk about building friendships across ethnic and economic divisions, but how hard and time-consuming it really is in practice! As one lady said, "I barely have time for those in my own social circles! How do I make time to reach out to those with whom I don't normally interact?"
Charlotte is unfortunately very segregated. There is a crescent around the city of the wealthy and middle-class. The good schools are there, the good jobs are there, and some neighborhoods work quite actively to keep any low-income residents out of their areas. "All of this means that I've often got to drive a ways to build these friendships," was a comment of another attendee.
That's why being intentional is key. The kind of friendships Barber talked about are not going to just happen. We've got to be willing to set aside other events and activities that might be good, but that aren't really necessary. This got me thinking about intentional parenting. Is it more important for my kids to have access to the best in education, or to instead learn to love their neighbors as themselves? Do we need to spend every night having family-only focused time or can we open it up instead to playing soccer with kids in an apartment complex or spending time hearing stories and sharing meals with immigrants? Which is more valuable to my children long-term? It's a question whose implications I'll be pondering in the days ahead.
- Third, embrace feeling awkward. Barber pointed out that building these relationships means finding connecting points. And that doesn't always happen on the first, second or third round. It can take time. And it can really feel awkward and uncomfortable for a while! I'm a pretty self-centered person. I like what I like, and struggle to be interested in others' preferred hobbies and activities when different from mine. Being like Jesus means becoming all things to all men, so that we might by any means reach them with His love. This a challenge! But I know it starts with caring for them more than myself.
- Finally, integration does not mean assimilation. It's natural for those in the dominant culture to expect all others to recognize their superiority and to become like them. In the church, we often want multicultural congregations, but don't want multicultural services. Yet God created this world with a vast array of nationalities, each with their own traditions, styles, music, etc! Even in America, different segments of the population have their own cultures.
Let's not assume all cultures have to fit into a one-sized mold to be acceptable. We need to celebrate those differences. When we do so, we're celebrating the beauty of God's creativity. When we don't fully appreciate others' styles and expressions, there is no need to criticize just because they're "different". Along with that, let's step out of our own cultural comfort zone sometimes in order to experience what's important to our friends. I promise. It's a beautiful experience.
As a side note, I was struck by how different the life experiences have been of some of my minority friends who grew up in the South, especially the older generation. It's impossible for me as a white Midwesterner to understand their perspectives on racism without taking the time to learn that background and to hear their stories. One older gentleman remarked, "I sometimes feel offended when white people come in and want to be friends, but they don't care about all I've gone through. They don't know what it's like to grow up in a roach-infested apartment, to live in extreme poverty, to suffer what I've suffered. They just want to 'be friends' and think that's all there is to it."
I think he has a point that those of us in the church should heed. We want to gloss over issues of race and injustice in our society, assuming its all in the past. But sometimes we need to have those difficult conversations. We need to listen to those who have far different experiences than ours and care about what they've suffered, how they've been hurt. Healing starts by exposing and dealing with some of these problems that are still reverberating in events today, not by covering over for the sake of unity.
As we exited, my friend and I both took a deep breath and said, "Wow. That was really good." We both hope to be a part of more events like this. And most of all, we want to take what we've learned and use it to become better parents, better neighbors and most of all, better followers of Christ.
Photo of Charlotte by James Willamor, used under a Creative Commons license