Ever heard the suggestion to have diverse friends as a response to ending injustice and thought—how in the world does that actually help?
Here’s the reason.
It rests on a principle of three simple words:
Familiarity → Comfort → Trust.
When we’re familiar with someone or something, we’re comfortable, and we’re more likely to trust. The opposite works too, though. When we are unfamiliar with something (or someone), we get uncomfortable. When we’re uncomfortable, we’re unlikely to trust.
Familiarity brings comfort, and comfort builds trust.
Really simple, right? Now, think about the potential effects of that on a grand scale.
If we’re only ever around people who look like us—by nature, that will set the limits of our comfort and trust.
It’s not just that we trust those who look like us. We trust those who we’re comfortable with, which is largely determined by who we’re familiar with.
If we expand our circles, we expand our comfort which builds trust. That leads to epic possibilities when it comes to healing division.
This principle has played out profoundly in my life, and I’m guessing it has in yours too. Because unless you’re a heartless robot, inequality probably bothers you. If you follow Jesus, you might know it’s because the Bible says God created humans in his image, which means we all carry incredible worth. That feeling is wired into our humanity. We inherently recognize it, so it disturbs us when people are treated poorly.
But for years, I had no idea how to respond to inequality. It bothered me deeply. I believe in Jesus. I saw how He consistently defied societal norms that marginalized people. He elevated the status of the mistreated—women, the poor, sick, criminals, different ethnicities, and more. So even though I had no idea how to really follow that example, I just started saying yes to any opportunity that allowed me to learn.
My first chance was in college—interning at a homeless shelter for female survivors of domestic violence. For three months, I sat with women whose teeth had been knocked out. I held scared, sweet children while their mothers went to counseling, received job training, and put their life back together. I listened to their stories—realizing that women who might have looked scary to me if I’d encountered them on the street were kind and not much different than me. Change a few variables in my life, and I could have ended up in the exact same spot.
Then I rented an apartment in a “bad” part of town. You know, the part that’s cheap and ends up on the news a lot. My white roommates and I stood out like a sore thumb. We awkwardly chuckled when the homeless men who sat on our doorstep offered to watch our cars for us (knowing the street was notorious for break-ins). But we smiled and kept saying “hi” each day—nothing too out of our way besides granting some basic human dignity and social interaction. Sure enough, in all the time we lived there, ours were the only cars on the street to never get robbed. They never asked us for money. They just appreciated that we saw them as humans. We didn’t avoid them or act afraid. We simply made conversation with eye contact and knew their names.
Then, I started a rap team. Yeah, that requires some explanation, huh? I started volunteering with high school students at my church. I was used to leading worship, so we advertised: anyone want to start a music team?
Much to my surprise, the only kids that showed up were African American teenage guys who did not want to sing. They wanted to rap. So began a weekly rap team that lasted until they graduated. We’d eat dinner together and talk about a story from the Bible like David and Goliath. They’d choose a beat, each write a verse about the story, and collaborate on a hook. I’d edit the lyrics for appropriateness and accuracy, and we’d have a song.
We’d find places for them to perform, got to know them, and watched them grow—though I’m certain that I grew the most. They became like family to me. Since then, they’ve sat around my family’s table, held my kids, and continued to talk about life over a decade later. I love them like they’re my children, and they changed me.
What has struck me most ever since is that whenever I pass a black guy who loosely resembles them (from the age I first met them when they were fourteen to men in their late twenties), my first instinct is an incredible joy. No fear. No looking the other way. In fact, I often have to restrain a temptation to hug them or give a weirdly enthusiastic “hey!” forgetting they are strangers who don’t know me. Naturally, I’ve gotten some weird looks.
That always struck me, but I could never articulate why until I learned: Familiarity → Comfort → Trust.
It’s not only the answer to my awkward PDAs with strangers on the street, but it is why having true relationships with people who don’t look like you can begin to heal the division in our country.
