Living in Different Worlds

We all live in circumstances that contribute
to how we see the world and its peoples.

Where you live affects how you view the world and the people around you. So does your daily work environment, home life, tribal culture and education along with a host of other influences.

I became aware many years ago that we all live in different worlds and our understanding of the society around us is determined, to a large extent, by the immediate conditions in which we live.

Some years ago I was a reserve police chaplain in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a voluntary position and my stint at it was relatively brief but I learned a lot in a short time. One of the enduring lessons was how little I knew of the various worlds in which people live, even in the same city. As strange as it seems to me to today, in those days it was a revelation. Until then I had assumed my own experience was close to everyone else’s. But I learned this is not so. There are subcultures that we don’t know first-hand, and some we probably don’t know about at all. We only glimpse some through news stories or other distant, second-hand story-telling and this rarely gives us the context that informs us about why people do what they do or act as they act.

Riding with street cops led me to people and subcultures that were as foreign to me as a visit to another planet.

I am thinking about this as I reflect on the lack of understanding of globalization and the variety of cultures in which people live around the globe. We in the U.S. are amazingly uninformed about these various cultures, even as we are uninformed about the subcultures within our own country.

It’s not necessarily due to a massive character flaw. I think it has a lot to do with the size and diversity of the U.S. geographically, ethnically, socially and economically, among many other reasons.

As a nation, the United States has been relatively self-sufficient. We can travel a continent without crossing customs boundaries, and even when we do go to Mexico or Canada, it’s a pretty routine, benign process. So our frame of reference is based, quite logically, on what we know. It can’t be any other way.

I’ve been considering this from the perspective of our need to understand the importance of global challenges and our interconnection with the peoples of the world, especially the need to address poverty, human rights and health in the U.S. and globally. Do we have a clue about what some of us in the human family must do to survive on this planet? I wonder.

This leads me to hope that journalists can help create understanding by writing, or otherwise explaining, context. Journalism requires multiple skills and interpreting the culture is one of them, as difficult and risky as that might seem. It’s one way to be exposed to the differences that distinguish us in the global community.

I’ve long thought this is an area where religious communicators have both an advantage and a greater burden. Many religious organizations are extremely well-connected to the heartbeat of their communities. This connection to the grassroots puts religious communicators in position to offer important, but often unrecognized, context.

I’ve come to believe after many years in this storytelling discipline that context is critically important. Journalism that focuses on events and crisis but fails to deliver crucial context isn’t complete. The context of poverty in New Orleans, for example, became even more important than the wind and water that tipped the scale of awareness. Katrina laid bare a reality that had been buried under years of neglect and inattentiveness. Fortunately, many journalists caught on quickly and helped us understand this.

Now New Orleans contends with both recovery from the hurricane and reconstructing a social context that is inclusive and offers opportunity for everyone. How well this is done will determine the future of the city. And how well the context is understood will determine the quality of the reconstructed social order. There is a place here for those who interpret life from ground level to provide important insights about everyday folks and what is important to them.

In situations such as this we often discover how interconnected we really are. We don’t live in disconnected worlds after all.

This is a biblical concept and it runs against the grain of an “us/them” attitude that is commonly talked about today. It’s also counter to the idea of culture wars, the divisive conversation about values that is so widely presented in mainstream media. Reporting is about more than isolated events and inflammatory rhetoric. It is also about context; about where we live, with whom and how. It can help us understand ourselves as well as others who seem unlike us.

When reporting is done well, as much of the reporting from New Orleans was, we discover we are connected in ways seen and unseen, and we must attend to each other with this understanding. I hope those who report for religious audiences see their reporting in this light and provide insight, sensitivity and the opportunity for us to understand.

I’ll write more about this in the next few days.

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