Who is My Neighbor?

The Importance of Practicing Interracial “Fusion Friendships”

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By Julius Thomas II and Aizaiah G. Yong
Oct 29, 2020 | 10 min read
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“It is in fact Christian love which discovers and knows that one’s neighbour exists and that — it is one and the same thing — everyone is one’s neighbour.” - Soren Kierkegaard

Introduction

While we all reckon with the weight of a global pandemic, growing systemic poverty, and racial oppression in the U.S., the most imperative question plaguing us has not been who is to blame or how long will we be required to social distance or wear masks. The imperative we have been wrestling with is, who is my neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37, the story of the good Samaritan, provides a simple answer with challenging implications. In this parable, Jesus chooses to demonstrate what spiritual maturity looks like, and spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with being part of the “in group”, but the answer had everything to do with how one extended love. In this example, love calls us to go beyond befriending those who look like us and/or those who come from a similar cultural background, and to move toward those we consider different, strange, or even enemies. This is not easy for us and yet we find that we reclaim our humanity only when we value and treat one another with dignity and respect.

In contemporary U.S. society, polarization and division are rampant. We have forgotten that we are all neighbors to one another, or in other words, that our destiny is inextricably interwoven. Being a neighbor implies we treat one another with dignity and respect, learning to value and cherish our cultural differences. This work can only happen when we decolonize our minds and seek to cleanse our hearts from supremacy of any kind. For the work of “becoming neighbors” and decolonizing our lives begins with building friendships across racial identities, and in the U.S. context in particular, centering the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

Which is why interracial solidarity or what we call interracial “fusion friendships” is so important and can perhaps even be the antidote to our felt isolation and self-righteousness. In the U.S., this practice is especially needed in the lives of people who come from differing racially minoritized backgrounds. While two people may relate due to being part of the BIPOC community at large, experiences of racism differ from group to group and person to person. However, interracial fusion friendships can help us to know ourselves, work through our own biases and cultural (un)awareness, and ultimately aid us with survival techniques that also lead us into living lives for the sake of all of us and not just some of us.

Our decade-long friendship — between Aizaiah Yong, a Hakka Chinese Chicano, and Julius Thomas, an African American — is one we believe is worth telling, and we hope that in doing so, it will inspire others to do the amazing but also difficult work of building interracial fusion friendships that help us to become authentic neighbors to one another.

Our context

Our friendship began as teenagers living in the South, in southeastern Virginia. We met during our sophomore year of high school and played on the JV basketball team together. We went to a predominantly white high school and so we automatically related to one another in feeling like cultural outsiders. Classmates driving in from the rural parts of town with huge Confederate flags in the back were a common sight, as were the segregation and racial hate present in every cafeteria lunch hour. Needless to say, our friendship became a safe haven in the midst of a socially confusing and disturbing world.

In many ways, we found each other because we needed to. We needed to find others who knew what it was like to be racially oppressed and were longing to make relationships with people who saw us for our whole selves. Through cultivating our friendship, we learned to answer the question, “who is my neighbor?” more deeply. Our friendship opened our eyes to seek justice for “all” rather than “a few”. The true essence of neighborliness is radically loving another to the point of sharing in the victories and, more powerfully, the sufferings of one another. Our friendship taught us to do so for one another and other people who we know and love in our lives.

However, building our friendship was not easy and came with unexpected twists and turns where we each learned that our families and racialized experiences were different. To convey a glimpse into this, we invite you to our reflections of our respective moments of “awkward enlightenment” in our friendship, where we were both challenged in our assumptions and invited to a greater sense of compassion for one another.

Aizaiah

The Thomas family is one incredible unit. Mr. Thomas is calm, cool, and collected. He was a former military chaplain and someone who I experienced as resilient and tender-hearted. Mrs. Thomas was a former football coach and physical education teacher. She has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I have ever met, and she always pushed you to be the very best you can be. One of the first times I realized that the Thomas family did things differently than mine was the afternoon I went to pick up Julius to play basketball at the local recreation center. As I was waiting for him in the driveway, I overheard Mrs. Thomas scolding Julius for a chore that he forgot to complete. This must have not been the first time that Julius forgot to complete this task because Mrs. Thomas was letting him have it. Julius came to the car with his head down and I asked him, “Everything good?” He responded, “Yeah, why?” I told him that I overheard his mom scolding him and she seemed pretty upset. He replied, “You call that upset, you haven’t seen anything!”

I was shocked at his reply. I can only remember a handful of times my parents talked to me like that. What I did not know then but what I know now is that due to the white supremacy ingrained in U.S. society and especially the South, Julius as an African American teenager had to be damn near perfect every time he walked out the door. When I asked Julius about this later, he explained how his family always reminded him that he would have to work harder than anybody else in life and that he better be prepared.

Julius’ response

It’s interesting recollecting on this particular conversation me and Aizaiah had. In those days I didn’t understand how much my mother’s and father’s lessons through the years truly helped me become who I am today. Over the years through our conversations, I have realized how vital my parents were in my development. They always showed me something that no one could ever take away, my DIGNITY. I had a mother and a father who shaped and allowed my identity to blossom. My mother instilled in me to know who I am. That I am not what the media, my friends, or my teachers may think I am. That my name is Julius Alexander Thomas II, and I have a proud heritage. This example for me is a way in which my parents were there to provide me a foundation and identity. Even though being a Black man in America is a challenge, I will not allow this to break me. My parents instilled this into me.

In the midst of a pandemic, criminal justice reform, and an election year, the question of identity is ever more important to answer. To know who you are is the key to fighting against injustice for all. Each of us bears the image of God and therefore has dignity and worth. Because this is the case, every person deserves to feel safe, deserves to be respected, deserves to know they have worth. In the midst of uncertainty, we do know this identity is certain for every single solitary person. But practically, this is not the case in America. Many do not feel dignified because we live in a country riddled with contradiction and hypocrisy. We live in a country more worried about left versus the right rather than right versus wrong.