I don’t ever grab my purse and hold it a little closer when an African American guy walks by. I think of the men from the rap team that I love dearly, and I smile. When I see a homeless woman or an older vet who’s living on the street, I think of the women from the shelter or the neighbors who watched our cars. I’m inclined to be friendly and hear their story. I’m actually more likely to act in fear from a white man closer to my age who looks poor because that’s a type of person I’m unfamiliar with. It’s crazy how quickly our brains associate something unknown as possibly dangerous.
Probably the best change I’ve experienced is making it a priority to have more deep, diverse friendships with each year. A few years ago, I committed to making sure any group I led, any event I organized, or social circle around our family was not all white (in a genuine relationship-seeking way). Was there awkwardness in that upfront? Fear I would do it wrong, come off wrong, get misunderstood, or offend someone? ALL THE TIME. I still get it wrong sometimes. But the relationships on the other side of risk more than make up for it. The perspectives from getting out of my white bubble are life-changing, maturing, and maybe even holy.
Profound change comes when we start to change ourselves. When we take the risks to expand our circles of what’s familiar to us. When we intentionally reach out to make someone else feel welcome, included, and seen. When we become inclusive of all people and leverage whatever resources we have for others in actual relationships.
Then the fear that drives so much of the division in each of us can start to fall. Uninformed judgments and stereotypes that can become deadly can disappear. Unnecessary discomfort and self-protection can be replaced with empathy, compassion, wisdom, and perspective. Relationships alone can initiate incredible systemic healing the more each of us engages.
Familiarity → Comfort → Trust is why we are moving our family to a part of town that is racially and socioeconomically diverse. We want to raise our kids around poverty and wealth, around people of all different colors and lifestyles. If we raise them in a bubble of people who only look like them—unintentional, natural biases from lack of familiarity are bound to develop.
But if they grow up friends with people who look and live differently than us, they’ll have less fear and more wisdom. Fewer judgments and more compassion. They’ll have first-hand perspective from real relationships that show them all people are people made in the image of God. They can develop a heart that sees the chance to include and build relationships.
You don’t have to be crazy radical to start. Baby steps are powerful.
There are countless ways to increase your familiarity, comfort, and trust with people who don’t look like you. If you happen to follow Jesus, relationally stepping outside your comfort zone isn’t optional. This is hardwired into the DNA of the man we follow, yet some Christians are as isolated, segregated, and afraid as anyone. Jesus intentionally built relationships with people the world mistreated, felt afraid of, or misunderstood. So, here are some easy ways to get started.1
- Find someone at work who looks different than you, or makes you nervous, or maybe even bothers you. Invite them to lunch. Get to know them.
- Just start shopping or taking walks in a part of town that’s more diverse. Be friendly. Make eye contact. Be present.
- Stop and hear the story of the person who asks for money outside your work that you pass every day. Buy them lunch and eat together.
- Join a tutoring program for kids who are at risk and build a lasting relationship with them and their family. Include them in your life and be a part of theirs.
- Next time you move houses, notice your priorities when you choose a neighborhood and test them a bit. Challenge assumptions you make about why you live where you live. Run them by God or some trusted friends who don’t look like you to make sure you aren’t just staying in your comfort zone because that’s what you’re used to doing.
- It may feel like the deep end to volunteer in prisons or homeless shelters, but if you’re up for it, I highly recommend it. Just Google opportunities in your city and try it once.
If those examples intimidate you, you can even start from home on your own. Read books and watch movies that feature characters who look different than you, highlight perspectives that are different than yours, and display history you might not have known before. Search the Bible for Jesus’ example on how He treated everyone he encountered. Look for themes, and try to imitate them. Follow people on social media that bring diversity into your feed. Listen with empathy to their view, and talk to God about what stands out to you. Ask Him what he thinks about it.
Start with just getting familiar with someone or something that currently makes you uncomfortable—even a baby step can leave you radically changed. Let deeper familiarity with more people lead you into deeper agreement with the immense value God gives each of us—every human who carries his image. Let it prepare you to be a part of even bigger change.
1This article is meant to last beyond COVID-19, but even if you are in full quarantine, you can still start now. Get ready to volunteer in prisons once cities re-open. Invite someone to a Zoom call if you can’t meet for lunch. Tutor kids online, etc.