“I learned the most about the world by being in places where I was never supposed to be and being with people I was never supposed to be with.”
–Jim Wallis, in a conversation with faith leaders
I had the opportunity to be in an informal conversation with Christian writer and political activist Jim Wallis the first week of February. It was a fitting start to Black History Month since Wallis has come out with a new book in which he posits that racism is America’s original sin. He said it is built into the fabric of our culture and society, and while we have made strides, it is still deep in our structures and systems.
When asked about how we, as mostly white Christians, effectively engage in this work of repairing the breach caused by racism, Wallis said that we cannot learn or change without proximity. He noted that Martin Luther King, Jr. said that 11:00 on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week, and that has not changed much 50 years later.
We tend to hang with our peeps, our tribe, people who look and think like us. This is natural human behavior. We are born into a family: our original tribe. We are shaped by that group of people. We build friendships out of similar interests or shared activities, and because we like belonging, whenever we are in social circles, we tend to gravitate toward people we know. Our early survival instincts taught us that different or the stranger might be a danger, and we are on guard. We herd with our tribe because it is hard wired into our being.
In 20 years, the United States will be a non-majority culture. No single race will be in the majority. The tribe is changing. And what was once a great survival skill—hang with your tribe/your own kind—is no longer serving us well. But that is the beauty of human beings: We are adaptable creatures. We can learn, grow, and evolve.
Let me come back to proximity. In that same gathering with Jim Wallis, I was sitting next to a woman who had served on the staff at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and one of her responsibilities was to take youth on a pilgrimage somewhere in the world. She told me about taking youth to places like Iona, Scotland, Italy, and Turkey. The youth chose the location, and it was a signature experience of their spiritual formation. So aside from going to a cool new place, they were immersed in a different culture and learned about people and the world in ways they never would have if they had not visited places they were not born into and naturally would not be in.
Hearing this story prompted me to remember one of my own immersion experiences. I spent years studying Spanish in the classroom, from junior high on. But it wasn’t until the summer I lived in Mexico with a family that I truly developed an understanding and appreciation for Mexican history, struggles, and identity. Because of that experience, I have a richer sense of how challenging and complex the situation is when we start talking about things like immigration. And it is not just “an issue” to me anymore. It is about people—people I came to know and love, people whose hopes and dreams mirror my own.
I also recall a conversation I was in several years ago about work towards racial reconciliation. The challenging question placed before us was: “Who is sitting at your dinner table?” Changing the world begins with one relationship and one conversation at a time. One simple way to start is through proximity. Invite some folks who are not in your normal circles to have dinner in your home—and listen to one another and share your stories.
The question left stirring in my mind is: How do we put ourselves in places where we would not normally find ourselves and with people we would not normally be with?
I have immersed myself in our history by going to places like the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (profound and well worth the visit). But where I am personally convicted is that I live in on a block that happens to be racially diverse, and I can’t say I know the names and the stories of my neighbors across the street. That is where I need to begin—not a trip to the other side of the world, as enriching and powerful as those can be—but a walk across the street, and an invitation to a meal and a conversation.
“And your people will rebuild the ancient ruins; You’ll raise up the age-old foundations, and people will call you ‘Repairer of Broken Walls,’ ‘Restorer of Streets to Live In.’” Isaiah 58:12
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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