We live in a society that is more divided than ever. We have stacks of research studies to support this claim, but it didn’t take a lot of hard data to confirm what I already knew instinctively. Though I teach a course in human diversity and have worked with “different others” for some time, I realized a couple of years ago that my life didn’t actually reflect these core convictions. I lacked “real” relationships—not just the client-social worker kind—with people who looked, believed, and sounded different than me.
One response to this realization was to commit to a new church where I regularly engage with those who are different than me in a multitude of ways. I remain a learner in this process, but something grows within me when a mentally ill brother tells me in his typical unfiltered fashion that he and I will be together in heaven someday and that I should honor my mother and father in the meantime because it “says so in the Bible.” Or when I look out at the congregation and see another mentally ill brother unashamedly assume a posture of submission with both arms raised outward and his eyes closed throughout our time of singing.
Why is it important for us to seek out such relationships? In part, because we, as Christians, are called to reflect a God who is entirely loving. And Jesus’ identification of the two greatest commands highlights the priority of love for God and love for one another. In other words, we reflect God in a poignant way when we love the Divine and one another without limits or exceptions. This sounds intuitive, even second-nature, yet many people rarely interact in meaningful ways with people who are different from them. This has the effect of limiting our growth in love because, to be frank, it’s not that hard to love people who are just like you. Loving those who are different pushes us into unknown territory. We have to learn, with God’s help, how to communicate with people who share little of our background, belief systems, and lifestyles. And while social workers often interact with different persons in the context of a professional relationship defined by the helper and the one in need of help, the relationships I am describing here are different. They are reciprocal friendships defined by equality and mutual support.
Sociological research identifies our natural tendency toward group polarization—surrounding ourselves with groups of people who are, in multiple ways including religion, politics, and socioeconomic status, similar to us. This has positive effects, of course, but unfortunately creates little opportunity for growth in love because loving others like us typically requires little on our part. People similar to us tend to agree with us, affirm us, and thereby serve to bolster our often-unsteady self-esteems. Christians can love those within their own circles quite well. But such love is not consistently shown to people outside of their faith groups.
Understanding our natural tendencies related to group preferences is critical to authentically engaging and relating to those who are different than us. But it is also important to understand the body of Christ as a unique group that can actively transcend differences. Our common condition as fallen, yet redeemed persons creates a level playing field from which to interact with each other. Our membership in God’s family encompasses a group that includes people of astounding differences. I encourage you to ask God to show you where the “different others” are in your life and for the courage to keep showing up in relationships that aren’t natural or easy. In doing so, you will see God’s hand in new places and new ways that will expand your love for Him and those He has created.
Lisa Hosack has been teaching social work at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania for the past four years, but previously worked in numerous areas of social work practice for over twenty years. After many years living in Chicago and west Michigan, she is acclimating to the Pittsburgh region by learning to love bridges, perogies, and the Steelers.