Across All Barriers: Choosing Risk & Vulnerability Over Differences

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“The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved …

“ … Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post- traumatic stress. It happens when we’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats. It’s not just the larger culture that’s suffering: I found the same dynamics playing out in family culture, work culture, school culture, and community culture.”

— Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Research conducted by Dr. Brené Brown, New York Times bestselling author of Daring Greatly and cultural icon from her viral Ted Talk presentation, “The Power of Vulnerability,” concluded that scarcity, the idea that we are not enough or do not have enough, can keep us from being vulnerable and taking risks in relationships with others, and as a result, can cause separation.

This is understandable; oftentimes, it can feel like there’s a lot at risk in connecting, including our reputations, our minds, our time, and ultimately, our lives. We make decisions every day on where to spend these things and who to spend them on, and we don’t want to waste them or get hurt. According to Brown, this has to do with scarcity. And it can also cause many people to only spend time with individuals who think and look the same way.

This mindset driven by scarcity is in opposition to a mindset rooted in having and being enough. The former is lived out in fear, anger, and separation; it’s the reason we turn on the news and see violence happening among people who have differing opinions. It seems to threaten our very existence.

But what would happen if we took on a mindset of vulnerability, believing we have enough to give?

If we approached others with Brown’s definition of vulnerability, experiencing risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure, what could we gain?

Bridging the Divide

These three experiences were present when Dr. Ron Benefiel, PLNU professor of sociology and theology, and his late wife, Janet, decided to live and raise their family near downtown L.A. where he pastored the First Church of the Nazarene in 1987. He spent 21 years in this community, located in Rampart precinct, which at the time had the highest gang and drug activity of any neighborhood in the country.

“I had people say to me that if we moved into that part of L.A., they wouldn’t be able to come visit us anymore because they didn’t feel safe in that neighborhood,” shared Benefiel. “There were certainly helicopters, and gunfire was something that we heard regularly.”

Though there was risk involved in moving to a dangerous neighborhood, Benefiel, Janet, and his church staff felt a call to minister to, and actually become part of, the community there.

The church was made up of multiple congregations, including speakers of Spanish, Korean, Filipino, and English — which was especially diverse. Many individuals in the community who were homeless became active parts of the church as well.

“To be in community with people who were not like me, who were different, gave me a whole new sense of not just who those people were, but what their life experiences were in contrast to the stereotypes and categories they were put in by society,” Benefiel said.

Benefiel remembered one person in particular, a man named Doc Landrine, who left an impact on him and the church in L.A. An African American and Vietnam veteran, Doc had been living on the streets for years following the war, and had developed a drug addiction. When he came to the church looking for people who could help him, Doc shared with Benefiel that he was also a writer and a college graduate, which prompted Benefiel to ask him to write for one of the church publications.

One personal experience Doc wrote about had to do with feeling invisible while being homeless.

“People learn that those who are homeless always want something from them, so they ignore them and just walk by and don’t make eye contact,” said Benefiel. “As a result, people who are homeless often feel like they are invisible, that they don’t exist, and they live in this sort of ethereal existence where they’re not real because people act as though they’re not there.”

By being vulnerable in his writing and in the relationships he formed with church members, including a mentorship with Benefiel, Doc became an active part of the congregation. He no longer lived on the streets, he stopped using drugs, and he eventually moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“Things I had assumed and ways I had previously thought about the poor
or immigrants or people who were from a different background no longer made sense.”

There, he became an advocate for the homeless and was selected to be citizen of the year. Doc was one of many people who helped Benefiel understand more about God and others.

“Living in L.A. turned things upside down for me,” said Benefiel. “My predetermined assumptions were seriously challenged. Things I had assumed and ways I had previously thought about the poor or immigrants or people who were from a different background no longer made sense. In some ways, this is education at its best; it’s what we hope for our students at PLNU. We want them to have a deeper understanding of the world, Christianity, and what it means to be Christians in the world.”

For Benefiel and his family, a large part of being Christians in the world included practicing hospitality. They would often reach out to those in their neighborhood and invite others into their home.

“It’s this idea of the grace of God as the hospitality of God, who welcomes us into His own life,” shared Benefiel. “And when God welcomes us into God’s own life, (2 Peter1:4 says that we are partakers of the divine nature), God doesn’t require that we get all cleaned up first, or that we be perfect. He welcomes us freely and lovingly as we are.

“Freely we have received, and freely we give,” he continued. “As an expression of that, we welcome others into our lives, our community, and our church, and those who are welcomed in are not necessarily people who are just like us.”

Breaking Bread Together

When Esteban Trujillo, associate director for international ministries, took a group of 22 people to Mexico for PLNU’s annual Spring Break Build this March, he was surprised by the amount of differences he saw among the group of students, faculty, and administration including President Bob Brower.

“It was this beautiful picture of what it means to be the body of Christ,” said Trujillo.

The staff, faculty, alumni, and friends of the university who went on the trip represented a wide range of backgrounds, many having grown up in different countries. All were in various age groups and included leaders from PLNU MOSAIC clubs (Multicultural Opportunities for Students Actively Involved in Community), members from the Association of Latin Americans, and more.

Because many of them had never been on the trip before, the group members had a number of new and sometimes challenging experiences.

“A trip like this requires vulnerability,” said Trujillo. “They spent a week building a church, which was physically draining, and encountered a different country and culture. But they were willing to take those risks, and step into a space where they didn’t know the language, the people, and even the style of worshipping.”

This amount of vulnerability and emotional risk allowed the group members to grow and expand their understanding to serve. And they in turn were served as well.

The groups’ meals were each prepared by their local Mexican hosts, a pastor and his wife named Alejandro and Lupita Torres, who welcomed the group into their congregation, Iglesia del Nazareno Peniel, and their lives. At the end of every day, the group members conversed, gathered around one long extended table with their served meals, and prayed over the food.

“Food really brings people together,” said Trujillo. “We had some students who loved every single meal and kept asking for seconds. One student in particular, who was from Hawaii, said to me, ‘In my culture, we have adopted aunties. I really just want to hug Lupita and give her a kiss on the cheek and thank her so much for this meal. Is that appropriate to do in this culture?’ It was really great to see the students being so respectful of this different culture.”

Rather than coming together despite their differences, each member of this group brought a unique background and perspective to the table that enhanced their closeness as they all sought to serve and love one another.

“There is diversity among the entire body of Christ that enriches and uplifts and edifies the church, without diminishing people’s differences,” said Trujillo. “In John 17, Jesus prays over His disciples a prayer of unity, ‘that they may be one as we are one.’ That’s the beauty of the church; it’s what Christ calls us into.”

Fear, Anger & Emotional Risk

Though we are called into unity, it can be difficult to live out. Many situations and experiences can easily separate us and promote a culture of individualization that affects our decision-making. According to an NPR interview with social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, there is a direct correlation between the fear and anger we experience, and the amount of risks we take. The interview, “How Emotional Responses to Terrorism Shape Attitudes Towards Policies,” takes a look at this through the framework of politics.

“There is diversity among the entire body of Christ that enriches and uplifts and edifies the church, without diminishing people’s differences.”

Vedantam discussed his research on Americans’ fear of terrorism following the 9/11 attacks. He spoke with Jennifer Lerner from Harvard University’s Kennedy School, who studied risk-perception levels of individuals following the attacks, and found that overall, people believed there was a 30 percent likelihood they themselves would be victims of terrorist attacks within the next year, even though they weren’t personally involved in the attacks. These responses were in conjunction with both fear and anger.

“So the point of Lerner’s research is actually that our emotional responses to these events are often out of proportion to the actual risk …” said Vedantam. “Now, on the plus side, anger reduces your sense of risk, so compared to the fearful people, angry people are less likely to think that they themselves will become victims. But anger produces its own set of biases. Lerner and others find that by lowering our sense of risk, anger simplifies our thinking and increases our willingness to take risks. It increases our willingness to act aggressively.”

