Growing up, my parents instilled in my sister and I that we are to love our neighbor not just because we need to rely on them, but because they are family. My mother commuted to Ann Arbor daily, where she worked at the University of Michigan and was in a master’s program. Through her work and studies, my sister and I met folks from many cultures. We attended events and were able to use many of our senses to learn about a variety of cultures and faiths. I was able to turn my fears or anxieties into curiosities.
Fast forward many years later, and those life lessons have stayed with me as I now minister on Western Michigan University’s campus and help churches in North America reach out to their international neighbor. Here are a few things I have learned along the way:
1. Greetings go a long way. Many times there are barriers to starting a conversation with someone from another culture. Whatever those may look like, take a deep breath, say hello, and introduce yourself. If it is someone of another gender, don’t extend your hand for a handshake unless they do. In some cultures that’s inappropriate. Reading body language is helpful too. More than likely you are in a similar place of interest: library, coffee shop, work, store, etc. There is automatically common ground.
2. Ask a lot of questions. When getting to know someone from another culture it can take a little time to get to the point where you can ask more “curious” questions around faith and politics. Food and language are a good place to start. Everyone I have met will talk about their food! When it comes to the more “curious” questions, I start with questions like: help me understand, I read this, can you clarify it for me?
3. Know your faith story. In almost every relationship with folks from another culture (whether from another faith or not), the topic of religion comes up. There are beautiful and true aspects of every religion and similarities. There are also some very fundamental differences. Those can be named—but start with the similarities in your conversations. Come from a place of curiosity. I have learned far more from folks from other faiths than just reading a book on their religion.
How do you start?
If you do not work or interact with someone from another faith and want to know more, there are so many community activities that can help with this. There are interfaith institutes that coordinate events, libraries coordinate events, bookstores, many events on college campuses or even just go to the international food store or coffee shop in town and say hello. We all love to learn from one another and these are great places to start. Take a friend with you.
Laura Osborne is a campus pastor of International Campus Ministry, a Resonate Global Mission partner at Western Michigan University, and serves as Coordinator for Interreligious Relations for the Reformed Church in America.