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When our friend first moved to our hometown in the Deep South, it was a culture shock. Raised on the slick, windy streets of Chicago, he had never eaten grits; did not know what chicken and dumplings were; had not the foggiest idea about pork rinds; and had never been to a church homecoming with “dinner on the grounds.” Nor had he encountered the Southern hospitality dripping from the mouths and handshakes of his new neighbors.

One evening as he and his wife were beginning to settle into these alien surroundings, there was a knock at the door. Out on the stoop was a sweet, small-town Southern lady, gray-haired, with apple pie in hand. She gave the usual “welcome to our town” speech and finally ended with an invitation for her new neighbors to join her for worship at the First Baptist Church the next Sunday.

“No ma’am,” said my friend. “I’m an atheist.” The poor woman looked at him, dumbstruck. To relieve the tension she turned to his wife: “What about you, dear?” Again, the answer was shattering: “No, I am afraid not. I am Jewish.” The charming saint from the First Baptist Church turned and left, taking her apple pie with her.

It used to be that everyone we met was a bit like “us.” Not anymore. From religion and race, to politics and lifestyle, the diversity that now surrounds us is far greater than anything we could have imagined a generation ago. So, in shock, we exercise kindness toward those who are like us, and we keep our apple pies away from those we find different than we ourselves. This is hardly “hospitality,” Southern or otherwise.

In this day and age of “connection” and “social” media, we are actually more divided and disconnected than ever. A large reason for this is the lack of face-to-face community, especially with those we consider “different.”

An Asian tea tradition can inform us here. It is common for Eastern cultures to share tea with strangers as a means of sincere welcome. It’s much more than a quick shot of caffeine. It is an act of hospitable community building, because the more times “strangers” share tea together, the more like true friends they become.

Tea and apple pies. There just might be something to sharing these with our neighbors that will be good for all of us.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor and author of multiple books. Visit his website at ronniemcbrayer.net.

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