Spain, 2001. We were newlywed, Wendy and I, and fresh out of college. I had just signed a contract to play professional basketball in Córdoba, the southernmost part along the Spanish coast. Wendy, basketball, and Europe – sounds like the perfect concoction, right? But, looking back, I was still in that college mindset, perfectly content with sticking to my routine: practice, eat, siesta and repeat.
But my wife? She took up flamenco dancing. She savored delicious, authentic cuisine. She traveled around Córdoba and sought out the nooks and crannies of the city. She immersed herself in the culture and, in doing so, unearthed a genuine affection for our temporary home.
If we truly want to build bridges in our communities, we must be willing to immerse. Immersion does not equate agreeance, but without it we gain little understanding for our neighbor. And without the element of understanding, diversity can spur division instead of unity.
Paul sets an example for us in Acts 17:22-31. A foreigner living in unfamiliar terrain, he preaches to a people whose culture is not native to him about a God whom they do not know. He begins, “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines.” (v. 22-23a).
First, Paul walked.
Paul is then able to explain to the Athenians who God is in a way they could understand: “One of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.” (v. 23b)
There’s a difference between visiting a culture and experiencing it. Paul didn’t just sit in Athens. He did not isolate himself. He did not stick to his routine. He walked, he noticed, and he engaged with people. He was then able to tell the Athenians about God and, as a result, many were saved.
I was recently on vacation to Morocco. People talk about Muslim nations, but it’s a whole other thing to experience it. My personal perceptions and the cultural reality could not have been more different – the people were incredibly kind and gracious. I learned so much by just being there, by walking in the streets and noticing the culture. Though we may never see eye-to-eye on our religious beliefs, I have gained a greater appreciation and love for that culture through simply participating in their world.
Examine the parameters of your world. How far do they reach beyond your comfort zone? How might they be impeding the limits of your understanding?
It’s as simple as this: if you are a believer who was raised in a predominantly white church, visit a historically black church. Or attend a Korean service. If you hold resentment or mistrust toward law enforcement offices, apply for a ride-along program. Do your grocery shopping in the other side of town. Visit a new barbershop. Immerse yourself. And watch what happens.