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Turning the Tables to Unmake Dividing Walls

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By Kurt Rietema

Soledad spoke glowingly of life here in the United States. She bubbled with delight as she looked about her climate-controlled home, the easy access to stores, moving about without fear of gangs, jobs that pay in a week enough to eat for all seven days. By U.S. standards, Soledad’s living standards are austere. Yet compared to her life back in Honduras, this one is opulent. There, her family – mother, father, even children she left behind some 14 years ago – still struggle to cobble together a life of decency and dignity growing coffee and raising a few head of livestock.

After she finished talking about the magnanimity of the U.S. economy and the protections provided for her by the rule of law, something in Soledad’s countenance changed. She retreated into the dark recesses of her memory recalling the rejection she has felt by U.S. neighbors. Soledad is a house cleaner and on one occasion promoting her own business leaving cards in mailboxes, she remembers a woman screaming at her, telling her to go back to her own country. Soledad summons the looks of disgust in the grocery store checkout lines speaking in her native Spanish. She often feels loved by the American economy, only sparingly by actual American people.

I noticed however, Soledad’s sense of estrangement loosen its grip around her dinner table that evening. After 14 years of life in the United States, this was the first time that she had ever had Americans sharing a meal at her house. Soledad had been in Americans’ homes before. She had picked up our soiled laundry, emptied our dirty sinks, and scrubbed our porcelain white. Her relationship with her U.S. neighbors has always been one of performing paid tasks that we don’t really care to do. Yet tonight, Soledad was host. She was provider. The tables were turned. The roles reversed. She was an equal. As we told stories together and laughed together and shared the best of her traditional cooking, Soledad said, “That’s what’s special about you all. You don’t think of anyone else as less than others.”

I suspect that for these four American teenagers and their pastor, this was the first time they had shared a meal with an immigrant family. Geographically, the young people were separated by a short, 20-minute drive from their homes. But by language, culture, money and social circles, the distance bridged that evening around Soledad’s table might as well have required a passport. Here, a new possibility for friendship across impossible barriers was made visible. The unshakable dividing walls between these two groups were shaken.

“For Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,” Paul tells the church in Ephesus. “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” Paul understood the absurdity of that claim. Jews don’t mix with Gentiles. Masters don’t share a table with slaves. Women stay at home while men move freely in public. Paul’s world was even more stratified and fixed than ours. Yet he wouldn’t budge. Christ’s life among the outcasts broke every social taboo. Christ’s death tore the heavy veil separating us from God and one another. And Christ’s resurrection created new possibilities for peace and reconciliation that the world could not yet imagine. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.” This was God’s radical good news for the world. And the making of two groups into one, the formation of a new household was happening right in front of us around Soledad’s dinner table.

More and more of us long for a world made right. We’re homesick for long-lost brothers and sisters separated by borders, geography, language and class. Though we haven’t fully glimpsed it, we have the audacity to imagine a world where everyone belongs. But often, we don’t know where to begin. The distance seems too far. Our lives seem too busy. Our social circles look just like us. The potential to mess up cross-cultural relationships seems certain. This is why we created YF Neighborhood.

For 20 years, Youthfront has helped young people cross the boundaries that divide us through Missional Journeys both internationally and in our own city. We’ve created pathways to provide hands-on help through programs like our Something to Eat™ meal packing and food distribution. We’ve equipped young people from under-resourced communities to be agents of God’s restoration in their own communities through our social entrepreneurship program, ImagineX, and through our afterschool program in Croc, Mexico. The young people described above shared a meal with an immigrant family through something we call Shared Table experiences. With the launch of YF Neighborhood, we’re going to do all of this and so much more to empower young people and their families to unmake the dividing walls of our neighborhoods.

If you long for a world made right, but don’t know where to start, YF Neighborhood is designed for you. Over the next few months, we’re going to be releasing new opportunities to form friendships across social and economic divisions and meet amazing, resilient people like Soledad. We’re creating new learning experiences to help us better understand the dividing walls of our world and also to imagine – like Paul did – what a world without walls could look like. And lastly, we’ll invite you to provide hands-on help for our neighbors in need.

Check out our new YF Neighborhood webpage and stay tuned for all kinds of exciting new opportunities where together we can create a world where everyone belongs.

About Kurt Rietema: Kurt is the Senior Director of YF Neighborhood at Youthfront. He holds a Master’s in Global Development and Social Justice from St. John’s University. Kurt is also an adjunct at MidAmerica Nazarene University and at William Jewell College. Kurt and his wife Emily live with their sons, Luke, Perkins and Leo in an under-resourced neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas called Argentine.


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