It was another typical hot, sunny, Southern day. I felt the red clay beneath my feet heating up like hot coals. We were outdoors for recess, in a softball field, and no one else could hear the conversation, far out of earshot of the teacher on duty. My classmate turned to me, hatred and bitterness seething in her eyes.
“Go back to Indiana, or wherever it is you came from,” she hissed.
Sound travels faster in humid air, stinging the ears more quickly than normal. I said nothing in response, but knew what she meant. Her flippant mention of the name of a state, Indiana, instead of the name of the country, India, made the meaning undeniably clear.
Or maybe that is simply how much fifth graders in the deep south really knew. We were, as far as we were aware, the only Indian family within a 50-mile radius, and my classmate had never met (or presumably even seen) anyone else before from the far-off land of “Indiana.”
I cannot recall what might have preceded that comment, nor what precipitated that hatred. She did not like me, for no apparent reason.
Except maybe one.
I looked different.
I did not cry nor was I angry at that moment; rather, I remember a resolve to move on. Perhaps I built another layer of protection around me and kept on going through my day—or, perhaps time has softened the harsh sting of those words. In any case, I never forgot that day at recess, nor those words.
Indeed, at any age, words which cut through our identity and mark us as different and unwanted, leave their wounds.
Knowledge, Fear, Hate
Over the past hundred years, technology has opened the doors of the world far and wide. Through air travel, we rapidly cross oceans and continents. Through TV, film, and photography, images of worlds and peoples near and far beyond our own borders flash before our eyes. Through the internet, we communicate instantly with others all over the world, sharing news, stories, thoughts, opinions, and images.
One might think the widening of our knowledge of the world would also widen our understanding. In some cases, this is true. Because of technology, we are aware of atrocities occurring in our world much sooner than before. We are aware of hatred, ethnic cleansing, and wars fought over ethnicity and religion. What once was unknown and hidden is now exposed instantaneously via messaging and videos.
Yet, with the opening of these technology doors we have also exposed hidden prejudices and biases held in secret. If you were to ask people of color, however, they would tell you those rifts were already existent; only now are they becoming more exposed more quickly through the internet and social media. In naiveté, we may have thought we had made more progress than we actually had, making it look like we have stepped backward in time. Indeed, in some respects, there are steps forward, but much work remains.
With the exposure, it would seem we would have greater opportunity to learn from and communicate with one another. Yet, many can attest to examples of the opposite with vitriolic and insensitive dialogue online.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
Even Shakespeare knew of the human condition relating to hate and fear as he wrote in Antony and Cleopatra, “In time we hate that which we often fear.”
We fear what we do not know and understand, and that fear leads to hate, as we build a visage of self-protection and circulate in cycles of fear and hatred.
Greet the Samaritan
In John 4, Jesus offers us an example of greeting the stranger in his interaction with the Samaritan woman. Samaritans were despised by Jews. Furthermore, this Samaritan woman was also living in sin. And, finally, she was a woman. She had come to the well to draw water at noon, a time of day when few others would be present to draw water, presumably to avoid others. Jesus chose that particular well, at that particular time of day, and chose to speak to this particular woman.
Not only did he travel her direction, Jesus initiated conversation with her. He did not ignore her, nor pretend she did not exist, and even asked her for some water. When he did so, she pointed out to him that he had nothing to draw the water with. Would Jesus accept water from the vessel of a despised person, perhaps ceremonially unclean?
Of course, Jesus spoke of spiritual water, acknowledging the spiritual thirst she herself was longing for, an offering of eternal life, the “ living water.” He told her that this living water was available to her—a Samaritan, an outsider, an unwelcome person among the Jews. Until Jesus spoke to her, we can presume she would always think of herself as an outsider, as not belonging, living on the fringes as despised, and would perhaps have continued living that life of sin, seeking belonging which was only temporary. When Jesus spoke of another kind of water, she wanted that kind of water—and asked him straight away for a drink of that living water that relieves a lifetime of thirst.
Jesus broke all sorts of taboos, common rules, and expectations to reach out to this woman, to someone who needed him. Jesus revealed to her that he was the Messiah that she knew was coming. She believed Jesus, and went back and told her whole village.
