Several years ago, our family moved from one region of the United States to another. We were excited to see what life would be like in the new region. As we made friends and joined a church community, it felt like it could be a good home for us for years to come. The longer we were with that community, the more we realized how different the culture of that region was compared to our previous home.
Like many other stories we’ve heard, the past couple years of turmoil and social disagreements have caused growing concerns, particularly in church communities. Those concerns compelled us to speak more candidly about what we saw as problematic beliefs and convenient ignorance of major social issues. As we expressed those concerns in our new community, we began to hear, “We don’t do that here.”
The more it happened, the more frustrating it became. It was as if most of the people in our new community weren’t interested in matters of faith that translated into activism because it was “too political.” They said they were all about reading the Bible, integrating faith into every part of life, and doing “whatever Jesus tells you.” I think most of them were sincere, but they didn’t try to understand different perspectives when it didn’t fit into their particular version of Christianity.
Why are some people of faith so closed-minded? Especially when it seems other people in society are hurting and need help, and faith-driven activism could make a difference? Why do some communities say they “practically apply the Bible to their lives” but stop short of speaking out and acting out about a cause because it’s “too political”? What does it take for them to really reconsider their views and entertain the idea that they’re missing big pieces of the puzzle? How do I operate in a different place without giving up what I think is worth discussing, but not losing friends or becoming bitter against the people in my new community?
Thank you for radical empathy and care for all of us following along.
I recently watched a clip from Louie Schwartzberg’s Wings of Life. It’s a nature film – a zoomed-in, time-lapsed rendering of the process of cross-pollination.
The film shows the honeybee, her body glowing green in the sunlight, settling into the heart of the flower. The pollen rises around her like snowflakes as she gathers the sugary nectar into her “honey stomach” and then clumsily moves to another flower to do it again.
She is, of course, not thinking about anything as complicated as cross-pollination. She is only doing her work. Gathering the nectar. Bringing it back to the hive. It takes eight bees their entire lives to make just a teaspoon of honey. But so much depends on the movement she makes from one flower another.
It’s what makes the whole world grow.
There was an article from Slate that flashed by on my social media networks in the days after the 2016 election. It was titled: “Don’t Move to Canada, Liberals. Move to a Swing State.”
That was the week that the phrase echo chamber became part of our vernacular as pundits from both sides of the aisle tried to make sense of the outcome of the presidential race. We had all imagined that the Internet, with its vast web of social networks, had made us more connected than ever; instead, it turned out, we’d all just been talking to ourselves.
Anyway, the premise of the article wasn’t a plan to stage a liberal takeover of the US’s red states; instead, it was a reflection on the human tendency to seek our own kind:
“It was 12 years ago that Bill Bishop coined the term the big sort to describe a long-term trend whereby Americans have segregated themselves along ideological lines. There is evidence that the sorting has continued since then. I’m part of it: Raised in Ohio, I moved to California for college and New York for work. That means I’m part of the problem.”
The article made sense to me at the most fundamental level: if we want to understand one another, we have to move out of our ideological enclaves – and not just by changing up our newsfeed and unblocking those dissenting friends. We have to throw in our lot with those who don’t see things exactly as we do, plant ourselves next to each other, let the roots of our life tangle together until we are inextricably linked.
If there is to be growth and beauty and life, then there must be movement: pollen carried on the back of one worker bee to the open heart of a flower…and then another…and then another.
And whatever your reasons for your move, Mark, you guys have done this thing that most of us find sort of impossible: you’ve left the place where your ideologies were formed and strengthened and echoed and understood. You’ve crossed the regional and social lines that divide. You’ve picked up yourselves and your stuff, and you’ve moved to a place where the view of the whole thing is a little bit different.
It does not surprise me one bit that there is friction! That’s what happens when left in our echo chambers for too long. There’s not one of us who won’t start to think that our way is the way, that there is no room for change, that the new couple in town is bringing their weird ideas from somewhere else and that we need to circle the wagons around our way of life before they mess it up.
If we’re honest, close-mindedness can go both ways and is our natural state. We’re all inclined to think that we are right. And the question isn’t really why are people like this? Rather, it’s that last question you asked in your letter: How do I operate in a different place without giving up what I think is worth discussing, but not losing friends or becoming bitter against the people in my new community?
Which brings me back to the honeybees.
What gets me about those bees is that they are completely unconcerned with spreading pollen. They know what their work is, and their work has to do with collecting nectar. Bringing it back into the hive, passing it to other bees, who chew it and then pass it on to others still until, gradually, finally, it turns to honey.
The spreading of the pollen is not the business of the honeybee.
And yet, at the same time, this essential work cannot be accomplished without her.
In the sappy Hallmark movies that I can’t seem to stop watching, it always happens in a tidy two-hour span: the outsider comes in and changes everything with love and bumbling – but well-intentioned – actions.
The socialite, for example, inherits the pumpkin farm, learns to love it, and then figures out how to make face lotion from the pumpkin guts for a hefty profit, thereby rescuing the whole town! (I wish I were making this up; I’m not.)
It sounds absurd when you think about it, but it’s far from an uncommon theme. The hero – an outsider – comes in and saves the day, changes minds and hearts, helps others understand what they haven’t been able to see. In the old story, God formed the first man and woman in a garden and tasked them with cultivating it. It is in our bones – the desire to come into a situation and bring life, bring growth, usher in change.
But it’s rarely that simple, is it? To enter into relationships, into real community, is messy and difficult and wracked with miscommunication and misunderstandings, failure and forgiveness. Those bumbling good intentions that we, each of us, bring to the table end up leaving people feeling run over half the time.
It’s sloppy and hard. It’s hardly worth it, really, except that it’s absolutely worth it. It’s what makes the whole world grow.
I wish I could give you advice to make this easier, Mark. I can’t.
What I can tell you is this: consider the honeybee.
Consider that single-minded, clumsy insect, upon who so much depends.
She is just doing her work, and as she does it, pollen spreads from flower to flower. She has no idea that she’s the linchpin on which cross-pollination hinges.
It’s not her business. Her business is the nectar. The hive. The queen. The flowers.
Perhaps the right question here has less to do with how to get your new community to understand, and more to do with figuring out the answer to this question:
What is YOUR work?
What is it that God has given you to do with regard to the activism that weighs heavy and urgent on your heart? Or as Frederick Buechner once asked, where is it that “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”?
Do it purposefully. Do it with joy. Do it around and in the company of your new community. Invite them in and try not to take it personally when they say no at first. Keep moving along your course, flower to flower, day after day. Small things, great love – isn’t that what Mother Teresa said? Mother Teresa, who spent her life living among those who were so different from her – and left an indelible mark on the world?
The work of life-making is always slow and largely invisible, Mark. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Don’t stop sharing your passion with others, but don’t try to convince them of anything either. Keep moving with purpose toward justice and mercy and don’t worry about who is following.
It will take time, but I truly believe that one of these days you will turn around and look at this place you have chosen…and you will find the whole thing in full bloom.
Because at the end of all this daily work, daily love, daily forgiveness – the gathering of nectar, the spreading of pollen – is life abundant.
For them. For you. For the whole, broken world, aching to be made whole.