Seeing and Appreciating Differences

Published in October 2014 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

I extend warm and enthusiastic thanks to the entire South Church extended family for supporting and encouraging my sabbatical this summer. Ten weeks of study leave coupled with three weeks of vacation made for a very rich and renewing time. The focus of my sabbatical was reconciliation; how do we reach across the differences that divide us one from another? I took classes, read a stack of books and articles, visited other churches and met with colleagues, and returned to South Church on September 2 energized, inspired and hopeful.

One of the classes I took, a workshop really, was “A Personal Approach to Change and Equity” with an organization called Visions, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visions works with corporations, organizations and churches to help them recognize, understand and appreciate differences. Our group of twelve was half white and half people-of color, young and old, men and women, gay and straight. Over the week two facilitators led us through a series of discussions and exercises that were at once challenging and affirming.

Here is one thing I learned.

How many of us have said, when it comes to race, “I don’t see color. People are people.” This is meant as a very positive statement of anti-racism and equality. Affirmations like this emerged in the 1960s following the civil rights movement. It used to be that African-Americans couldn’t drink from a drinking fountain, sit at a lunch counter or ride in the front of the bus just because of the color of their skin. Saying, “I don’t see color” was a way of affirming that the color of someone’s skin would no longer prevent them from participating fully in society.

I learned that what in one historical context was an affirmation can today be heard differently. Just as our gender can communicate something about our experience and the way we see the world, so skin color can be an indicator of cultural norms and life experiences. How would I feel if someone came up to me and said, “George, I don’t see you as a man; I just see you as a person?” I would feel like you weren’t seeing me for all of who I am. My manhood is an inescapable and important part of my identity.

My wife and daughter love their beautiful brown skin. Skin color communicates something about valued heritage and ancestry. It can speak to shared experiences of struggle and overcoming hardship. When we say, “I don’t see color,” this can be heard as negating all of these, as assuming that your experience is identical to mine. “I don’t see color” can be heard as “I don’t see you.”

Jesus saw everyone for all of who they were. When he encountered a Samaritan woman at the well he acknowledged both her gender and her ethnicity along with the challenges that came with these. He saw her and loved her for all of who she was. And so Jesus calls us to do the same, to recognize, understand and appreciate our differences.

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Published in: on March 9, 2015 at 11:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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