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My friend Lauren is black.

She’s a lot of other things too, and that of course isn’t her one defining characteristic. But of the many things that she is, that is one. And it is a significant one.

She may not even remember this, but years ago, Lauren was at my place and at some point, the topic of racial reconciliation came up. I naively opined that perhaps the best way to achieve that would be to stop talking about race at all, and just try and see each other as individuals. Lauren then proceeded to correct me on that and explain to me why it’s not that simple and that it would not in fact improve race relations in a genuine way.

I was a little embarrassed at first, as I liked to think of myself as a somewhat enlightened person. I fumbled over my words, trying to patch up all the holes she had just exposed in my reasoning. But that night was the beginning of a real shift in my thinking on the issue. And that is primarily because someone I counted as a good friend, whose opinion I respected, and who is impacted by the issue in a way that I am not, had the opportunity to be honest and open with me. And I finally bothered to listen.

And this is the door through which we all need to walk in order to begin really understanding each other. The gospel was supposed to break down the walls of hostility between Jews and gentiles, but we’ve been building new ones ever since. People who are different from us become the “other” and our approach to them usually looks like indifference, mild curiosity, or outright hostility and suspicion. But what if we made it a point to reach out to the “other” in a posture of humility, and were slow to speak and quick to listen, and we really believed that we had something to learn from them?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve experienced the willingness and desire to do just that by members and leaders at the church of which I’m a part here in Shanghai, providing me with a platform to talk about the church’s relationship with the lgbt community from the perspective of someone who identifies with both. And in the aftermath of last year’s flareup of the culture war over gay marriage, and as it seems that the conservative church is currently on the losing end, this seems to be happening a lot more. It might just be that in order to be humble, the church needed to be humbled.

And here’s the chance for the church to get it right. Maybe now that more lgbt people have an opportunity to be open and honest with the church in the context of relationships and community, the church will develop a more informed, nuanced understanding of human sexuality and a more beneficial and compassionate way of interacting with and ministering to their lgbt neighbors.

I’m not being naive; I know this isn’t something that’s going to happen any time soon. But there’s no reason we can’t start down that trajectory. Sure, the Southern Baptist Convention recently held a conference on the “issue” of homosexuality, where among the 45 speakers, less than a handful could speak from a place of personal experience with same sex attractions. But at nearly the same time, Notre Dame University hosted a conference in which all the speakers were lgbt people themselves who are actually living out God’s call on their lives to chastity, whether through celibacy or marriage to someone of the opposite sex.

The bible describes the church as a people made from those who were not a people. If we truly want to be that new, diverse but united people group that displays Christ’s glory, if we want to break down the dividing walls of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and politics, we’ve got to do the hard work of engaging one another, not just in debate, but in listening. Who knows what all we might learn?

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