We are living during a time in our society when fear and mistrust among people of different racial groups are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Acknowledging that there has been a huge resurgence of racism, discrimination, and individual prejudices is difficult and even baffling at times. The cultural divide appears to be expanding rather than shrinking. Although we have made great strides in learning how to connect with people beyond our discomforts and fears and to see others as God sees them, as people of value and worth, if we are honest, there is still much work to be done.
Cultural mistrust does not only come from our obvious differences such as race or lifestyle — how we treat each other as individuals and our perception of each other both play a role as well. At a recent town hall meeting in my city to discuss what steps we can take to understand each other better, a young woman stated, “I thought we were past all this divisive stuff. I just think we have fear of each other and we have to learn how to trust and respect each other again.”
It was an uncomfortable meeting, with raw conversations centered on the role of law enforcement in our city and the mistrust among communities of color due to both national and local events involving blacks and community policing. A courageous conversation took place in a room filled with people who barely knew each other but wanted to begin the necessary process to move beyond shallow words and mistrust to building bridges instead of walls.
That one meeting has initiated many more in our city, and friendships have formed between the most unlikely people. They would never have happened without people being willing to take steps to pursue understanding each other.
While we do have some heartbreaking problems happening daily in our society regarding interactions between diverse populations, it is my belief that we have solutions that will take courage to move beyond our places of comfort. But these solutions are not as complicated as we make them. What can we do? We can learn to see every human being from God’s perspective as persons of worth, value their lived experiences even when we don’t understand them, and cultivate genuine relationships based on humility, vulnerability, and transparency.
If we are not willing to get real about our own heart issues with people from different cultures and backgrounds, and if we don’t allow God to bring healing, nothing will change in our lives or in the lives of those we interact with daily. Sometimes it’s easier to ask Jesus to change the situations around us rather than transform ourselves and allow the change to begin within us.
Almost every African Bantu dialect includes the saying, “I am because we are,” which is captured by the term Ubuntu. The word literally means “human-ness” and roughly translates to “human kindness.” The concept of Ubuntu is that, no matter our differences, we as human beings can connect with one another through sharing our life experiences, stories and humanity. We all have stories from our journeys in life, and our stories and lived experiences are the heart of who we are. And even though our life stories do not always connect with the stories of others, they are an important summation of our personal experiences, of why we believe as we do, and ultimately of our frame of reference and our perspective of others.
When genuine warmth, respect, and honor are displayed not merely for aesthetic purposes but out of genuine love and compassion for others — in other words, out of Ubuntu — a journey toward transparency, understanding and long-lasting friendships is enabled.
From this, an idea evolved around my passion and love for seeing people from different cultures and backgrounds unite. I called it genuine Ubuntu relationships — the willingness to see every human being from God’s perspective and not through the lens of prejudices, stereotypes and negative societal influences. These Ubuntu relationships are not just about being warm and fuzzy with people from different cultures. They involve understanding that a common bond exists between us all as well as differences that we don’t need to fear.
Our stories prove that although we are diverse in our perspectives and different from each other in very unique ways, our differences should not keep us from the things we have in common as followers of Christ and as human beings. We all experience joy and laughter, trials and triumphs, fear and trust, pain and disappointment. We ultimately become unified when we are willing to walk together, as uncomfortable as it might be, and not allow barriers such as race or class to make us forget that we really do have a lot more in common with each other than we believe.
Whether in our neighborhoods, churches, workplaces or other spheres, community is built when we intentionally choose to come out of our comfort zones and connect to others without feeling like we are walking on eggshells. It means risking everything that we think we know about other cultures. It involves not getting stuck in fear and being willing to initiate small steps toward befriending someone.
It takes honesty to admit that even as followers of Jesus we can dislike people we know very little about because their values and beliefs are opposite to what we think or believe. But treating someone with dignity means seeing them as someone who deserves to be communicated with in a spirit of respect even if we don’t agree with their lifestyle or beliefs. To truly connect with people who are different from us will take the grace of God.
When we are willing to learn what dignity, honor, and respect look like in different cultures, we not only positively affect diverse people and their communities, but we allow Jesus to work in our hearts as well. And through this bond of humanity and the pursuit of understanding each other we discover our own identity. We also gain a greater understanding of what is written in the Bible about responding to those around us with love first. Jesus reminds us that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. And he will help us learn how to do that.
It is doubtful that any solitary person can reflect God’s character on their own. God’s image comes to expression in community and especially in our friendships with others. The journey of soul growth doesn’t occur in isolation but rather through our relationships with others as our lives collide in our everyday dealings in a broken and hurting world. The truth is that relationships as a whole can be a bit messy, and learning how to truly relate to others takes time. But I believe most people are looking for genuine relationships and community. And relationships can be very beautiful and rewarding and reflect the heart of God for all humanity.
MelindaJoy Mingo is an ordained minister, professor, cultural capacity expert, and entrepreneur based in Colorado Springs. She is the founder of Je-Nai International Ministry and Significant Life Change, Inc., and has developed multicultural initiatives both at home and abroad. She holds a PhD in global leadership and an honorary doctorate in urban transformative leadership and has been widely recognized for her teaching and training in cross-cultural competency.