To offer the gift of identity to one another is simple and yet profound: we tabernacle in one another’s lives as Aizaiah did in mine. The Apostle Paul shows us how to do this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. The phrase that we continually see throughout is “I made myself” or “I became” depending on the version you are reading. That phrase in the Greek is one word, “doulos”, meaning servant. Paul in his evangelism to different people groups wholly gave himself to the needs of those he was ministering to. Paul knew the best way to love others was to lay his preferences aside and engage in the preferences and lives of others. The imperative of Paul is the imperative for me as a Christian, and this is why I pursue efforts of social transformation. It’s about policies being changed because of the ways we are called to love people. To pursue justice is to pursue the dignity of people.

Julius

There aren’t enough words to describe how good the Yongs have been to me. They fed me twice over whenever I was at their house, they prayed for me constantly, they loved me unconditionally. If I had to use one word to describe them, it would be accepting. I don’t know if it was the kindness of Mrs. Yong, the ridiculousness of Mr. Yong, or a combination of the two, but I always felt welcomed in their home. Even when Aizaiah wasn’t home they expected me to come say hello every once in a while. I truly felt like I was a part of their family.

This was very evident on Friday nights at the Yong household. That was game night, and let me tell you, these game nights weren’t for the faint of heart. I wouldn’t describe it as ruthless, but it was definitely competitive. There wasn’t a prize for the winner except for bragging rights. One game I remember playing was the infamous Pit. This was an all-out, every person for themselves trading game where the person who could match up all of their cards would win the round. Though I have fond memories of this game, at first it was not my favorite, and I actually didn’t like it. The game required you to speak loudly and be somewhat silly and outgoing, which for me, as an introvert, were not my strong points. Not only was I out of my element, but I didn’t understand the purpose of playing these games. I felt I was not going to learn anything, and there was not a prize for the winner. Even more, I had always thought board and card games were a perfect waste of time that should be used for something productive.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was blaming and criticizing the culture of the Yong family. I never said anything out loud but because I didn’t understand their way of doing things, and my conclusion was to downplay their family culture. Inwardly, I blamed them for making me feel out of place, criticized them for wasting precious time, and rationalized that because I don’t understand them, they must be wrong. But time and relationships have a funny way of changing your perspective. The more I spent time with them on Friday nights, the more I started to enjoy myself. I even began to love playing the game Pit. But it wasn’t because I wanted to win the game; it was because I thoroughly loved and enjoyed the people I was playing the game with. It was never about the game, it was always about the people. My friendship with Aizaiah and his family gave me a vision for my life that I will always cherish. Lessons like this can only be learned when we are willing to learn from others. Blaming and criticizing another’s culture without humbly asking, “What can I learn from this?” is what divides us. We look outwardly instead of inwardly, not wanting to point the finger at ourselves.

Aizaiah’s response

I have to admit this story makes me laugh now. What I did not know then was how uncomfortable family nights made Julius feel. As a high schooler, I assumed every person was loud and competitive and played games together. I am thankful that even though my family did not have much contact with extended family who lived far away, my parents always tried their best to create a fun and loving environment at home. Being both Hakka Chinese and Chicano, this meant there was a great emphasis on collective identity and not just the individual. We do everything together, and that is something that I will continue to hold onto in the struggle for a world where we all thrive together, no exceptions.

Conclusion

Since our high school years, we have both committed to the work of becoming anti-racist. For us, this means that our friendship is not just lived out on an interpersonal level, but we also challenge each other to stand up for structural and systemic change, such as marching with the Poor People’s Campaign. Through our friendship, we have learned “We are all in this together,” and the beauty of this is that all our learning stems from true authentic friendship. We believe this is a first step in learning to be neighbors with the world, by intentionally seeking, investing into, and being willing to (un)learn assumptions and biases because you are willing to understand another human being who is different than you. Whether we like it or not, each of us has a part to play. The solution is not just new laws and policies (although we should use our voice to demand changes to reflect justice), but to be people who are neighbors to one another. This is where the work of anti-racism becomes personal, authentic, and gives us the strength to sustain engagement at systemic and structural levels.

As our story portrays, it isn’t always easy, but it is necessary for folks to live (and befriend) across marginalized identities of solidarity for the purification of our hearts, minds, and lives all around. This takes a lot of hard and awkward work, but ultimately, we are simply required to show up and be present to our experience. We are continuing to learn more through our friendship and we strive to propel one another to fight for every person’s God given dignity, and for us this means massive changes in our society from accessible health care for all to eliminating poverty. This can only begin when we cross racial, economic, and social divides, and when we as a culture are willing to humbly learn from one another in order to appreciate the wisdom offered by those who are minoritized differently than ourselves.

It seems so simple, and yet for many it seems impossible to do. Why? Because of the imperative question, who is my neighbor? When people have only specific people in mind as their neighbors, we as a culture will never truly begin the healing process. We can only begin to be healed when we recognize each other — of different experiences and backgrounds — as neighbors.

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Julius Thomas

Julius Thomas is the Pastor of Community Engagement at Village Church Hampden located in Baltimore, Maryland. He is passionate about gospel centered preaching, the church's response to matters of race, justice, and uniting a divided community. He and his wife, Sara have been married for four years and hope to impact their community for the glory of God.

Aizaiah G. Yong

Rev. Aizaiah G. Yong, PhD (he/him) is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. He is also a Pentecostal Christian minister who is committed to cultivating intercultural/interreligious communities that embody compassion, courage, and are pursuing liberation for all.

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