Needing the other

I was impressed with Mark Galli’s article from the Hampton Ministers' Conference in Virginia.

The part of his message that hit home most for me is that we never grasp what it’s like to belong to another person’s culture.  It’s doubly difficult if I come from privilege and the other person comes from disadvantage.

Mark writes:

“No, I don't get it. I'll never get it. Which is precisely why I continue to need—desperately need—to stay in fellowship with my black brothers and sisters. And everyone else who is an "other"—Catholics, Pentecostals, Holiness folks, Baptists, not to mention Hispanics, Asian Americans, and that most mysterious creation called women. And so forth. We need each other not so we can understand each other, but precisely because we don't. Not because we can become compatible, but precisely because we're not. I need the "other" precisely to remember that they are an "other" and as such, a distinct and unique grace of God, someone with whom I can have genuine fellowship with—not a melding, but a fellowship of persons, each with their own gifts that the other needs.”

He reminded me of an experience from many years ago.  Alison and I went to live in an area of multiple deprivation.  We’d joined a tiny number of Christians trying to know, love and share God’s grace with a community of immense need.  We moved home to live there, for how can you be part of a community while coming and going?

We got on very well with our neighbors but soon learned we’d always be different.  They were born there; we chose to move in.  They had little chance of ever getting out of that housing program; we knew that after a few years we’d leave.  We had little money; some of them had no money.  We had no car but a friend took Alison to buy a week’s supplies at a time from a big store; they bought food for one meal at a time.  I went to college; the young children didn’t even know what that meant, for no-one had higher education, and they thought I was a doctor since my briefcase looked like a doctor’s bag.

One evening I got home, and started up the common stair to our second floor apartment.  That staircase was dark and dirty, and a crowd of rough teenagers were blocking the way.  One or two gave me a shove as I pushed through but I got past.  “What are you doing here?” someone asked.  I began to say something about sharing God’s love, but they didn’t want to hear it.  “You don’t belong here,” another said forcefully, and then the conversation was over.

In the sense he meant it, he was right.

We continued to live there and even did some good.  But what that 15-year-old said has always troubled me.  I hated the idea that I didn’t belong.  But no matter how good my intentions or belief that we’d integrated, in their minds we would never be part of them.

But, as Mark Galli points out, we need others.  We are impoverished and disabled if we retreat into comfortable sub-cultures of like-minded people.  We have so much to learn and to receive.  And, hopefully with grace and care, something to give.