In the 1960s, a young Black man named Clarence Shuler stepped into the gymnasium of a White church. It was an age where segregation was outlawed but still practiced where he lived. He and his friend had endured racial slurs, bottles being hurled at them, and fearing for their safety just to walk the short distance to the church on the other side of the tracks.
Fourteen-year-old Clarence was looking for basketball, but what he found inside those church doors changed his life forever.
A young Gary Chapman was the youth pastor in the gymnasium that day and invited the students, ALL students, to study the Bible together. He asked questions, listened, and showed respect for the students, ALL students, Clarence and friend included.
A friendship formed. It wasn’t always easy or without misunderstandings. Both men recall seeing the other take risks, from disapproval to danger, just to maintain their relationship. The two could not relate on a cultural level. But they each had respect for one another and were willing to learn. They became safe people for one another.
As a result, Clarence came to know Jesus, and Gary became like a dad to him.
We may be decades removed from segregation laws, but cultural strains remain in many ways. Our nation recently recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday. I was not well-educated about this momentous day in our nation’s history and have been learning through godly men like Clarence. As we approach America’s Independence Day, I wonder, what steps can we take to better understand those with cultural differences?
In Acts 16:3, Paul instructs his young mentee Timothy to take a drastic step to relate to his audience culturally for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to them.
“Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places.”
We also read some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are familiar with this call to reach all nations, all cultures, and every tongue. Missions organizations train those going to other cultures in the traditions and differences to relate more effectively – for the Gospel.
What about those of different cultural backgrounds in our own backyard?
Over 50 years after that day in the gym, Clarence is the president and CEO of BLR: Building Lasting Relationships. Dr. Gary Chapman is the director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants and author of a little book you might have heard of called The Five Love Languages. The two remain close friends to this day, and their kids have become like family to each other as well. They have a passion for intercultural relationships, born out of their experience, and they share it in their recent book Life-Changing Cross-Cultural Friendships: How You Can Help Heal Racial Divides, One Relationship at a Time.
One of the wonderful things about our nation is that it is a great mixing bowl of cultures. We are full of the beauty and creativity of our Creator, who crafted each one of us.
What can we do to understand one another better so that being Kingdom-focused is prioritized over being culture-focused?
These two men set an example. Are we as men taking the lead on this in the same way, in our home, our workplace, and our church?
Clarence and Gary suggest a great way to begin: friendship.
“I Saw White People as the Enemy, Then One Man Changed My Life” – Article by Clarence Shuler for the New York Times