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Walking The Narrow Bridge

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) has a famous saying: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” That perfectly describes the path to relationship building – the work of building new relationships often feels risky, but we need to get out of our comfort zone to grow.

Many of my friends observe that their friends are very much like them – same social circles, same class, same types of neighborhoods, same family dynamics. Same race, same religion, maybe similar work experiences – the same company, the same profession. This makes sense, right? We find ourselves living and working with people like ourselves. It is easy to find common ground, to share experiences when so much is already understood. Less work, and no drama.

I have had many conversations with friends who identify as White observing that they have very few or no friends who are People of Color. Many are retired, and don’t therefore have ongoing work relationships. Neighborhoods are segregated whether intentionally or not. Where do we casually run into people different than ourselves?

Faith communities too are typically majority People of Color or majority white. And one’s friend group often is dominated by people who share the same faith experience – Christian, Jew, Muslim, humanist, atheist. So much is understood between people of the same background and beliefs, and we just don’t have easy opportunities to meet people with different experiences and world views.

We must take intentional steps to diversify one’s friend group. And those steps create risk. Will I be understood, and will I understand my new friends? Might I make a mistake and feel embarrassed? Or misinterpret my new friend’s comment and hurt them, even unintentionally?

While I was practicing law, I made some friends who were People of Color at my law firms and at my clients. I found many more friends with different racial and economic backgrounds when I began serving on nonprofit boards. I also met a diverse group of professionals when I had a year-long fellowship with American Leadership Forum. In these venues I was lucky to work directly with people who were interested in the same important goals as me, and who also had very different life experiences. We built relationships of trust through working together on a common goal.

One Black man became a lifelong friend by walking with me down a mountain, making sure I didn’t get lost or left behind. Two different Black women became dear friends by teaming with me in two different non-profits to co-chair DEI task forces. I recognize now that I had these opportunities only because I intentionally took myself out of my comfort zone. I put myself in situations where I could meet people with different backgrounds, and then I was open to working together and building relationships of trust. The important thing is not to be afraid.

Of course, I was afraid! Afraid of saying the wrong thing, being clueless or having a negative impact on someone because of my own biases. Afraid of not being good enough, not saying the right thing, not showing up as my best self. But I decided in each case to put myself out there and be honest and authentic and show up.

Have you ever heard that showing up is half the battle? Sometimes it is the entire battle! We can’t win if we don’t show up, right? I decided to show up, and I gained three close friends that way. We have done valuable work together over the years, and I count them among my most treasured relationships. They give me grace, and we learn from one another. I wouldn’t have met them in my neighborhood – I had to go outside my normal pathways to encounter them and find common interests despite our very different experiences.

In the same way my husband and I began in 2018 to build relationships with Muslims. We were lucky enough to learn about Islamic Networks Group, and become speakers in their Interfaith Speakers Bureau. Through that work I have met Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims that have taught me so much about their faith, and our common values. We become friends as we listen to each other’s stories in response to the questions posed by our facilitator. We resonate with each other’s journeys of faith. We show up for each program ready to share our perspectives, and we all believe that this work of educating the broader public about our shared values is incredibly important.

This past weekend I flew from San Francisco to Cleveland to attend a Bridging and Bonding Retreat sponsored by #GettingToWe, a Cleveland-based consulting group engaged in building trust relationships between women who identify as White and Black, respectively, There were 42 women, an equal number of White and Black women, gathered together in Cleveland for two days of dialogue and trust building.

I admit I was afraid as I walked into the room the first afternoon. Would I show up as my best self? Would I help build trust? Would I make new friends? What challenges would I encounter in the conversation prompts and how would I deal with my unconscious bias?

I am still processing this weekend’s experiences. The time with these 42 women and our wonderful facilitators was rich and stimulating. We laughed and cried together. We learned about the need to show up, and for white women, to use our privilege to combat racism. We learned to hit pause, to breath, to give each other grace. Relationships matter, and as we shared our personal stories and reflections, we grew closer to each other. We focused on being better humans together. What a great gift to share that opportunity for learning and trust building with these amazing women!

This experience reminds me of what we ask our facilitators and participants in our Interfaith Bridges™ program to do. We ask our groups to come together with one key purpose – to build trust relationships and community. We believe that people come to our program as strangers and leave as friends. We talk about important personal experiences – what our faith means to us. This is a new experience for most of us - when do we ever get to share our thoughts and beliefs about faith and our personal theology? Our culture is very much about NOT discussing religion or race or politics – any type of difference.

In that way, our Interfaith Bridges program,, is countercultural – in a good way. We ask people to share their personal experiences, their authentic selves, through stories about holidays, food, symbols, stereotypes, scripture, and our work out in the world. Like #GettingToWe, we are all about building trust and relationships. Sharing stories about one’s life is a way to bridge difference. Our participants develop self-knowledge and self-awareness while also opening one up to another’s experiences and truths. Shared experiences and hearing our new friends’ stories give us context which allows us to complicate our stories about the world, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has movingly discussed in her 2009 Ted Talk, the Danger of a Single Story,

I hope you will consider ways to expand your network of friends – take opportunities to meet people with different life experiences, different beliefs and different stories. Give yourself grace, and a chance to learn new things. Give yourself the opportunity to make some mistakes, and recover, and develop new friendships that will lead you on new paths. And remember Rabbi Nachman's advice - “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.

Shalom, Diane Holt Frankle

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