Shortening the Distance

“The shortest distance between two people is a conversation.” This statement resonates with me deeply in light of our many conversational deficits these days.

Numerous articles have been written on the urban–rural divides around politics, religious beliefs, voting patterns, and income disparities. But recently the Washington Post cited a study that identified this commonality in both regions: “Rural residents described financial experiences that largely mirror those of urban respondents. The share of people who report experiencing severe economic hardship is roughly equal in urban and rural America.” Poverty doesn’t discriminate.

The biggest difference noted between the regions was cultural perceptions. Culture is about assumptions, beliefs, language, and artifacts—in other words, the creative output that makes up the fabric of our social reality.

This is where the church can begin to coalesce through conversation. It’s where we can begin to create bridges of understanding for God’s glory and the good of the globe. Good conversations can challenge, even perhaps one day redeem, destructive cultural logics (i.e., racism, stereotypes).

Good conversations can challenge, even perhaps one day redeem, destructive cultural logics.

One of the better conversations I’ve been tuning into lately is happening through the work of comedian Kamau Bell. Bell is African American and hosts United Shades of America, a documentary series on CNN. He brings gifts of levity and empathy to what could otherwise be tension-filled encounters.

In one episode Bell travels to eastern Kentucky where he interviews local residents, listening to their stories and in some cases debunking stereotypes. He speaks with one man who is deeply concerned about the environment, and their conversation creates layers of dimension that disrupt assumptions that people in coal country don’t care about the earth.

When such stereotypes are challenged, it creates room to see others as God’s image bearers.

In one exchange, Bell asks about the word “hillbilly.” The man’s response is surprisingly gracious, as he replies, “This word is only reserved for insiders; otherwise it could be received as derogatory.” Embedded in that courageous moment is the interrogation of language and an understanding of how labels can reify racial divides. Moments of such mutual humanization can only happen through presence and proximity.

The distance between my own urban setting and my brothers and sisters in rural areas has been shortened by my encounter with a seminary intern who served at our church. Robert had previously worked as an organizer against mountaintop mining in West Virginia. Together we became co-learners here in East Harlem. Robert pointed out how poor people in rural areas were often caricatured by both the media and by urban dwellers. In turn, we taught him about poverty in the barrio and about the anxiety created in our communities of color by racial profiling by the police.

Robert helped us plant a garden in our community. Cultivating green space became a way for us to be connected with the environment in the middle of our concrete jungle. Our Hope Garden became a space for conversation and meditation—one could almost feel transported out of the city, at least until the Metro North train rumbled by.

Our conversations also taught me how poverty does not discriminate based on location. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” he didn’t just mean urban poor or town and country poor. He meant the poor.

Yet those moments won’t happen in workshops or even good documentaries. They happen through sustained conversation—through a deep curiosity about the sufferings of diverse image-bearers in our world.

Being peacemakers for Christ means recognizing a good place to start: the shortest distance between two people is a conversation.

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  1. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of the importance of conversation, sharing stories, our personal narratives. They are what make us human and able to connect with one another. I need this message every day!

  2. Thank you José for this inspiring word. You have challenged me to do more to foster dialogue and mutual respect for one another in the church where I serve.

    1. What a beautiful article. We all need to have more conversations and relationships with people of other cultures. A good example of how a word can have different meanings for “insiders” and “outsiders.”

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