If my childhood home was the United Nations, then that would have made me the British diplomat.
Let me explain.
Growing up, I’d make friends with people from all walks of life – affluent, lower income, athlete, musician, black, white, and everyone in between. They never interacted with each other, though, unless I’d bring them together.
When I would invite my black friends to hang out at my white friends’ houses, they’d always end up doing these crazy, fearless stunts, but my black friends loved it because they never got to see this side of them – they rarely got to see them at all. They were never in close proximity. But in those glorious afternoons, we’d manage to close the distance between us. Even if just for a moment.
If we want to build lasting, diverse communities, we must start by getting up close and personal.
When we are not willing to be around each other, people become statistics, colors, or hashtags. But when we choose to share our spaces and places with those who don’t look like us, it becomes harder to hold on to our faulty assumptions. Proximity leads to value. Value leads to appreciation. Watch the stereotypes crumble.
I’m reminded of my friendship with Adrienne Johnson. Adrienne has deep, southern roots. There’s no reason we should be as close as we are. But Adrienne serves as my assistant. She treats my children like her own. Because I am around her all the time, I have come to value her skills, her strengths, and her character. Because I am around her, I appreciate her. I value who she is.
This value and regard for others should be at the forefront of our ministries, especially in the way we approach service in diverse communities.
Too often, we prioritize the value of what we can give and what we can do. I see this sometimes when I talk to friends who are leaders of predominantly white churches. Although they don’t mean to do this, they champion their service efforts with an expectation of improving impoverished, largely black communities across town. However, they neglect to first understand the people they’re working with, perhaps not even seeing them as people at all.
And there have been times when I myself have started a mission trip thinking, “What can I give to this community?” or “This is how we do things, so this is how we’re going to help.” But at the end of the trip, I leave feeling that what I have given does not compare to what I have received – a greater sense of community, an overabundance of joy, and a deep hunger for God.
When a lack of proximity leads to a lack of understanding, people are at stake. We all have value, regardless of age, skin color, political affiliation, or economic situation. We have all been created by the same loving God.
So let us open up our homes. Invite coworkers, family, and friends. Let’s build a thousand little UNs and bring people together. Let’s shorten the distance between us, inch by inch.