Stretch

I was not exposed to a lot of different cultures growing up. I basically had one type of friend—Christians. While I love and respect where I came from, sometimes I wish I had been more exposed to the differences around me.

In the small town in the south where I did most of my growing up, the white population made up at least 90 percent. My exposure to a minority culture was obsolete. I knew one view, one culture, one way. When my family moved to another small southern town, I was exposed to more differences, though the minorities represented were still very small. For the first time in my life I met people who were Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu. I am sad to say my lack of exposure led me to approach these differences with fear and questioning.

The shift of thought that made such a huge difference in my life was when a woman in my church began bringing her grandchildren (who were bi-racial) to our church. I’m sad to say, this was questionable in our circle back then. I remember talking with my mom about the situation. It was then that she said something that changed my thinking from that day forward: “What difference does it make if they are black, or white, or yellow? Don’t we send money overseas to support missionaries trying to reach these same kinds of people? How is that any different than being missionaries to the people we come into contact with every day?”

That tiny conversation has stuck with me to this day.

Today, as I look around the room at the women with whom I share my life, I am not surprised at the amount of differences amongst us. Some of us are pastors’ daughters who have all taken very different directions concerning the faith we were taught growing up. Another is a former Catholic who married a Jew, who now practices Buddhism. One is a very devout Catholic who is steadfast in her views. Two are searching, also brought up in Protestant households, but unsure as to where “religion” or “spirituality” fit in to their lives. I have friends who are Taoist, Hindu, Muslim, and nothing at all. This is a snapshot of any group of young people across America. This is our culture. This is the world we live in. I am grateful for the fact that, while others around me are different and believe differently, we can all teach each other important lessons.

Some people would say I should not socialize with these people. I need to find strength from people of my own faith, they say. That is true to some degree. I do have a wonderful set of Christian friends who I depend on greatly. However, I feel my greatest impact could be made with these women and their husbands that my husband and I socialize with who do not believe exactly as we do. I like that when we discuss religion, we don’t always agree. It gives us a chance to sift through our differences and explain to one another why we believe what we believe. It challenges us to know our theology better. It begs us to be strong and not surrender or compromise our beliefs.

I find it interesting that so many Christian people I know only expose themselves to others who believe exactly as they do. If your practice is to only associate with people who believe exactly as you do about every issue, at the end of the road, you will only be left with yourself.

I am so tired of Christians living a life of fear. Afraid to speak up. Afraid to be labeled. Afraid to be associated with things or people who are different. So afraid of becoming “of the world” that they are no longer “in the world” either.

Please don’t put me off as someone who doesn’t care about holy and blameless living. It’s just that I am burdened for my friends. I pray for them daily. But they don’t tear me down because they have different beliefs. As a matter of fact, they make my faith stronger. They challenge me to know my beliefs and my God more than some of my Christian friends do. I look at the way they handle crisis and failure, and yes even blessings and joy, and it reminds me that my outlook is different. My hope is different. The way I respond to life and death is different. And I think they notice. My God is bigger than our differences and the love I show them may be the only glimpse of His love they see. So in regard to being holy, if I don’t spend time with them, I’m not being blameless.

Personally, I’ve never felt “called” to be a missionary. I have the highest regard and respect for people who do, though. Some devote their entire lives to a different country and a different people. That’s really how it should be for every Christian. None of us are “at home” in the United States. We’re all citizens of another kingdom—the kingdom of God.

There are people of different colors and religions and ways of thinking in my circle. My husband and my contact with them might be the only contact they have with a believer of Christ. It is a huge responsibility and a huge privilege.

I hope we can all expand ourselves a little. Listen to another’s view, befriend a person who doesn’t believe exactly as we do, be exposed to the way they live and where they come from. Meanwhile, be strong in your faith and represent Christ well. You may be the only representative they see. And both of you will be better for it.

Author: Stephanie Olsen

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