In the 1950s, sociologists coined the term “homophily.” Homou meaning “same” or “together” and philia meaning “friendship” or “affection.” Homophily is the word used to describe the reality that humans have fewer negative associations with people that we think are like us. We feel more at ease with people that we think are the same as we are. The more similarities we perceive between ourselves and another person, the more positive assumptions we will make about that person. Homophily. Love of sameness.
This means that we also have a tendency to dislike, distrust, and actually fear people that we perceive as being different. Xenophobia, or fear of the stranger is a word that is often used. Researchers cannot agree on why we do this. It could be a biological wiring, it could be psychological, it could be sociological. But it happens, very easily and very often. Unless we check ourselves, our instinctive reaction is to fear what is different. To fear who is different.
And yet, one of the most common invitations in the Bible is the invitation to “fear not;” “don’t be afraid;” or as Matthew 6:25 says, “Don’t worry.” A more literal translation is “Be not anxious for your life.” Which sounds great, but how?
Interestingly, the antidote for worry that Jesus prescribes in Matthew 6:25-34 is the same one that researchers identify as one of the best ways to combat our fear of people who are different: find a focus bigger than yourself. Jesus says, “Seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s justice, and everything else will fall into place” (Matt. 6:33). Researchers have found that the best way to break down biases and stereotypes is for people who are different to cooperate together on a common goal.
Zion United Church of Christ is “Open and Affirming,” which means we cherish all people specifically including LGBTQ+ people. We have no barriers to full life and leadership in our church. A few other churches in Delaware have this same specific and overt commitment and use different jargon for it. We know everybody’s different. In our churches there are all kinds of differences that may or may not be acknowledged: sexual and political and racial and theological and economic and abilities and more. Some of these have been welcomed in churches in the past and some of them have been discriminated against, mainly out of fear. In an Open and Affirming church, we commit ourselves to focusing not on what makes us different, but on what we can accomplish together for God’s Kingdom. When we are focused on doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, we will realize that we need lots of variety in this room because everyone has a different gift that they bring to the mix.
Does this mean we ignore what makes us different? No. We recognize it and we honor it. Because if your life experience has been different than mine, I actually need you more than I need someone who is exactly like me. You have perspectives and experiences and skills that I haven’t had the chance to develop. Together we are better, stronger, healthier, more like Jesus, the more different we are.
Now let’s be honest: it’s harder. Making space to work together means doing what doesn’t come naturally to us. But we need everyone’s gifts in order to advance God’s dream of flourishing for all. No one is unclean (Acts 10:28). No one is unworthy of being used by God. In an Open and Affirming church there are no barriers to full life and leadership and using the gifts that God has given us. There’s too much pain and need in the world for us to sideline anyone’s gifts and skills. We need them all in our churches to do the work God has given us to do.
Rev. Beth Gedert is the pastor of Zion United Church of Christ, 51 W. Central Ave., Delaware. For more information, visit www.uccdelaware.com.