Out of My Element in North Philly

Earlier this week, a ten-minute walk from a Regional Rail station to a conference center (where I was giving a presentation) took me through a pretty rough part of North Philadelphia. Even though it was bright as day out, it wasn't the smoothest of journeys: every eye seemed to follow my every step, one guy who almost certainly wasn't a panhandler asked me for twenty bucks, and, to top it all off, a mean-looking dude in a truck barked at me out his window, saying "what the heck are you doing here?" Only, instead of "heck," he used another word, which rhymes with "yuck."

When I ran an entrepreneurship program for inner city youth, I used to marvel at how often I would meet kids who had never left their neighborhood. Even Center City, which they could see in the not-so-far distance and which was but a few more subway stops past where they would normally go, was for all intents and purposes a foreign country for which they had no visa. The corollary to that, I guess, is that the neighborhoods which many of these kids and their families inhabit rarely see visitors from outside the neighborhood, least of all spiky haired Asians walking briskly in suits.

In his book, "The Making of a Leader," Robert Clinton talks about his research on leaders in the Bible, church history, and present times, and discusses different stages and characteristics of leaders' trajectories. He calls what God is doing way before a leader is thrust into leadership (and, in many cases, even before he or she begins to have any sort of Christian faith) "sovereign foundations." Which is to say that well before we are aware of God's workings in our lives, He is still working in our lives, providing us with experiences and perspectives that will shape how we evolve as people and as leaders.

For me, being Asian in America seared into me a sense of hyphenation and of crossing cultures. Speaking one language at home and another outside of the home, learning at an early age that I looked different than others, even being teased: these were all formative experiences, which shaped how I would subsequently frame my understanding of the world, of God, and of what it meant to do His work. Consider, in contrast, a boy or girl who has never left the neighborhood, and who has spent the vast majority of life in settings and with people who are also similarly confined to a small geographic space.

We are, of course, not trapped by our "sovereign foundations" - God has done remarkable things throughout time to take someone who you would least expect and use him or her for a remarkable purpose. But it is a neglected aspect of the poverty of places like the North Philadelphia neighborhood I walked through earlier this week, that people who have not had the opportunity to have meaningful contact with others different than them miss out on the good that comes from being able to look outside one's own context to understand that of others.

What about us who have had more opportunity and more privilege? Are we actively seeking to break out of what is familiar to us, to walk a mile in the shoes of someone different from us so that we can grow our understanding of the diversity of experiences mankind has had, so that we can be more influential in being used by God to reach and love those He has put on our hearts to reach and love? Or do we safely cocoon ourselves within familiar settings, where our world views remain unchallenged and our sense of propriety unpricked by the observation of lives that are far different than ours? Alas, I must confess I far too often do the latter more than the former, and then compound my uncaring attitude by looking down on those different than I.

This attitude is not shared by my God. Remember that a defining characteristic of the God of the Christian faith is that He incarnated - literally, "enfleshed" - Himself to walk a mile in the shoes of those He created who then subsequently abandoned Him. Leaving our comfort zones to understand the plight and perspective of a fellow human being, no matter how stark the disparity in socio-economic status, geography, or demographics, is nothing compared to God becoming man, mixing with men, teaching and serving men, and being betrayed and condemned and executed by men.

As out of my element as I was during my walk through North Philadelphia, I am glad for the journey, for I am reminded of Him who walked among us. He bore insults and misunderstanding and scars to reach us. What will I bear to do the same?

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