A summer in Toronto provided a journey that led me to freedom.
The freedom to be who God called me to be as I continue to evolve.
Before my travels, I took a couple of days to spend with my family in Pittsburgh – a place known for sportsmanship, bridges, three rivers and diverse communities.
You learn quickly on how to connect with another community by crossing a bridge. Everything is not one-sided.
To visit a family member, many residents must cross a bridge that connects to another neighborhood in order to experience heartfelt hugs, kisses and laughter.
Clear skies greeted me as I looked from a gate window at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on the afternoon of June 4.
Although shadows of uncertainty lingered in the pit of my stomach, I looked out the window with the breeze of hope and openness.
I found myself wondering if I was ready for the bridges I would need to cross during a summer internship at Blythwood Road Baptist Church in Toronto.
Despite my uncertainties, I held onto the previous encouragements of my peers and leaders that assured me of this journey.
An overview was given to me regarding the population I would serve: refugees and immigrants from low-income areas consisting of Africans, West Indians, Persians, Philippines, Latinos, Middle Eastern and Canadian natives.
I was made aware of possible language and religious barriers I would encounter. However, everyone reassured me that my social service experience would build a bridge to connect with Blythwood members and its community through the duration of the internship.
Reality settled on me as I landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport that evening and proceeded in line to receive clearances to enter Canada through customs.
That’s where I sensed the possible feelings or worries a newcomer or immigrant might feel as they entered a new world.
Although Canada is the United States’ next-door neighbor, a barrier, boundary or border still exists to which one must gain access to cross.
Although the experience was slightly alarming, I realized the process of customs was a bridge for me to cross and a doorway connecting to unfamiliar faces.
When you meet someone or encounter a new place from a different culture or country, do you script what you should do or say before engaging? Or do you treat the person or place the same as you would any other experience?
One needs preparation. One should research and have a mental script on how to engage for the sake of limiting moments of unintended offense.
So, instead of coming to Canada with a Texan experience, I crossed the border with an open mind ready and willing to learn.
For a successful experience in another place, one must become aware and knowledgeable of the cultural differences in order to build a bridge. This requires an open mind.
Too often, Americans or others from Western nations can engage others with an offensive approach when we come as a “Mr. or Mrs. Know-It-All.”
Instead, we should present ourselves as a sponge, preparing our hearts to be open and ready to absorb the life lessons, stories and spirituality of our hosts and others we encounter.
While in Toronto, I had the opportunity to see the U.S. from a Canadian perspective.
As I opened myself to conversation, I sought to view the U.S. through the eyes of immigrants and Canadian natives.
Through various conversations with my host families and a few Canadian pedestrians, inclusiveness was expressed as a way of life.
You need to mentally prepare a script of what to say or do that prevents offenses.
Cultural awareness is about knowing how to properly engage people in order to build a bridge of respect offering an opportunity to cross over with an open mind to connect with one another. This plays a significant role when we encounter other cultures and places.
Respecting another person’s culture, race, religion or sexual orientation builds a bridge that leads us to cross over with an open mind.
Being open-minded provides a pathway to have a teachable spirit, which leads to understanding and a level of appreciation and compassion for others.
As a pastoral intern at Blythwood Road Baptist Church, I began to see clearly why God’s “beatitudes” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” are important.
After speaking with my host families individually, they shared that Canada is more liberal with cultural, spiritual and sexual views than the U.S.
I can recall several of my subway commutes to work when the question was asked: “What was noticeable when you came to Toronto?”
My response was, “The level of inclusion and diversity among cultures was very welcoming and supportive.”
Through the duration of my internship, I was housed with five different families, consisting of diverse cultural backgrounds: Greek, Irish, Philippines, German, Canadian and Australian.
I learned from their life stories, customs and perspectives as they learned from me. With both parties building a level of respect, I saw the bridge being developed that led to openness and created a sense of community.
This sense of community expanded among Blythwood’s members and the communities we served.
I took a Cultural Intelligence Test twice to measure my awareness of people in other nations and communities and my ability to navigate these distinctions.
After completing my first week in Canada, I scored 99. Nine weeks later, my score increased to 138.
This increase was the result of my decisions to re-evaluate my barriers or walls that hinder growth or awareness.
I addressed within myself the hidden arrogance, bigotries, racism and biases that would hinder me from showing God’s love toward a person.
We must learn how to serve each other with the love of Christ. It’s not to be shown mainly for boosting membership in a church or increasing Sunday’s offering.
We serve with the heart of Christ because it is commanded, “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”
With every host family housing me, we were able to build a bridge of respect, leading us to be open-minded. Foremost, this process offered me an opportunity to call Blythwood and my Canadian family my home.
We are compelled to share the hope and love of Christ from a relational approach.
Christ met people where they were and addressed their true needs. He sat with people and ate among those who carried controversial characteristics that disturbed religious views.
While Christ acknowledged the laws and ordinances, he focused more on relationship.
I now examine my approach when engaging others so that adjustments are made to develop a bridge – one that provides respect, an open mind, love, hope, grace and everything that exemplifies Christ’s heart toward humanity.
God builds bridges that are relational. We are a part of this infrastructure – of God’s bridge-building ministry that connects us all.
LaLeita Nicole Small is a second-year student at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity for her Masters. She is president of the School of Divinity Student Association, a Cooperative Baptist Church Student.Church intern and an at-large scholar recipient, and fellowships with Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina.