In the midst of a pandemic, how can "others" become "people"?
A guest post from Anna Ruddick, author of Reimagining Mission from Urban Places
It occurred to me recently as I queued at the supermarket to pay for our weekly shop that there is a social group that we have a slightly complicated relationship to: “other people”. They are not in the safe circle of our family and friends, not even in our social media contacts or acquaintances. “Other people” describes everyone else, the random humans we share our communities with, often having very little to do with one another but crossing paths as we go about our daily routines.
I was observing the interactions between the checkout staff and customers, some seemed to know each other well; one customer even apologised that she “hadn’t come to you when I was in the other day, you just had such a long queue”. Others obviously didn’t know each other at all and varied from a politely functional exchange to irritation if a cashier made a mistake or a customer took too long with their packing.
I suddenly realised that how we feel about “other people” is actually quite important, and that it’s very easy for “other people” to be little more than an annoyance or worse. Do we assume that they are individuals, like us, that they are helpful or kind or stressed or anxious, that they are probably doing their imperfect best? Or do we see them as a mass obstruction to our day, they are traffic, we are just a good person trying to get to work. They are rudely oblivious to our perfectly reasonable need to get past them on the pavement or be served quickly at the post office.
In the context of the new coronavirus, not to mention stark political differences, Brexit, and austerity, there’s a risk that “other people” could start to seem quite threatening. They probably disagree with us about politics or they are those awful people who recycle religiously – or who never recycle at all! Now they are probably infectious too!!
In my work I support and encourage Christians doing local community-based mission. They might be community workers, church leaders or volunteers living their faith out intentionally for the good of their neighbourhood. What I see in their lives has a lot to say about “other people”. Missional pastoral care is my term to describe a way of life in which “other people” are embraced rather than viewed with suspicion.
By getting to know people who are different from them, by living locally and making themselves available, by doing things together as well as talking about their lives and perspectives, by being there for the long haul and showing people acceptance and friendship Christians can overcome the “otherness” of “other people” and find their humanity. In doing so they also discover the image of God in those people and receive the gift of that revelation; another facet of God’s character and goodness highlighted by a different distinct personality and set of life experiences.
Much is made of the need for mission right now. The need to grow the church, the need to be a witness in a world where many are fearful about the future and struggling in the present. The need to remind people that God is present, that God is good and that God loves them in the mixed up realities of their lives. What I have learned from Christians committed to local, community-focused mission, is that we are seeing in step with the Spirit when we recognise “other people” as persons, made in God’s image. And that the mission of God is as much to me as I go about my days trying to see not “other” but simply “people”. God is at work and God’s kingdom leaps forth when we build mutual friendships with people who are different to us and share with one another the gifts God has given us.
Recently a lovely colleague gave me a poem, "Small Kindnesses" by Danusha Laméris, that beautifully echoes some of these thoughts. The final stanza reads:
“We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, ‘Here, have my seat’, ‘Go ahead – you first’, ‘I like your hat.’”
A vision to change the world is exciting and energising, but it can also sometimes be painted in such broad brushstrokes that it misses out the real work of that change: For each of us to have our ways of seeing the world challenged and expanded by people who are different, and for us to find in those relationships the care and friendship which enables us to let go of fear and embrace a new future in God. Perhaps it starts with simply noticing our interactions with the “other people” in our lives, and asking God to show us his image in and through them.
Dr Anna Ruddick is a community theologian and researcher who facilitates reflection and learning for leaders, congregations and Christian organisations seeking to deepen and strengthen their relationships with their communities. She holds a Doctorate in Practical Theology and has worked supporting those in community-based mission in marginal contexts for the last fourteen years.