Apprenticeships Bring People Together

If you’re trying to unite a neighborhood, it’s common that you will be working with two groups that are very different from each other in ethnicity, age, race, language, religion, or some other characteristic. You want the people of each group to see one another as friends and allies. A good way to do this is through apprenticeships. Let me explain how that works.

Some years ago, I was working in a church that was a combination of two previous churches: one comprised English-speaking, elderly White people; and one comprised Vietnamese immigrants, mostly young. We needed to bridge that gap in the brand-new unified congregation. The White people held all the offices in their old church and they knew how to do everything, like running the boiler and who to call when the organ needed fixing. They included the treasurer, the secretary, and the trustees of the property. They were mostly in their eighties and they desperately wanted to retire.

Our young Vietnamese people didn’t know any of that stuff, as we came from a warm country and had none of those things. So, we needed to learn. I decided to use this situation to build relationships between the two groups.

We told the Americans that they could retire as soon as they each trained one Vietnamese person to take their jobs. And then we sat down and identified people who might make good trainees, based on their gifts and their ability to speak English, if necessary for the job. We identified a treasurer who had good English and could deal with letters and computers if trained, and we chose trustees who were good mechanically and didn’t need to have much English. And then we introduced them to their trainers.

Each pair had to spend time together. They finagled their schedules so that they could work together. Because of the language gap, I tried to make sure I could be available to them to interpret if necessary. They all did really well together—there were no problems at all. And while they were working together, they became friends.

This had great results. They started sharing food together. They invited each other to restaurants and they asked about each other’s lives. The larger congregation became a happy, peaceful, sharing group of people who saw each other as individuals and not as groups of strangers. They celebrated together at our large potlucks, and people no longer sat only with their own groups—even though the English-language gap remained. They found ways to communicate anyway.

You can do this, too. When you try to unite people, do your best to make sure that as many pairings as possible are cross-cultural. For example, you can match an Asian grandmother with young Black or White people who want to learn to make egg rolls; or you can help a middle-aged gardener from Mexico teach what he knows to a group of schoolchildren. Those skills are valuable, and the more people who possess them, the better off the whole neighborhood will be. People can build friendships as they learn skills like bicycle repair, home repair, basic construction, raising chickens, simple computing, or childcare. As they learn new skills, they will also help unify the neighborhood.

It will take a lot of patience, and there will be problems with misunderstandings of language, culture, and customs. But over time you will see your people, and your neighborhood, grow closer and closer, even across ethnic or religious lines.

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