My first car was an old Volvo wagon. It was a family car, but I drove it from the time I got my license as a 16-year-old until the summer after I graduated from high school. It wasn’t long before I paid $2,000 for a gray Mazda, and I have had my own car ever since. Sure, I’ve had to call friends or family to bail me out when I found myself on the side of the road with a flat tire or some other vehicular malfunction. But I’ve never been forced to rely on public transportation or my own two legs to get me from place to place.
I don’t think she has ever owned her own car. She grew up in a big city and is extremely proficient at navigating bus schedules and public transportation routes. She plans her days around when she has to be at a particular bus stop. I will never forget the day she asked for a ride across town. She had a kid home from school with a fever and sore throat. After walking her daughter to the hospital a couple miles away to be evaluated, she returned home with prescription and school excuse in hand. She called me, asking if I would be willing to drive her to the middle school so she could turn in the school excuse. I readily agreed because I was already on that side of town and free for the next hour. As we drove the 15 minutes to the school, she casually mentioned that a trip to and from the school would take upwards of three hours by bus. My jaw nearly hit the floor.
I have always had a car. And nearly every day I forget what a luxury it is to have easy access to personal transportation. She and I are the same age, but our lives are so incredibly different. I don’t have to worry about how long it will take to get to the bus station and switch buses. I don’t have to structure my life around the availability of other people to drive me to the store. I complain about oil changes and car repairs, but the truth is, I am privileged to worry about such things.
Recently, I stumbled upon some research that was rather alarming to me. According to the Barna Group, evangelicals are more likely than the general population to select as friends people who are like them. This is especially true in regards to religious beliefs, ethnicity, and political views. In fact, 91% of evangelicals report that their friends share mostly similar religious beliefs. Due to a number of different reasons I won’t get into here, I do not self-identify as evangelical anymore. But I still find this statistic to be concerning. Put as bluntly as possible, we have a relationship crisis, my friends. Barna states, “friendship with those who are different to us increases empathy and causes a shift in our views toward them—in very positive ways.” Read: Evangelicals are NOT experiencing this positive shift, but are instead cloistering themselves in an echo chamber.
Is it any wonder, then, that evangelicals are statistically considered to be the least likely to believe the United States has a responsibility to welcome refugees? It is difficult to empathize with someone else’s experience when you have no proximity to him. It was easy for me to stand in judgment of people like my friend, to ask naive questions like, “Why don’t they (the infamous THEY) just get a job? Why don’t they just take the bus?”—before I actually KNEW my friend and experienced the joys and challenges of her life. It was only through relationship with her that I discovered just how hard she works for her family. She taught me how difficult and complex it is to navigate systems that are created by people in power to supposedly “help” people like her.
In his book White Awake, Daniel Hill shares about an eye-opening experience he had, in which a friend asked him to list the most influential voices in his life in the categories of friends/mentors, authors he reads, and theologians he learns from. As he tallied his lists, he realized how homogenous they were. There was no diversity of voice in his life. He encourages his readers to take the same inventory. From whom are you seeking advice? With whom are you spending time? What voices are you listening to and learning from? If you find that you are primarily listening to and learning from people who are just like you, maybe it’s time to widen your circle.
But how? I readily acknowledge that intentionally integrating more diverse voices and experiences into your life is not as easy as snapping your fingers. But it is valuable, necessary work. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1) Volunteer. Find organizations in your city that empower and come alongside people groups we have historically (and presently) marginalized and oppressed. Don’t volunteer with the intention of “serving” someone. Instead, try showing up with an attitude of curiosity and a desire to learn from people who have a different life experience than your own. If it is difficult for you to find time to commit to doing so, try doing something that is more flexible, like writing letters to a person in prison. I will share more about this soon, but I just mailed my first letter to my pen pal through The Death Row Support Project. What an incredible opportunity to learn from someone whose experience I do not understand! I don’t know what it will look like for you, but be intentional about putting yourself in a place to learn from someone who is different from you religiously, ethnically, socioeconomically, etc.
2) Increase the diversity on your bookshelf. Read books written by people of color. Here is a list compiled by the ECC for Black History Month to get you started. Seek out authors, artists, film directors, and podcast curators who come from a faith background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and/or sexual orientation different from your own.
3) Get curious. When you find yourself standing in judgment of someone else, or dictating what you think another person should do or be, take a step back and ask questions instead. Listen to people’s stories. Ask someone how they came to a particular conclusion. You might find that getting curious and seeking to KNOW people is far more enlightening and transformative than arguing politics from a distance.
In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle says, “Here is what we seek: A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Friends, let’s pursue that kind of compassion. In my experience, doing so usually requires PROXIMITY and PRESENCE. In the way of Jesus—who ate with the outcast, touched the diseased, talked to the easily dismissed, and kept company with the unpopular—may we seek to widen our circles and lengthen our tables. I think you will find, like I have, that it is YOUR life that will be changed and enriched. ❤️