Culture

The Importance and Challenge of Diverse Friendships

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Both sociologists and reconciliation experts agree that having cross-cultural friendships is one of the best remedies for exposing and eliminating racist ideologies and behaviors. According to statistics, most of us are doing rather poorly at this. 

Reuters reported that “about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.” Why is it so difficult to form friendships with people who are different from ourselves, especially for those of us who are white? And more importantly, what is the cost personally and corporately if we maintain homogeneous friendship circles?

My Undoing

My husband and I have been friends with Nick and Sheila Wise Rowe for thirty years. They’re brilliant, kind, compassionate, and truth-tellers. For nearly a decade, my family lived across the street from them. We did life together. We shared meals, watched each other’s kids, and prayed for one another. Sheila and Nick are black. My husband and I are white. This friendship has both been a source of life and joy and also has helped me to see my own deeply-embedded racist ideologies.

Nearly twenty years ago, the four of us sat down to plan a racial reconciliation conference in Boston. Mid discussion, some tension surfaced. Since I trusted Nick, I asked, “Are you saying that I’m a racist?” There was a pregnant pause, a yes, and then a detailed explanation of white privilege. I didn’t even bother trying to hold back my tears. And those tears flowed not because of white fragility, but because the Holy Spirit used Nick to bring conviction. That moment was pivotal in my faith journey. Because Nick spoke the truth in love, and because I did not get defensive, God broke through. Though such conversations are often highly emotional and at times overwhelming, we have to be willing to go there if we hope to have diverse friendships—especially those of us who are white.

Facing Our Fears

To pursue and cultivate ethnically-diverse relationships, we need to identify and face our fears. Fear has many iterations: fear of the unknown, of conflict, of change, or fear of losing one’s identity or status.

We move through life amassing preferences and forming deeply held beliefs about everything from the food we eat to the music we play in church on Sunday morning to how we value other people. Differences that arise when we build relationships within a diverse group often conflict with those preferences. Rather than affirming or validating our choices and beliefs, differences force us to evaluate our convictions which can result in disequilibrium or even insecurity. That’s part of why we sometimes resist rather than embrace diversity.

In the process of getting to know someone who is different, we often have one of two responses. Either our curiosity gets piqued and we lean in, wanting to hear, learn, and value from a new perspective. Or we feel threatened or judged and lean out. The fear of difference is primal and often beyond logic. If we feed our fears, differences can trigger a flight, freeze, or fight response even when there’s no real danger.

Pressing into diverse relationships can also trigger fear of conflict, which can be threatening, especially if the relationship is fragile. Given the choice, most of us will avoid conflict whenever possible. Personally, I’m not a fan of conflict but I’m aware that avoidance usually comes in the form of manipulation, control, or emotional dishonesty and leads to a false peace. False peace purports I don’t hate anyone. Therefore, I’m not a racist, or, I don’t see color. False peace pacifies but also prevents us from seeing, honoring, and loving each other.

False peace pacifies but also prevents us from seeing, honoring, and loving each other. Click To Tweet

If we want diverse friendships, we can’t avoid conflict. In a staff debrief when a Chinese-American associate pastor points out that none of the sermon illustrations in the recent series on relationships have reflected his lived experience, the white, male senior pastor will have a choice to make. He could be defensive or dismissive. Or, he could say something along the lines of “Tell me more.” How he navigates the confrontation will inform how welcoming his church will be to those who are not white and also how safe it is for his team to disagree. When we practice non-defensive listening and navigating conflict in our friendships, we’ll be more open to being challenged as we lead.

In addition to the fear of conflict, we also have to confront our fears of making mistakes. Given that the atmosphere in the United States is currently charged and the stakes are high, white folks in particular can easily feel paralyzed about the possibility of getting things wrong in these conversations. Despite our best intentions, we will make mistakes and some of them will be public. We may feel ashamed, guilty, and sometimes even foolish for venturing into these seemingly treacherous waters. But while painful and at times humiliating, if we want to love the way Jesus loved and lead the way Jesus led, we can’t be ruled by fear. When we fail, we must be willing to sit in the holy discomfort and learn.

