I am white.
And I am part of a community of ethnically diverse women who come together each year for five days for a spiritual retreat. This spiritual practice is life-giving, stretching, and enriching. Although I work in correctional ministry alongside a very diverse group of people, prior to this group, I did not have any close friends who were ethnically diverse.
I love these women and am indebted to them for helping me develop, and continue to develop, my cross-cultural intelligence. As a result of our relationship, I have gone on to develop other relationships with those who are ethnically diverse from me.
During one of our retreats, one of the women made a comment which has deeply impacted me. She stated, “I feel like I belong in this group,” to which I responded, “Meaning, you can be yourself?”
Her response stopped me in my tracks: “No, I can be myself in other settings, but here I belong.”
Everyone longs to belong to someone or to a group. Humans need to feel closely connected to others, where they feel safe, cared for, and loved.
Author Evelyn Underhill identified belonging as one of the great longings of the human soul. The idea of belonging is a felt need that we can tap into when sharing the gospel with others as well. Creating a sense of belonging takes intentional time and effort. Below are a few ways to build belonging.
First, identify people who you sense are seeking a place to belong.
This may even be family members. Just because someone is in a family, he or she may not feel like he or she belongs. I think of friends who are the only Christian in their family, and thus often feel like outsiders.
Second, build your cross-cultural intelligence.
This can be done through developing your self-awareness of your own identity and those you are connecting with. Learn about your own gender, ethnicity, social class, religion, and how you are perceived by others.
Gently, but firmly, confront your stereotypes and prejudices by examining your beliefs and way of thinking about others. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice, and often incompatible with our conscious values.
There are tools available to help you uncover your unconscious biases. Bias discrimination, unconscious and conscious, is not limited to ethnicity or race. In 2017, “The dual role of friendship and antipathy relations in the marginalization of overweight children in their peer networks: The TRAILS Study” found that middle school kids who were overweight tend to have fewer friends than their slimmer classmates, and they’re more likely to be shunned by their peers.
Ask yourself, What characteristics do I attribute to those who are different from me in ethnicity, gender, economic class, citizenship, religion, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and appearance? How do these beliefs impact my behavior and relationships?
Here are a few more ways to build your cross-cultural intelligence:
Seek common ground. When connecting with others, look for ways you are similar rather than focusing on ways you are different. Finding common ground may be in the place you grew up, family dynamics, common life experiences, or common interests.
Accept others. One of the best ways to communicate acceptance is through validation, which builds a sense of belonging. It is acknowledging someone’s experience. Validation does not mean agreement, but it does not judge or doubt the person’s experience.
Avoid labels. Some labels are used to describe someone and may be based on a negative experience in his or her life. In my work with those who have been incarcerated, they do not want to be labeled as a returning citizen, ex-con, or ex-offender. One friend stated, “When do I quit being a ‘returning citizen?’ I have been out of prison for the past 25 years, yet still have that label.” When introducing another friend of mine, she does not want to be introduced by her experience in prison, but by her name.
Watch your words. A friend shared with me how her mentor introduced her as “the fruit of her labor.” While the mentor did not mean to cause harm and was proud of how well her mentee was doing, my friend shared how it made her feel like a project, not a friend.
Pay attention to your feelings and thoughts when you encounter someone who isn’t like you. We all develop an ‘us versus them’ attitude. Typically, those who are like us are the ‘we’ and those different than us are the ‘them’ or outsiders. Those like us are viewed as favorable and trustworthy. Those who are strangers or outsiders we view negatively and with suspicion. There is a certain amount of anxiety and uncertainty, especially if they don’t look, act, and sound like you. Remind yourself of biblical truth: They are created by God, in His image, and have inherit value. Ask God to give you the same love for them that he has for them.
Martin Luther King Jr, stated, “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.”
Refrain from judging others based on your values. Every Christian has an image of how a Christian should live his or her life. This image is influenced by culture, maturity, and experience. Stay focused on the truths of Scripture and allow freedom for others. Don’t speak for God. Let his Word speak.
Third, engage in constant prayer.
Think back over your day and ask God to show you times when you were prejudicial, discriminatory, and marginalized others. Confess and turn from your sins. Pray for an open mind and heart as you interact with others and learn from them. Pray for the spiritual battle of prejudice and discrimination among individuals and systems in our society. Ask God for a posture of humility and servanthood. Ask God to bring to mind those you should connect with.
Fourth, learn all you can about those around you and those from similar, and different, cultures.
Engage in cultural displacement. In other words, be intentional about engaging with cultures outside of your own. In a posture of humility, watch, listen, and learn. If you are a minority in the group, it is an opportunity to educate the majority.
Pursue a mentor. Find someone who can help you learn what it is like to be a person who is different from you. Ask that person to teach you the hidden rules and unspoken cues or habits within their group.
Ask questions like, “I can’t imagine what it is like to _____. Can you help me understand what it is/was like for you?” Be careful not to burden others with educating you, however. Do your part to learn all you can from other sources.
Even though it is more work to connect with those who are different from you, it is worth the effort.
My friend Pauline Fong states,
Cross-cultural interactions are fraught with challenges. Without the proper preparation and sensitivity, cross-cultural encounters can end in alienation, withdrawal, and broken relationships. However, the beauty of cross-cultural relationships is that, though difficult, they can lead to greater understanding of the world that we live in and the richness of different experiences, perspectives, gifts, and insights. These riches yield the gifts of new or deeper relationship…
David Livermore summarizes what God calls us to do in witnessing: “And when it comes down to it, Christian ministry at its core is interacting with all kinds of people in ways that give them glimpses of Jesus in us.”
Finally, put your faith into action.
Take the initiative to invite others to coffee, church gatherings, Bible study, movies, or some other activity. People who do not feel good about themselves tend to isolate, so take the initiative to reach out.
Recently, I had a few women to my home who are living at a ‘safe house’ for those who have been trafficked. I invited them to come over for pizza and to play games. These women are very different from me in background, ethnicity, upbringing, life experience, education, and socio-economic status. Yet I wanted them to feel not only welcomed, but at home where they could be themselves. Helping them to feel like they belong will take more time and effort as they transition from a life they knew to a new kind of life.
I hope that you will intentionally seek to help others belong to the family of faith and to belong to Christ as well.
Karen Swanson, Ed.D., is the director of the Institute for Prison Ministries of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.