A dear friend of mine once said, “Proximity changes perspective.” Those words have been seared into my brain.
They have become like a mantra that I use repeatedly in my classes, influencing my teaching. I am the Director of the Intercultural Studies Program at Lee University and I am always teaching culture and how to live in a world of difference. I know theory, vocabulary, strategy, and even theology are insufficient when encountering and living well in a world of difference. Proximity is required. Our biases and prejudices do not come to light in solitude — they need community.
The Building Bridges, Deepening Faith campus grant allowed me to create multiple shared spaces with people who were racially, culturally, and religiously different from my students. These spaces enabled a variety of experiences grounded in proximity. One evening, I hosted Migrant Journeys where immigrants from diverse backgrounds spoke to a variety of students about their individual journeys and reasons for coming to the United States. I also piloted the Human Library project, which provided an opportunity for students to interact with people they wouldn’t normally interact with and hear their stories. The motto of the Human Library project is “Unjudge Someone.” Yet another undertaking was Project Puentes, where students worked with immigrants in the context of advocacy and teaching English as a second language. Lastly, students participated in Culture, Poverty, & Race (CPR) seminars created for advocacy training.
In addition to these proximal experiences, many of my students participated in Center for English Language Learning (CELL), a program that teaches immigrants the English language. Participating in CELL placed my students in repeated proximity to diversity and required their ongoing engagement. One student was very vocal about the service hours required in CELL:
“When coming into this class and noticing that for this class, we were going to have to go out and do a minimum of 10 service hours in the presence of a different nationality, I became very frustrated and would say to myself, ‘Why can’t we just learn what we need to in class?’”
By the end of the semester, this student had a heart change: “Just with the ten service hours I served with CELL, my mindset went from, ‘This is an obligation’ to ‘This is a privilege.’ My heart and mind changed after this semester, especially in putting myself in proximity.”
Another student noted, “It was eye-opening to see the sheer number of people who came to CELL to reap the benefits of its service. I never realized how great a need there was in Cleveland for English language education! I also never realized the ethnic diversity in the Cleveland, Tennessee area: Africans, Ukrainians, Middle Easterners, and Hispanics were all present. One child’s mother was Muslim!”
One student recounted his time spent with a young girl from Ukraine for whom he was providing childcare through CELL:
One time in particular, there was a girl who always sat at the table where I was usually sitting where the kids could draw and color. This little girl was probably around ten years old. She is incredible at drawing, and she would always draw portraits of the leaders. She was from Ukraine, and her parents had moved here to America to escape the horror of what we all know is happening in Ukraine. One night, she drew a landscape, and it had the pretty colors of a town, and it was vibrant. Then you look in the background and see shades of dark colors and big, almost cloud-like objects in the sky. I asked her what the picture was supposed to be, and she said, “It is Ukraine with bombs in the sky.”
I was trying to hold my emotions in because it tremendously broke my heart. The little girl then gave me the picture she had drawn for me to keep. From that point forward, I had a different outlook on the world and the reality of what is going on. Specifically, a new perspective on what the kids are going through. The last image and the last few memories of what they remember of their home country is heartbreaking.
I’ll share one final student’s interaction with diversity this past academic year. She worked with The International Friends Network for her service project. This organization helps resettle immigrants. The student’s job was to tutor a young Muslim boy from Afghanistan, which meant going to his house every week for several hours.
I started to build a profound relationship and connection with this family even with the language barrier. As this relationship began to grow, trust started to form. They invited me to stay for family meals, a baby shower, and even birthday parties. A required service hour quickly turned into a deep and personal relationship — my first friendship with someone committed to a completely different religion than mine. As my friendship continued to grow, so did my heart.
My view of Muslim people started to change as my heart changed, without me even realizing it. As I was walking to pick the little boy up from school with the mother, she was wearing a hijab. I was playing with her baby as I felt the parents behind us looking at me with a judgmental look. It’s not every day that you see a young girl in shorts holding a Muslim woman’s baby while both are laughing and having a good time.
During this small interaction, I realized how my friend must feel daily. People have unconscious outlooks on people who are different from them, and maybe without even realizing show that through body language. As I was growing closer to this family, my outlook on Muslim people had become very different from how my community views Muslims, and this interaction made it evident.
Proximity changes perspective — it is not just a saying but a truth. Learning to live faithfully in a world of difference requires proximity. We can talk about loving our neighbors all day, but how can we learn to love them best if we are not faithfully engaging with them? In our increasingly diverse world, we must practice the art of proximity. We will be surprised by what we learn about ourselves and others.
Julie T. Martinez, Ph.D. worked as a missionary overseas with the Church of God for 25 years. In August 2020, she began working for Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, as the director of the Intercultural Studies Program and an assistant professor of Intercultural Studies.
“Building Bridges, Deepening Faith” campus grants were made possible by generous support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and The Pew Charitable Trusts.