I remember the first time I stepped onto her porch. It was a hot summer day in Maryland, and I was highly encouraged to go because this woman was offering a Bible study for young women, which was exactly what I needed. Although I was raised in the church, I was a young Christian at the time—only a year into my personal relationship with the Lord. I was unsure about a lot of things, so I waited pensively on this porch for a stranger to answer the door and welcome me in.
The door opened, I entered, and then Mary entered my life with her smile, warm hugs, and homemade bread and snicker cookies. It was Mary who cracked open the Word of God and taught me his truth. It was Mary who prayed me through some of the most difficult times. It was Mary who became one of my closest confidants and advisors. It was Mary who corrected me during the many times I was wrong.
Mary was an older white woman, a devoted wife, and stay-at-home mom who homeschooled her children. I was a young African American girl from South Carolina and a full-time student aspiring to become a naval officer. On the surface, it seemed like our worlds couldn't have been further apart. We embraced each other, listened well, shared our stories, and my taking the risk to enter the home of a stranger, and her opening her heart and home, birthed what turned into a beautiful relationship.
That's the splendor of the redemptive work of Christ and the unity God wants to see in our mentoring relationships, but first we must be willing to take the risk. It can be intimidating and hard to be vulnerable and choose to trust another person with what we share from our lives. This can be one of the many obstacles we have to overcome in a mentoring relationship, but God has called Christians to be in community with each other, and mentoring is one opportunity where we can do life together.
I enter mentoring relationships because I want to be changed by God. So I intentionally place myself in situations where I can learn, grow, and be stretched by others. It's a humbling decision to listen more and talk less (James 1:19), and it's a humbling decision to submit myself to another person out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
The unity of the body of Christ
Mentoring can be even more intimidating when we exit our comfort zones and embrace racial and ethnic diversity in our mentoring relationships, but it's critical that we mentor with the theological understanding and conviction concerning God's heart for unity, specifically concerning this type of diversity in the church (John 17:20–23).
In his prayer for all believers, Jesus made a striking revelation about God's heart for oneness within the body of Christ. Based on the relationship of oneness that he has with the Father, Jesus prayed for believers, "May they experience such perfect unity that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me" (John 17:23). The word used for unity in this passage means "one." The unity Christ speaks about isn't a unity that celebrates our individualism or encourages assimilation that values the sameness of "our" covenanted community above those who are different, but rather he's calling us to embrace a unity of diversity. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one, and yet there are distinct functions and responsibilities within the Trinity.
We need diversity
Being unified within the body of Christ is important to God. Learning how to mentor across racial, ethnic, or cultural lines first requires that we understand the need for diversity. When the conversation of diversity is raised among evangelical leaders in the church, it's normally within the context of the ongoing tension between men and women. Christians often wonder, Whose voices and experiences are valued? Who's allowed to speak for God? And whose contributions count? While all of those questions are important, the lack of racial and ethnic diversity within those same contexts is usually only addressed as a sidebar, if presented at all.
I hear these conversations as a double minority—an image bearer of God who is both African American and a woman. When I listen to the passionate call for diversity that is more inclusive of women in church leadership, conferences, or organizations, I wonder how many of my white brothers and sisters on either side of the gender conversation are being mentored by people of color. In God's kingdom of reconciliation, gender and racial divisions are two sides of the same coin, so when we allow ourselves to mentor and be mentored by people who are from a different racial and ethnic background than our own, we actually gain a better understanding concerning the broader picture of reconciliation.
No matter how much we love God, how long we have been Christians, how faithful we are to our local congregations and communities, how educated we are, or how often we pray and read our Bibles, we all have blind spots. We all have those moments—maybe even days or weeks—when we think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and our perspectives are also skewed when we think of others. We often are too focused on what we see on the outside instead of who we should see on the inside. Inviting others who are different than us into our lives can change how we view God, ourselves, and those who might be quite different than us. When we are mentored by people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, we allow ourselves to be shaped by their stories, and we often see more clearly as a result. Mentoring in this way reminds us of our desperate need for the "other" image bearers in God's kingdom and our desperate need to turn "they" into "we."
Embrace God's diverse kingdom
If we are to be credible witnesses of the whole gospel, then Christians have to get beyond the good idea of diversity and truly embrace diversity for God's kingdom purposes. This requires understanding the necessity for mentoring across racial and ethnic lines in the church. Mentoring in this capacity requires a willingness to learn and change. In her book, A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil writes, "When a person or group is really needed, policies and practices are developed to take account of their worldview, expertise, needs and experience. If we are to be a credible witness of the gospel, we must understand that it's not nice for us to engage people across racial, ethnic, gender, sociopolitical and cultural lines—it's necessary!"
I encourage you to avail yourself to the possibility of being mentored by a person from a different race or ethnic background. Be intentional in this pursuit. Humble yourself, listen, learn, and be changed. It might be hard or uncomfortable at first—you may not even know where to begin—but if your heart is receptive to embracing diversity in your own life, then God will show you where to start, step by step. I mentor across racial and ethnic lines because it changes lives—not just the lives of those I am honored to influence, but because it also changes me.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women's Mentoring Ministry Leader, writer with the Redbud Writers' Guild, and student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (M.A. Christian Leadership, May 2014). Connect with Natasha through her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.