by Afton Rorvik
As a White person who truly wants to engage with people of other races, I don’t always know what to say or do so all too often I say nothing or do nothing. I just don’t want to offend, and I know I have at times.
One summer we opened our home to a college student who needed housing while she worked on campus. How we enjoyed getting to know her! I will always remember one kitchen-conversation. Standing around our island, she began to explain her ethnic heritage and how it felt to study at a school where she felt her minority status every day.
At some point in the conversation, I said, “When I look at you, I don’t see color. I just think of you as a college student.”
After a long pause, she smiled and began to explain to me how she wanted me to see her color. She wanted me to notice that we did not look the same or have the same background. She wanted to talk about our differences.
And then we began a delightful conversation in which I learned about our guest’s unique, multi-ethnic culture. And she learned more about my unique ethnic culture. How I appreciate her gentle response to me in guiding me into a conversation I wanted to have but feared having because I did not want to offend her in any way. I grew up thinking that politeness dictated saying nothing about differences.
In her book Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections across Culture, Michelle Ami Reyes, a second-generation Indian American, also gently and honestly invites readers to engage in cross-cultural conversations. She invites us to see color and embrace it.
Living in a colorblind world is not the goal. Our cultural identities make up the unique and wonderful parts of who we are. To not see color is to not truly see or understand a person. . . . Each of us must grow in our awareness of and appreciation for our own cultural identity and the cultural identities of others. Think about it, learn to see it, and then embrace it. This is who God has made you in his image, and being that person is how we become fully alive as children of God. (page 17)
She goes on to offer specific suggestions for how to engage cross-culturally.
When we meet someone from a different culture, our aim should be to get to know them as an individual and learn what is unique about them. We should want to talk about the things that are important to them, to see life through their eyes, and to make them feel heard, validated and loved. Don’t make assumptions about what a person likes or dislikes. . . . Don’t ask leading questions like “Where are you from . .?” Instead, ask open-ended questions like “What’s your story?” “What are you passionate about?” and “What are your roots?” Then just listen. Enjoy the person for who he or she is instead of trying to compare and categorize them into a fictional group. (pages 44-45)
Reyes wraps her book around this passage from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 and pulls out ideas and nuances I had never considered.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to wind the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (thought I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that may share in its blessings.
At the end of her thoughtful, challenging book, Reyes reminds readers:
Remember: it was never about us anyway. It’s not about our rights our privilege our comforts or our preferences. Cross-cultural relationships are all about the changes we need to make to connect across cultures. It’s about continuing to mold and discipline our thoughts, our hearts, and our actions, in the words of Paul. (page 165)
I so appreciate the tone of this book! Reyes doesn’t scream at readers and point fingers. Rather, she comes alongside us, talks about her own struggles, and gently but clearly challenges us to live differently as those who love Jesus and seek to live as His Word calls us in this divisive world of ours.
And Michelle lives what she writes. She and her second-generation Mexican American husband Aaron planted and help lead Hope Community Church, a minority-led, multicultural church in East Austin, Texas.
I will return to this book again and again for wisdom in pursuing cross-cultural relationships.
Bonus: You can download some free small group teaching materials from Michelle here.
PerGen contributor Afton Rorvik writes about living connected, something that matters deeply to her even as an introvert. She and her husband John have two adult children and love to walk and hike in Colorado. You can connect with Afton on her website or on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter. You can sign up for her monthly newsletter here
Afton’s book Living Connected: An Introvert’s Guide to Friendship debuts in October 2021.