Bridge differences by building relationships

It was a simple idea: Help bridge differences by building friendships – friendships across racial and cultural lines. Today, hundreds of lunches later, “Friday Friends” will celebrate those budding relationships – and show the rest of us that it's not differences that divide us. Only our attitudes about differences can do that.

No, eating lunch with someone unlike you won't magically make you adore them – or them adore you. There's no guarantee you'll even like each other. But the goal of Friday Friends was more basic – to get people “to know each other as people ... not as ‘categories.' ”

The underlying premise is this: Prejudice is often built on ignorance. Breaking down the walls that keep people from getting to know each other is essential to ridding communities of the hatred and distrust that prejudice spawns.

Mecklenburg Ministries and other groups started Friday Friends in early 2007, but its roots were much older. More than a decade ago, Charlotte banker and civic activist Joe Martin urged residents to go to lunch every Thursday with someone of a different ethnic background. Dubbed “Race Day” lunches, the effort gained traction at a time of significant racial division and mistrust in this community. Just months earlier, a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot an unarmed black man. That sparked a citywide two-day conference on race relations designed to help the community bridge differences and find common ground.

Still, in 2001, a Harvard University study of 40 metropolitan areas found problems. While the Charlotte area finished second in worship attendance, it scored next to last in interracial trust. Friday Friends was organized to improve that statistic.

Today, never has an idea like Friday Friends been needed more. Americans are increasingly insular, unable to disagree without being disagreeable, unwilling to listen to and consider a different point of view. People are divided politically, socially, religiously – and in a myriad of other ways. They find no encouragement to seek common ground.

But in Friday Friends, so far we see a model of how that can be done. The challenge Joe Martin threw out so many years ago still needs more takers. This community still needs people willing to work at building a community by coming together. It needs people willing to get to know others as people, not categories. What about you?