Wow, that is a long hashtag, and by the way, don’t look for it on Twitter, because I am not much of a twitter guy.  However, I am a guy who is deeply concerned about the political and racial divide in our country.  We have seen this divide most recently in the emotionally charged issue of the Forced Family separation policy that hit our nation like a Tsunami.  How do we navigate these turbulent waters of our culture, and lead our churches to navigate them well?

The Problem…
Let me illustrate this problem with a story.  Let me tell you a story about Josh and Malik.  Malik is an African American and Josh is white and they became very good friends – they road bikes together, played on the same travel baseball team, and hung out together.  Malik didn’t care that Josh was white and Josh didn’t mind that Malik was brown skinned.  They were buddies and their ethnicity didn’t seem to make any difference at all.  But beginning in Jr. High and latter more acutely in high school, they began to separate along racial lines.  They didn’t mean to, but it just seemed natural.  They would see each other on the bus, but the racial lines widened as they got to high school, especially in the lunchroom – there were black tables and white tables, Hispanic and all the other tables – Jocks, geeks – you get the picture.   Josh and Malik eventually lost touch, worse than that, there was sometimes even negative racial talk among the different groups, and even occasionally violence that only further widened the gap between them.  Soon Josh and Malik sat at separate ends of the lunchroom – not only not as close friends, but with some distrust between them.  This is what naturally happens, we tend to naturally associate with people most like ourselves, and build relationships with those we are most comfortable with – most like me.  Josh, by the way is my son. 

The Josh and Malik story is not just among youth, it is with adults as well.  We naturally tend to build friendships and ideologies with people that look, think, smell, worship, vote and talk like we do.  The problem with this is that isolation breeds misunderstanding, fear, stereotypes and judgment about different people – someone with differing abilities, different gender identities/understandings or race, cultures, or age, etc.   It affects our rhetoric.  We use terms like “them,” and “those people,” or even use slurs or derogatory, inflammatory name-calling.  However, when we intentionally build relationship with someone unlike ourselves, understanding, acceptance and love happens.  The “they” becomes “my friend” who happens to look, vote, act or think differently than I do.   In the context of relationship, when you hear a racial slur, for example, we take it personally – “Hey, that’s my friend you are talking about!”  How did Jesus break down walls and build bridges to the gospel message?  He intentionally went out of his way to talk with people different than himself – he went to their parties, invited himself to their homes, stopped, listened and shared good news in love! 

One of the most significant problems in our culture and in the church today is that we so easily get entrenched in our own racial, political, socio-economic identities that we only end up furthering the divide in our country.  Sorry, I cannot offer 5 easy steps toward building bridges and healing our nation.  I would like to offer only one difficult, unnatural, but fruitful step to breaking down walls and building a more inclusive church that can more powerfully impact our nation:  Intentionally build a relationship with someone unlike yourself.    

The Conversations that Changed my life…
I am Pastor in a faith community called Living Springs Community Church that is now multicultural (more than 40% non-white), and multi-socioeconomic, in the South Suburbs of Chicago.  This was not always the case.  20 years ago the church was almost exclusively anglo in a community that was rapidly changing ethnically.  Out of a deep Biblical conviction we felt called to stay in the community we were planted in and more deeply reflect that community and the Kingdom of Heaven racially.  We took many intentional steps to do this.

Perhaps the most important step that we developed early on was to start something we called Common Ground.  Common Ground sought to partner people from different racial backgrounds to meet monthly to intentionally have conversations around increasingly challenging racial topics.  We had assigned questions (which were secondary to organic conversations that might emerge) that started with less “threatening” topics to build relationship and get to know one another’s stories, similarities, differences, hurts, wins, etc.  The questions then moved toward more challenging topics such as privilege, racism, ethnic pride, and even explored political tensions.  In the context of loving relationship, we were able to have honest, respectful, loving, healing conversations where deep understanding took place.  Bridges were (and are still being) built. 

My first common ground partner was from a radically different background than mine.  He was an African American man raised in a rough part of the west side of Chicago.  His father was a gang leader, and eventually he became one too.  He had a pretty radical conversion and was studying to be a pastor.  I am a white Dutch guy who was raised in Sheboygan Wisconsin – which was a mono-cultural, primarily German, blue collar, hard drinking, politically right, racially exclusive community that had some pretty narrow racial understandings (that is a nice way of saying it fostered some pretty racist attitudes).   Long story short(er), Billy (not his real name) and I became fast friends.  A relationship of honesty, trust, transparency, and vulnerability was developed.  We had vastly different experiences, political leanings, and ways of viewing the world, but we respected and learned from each other.  That relationship went far beyond the 12 sessions, and radically impacted my political leanings, my racial understanding, and led me to a powerful conversion to become a racial reconciler.  I continue to talk with Billy to get his perspective on issues in the news, our culture and even politics. 

All of this to say, if we want to see a less divided nation, church and community, and a more inclusive, multicultural church, let it begin with you and me!  Before we go off on a politically charged issue on social media, how about talking with someone from the other side of the fence.  As Steven Covey used to say, “seek first to understand, then be understood.”  Better yet, the most fruitful, life-changing action step I would encourage, is to intentionally build a relationship with someone unlike yours

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