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How Do You Communicate across Racial Barriers?

Mother Emanuel Church, Charleston, SC

Photo: Mother Emanuel Church, Charleston, SC

In our great city, we are almost one year from the racially motivated killing of nine people in the Mother Emanuel AME Church. The outpouring of love and unity that inspired the world last June has faded some over time, but the deep conversations on race can now take place. Frankly, most in the white community would prefer to put the past behind us and move on. I have not experienced the pain of racism like so many of my black neighbors, but I am beginning to understand that “moving on” is not a solution. We can be well-intentioned while simultaneously pouring salt in the wounds by ignoring the profound hurts experienced by so many in the African American community. Christians of all backgrounds must initiate the further steps, because the gospel itself promotes reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). The gospel does not put a band aid on the wounds; instead, grace actually heals the wounds (1 Peter 2:24). Grace-centered friendships across racial lines are the means of reconciliation, and those relationships require removing our protective shields and entering meaningful conversations.

Here are five prerequisites for communicating across barriers:

1-Humility: Pride hinders conversations on any topic, but on difficult topics, it is deadly. Philippians 2:3 clearly instructs us, “In humility consider others better than ourselves.” I didn’t invent this idea, it’s not from a manual on political correctness, the Bible says it. Think of your conversations last week. Were you actively considering the others you were speaking to as better than you? If you have any chance of crossing a barrier like race (or any other), humility is essential.

2-Grace: When God has forgiven your sin, your life should be characterized by grace, forgiving those who trespass against you. In conversations, an attitude of grace dissolves the temptation to pre-judge the words or the reactions of another. Grace keeps us from being easily offended, and in a conversation on a difficult subject, you neither want to give or take offense.

3-Listening: Have you ever had a situation where you were trying to resolve a problem but the person who could help would not listen to you? How frustrating! Put yourself in the shoes of a person of African descent who has experienced racial discrimination for a lifetime, but when trying to communicate the pain of it, their white colleagues are not listening. James 1:19 says that we are to be “quick to listen.” Listening requires taking the time to stop thinking about your next statement! Simply focus on what is being said, how it is being said, and give it careful consideration. No understanding is possible without listening.

4-Heart: If you truly care for the person with whom you are conversing, let your countenance show it. Genuinely caring for someone from the heart bulldozes relational barriers of all kinds. Why is that? Because “love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8). When you express a transparent, heart-felt love, you have the chance to be invited into the sacred space of the heart of your friend. There are no guarantees here, but without love from the heart, it is certain you will never to have a true friendship.

5-Common ground: Any difficult conversation requires the insight to discover something in common. Paul did this in every city he went as a missionary. Finding common ground builds an immediate bridge over which you may be able to carry the conversation. Something as simple as being from the same city can be the bridge that allows you to do the heavy lifting on tough subjects, but you must start by finding the common interest.

When do we start these conversations?

Now is the time, but only if we are prepared to take the prerequisites seriously. Our world has been divided long enough, let’s build relationships that can change it. While you are at it, you may want to consider starting this conversation at your dining room table.

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