Race, money, religion, age, cultural heritage or chosen identity—we create so many barriers, so many dividing lines. The best solution is to have a wide range of friends to help us see from different perspectives, but we often hang out with those like us, creating our own little bubbles.
Pastor Greg Surratt recently said, “If everyone around you looks, acts and votes like you, it’s time to expand your circle.” Otherwise, we assume things from a distance and draw false conclusions. But how do we actually implement the solution?
Here are four small things we can do to help break down barriers and smudge away dividing lines.
Read and Listen.
Reading offers us an incredible gift: windows into the lives of others. Writer Ann Patchett summarizes it well: “Books allow us to go into someone else’s life and step inside their skin, and see the world through their eyes. And that’s what makes us more compassionate people.”
I regularly interview people to help them write and share their testimonies about God at work in their lives. People tell me about their most crucial moments, serious struggles and fears—things that could normally take years of friendship to ever learn about someone. It’s an unearned honor—to be let in. But I know they don’t do it because of me; they do it because they want their story to help others going through similar difficulties. From the outside, you’d never guess what they’ve been through. But we often assume we do. Assumptions destroy so many possibilities for meaningful connection.
As Anne Lamott says in Grace (Eventually), “Reading and books are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise up … Stories and truth are splints for the soul …”
And don’t discount fiction! Sometimes it’s easier to drop our guard and let ourselves feel more of what the person in the story is going through because we’re not focused on all the facts lining up. We’re just open to experiencing the love, loss, pain, laughter and joy—the emotional truths of being human.
Read books and posts by authors of another race or culture. Attend their events. Listen to their podcasts and interviews. For example, I loved Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, set in Ghana—a place I’ve never been. I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone from there.
Travel takes us out of our own little world. When we go somewhere new—whether on the other side of town or Timbuktu, it can make us feel vulnerable. But it can also teach us to be open to the unfamiliar and not be so quick to judge what we may not yet understand. Travel can help us appreciate different ways of living and other cultures and not automatically view them as threats or a reason to divide.
Jesus rebuked His disciples for creating dividing lines. In Luke 9:51–56, while traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus sent messengers to find rooms in Samaria, something most Jews would never do. Typically they went out of their way to avoid the land of the Samaritans, for reasons around ethnicity.
When the Samaritans refused Jesus a place to stay, James and John wanted to call down consuming fire. Jesus rebuked them for their quick judgment and prejudice. Later, He directly commanded them to spread the Gospel to Samaria, “… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Plus, it might be interesting to note that the first person to whom Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah was an ostracized Samaritan woman at a well. “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26).
Learn the history and culture of a place. Talk to locals. Ask questions beyond where’s the bathroom and best restaurant in town. Be respectful. What places matter most to them and why? And if you’re on the receiving end of questions, please be patient and willing guides.
When we serve others, we have a chance to interact with people we otherwise might never get the opportunity to know. In South Carolina, an elderly woman openly admitted she used to be a little prejudiced. But seeing those around her serving regardless of race or situation, she decided to volunteer in her neighborhood, too.
Serving in a street ministry was her first introduction to God and church. Now she co-leads that same ministry. Recently she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given six months to live. Many of the folks she once had a prejudice against have been the ones to surround her with loving support.
One of God’s great paradoxes seems to be that when we serve others, we often end up receiving far more than we ever manage to give. God seems to love blurring which side of the line you’re actually on.
Serve in your local community and explore possibilities for short-term missions.
“Well that was a total gyp.” Have you ever said that? Sometimes we don’t realize when our words or actions carry derogatory implications and stereotypes. “Gyp” is thought to be short for gypsy and refers to cheating someone. Fantasy-science fiction author Brian Sanderson after discovering the phrase’s origin, apologized in a podcast for using it as common slang. He struck it from his vocabulary. We need to be intentional about recognizing when we’re perpetuating prejudice from prior generations.
Examine your personal views, where they come from, and how willing you are to challenge them. One way that people have been doing this is by opting to test their DNA to determine their ethnic origins. Many have been surprised by the results. Some found a common heritage with ethnic groups they were prejudiced against or had considered enemies for generations. It was a blow to their chosen identity.
We get so used to defining ourselves with specific words, but are they the right ones? Personally, I like “child of God.”
Marney McNall writes for Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina. She loves writing for nonprofit causes and crafting stories that put us in othersÕ shoes. She believes stories help us empathize and try harder to do life together. Follow her on Twitter @MarneyMcNall or visit her blog at marneymcnall.com.