Anger can lead to an increased willingness to take risks and make quick political decisions, even if they are not the best decisions. The aggressiveness it inherently increases, however, can hinder how we choose to see and treat others.

Dr. Lindsey Lupo, PLNU professor of political science, has sought to alleviate emotional responses of fear and anger in politics through the work she does with democracy forums. These forums were created to promote civil political discourse in opposition to discourse that leads to arguments and even violence.

“In my work on deliberative democracy,” said Lupo, “we focus on political discourse that humanizes rather than ‘otherizes’ the people with whom we disagree politically.”

These democracy forums consist of individuals coming together and engaging in roundtable conversations with the goal of arriving at a shared understanding of a problem. Though everyone may not agree on the causes or the solutions, the hope is to find a place of compromise and a willingness to see the other side or perspective. This inherently requires vulnerability and emotional risk.

“Being willing to admit that you don’t have all the right answers is a great first step in having civil political conversations,” Lupo said.

Lupo’s focus on humanizing individuals is similar to the heart of the work Benefiel and his church in L.A were committed to, especially during the 1992 L.A. riots, or Rodney King riots.

There was still uneasiness and violence on the streets in their community when PLNU grad Michael Mata (75) convened a forum at the Nazarene church, bringing together people from the African American, Korean, Latino, and non-Hispanic white communities to talk, listen, and work toward reconciliation. Despite the risk involved, it was important they came together to hear each other’s experiences and perspectives.

“It was very revealing,” shared Benefiel. “Many from the African American community shared that what happened to Rodney King had happened to some of them or their family members or friends. I can’t tell you how important it was for us to listen to the experiences of people from the different communities. People from across L.A. had very different life experiences related to political and economic structures, especially leading up to the riots. We had so much to learn. In the process, we realized that we were not usually the ones showing hospitality; we were the ones being welcomed by others.”

Seeking unity and reconciliation with those who are different, who have different perspectives and experiences, isn’t easy. But choosing vulnerability instead of responding out of anger or fear is the best decision we can make, and the best decision we need to make.

“After doing this work for the past twelve years,” wrote Brown in Daring Greatly, “and watching scarcity ride roughshod over our families, organizations, and communities, I’d say the one thing we have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We all want to be brave. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the national conversation centering on ‘What should we fear?’ and ‘Who should we blame?’”

The Movement of Hospitality

According to Benefiel, 30 years ago, there was a sociological church-growth movement based primarily on a homogenous principle: organizations will grow the more people within them are similar to one another. This principle concluded that if people have a lot in common, including ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, their organization would grow and prosper.

“But the movement of the church is a movement out beyond ourselves,” he said. “The example of the early Church at Pentecost is one of people from different languages and backgrounds being united together as one in Christ. Moving out beyond ourselves is moving beyond our comfort zones.”

For Brown, moving out of our comfort zones is moving into the unknown, into a place of risk and uncertainty. This is rooted in the mindset that we have and are enough, as opposed to the mindset of scarcity that is lived out in anger and fear.

When speaking about risk, Dr. John Calhoun, PLNU director for the center of pastoral leadership, pointed to Jesus.

“For many people, risk can look too scary,” he said. “They’re more secure in their own kingdoms. But we’re called to walk by faith, and not by sight. To have faith in the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.”

We were not given a spirit of fear that keeps us from being vulnerable, separating us from others who seem different or who have differing opinions. We were given Christ Himself, who laid down His life, welcoming those far and near into His love and into His kingdom.

“When we think about hospitality — grace extended to us and grace that we extend to others — as the church of Jesus Christ, it’s not defined by ethnicity or socioeconomic status, but by all who call upon the name of the Lord,” said Benefiel. “In Ephesians 2, it says we are reconciled to one another as the church across all barriers. And in Galatians 3, Paul tells us that in the church of Jesus Christ, there’s no distinction between Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; we are one across those barriers. Grace then is hospitality; it’s welcoming others into our communities, into the Church, and into our lives.”

BY WENDY ROBINSON

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