Why Bother?

One of the most compelling visions in the Bible can be found in the book of Revelation where John writes of “every tribe and nation and people and language” bowing down to worship God side by side. This is not describing a universalist mosh pit but rather a beautiful, diverse gathering that represents every people group who ever walked the earth. If ultimately we’re all going to be together as one body, and if our job as followers of Christ is to usher in God’s kingdom here and now, learning to value and honor differences should be a priority for all of us.

If ultimately we’re all going to be together and if our job as followers of Christ is to usher in God’s kingdom here and now, learning to value and honor differences should be a priority for all of us. Click To Tweet

The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians the there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male more female.” These three groups represented the major divisions of humanity during the early church. Paul was not saying we’re all the same, but that through Christ, the dividing walls have now come down. As Sheila writes in her new book Healing Racial Trauma, “It’s up to us to stop rebuilding them.”

By taking down the walls and eradicating social hierarchies, Jesus is effectively offering all of us a seat at the table and promising to keep adding extensions as needed. When we sit at a table where Christ and Christ alone is the head, our world expands. We begin to understand that power is not finite and we willingly share or even give it away rather than hoard it. We esteem other cultures rather than diminish them. Proximity to those who are different then begins to move us toward a world in which we all have the opportunity to flourish.

Mutual Flourishing

Our goal as followers of Christ should be to ensure that all people flourish, not simply those who look or think like us. That requires us to break out of our ideological silos and take risks. Mutual flourishing happens when we truly believe that those who are different from us are of equal value and worthy of our love—and then back this belief up by how we live.

Creating diverse friendship circles is not necessarily easy. Whether you live and/or work in a monocultural area or in proximity to diversity, you will need to be both creative and intentional as you move toward having more diverse friendship circles. Keep in mind that we want to move toward others with a pure heart, intending to love, rather than trying to make ourselves feel better or assuming we can help them. Additionally, we need to be acutely aware of how we initiate and follow through, particularly when we’re white.

Whether you live and/or work in a monocultural area or in proximity to diversity, you will need to be both creative and intentional as you move toward having more diverse friendship circles. Click To Tweet

I reached out to Sheila to ask her what characteristics are essential when whites pursue diverse friendships. She believes that “at the end of the day, the question is will white folks engage with people of color just as they are, and will they stand with these people even if it costs them dearly? We need white folks to work through hard and challenging conversations with humility and curiosity and with an unspoken commitment to not bail.” It’s also essential that whites do the work to learn about race issue rather than assuming their friends will tutor them.

That means all of us need to learn from other cultures by reading books authored by diverse men and women, listening to their podcasts, and visiting churches or other spaces where we may be the minority. And as we gain a deeper understanding of race issues and develop more intimate, diverse relationships, we should become motivated to take a hard look at our organizations and commit to becoming more diverse in all regards, including race, gender, age, education, and income.

Far too often, leaders fail to understand how true diversity should change their organization from the inside out. It’s not enough to have a person of color giving the announcements or doing lead vocals on Sunday morning if they’re not invited to be part of the decision making that happens on Wednesday. Dr. Michelle Reyes, an Indian-American church planter, writer, and activist, offers a practical example of what intentionally moving toward true diversity might look like:

 

“Personally, the most powerful experience I’ve had within racial equality and decentering whiteness is when a male executive director gave me an equal voice and decision-making power in an organization. If I didn’t like a decision on anything from hiring to the voice and tone of our brand, it didn’t get passed. If I wanted to explore an idea, I was given the green light. If we really want to give equality to all voices, then we need to be willing to give those voices power over our own. People of color need to be given the freedom and pathway to have their ideas become reality, without having to constantly prove or justify themselves. For this to happen, white leadership will need to hand over the reins of power, as it were, and be willing to let others steer the ship.”

 

These fundamental shifts are seldom easy but they will become more natural as we develop friendships across racial and ethnic lines and learn how to trust those who are different. Since we are called to be reconcilers, let’s be at the forefront of cultivating diverse friendships and honoring the image of God in people of all ethnicities.

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