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Binding a Neighborhood Together

One of the difficulties in building a hopeful neighborhood is that most neighborhoods are divided by skin color, economic level, culture, language, religion, and other factors. Your neighborhood probably is, too. And it’s hard to get things done when people don’t communicate or trust each other across those lines.

This was something I faced when we were trying to combine two groups of people into a single church. On the one hand we had a dwindling group of elderly people, almost all White, who spoke English and were life-long Lutherans born in America. There were about thirty of them. On the other hand, we had a large and growing group of Vietnamese refugees of all ages, many of whom spoke little English and who were either new Christians or not Christian at all yet. We had about a hundred of them including the children.

The two groups had trust issues—the “Americans” (as the Vietnamese called them) were fearful about the new immigrants and their strange ways, and some were downright racist. The Vietnamese, in turn, felt nervous about the Americans. They wondered, “Do those people look down on us? Are they going to try to show their power over us? Are they going to stop us from following our customs or celebrating our holidays?”

How could we get these people to live together as a family—to talk, to care, to meet each other’s needs? We prayed a lot about it, we talked about it, and this is what we did.

First of all, we looked at the opportunities we had for building family ties across the two cultures. We asked everyone who brought children for baptism to choose at least one godparent from the opposite culture. In practice this meant young Vietnamese families ended up with American godparents, who quickly became doting grandparents to the Vietnamese babies. Since they saw each other every week at church, they learned to talk to each other and to care for each other’s needs. It was also pretty easy for them to get over their shyness when they had a baby to coo over together!

The second thing we did was to look at a complaint we had from the American elders, who had been holding a variety of offices in the church for at least twenty years apiece, and who were desperate to retire and hand their responsibilities over to somebody else. They were in their 70s and 80s and no longer wanted to deal with the boiler, the grass-cutting, the finances and recordkeeping, and similar issues.

So, we told them: “You can retire as soon as you train up at least one young Vietnamese apprentice to take over your job.” We talked about who might be good at what job, and paired people up who were willing to try this. It worked wonderfully. And while the pairs were working together, they learned to talk, to trust each other, and to care about each other.

What could you find in your neighborhood that might bind individuals together across cultural, racial, or other divisions? If you can take advantage of natural needs and customs to link people, you might be surprised at how quickly people build strong relationships. For example, when our congregation split a few years later (long story, but it involved a sociopath), it was terrible and sad and awful—but there was this one bright light nobody seemed to notice: the congregation did NOT split down the original racial and cultural lines, but right down the middle.

The bonds people had forged with each other were so strong that the two groups could not be separated anymore. (And then we got on with rebuilding!)

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