Seeking Common Ground Rather than Standing Our Ground

This article was written by Jonathan Reckford and published by Faith Driven Entrepreneur


In a recent book club exchange on a divisive social issue, a friend expressed frustration in trying to convince people of her position. She said, “I’ve tried talking to them and explaining how stupid they are, but they just don’t listen so I gave up.” With some humor, I expressed my surprise that her technique had not been effective. I wondered how often someone approaching her that way had been effective in changing her mind on something she cared deeply about.

This example is far too representative of our world that has become increasingly divided. Sadly, the rhetoric has become extreme. The algorithms that determine what media we consume are designed to generate fury from the right and left, putting fuel on top of the deepening cultural and political dissonance.

Indeed, our world is in need of a “great reset.” So how do we do better?

First of all, we start by trying to really understand the other side. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant says when we disagree with others, our instinct is to become preachers and talk about why we are right or prosecutors and tell our foes why they are wrong.

He adds, “I think when we encounter people who disagree with us on charged issues, it is worth thinking about no matter how passionately I feel about a given issue, I could imagine having grown up in a family or in a country, or in an era, where, because of my experiences and the people that I knew, I might believe different things. That allows me to be open to rethinking my animosity.”

What if we could have healthy debates in which we first have to clearly articulate the position of the other side? What if we sought common ground—rather than standing our ground? I’m not suggesting we abandon deeply held beliefs or principles. Watching individuals and organizations, I am convinced that people are loved, not coerced, into considering new ideas. For example, many people who did not grow up in the church have been drawn to Jesus because someone cared about them and loved them enough to invite them into a loving faith community.

The church is too often—and sometimes fairly—viewed as judgmental, angry, and coercive. Our calling, however, is to recognize and love everyone as a child of God.

Our answers always start with the prayers of a servant heart and a commitment to do what is loving. I have long held that the church has to earn the right to talk to people about the gospel. Serving together to make the world a better place gives us the chance to have those conversations.

That is one of the primary reasons Habitat for Humanity emphasizes volunteering. Certainly, it is not the most efficient way to build houses, but bringing people together to build homes, communities, and hope is central to our mission. We are committed to the belief that everyone has something to give—and everyone has something to gain—when we work toward a common goal to help another.

We have discovered that having people from different backgrounds work together to build a home is literally constructive. Our Abraham Builds are a great example. For many years, communities have organized Christians, Jews, and Muslims to come together out of their common faith imperatives to help the poor. As members of the faith groups (all descendants of the biblical Abraham) raise the walls of a home, they build relationships that weave strong bonds of unity and that influence how they see one another.

That has been Habitat’s strength for more than four decades. Over and over, we hear how Habitat projects have attracted young and old, executives and laborers, blacks and whites, Catholics and Protestants, Hindus and Muslims—even Democrats and Republicans!

Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, we were a part of an extraordinary demonstration of how service can change the narrative. Before the disaster, no Christians were allowed to be in the city of Aceh in Indonesia, which was wiped out by the storm. I traveled there to see our recovery efforts being coordinated by a team that was half Christian and half Muslim. Flying in on a small missionary plane, I was sitting in the cockpit next to the pilot. As we were preparing to land, I looked out the window. For miles, all I could see were the foundations of homes that had been washed away. That is an image that haunts me still.

A couple of years later, Habitat won an award from the Indonesian government for being one of the two most effective respondents to the tsunami. Aceh was one of the saddest places I have ever been, but some of the comments I heard from many of the families, who were Muslim, were really wonderful.

They said of Habitat’s work, “We may not share their faith, but we are so glad they are part of our community because they have helped us rebuild, and they have helped us make this a better place.”

By putting our serving towels over our arms and showing up, God can do amazing things. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said of a Habitat build in South Africa, “As the walls go up, so many more invisible walls come down, and new hope is built in the heart of the community.”

I believe service is key to solving the problems of divisiveness in our world. When we serve, we focus on others rather than ourselves. And when people from different backgrounds serve together, they focus on their shared values and not what separates them.

During the tragedy of World War II, a generation of young Americans from all backgrounds (albeit racially divided) served together in combat and learned about one another. Following the war, the U.S. saw tremendous strides in building the country’s infrastructure as a result of national service programs.

If we could reimagine that idea, we could make improvements that would benefit millions. Participants would gain skills that they could transfer into so many areas of their lives, and they would have opportunities to work alongside people whose worlds are very different than their own. Consider the possibilities, the healing experiences that could strengthen communities, the life-changing relationships that could develop, and the networking opportunities that could result. What a positive and productive way to build a shared identity.

Unlike social media, which can be a rage accelerator that causes people to think that those who disagree are bad people, serving together takes people away from false perceptions and stereotypes and increases the opportunity to see the humanity of the other.

One of my first experiences after joining Habitat was to travel to India to build homes with President and Mrs. Carter and many other volunteers from around the world. One group of volunteers that I’ve never forgotten gives me hope for the future. It was a group of young people, half from Lahore, Pakistan, and half from Mumbai. They were brought together by the Seeds of Peace program, a nonprofit that trains young people in the leadership skills needed to foster reconciliation and co-existence on a local and a global scale.

During the partition of India in 1947, when the two independent nations of Pakistan and India were created, violence erupted as millions of people were uprooted from their homeland. Hindus from the new Pakistan were forced to move to India, and Muslims from India moved to Pakistan. Tensions between the two groups has lasted for decades.

When I met with the students at the end of the week, all they could talk about was what they had in common—how they looked so similar to one another, dressed practically alike, and spoke a common language. They experienced firsthand that what they shared was so much more important than the differences they had been taught their whole lives.

Perhaps our way out of name calling, accusations, and attacking one another is to roll up our sleeves and find ways to serve together.

Then, we have to do the hard work of organizing our lives. Cities, by necessity, were once characterized as mixed-use and mixed-income communities because everyone needed to be close to work. In the past 100 years, we changed housing patterns, and as a result, postal

codes began to determine destinies. In the small college town where I grew up, I went to school with the full diversity of the town. Similarly, our church included professors and doctors and also blue collar service workers. Now, only wealthy people can live in that town, and even university professors cannot afford housing. The area, like many others, is becoming increasingly economically segregated.

What if we intentionally sought to return to neighborhoods that were designed so that people can live closer to where they work and so that children from low-income households can have access to decent schools and jobs? That will require continuing to invest in historically underserved communities and opening up more possibilities for low-income families in high opportunity communities.

What steps would you be willing to take to open access to communities of opportunity all around your city? Would you be open to allowing apartments to be built in your school zone, for example?

We need to improve the quality of life for residents of disinvested neighborhoods, and we need to make sure that low-income families are not pushed out of the places they call home. If families do move, they should be able to move to communities with good schools and job possibilities. We have to listen to residents and create connections within and among neighborhoods. People of faith need to lead this effort because our human nature is to say, “Not in my backyard (NIMBY)” or “BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).” I imagine Jesus would be on the “Yes, in my backyard” side of things.

I make no pretense that any of this is easy. If we are committed to following Jesus, we are compelled to truly understand differing opinions, to create opportunities for service that bridge differences and build a common identity, and to organize our lives and communities in ways that are inviting and thriving for all. That reset would look more like building His kingdom here on earth—as it is in heaven.