Ubuntu & Bridge-Building

On my way back from the GCN conference in Nashville last month, I read a little book containing the words and inspiration of Desmond Tutu. In the introduction that he penned, Tutu speaks of a concept called ubuntu. He describes this term as a central aspect of African philosophy – the essence of what it is to be human.

He says,

“The definition of this concept has two parts. The first part is that the person is friendly, hospitable, generous, gentle, caring and compassionate. In other words, someone who will use his or her strengths on behalf of others – the weak and the poor and the ill – and not take advantage of anyone. This person treats others as he or she would be treated. And because of this they express the second part of the concept, which concerns openness, large-heartedness. They share their worth. In doing so my humanity is recognized and become inextricably bound to theirs.”

Then he goes on to say,

“But anger, resentment, a lust for revenge, greed, even the aggressive competitiveness that rules so much of our contemporary world, corrodes and jeopardizes our harmony. Ubuntu points out that those who seek to destroy and dehumanize are also victims – victims, usually of a pervading ethos, be it a political ideology, an economic system, or a distorted religious conviction. Consequently, they are as much dehumanized as those on whom they trample.”

He concludes by saying that the expression of ubuntu shows that the “only way we can ever be human is together. The only way we can be free is together.”

Reading this description of ubuntu was so poignant for me as I returned from my experience at the Gay Christian conference. Some of you may recall that this was not my first experience at a GCN conference. My first time I went rather incognito – simply wanting to be present, to listen and observe and open my heart to what God would reveal to me in the experience. I had a lot of internal tension during that experience that I did not really know how to resolve. What I sensed I needed to do was to simply stay present to those tensions and allow God to continue to lead me.

In the time since that conference and this one, God has continued to open doors for us to focus on building bridges in the complex and diverse milieu that surrounds the intersection of faith and sexuality. God has given us a grace to be in the midst of diverse beliefs and practice and look with his eyes to see where his Spirit is at work.

So this year, I went to the GCN conference to facilitate a workshop. I very much viewed it as a time to simply facilitate – because I fully expected to learn much more than I had to offer. You see, GCN in many ways embodies the reality of bridge-building – all the good, the bad and the ugly the comes along with the messy reality of trying to find unity in diversity. What I felt at my first conference – and again at this one – was the pang of wishing the church-at-large could somehow experience this embodiment of generous and gracious space. Not that it’s perfect. But it is a space where people of very different perspectives, on very personal issues, have found a way to make Christ central, worship the focus, and to extend love, grace and friendship to one another. It truly is a place of hospitality.

We looked at tools that help us to build bridges: – learning to really listen – humility – really understanding grace – building relationship over a long time – being willing to be transparent and vulnerable – demonstrating a willingness to understand other perspectives – taking on a learning posture rather than being agenda-driven

And we talked about some of the benefits – the fruit – of building bridges: – it helps us to grow – it’s not “us” vs. “them” – it brings maturity – we get to bless one another – we remember the Kingdom of God is diverse – creates space for other who come after us – can help reach those who don’t know Christ – we practice being Christ-centered – helps us live out unity in diversity – we serve others in relationship

What would you add to these lists? Make your suggestions in the comments.

“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” (I Cor. 9: 21-23 the Message)

At the end of the day, bridge building offers me the profound joy of being a person of ubuntu. I have a lot to learn and have a long ways to grow into my ubuntu-hood …. But I am so grateful for those who invite me into their space, who share their table and facebook chats with me, who extend their humanity to me across whatever differences we have. I count it a great gift.