Who Is the Samaritan?
It would seem, then, to follow this example, we should find the Samaritans in our own communities. But how to begin? Who are the Samaritans in our communities?
A recent Brookings study found that “black-white neighborhood segregation varies widely across Metropolitan areas, and has declined only modestly since the beginning of this century.” The report said that segregation “declined only modestly.”
The number of international students in the United States is declining, with an estimated 1 million international students in the U.S. during the 2018-2019 academic year. Did you know that 75% of international students will never enter an American home and 80% will never enter a church?
The number of refugees accepted to the United States has been declining over the past two years, and the proposed cap for the fiscal year of 2020 is only 18,000. According to World Relief, the historic norm for refugee resettlement set by the annual Presidential Determination averages between 75,000-95,000. This is a sharp decline; according to Pew Research, “The decline in U.S. refugee admissions comes at a time when the number of refugees worldwide has reached the highest levels since World War II.”
The common theme among all these statistics is that the people behind the statistics are wedged further and further apart. African-American neighbors. Refugees. Immigrants. DACA. International students.
What a travesty. Oh, church, you can do better than this.
But, what can a single individual do?
First, get to know people different from you. Make an intentional effort to befriend someone of a different race. A neighbor. An immigrant. A refugee. An international student or international professional working in your city. Seek to develop friendships with people from other ethnic groups, races, neighborhoods, and countries.
Sarah Shin in her book Beyond Colorblind, offers some practical suggestions on how to engage and begin conversations, such as asking, “What’s your ethnic background?” as opposed to asking, “Where are you from?” This is a more open-ended and sensitive way of asking the question. It acknowledges differences, but with respect and with genuine interest in getting to know one another. The question invites further discussion and opens the door of conversation and the heart.
You can invite a neighbor of a different ethnic background than your own out for coffee. From the comfort of your own home, you can write to your congressperson regarding the appallingly low number of refugee admittance to the United States. You can get involved in your community in bridging racial relationships by having conversations, friendships, and supporting community-wide activities that seek to bridge divides and create mutual understanding. You can invite an international student to your home for dinner.
You can make it a family volunteer activity. I took my teenage kids with me each week over a span of several years. We taught English to refugees from other countries, kids through adults. Through that experience, my children befriended refugees from Africa and the Middle East, and this experience even prompted one of my children to learn a new language, Arabic, to better understand and communicate with them. It greatly enriched our understanding and compassion for others. Instead of simply reading about the war in Syria in the news, for example, we actually met a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, whose bookstore and entire livelihood was destroyed by bombs. He showed us pictures of his bookstore, before and after.
These ideas are only beginnings. Seek resources in your neighborhood and city and ask God to guide you toward opportunities.
Second, ask God for his eyes and his heart.
Even with all the activism or knowledge in the world, if there is no love, it is nothing but a clanging cymbal. 1 Samuel 16:7 states, “For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (ESV). In our relationships and interactions with others, this should be our heart’s cry and silent prayer: to see others as God sees them. We can ask God to give us hearts of empathy and the grace of adaptability. We can ask the Lord to move our hearts and schedules to make space for the Samaritans among us.
It isn’t easy, of course. Finding space in our busy lives is a challenge. But, it isn’t easy for those who must live their lives as historically racially separated and discriminated against, or those who are suffering persecution. It isn’t easy, either, for those who actively work for relational reconstruction or for those who are involved in political activism for refugees and immigrants to find themselves worn out, burned out, and sometimes with a need to step back. It might be helpful to realize that challenges exist on all sides.
Yet, this is what we are commanded to do. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 states, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt (NIV).
Learning about others is a way of showing love to them, that who they are matters. We do not know their story until we ask; and until we ask and know, we live in fear and hatred. Our fellow neighbors are thirsty for hope, for love, for a friend. They are thirsty for living water. In a world of segregation and hatred, we must be an instrument of unity and love.
We can, one by one, in our own spheres of influence, turn the conversation from “Go back to where you came from,” to “I’m so glad you are here.”