"Proximity breeds empathy" is one of the simplest and yet most powerful statements I’ve heard from Dr. Bryan Loritts. It conveys the same meaning to the most recommended piece of advice I have received on race relations: cultivate a friendship with someone from a race or background that is different from your own.
Racial reconciliation is a complicated matter, and the more I try to educate myself and dive more in-depth, the more I can see the complexities. While there is a need to go beyond the surface, a friendship with someone from a different race or background is an easy "gem tree to cultivate"—ready to produce the most delightful and transforming fruits one can imagine.
But even the simplest things need intentionality and effort.
I like gardening, and once a while, I give away some of my low-maintenance hanging plants. I visited a friend the other day. He said, "Marco, I don't know why the plant you gave me looks dead. I don't have good luck with plants." I was curious. I walked closer to the pot and touched the soil. Yes, you guessed it: the soil was bone dry. I gave my friend some tips on how to keep the plant alive and thriving.
Allow me to do the same for you about cultivating a meaningful and fun friendship. Some people don't have friends from a different culture is because they are afraid to say something wrong, don't know what to talk about, wonder if the person wants to engage in a conversation, and so on.
The guidelines for building authentic friendships with people from a background different from your own are similar to all friendships, regardless of whether you are of the same race, culture, or faith. Consider how these nine best practices and follow-up questions may help you develop a meaningful, long-lasting friendship.
1. Be intentional. Consider the reasons for befriending someone. Is your friendship based on genuine mutuality of respect, enjoyment, and learning?
Question: What are other good reasons we may want to befriend someone?
Question: What are some reasons we may want to defriend someone?
2. Break the ice. Here are some ideas for icebreakers shared from a group of friends:
“I like that mask. Where did you get it?”
Food. Share stories about food or enjoy a meal or snack together.
Share information about local events.
Talk about common laundry issues, like the mystery of socks disappearing.
Have safe small talks. Connect on shared concerns or interests, places, sports, weather, eating, music, art, and more.
Questions: What other icebreakers can you think of?
Questions: What are some questions and topics to avoid when starting a friendship?
3. Listen and be friendly. You may think this is the easiest part of friendship, but it can be really difficult. Many things get in the way of active listening: our anxiety, the feeling that we need to solve our friend's problems, thinking about how to respond while listening. By being good listeners, we earn the right to speak.
Question: How do you think our anxiety can get in the way of good listening?
Question: What does the phrase "earn the right to speak" mean in this context?
4. Share experiences with genuineness. When I open my heart to share my story, I have found that it creates a sense of authenticity in my relationships. Do not overthink things because that brings on awkwardness in the conversation. It does not matter what your friends' backgrounds are or what part of the world they come from—everybody appreciates genuineness.
Question: Why do we feel the need to behave in a way that is not genuine?
Questions: I have heard the term "wearing a mask," but not because of COVID-19. It comes from the need to hide something and pretend to be something else. How can we avoid wearing a mask in friendships?
5. Be Understanding. In The Power of Listening, Lynne M. Baab writes: "Polarization over many issues have increased… some of that polarization may be reduced if people learn to listen for the purpose of understanding other's views, while at the same time affirming that listening and understanding do not imply agreement." We all see the world through different lenses depending on our experiences. Your friend's story is important. In many cases, the majority culture people tend to see the minority culture's story as less important or even worthless.
Question: Why do we have a tendency to dismiss or consider others’ experiences as unimportant?
Question: How does this posture connect with that of being humble?
6. Do not make assumptions. While we can learn some common denominators from a culture, do not assume that a particular individual embraces each and every—or any—value. It's important to become culturally intelligent, but the easiest and safest way when entering a conversation with someone is to get to know the person.
Ask clarifying questions such as: "Did I hear you saying that…?"
Or ask for more details: "Tell me more about…."
Take the time to get to know your friend. Understand your friend's background and values.
Question: What assumptions have you found people make about you based on your gender, age, race, or background?
Question: How can we become conscious of our unconscious biases?
7. Apply tolerance, kindness, and mercy in your relationship. We all get mixed-up once a while, and we all need to forgive and be forgiven. Being kind is more significant than being nice.
Question: Why is tolerance essential in a friendship?
Question: What does the phrase "being kind is more significant than being nice" mean?
8. Be present at important events or during significant moments, whether painful or joyful. Stand up for your friend when in need. Be present with them when they are facing injustice, sickness, or disgrace. Showing emotional support in these critical events becomes a "mark" of the genuineness of your friendship. Friends will remember forever whether you stand up for them or not. In the same way, be present for your friend at important celebrations or achievements.
Questions: Can you think of a Bible story that illustrates this point?
Question: How can Christians stand up for a friend when they are experiencing injustice?
9. Love your friend. 1 Peter 4:8 states: "Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins."
Question: How can we apply the meaning of 1 Peter 4:8 in our own lives?
Question: What actions can you think of when we take the phrase "love your friend" as an action item?
Want to learn more about building friendships with people from backgrounds different than your own? In January, Resonate Global Mission and deacons of the Northeast Community transformation (NECT) will start an easy-to-follow friendship initiative over video call. This opportunity is open to everyone. If you're interested in participating or would like more information, please email Marco Avila at [email protected].