Because of what I was taught growing up, the truths sown into my heart about seeing the individual first began to grow and get tested in junior high and high school. One of the byproducts was an expanding desire to learn more about each person with whom I had contact in order to understand his or her story.
I became a part of the YWCA Y-Teen program while I was in high school as a way to broaden connections. Since I rode a bus from the country into the city, no one I met in school lived in my neighborhood and it left me feeling “on the outside” most of the time.
During the time I was in Y-Teens, I began to get acquainted with a girl who offered me the gift of sharing and listening. We both became involved with trying to create a service project for the group and in the end, an idea I had suggested was chosen. It was called the “Big Sis” project where Y-Teens were paired with special education students in the grade schools to offer encouragement through reading to and with them, playing games with them, and a variety of other things.
My friend was enthusiastic about the project and I asked for her help to make it a success. She had often listened to my stories of what it was like growing up with a special needs sibling. She heard all of my perspectives including those that were not very positive and accepted me without judging my feelings. She grew to care about these children as well as for the hearts of their siblings.
To say that this friend had a lot of credibility with me may be an understatement. She epitomized how Tim Scott writes about this topic in Unified:
“Sometimes in a friendship, we build credibility and trust not by what we say, but by what we’re willing to share. A friend can help shoulder the burden without dissecting it. Sometimes the gift of presence is worth more than a thousand words.”
That is the gift I received from this friend whom I started calling “Sis” after we started the Y-Teen project. I had no biological sisters and she seemed like the sort of sister I would have chosen if I had the chance.
The truth was that we were very different from one another, but we shared some common values. Both of us came into the relationship without preconceived notions and expectations.
“Sis” visited me in the country whenever she could get transportation and I visited her in the inner city when I was able to include that in my time in the city. Our homes and families were different, but common values like respect, hard work, care for others, love of country and family, and more, connected our hearts. It was an unlikely friendship in days before civil rights.
“Sis” honored me when she invited me to sing at her wedding. My parents and I and one other family of a groomsman were the only guests whose ethnicity stood out from the rest of the guests in the church on that warm June day. Others likely noticed that obvious difference, but for “Sis” and me we gave little thought to the difference because we knew each other’s hearts.
I had received a special trip to honor the “Big Sis” service project. My friend and I had both worked on the project that had been a germ of an idea I had. She was excited for me. She and I had been friends for three years by then and had gained so much in the process. We understood what Trey Gowdy wrote in Unified:
“We can build real trust with others by stepping into their story, by committing our time and attention to what matters to them. When we walk the path together with a trusted friend, when his or her success is as important to us as our own, then we’re really on to something special.”
That only could have happened when “Sis” and I listened to each other’s stories and came to understand each other’s framework for how we lived our lives.
Unified has a powerful statement that each of us should consider in this 24/7 news cycle that focuses on differences and divisions:
“You could put any two people of good conscience together, and regardless of whatever differences they might have, you would find that they agree on most things in life.”
It might be tempting to argue with that statement, but before you do remember the parameter of “good conscience.“ It all starts with what is happening inside of us. How do we do it? Listen to Tim Scott’s recommendation in Unified:
“If we want to build friendships with people across lines of division, we must focus on what we have in common and not become distracted by what separates us. We do this naturally – and often without even thinking about it – when we feel a connection with someone. If we want to reach out to people who are different from us, the process is really the same – though we may need to be more intentional about it. We must start by establishing rapport, based on common interests, and build a foundation of trust and goodwill, before we gravitate toward conversations about problems and the issues that divide us. If we start by talking about things we can all agree on — such as gratitude for our men and women in uniform, our love for our children and grandchildren … — eventually we will pave the way to more challenging and difficult conversations.”
Following high school, I went off to college and “Sis” traveled to various places around the world with her new husband who was a part of the U.S. Air Force. We stayed in touch from time to time, as we each became mothers and our lives expanded. Our lives went in different directions, but our hearts were knit together.
I think our lives will always reflect what we discovered in this unlikely friendship that spanned a lifetime.