This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Proximity doesn’t equal peace

Lately, I’ve found myself working more and more with adults who are interested in exploring conversations about race, justice and reconciliation.

It is not uncommon for adults to draw comparisons between their childhoods and the current experiences of their children or grandchildren. Adults often note “how much things have changed,” pointing to increased diversity on playgrounds and in Sunday school classrooms. Some are looking for a little bit of hope that America is getting better at this; others are questioning the need to talk about race at all. If things are getting better, can’t we just leave it to our children?

On one level I agree. In some respects things have certainly changed in the last 50 years, but can we agree that America kind of has a low bar on this topic? Things are better compared to what? Slavery of African Americans, genocide of First Nations tribes, internment camps for Japanese Americans, changing borders on Mexican Americans, legalized segregation and discrimination for a number of ethnicities and the list goes on and on. I’m glad we are doing better than all of this, but I don’t know how much celebration we should be doing for treating one another like . . . humans.

Still. Our hearts warm when we see children of various races playing together. We are proud of our diverse classrooms and love to see kids sharing their toys during Sunday school. I don’t wish to negate these things, but I would like to suggest that we can’t just wash our hands of racial injustice believing that our children have figured this out.

Proximity doesn’t equal peace.

Consider this. We are decades out from integrating classrooms, workspaces and churches. Yet, there continue to be explosions of racial tensions on high school and college campuses — you know, those young people who are growing up surrounded by diversity. They aren’t escaping the complications.

NoosesMicroaggressions. Hoods. FlyersViolenceBullyingParties. Even Easter eggs aren’t safe. This is just a smattering of incidents, but consider for a moment that all the above took place recently and many of them in schools. If we are now spending more time together, being raised together, attending church and schools with one another — how can this be?

Unfortunately, putting us all in a room and teaching us to play nice isn’t enough, though we desperately want it to be.

Our history of racial tensions is real. The segregation that has kept us isolated from one another’s pain was quite thorough. Our ability to use old props to create new wounds continues to abound. Why anyone in their twenties knows how to string a noose suggests that racism is not a thing of the past. It is present, passed on, continuing down through the generations. The stereotypes of Asian and Latino communities abound with no real understanding of geography, history, language or the diversity of culture within those communities. Why? Because proximity doesn’t equal peace.

A really good girlfriend of mine wrote a brilliant recounting of the beginnings of our friendship, which became a worship element during an MLK service at our church. It was incredibly meaningful for us to share our story with our community. We received a great deal of support from our church community even months later. We were thrilled that a topic that can be so hard to talk about touched people so deeply.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the waves of confessions that followed from complete strangers. I won’t recount them here, but I wished we thought to include some element of reflection and repentance. It was clear that many were close enough proximity to people of different backgrounds to have committed some racial sin, but were not in deep enough relationships to make personal apologies to the victims. I (and others) become the stand-ins. I wonder if perhaps our closer proximity invites not peace but a higher occurrence of pain. We have no idea how to be with one another.

So if proximity — just being around each other more — doesn’t bring peace, what will? In a word: WORK. Friends, it takes real work to build meaningful relationships across racial lines, but it does get easier the more you do it! And believe me, its so worth it.

Here is what that work looks like:

We have to be willing to share the truth.
We have to be willing to listen to the truth.
We have to be committed to ongoing dialogue.
We have to be committed to self-reflection.
We have to be patient and gracious.
We have to express our anger and disappointment.
We have to make space for different perspectives and experiences.
We have to be in relationship with one another.
We have to be willing to make confession.
We have to be willing to forgive.
We have to be willing to make mistakes.
We have to dig into multiple levels of ourselves — race, culture, personality, gifts, skills. We are whole beings who seek to know one another.

Its not enough to just “hang out” if what we seek is reconciliation. That might make us integrated but proximity alone will not make us reconciled.

Reconciliation comes by way of love. But we cannot love each other if we do not know each other. And knowing comes not from proximity alone, but from working towards relationship.

What would you add to the list?

May it not be depressing that it isn’t easy, that we can’t just sit a room and wait for the magic moment. Let us instead create that moment together and enjoy the incredible fruit of knowing and being known.

Austin Channing Brown works speaking, training, facilitating dialogue or planning strategies in reconciliation. She works at Willow Creek Community Church’s Chicago Campus as their Multicultural Ministry Specialist. This first appeared on her blog,

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