Many of us in the U.S. have a long-distance relationship with persons of other cultures.
Attempts have been made to describe the nature of our interactions as a melting pot (used to describe a place where persons of different cultures, beliefs and practices are mixed together) or a salad bowl (used to describe a place where cultures reside together while maintaining their distinctions).
But this cannot be the case if the church is to be the body of Christ.
And, if we are honest, the nature of our fellowship is based on products and services. It is not relational – but transactional.
We, as Americans, cross the lines of our culture when we have a need or have to go to work. The same is true for Christians in America.
And this is not surprising in a capitalist society, that the buck stops us.
But what if we believed that we needed each other, that we were dependent upon each other, that we were created to live in service to each other?
What if we did not keep things to ourselves, all in the family or within the four walls of our church?
What if we accepted the Great Commission as an expression of the Great Commandment? What if we did more than “reach across the aisle” but sat next to persons with whom we had differences?
To be sure, the differences are only that of perspective because the human experience is shared. No people group of any class or kind is exempt from suffering; we simply treat and express it differently.
Still, this should not suggest that all suffering is the same.
No, if you’ve seen one genocide, you’ve not seen them all. If you have read about an event, this does not mean that you know how someone feels.
Just because you have a friend who told you about their experience, you should not consider yourself an expert.
Furthermore, we don’t just need to walk in someone else’s shoes but see it from their angle.
Consequently, a short-term mission trip will not do. That too is transactional, coming only to provide our good and services. “We raised the money and met our goal. We built the house or dug a well. We shared the gospel, played with the children and took pictures. Our work here is done.”
But Jesus didn’t come to do miracles; Jesus came to establish a relationship.
John records this happening in his gospel. “Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe’ (John 4:46-49).
I wonder what miracle we will need to see. What will Jesus have to do in order for us to believe that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16)?
It seems that the cross is insufficient, that his suffering is not enough. God forbid. “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). There is no greater love, no greater relationship than this.
Jesus says, “We’re all friends here.” Christ hung on the cross in service to the world. Jesus as the way, the truth and the life served his way into relationship with humanity.
So why does the church continue to be segregated? Perhaps we have gotten in Jesus’ way, put down his towel and stuck up our noses.
But we can live with the eyes of those we encounter and serve if we establish a relationship. We can see things as they do. But it will require a change in our understanding of service.
Service out of duty can suggest that we help others because it is required and is the right thing to do. But if our duty is to love, then service becomes relational. It is the only thing that we can do.
This is not helping the less fortunate; instead, we are fortunate enough to help. It is all in how we see it and each other.
I discovered these words of an unknown author last week: “When he saw me from afar, he thought I was a monster and was very scared. When I got a little closer, he thought I was an animal and was just very nervous. When we stood face to face, he relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief because he realized that I was his brother.”
Not a melting pot or a salad bowl, we are called to be the body of Christ. In order to be in true Christian community, we will need to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and come closer.
Starlette McNeill is associate pastor of Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, Race-less Gospel, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @racelessgospel.
Starlette Thomas is the minister to empower congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention.