“Consider Jesus’ challenge to see others, not just as neighbors, but to think about how to care for him or her. He calls us to expand our notion of neighbor to that of kin.”
During the summer months, our small–town neighborhood kids would gather in a vacant lot for pick–up games of softball. The team captains were, without question, the best players. They were the community’s athletes, and everyone knew it. The selection of players for the teams began: the first ones chosen were the siblings, cousins, nieces and the nephews. I was often one of the last picked.
I was not a good player. I could not catch, throw, or hit with any consistency, and I was the new kid in the neighborhood. So, being chosen last did not come as a surprise. In a way, I felt fortunate that I got to play! And, I don’t recall ever being ridiculed for my lack of skills nor felt that I was not a part of the team.
This is not always the case. Many have been the brunt of ball field banter due to their lack of skill or outsider status: “Batter. Batter. She’s no batter.” However, when I was chosen, the captain looked at me as if to say, “You’re on my team now.” I was included.
If asked to remember a time in your life when you felt included, what event comes to mind? What feeling would you use to describe it? Was it an invitation to someone’s home for a meal or to a movie with new friends? It might have been an invitation to a special community event or to work on a church project with women you respect. Perhaps it was an invitation to share your ideas and perspectives on an issue with a group of colleagues. Such experiences remain with us, and the details are kept intact to leave a lasting impact. This is the power of inclusion and of being a part of a community.
Our world is bursting with cultural differences. We interact daily within culturally “rich” spaces in which people converge across ethnic and generational differences, nationalities and political ideologies. There are different lifestyles and languages, religious customs and beliefs. These interactions occur in our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and places of commerce.
There can be something very attractive about building relationships across cultures. There may be intrigue around personal histories and family backgrounds. We may be enticed by foods or curious about dress. We might be interested in holiday traditions or worship practices. These encounters with differences can create curiosity and an open handedness towards others unlike ourselves. The exchanges are smooth; the encounters open up the world and its people.
Studies have shown that a group of people with different abilities, perspectives, backgrounds, and skills who are working together can drive up creativity and innovation within their organizations because they have more tools for problem solving. And, they can integrate a variety of perspectives and experiences into the process. This can result in producing something new and relevant, advancing the mission of the group, church, or organization. These results show the benefit of inclusion.
But, despite the benefits, the very things that are attractive about cultural differences may seem strange and even foreign to others. Differences become difficult to reconcile. What do we have in common? This perceived lack of a commonality feels threatening. Division and isolation can set in.
At one time, the “melting pot” was a popularly held descriptor of American society with its rich melding of cultures, nationalities and ethnic groups. However, it has been suggested that a “mosaic” in which cultural differences, reflected in different colors, shapes and textures might be a more fitting description for the reality of our times. Within the mosaic, the uniqueness of cultures is preserved. But highlighting these differences may be more divisive than unifying.
Our natural inclination towards safety and our bent towards sameness is like a magnetic pull. We desire what is known, routine and comfortable. Of themselves, these are valid motivators. But like our own created “echo chambers,” which give the illusion of safety due to the continuous feedback of perspectives and ideas that reflect our own, it does little to help us navigate the multicultural society in which we live. How do we develop the ability to engage effectively in ministry across cultures without these encounters?
Without opposing sides and different points of view, we are limited in our ability to problem solve or to develop the relational skills for living fully within a culturally diverse society. While learning these skills can be frustrating, exposure to different ways of thinking and being in the world reduces the threat often associated with differences. It helps to develop the knowledge and the ability for living more harmoniously with others.
Christ confronted and destroyed the barriers that separated people who had been enemies for centuries and filled with animosity and suspicion for one another. He did this in order to create a new humanity. (See Ephesians 2:14–18) Imagine what a new humanity would look like in the spaces where you live, work or worship? What would you need to do to help bring it about?
When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the outlier Samaritan, who saw a battered, half–dead man along the road. Moved with compassion, the Samaritan picked up the man and took him to a safe space. There he cared for him like a brother and attended to his wounds beyond what might be considered reasonable. (See Luke 25:30-36, NIV.)
On another occasion, when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were waiting to speak to Him, He said, “Who is My mother, and who are My brothers? Pointing to His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers. For whoever does the will of My Father in Heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46–50).
Consider Jesus’ challenge to see others, not just as neighbors, but to think about how to care for him or her. He calls us to expand our notion of neighbor to that of kin.
In his book Life Together, theologian and German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.” He adds, “I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and His work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.” 1
Here are a few suggestions for overcoming barriers in order to build more diverse relationships within your spheres of influence.
Walk in humility
“But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously” (Micah 6:8).
Break bread and share stories together
Look for opportunities to break bread and share stories together. Wonderful things can happen around table fellowship.
Examine cultural values
Explore your cultural values, beliefs and assumptions. Where do the values come from? What stories were you told early on? Who told you, “this is the ways things should be done?” How does this way of thinking impact how you interact with others?
Our cultural conditioning happens early in life. Family, community and media reinforce it throughout our lives. As you grow in an awareness of your own culture, its values, beliefs and cultural norms, you begin to develop the ability to understand more fully the cultural differences of others.
Learn as much as you can about the cultural differences you experience around you. It is not necessarily the one who spends the most time in other countries or has completed several mission trips, or lives in a multicultural community who has the ability to be effective in culturally diverse situations. Skills can be learned in order to be effective in cross–cultural settings if there is the drive and the willingness to gather information, develop a plan, and put that plan into action.
Colorblindness can be summarized in these words: “We’re all the same.” It has the appearance of inclusion, but denies the experiences, stories, knowledge and gifts inherent in a group’s history. A refugee’s story will be very different from that of an immigrant. A person who lived through the Cultural Revolution will have a different story than someone who survived the Japanese internment camps. Often, to deny our differences is to deny our culture, its influence upon us, and the challenges that need to be addressed across cultural differences within our society.
Make space for lament and discussing critical Issues
It is no secret that our world is deeply polarized. People have stories that are often painful to share as well as to hear. Many of the headlines reflect the experiences of those with whom we work, worship and serve daily. We need to create safe spaces for candid conversations, active listening, prayer and healing. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).
People expect faith communities to be inclusive communities. Today, our communities may fall victim to promoting society’s values rather than challenging those values and advancing those of respect, love, and unity.
May we be a community that is relevant for the times, seeking to understand and to value the differences we see in others. May we reflect the beautiful multicultural and multi-ethnic kinship of Christ’s new humanity.
Bonhoeffer, D. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/168889-gemeinsames-leben