Bridging Differences

How to reach out to neighbors, especially those who have come from far away.

Kathie Lichtenwalter, M.A. in Islamic Studies, writes from Beirut, Lebanon, where she serves as liaison to the ministerial spouses of the Middle East & North Africa Union. She and her husband, Larry, who is dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at Middle East University, are immersed in the spiritually engaging mission of expressing God’s love in fragile times to both their Christian and non-Christian friends.

Years ago my husband and I cleared out closets, held yard sales, and packed eight suitcases for our move to the Middle East.

The horns and sirens that awaken us each morning now could be in any city, anywhere. Yet every day, on my way down the hill that overlooks dense concrete and smog, I stop and visit with Ahmed, the campus gateman, who drills me on the throat-clearing art of Arabic. A nearby minaret holds up the amplifier that calls the faithful to prayer five times a day. I’m constantly reminded that we’re in a world that sees, feels, and expresses life differently than I do.

Not everyone has my advantage. Connecting with “different” can be even more challenging when you’re surrounded by the familiar, you’re in a place you call home, you feel comfortable with your people, and the “different” world has come to your doorstep. Waves of refugees out of the Middle East and North Africa are flowing into a surprised and unprepared world. They line the borders, fill the boats, wait at the airports. They are not all the same in religion or race, but they all want a chance at safety—or just survival. Some have moved next door to you.

The world’s reaction can range—and change— from empathy to apathy, from charity to hostility. Real dilemmas stare everyone in the face. But if we know anything about God’s heart for all His children, we know that the opportunities are unprecedented.

A mission has come to your doorstep. Without leaving your hometown or stepping onto a plane, you’re met with an unfamiliar culture, a different view of life, a belief system stronger than just another religion. How are you to relate to these new neighbors? What is God asking you to do?


Nothing is more important than for you to know what you have to share. Is your life grounded in Jesus Christ? Is your heart enriched by God’s Word? Do you know the leadership of the Holy Spirit? Have you been gripped by the meaning of God’s last appeal for our frightened world? Can you speak passionately for Him—with and without words? Are you willing to live compassionately, beyond opinions, convenience, or political correctness? His presence in your life and His freedom to use you is the best you can offer others, no matter how different their world.


Whether you are relating to someone from a Christian or non-Christian heritage, your influence will be more meaningful if you have some understanding of their world and the basis of their faith. Look beyond the media for your information. Read the history of the land that your new neighbors left behind. Learn about their culture, their language. Find a simple, factual outline of their faith practices and beliefs. If the non-Christian world is unfamiliar to you, the Arab and African world may be as well, even when expressed within Christianity.

Stop yourself before you stereotype, though. Each person has a unique story, and you can be sure God has been in it. Listen for what He is doing.

A person’s religious beliefs carry a view of the world that shapes how they see life’s hardships and blessings, their personal rights, others’ role, and more. Someone who has grown up with a different worldview than you will probably look at time, space, relationships, gender, authority, future, God—everything—differently than you do.

Look for what you share in common, though. Be sensitive to the likelihood that in your new neighbor’s world, women relate to women, and men to men, unless they are relatives. Family, health, and daily life are usually comfortable common ground. But so is shared grief, a love of nature, even laughter. Reach out, trusting that the Holy Spirit is leading you.

Sharing your faith meaningfully also includes understanding your differences, especially in spiritual matters. Your new neighbor may use the same words you do but with different meanings. The stories in their holy book may sound similar to yours, but the details may change the message. Their religious activities may appear comparable and even more devout than your own. Rituals can play a hidden role in their belief systems, and they may have very different reasons than you do for living healthfully, praying, or worshiping. Learn in order to share what their hearts need most.


The differences you see may tempt you to challenge what they believe, but your mission is not to dismantle a belief system. It is to love a person for God.

Relationship is one of the highest values in Middle Eastern cultures. Social interaction carries deep meaning. Listen to their need for respect and meaningful identity. Be sensitive to what brings dishonor and shame. Be a genuine friend—loyal and long-term.

You probably won’t know your new neighbor’s language, nor will they know yours well. But eye contact, broken English, and sign language say a lot. An online translation site can help. Learn greetings and exchanges; the heart language is always healing to the ears. Kindness speaks every language.

Consider the limits on everyone’s emotional resources. Grief is a major component in the refugee’s life. Some are resilient; some are in shock. But life doesn’t simply “move on, so get over it.” Feed your heart with how God relates to our human needs. Draw boundaries with compassion. Give to empower. Emotional well-being and spiritual growth are closely related


The strongest bridge to anyone is your personal interest. Ask your new neighbors about their family, and ask often. Ask about their home country, childhood, faith. You will see more clearly where God is moving in their life and where He has opened windows for you to share Him.

Ask if you can pray for them. Many, even of a faith where prayer is a ritual more than a conversation with God, will be touched. Even those who are reticent will usually appreciate the expression of your personal care.


Very few people are persuaded by an argument. Theoretical discussions rarely touch the heart. An argument won is often a witness lost. Like Christ did, let a thoughtful question or a reflective response redirect a potential confrontation.

But honest questions need clear, simple answers. Ask the Holy Spirit to keep you sensitive to the seeker. Pray for helpful, redemptive responses that lead a person directly to God. Ask God to teach you the personal meaning of His truth. The Holy Spirit, then, has access to your real-life evidence. Throughout salvation history, the living witness is God’s chosen method for revealing Himself to us.


Many of your new neighbors come from a strong oral tradition, where conversation remains the best communication. Passages are recited rather than read. Stories captivate. Word pictures express more than logical arguments or information.

How easily can you tell stories about God? How naturally can you share pictures of what He’s like? How much of Scripture is woven into your casual conversation? What can you actually say about Him in one thoughtful sentence over a cup of tea?

A living witness can’t stay hidden. God’s presence in your life is a powerful influence long before anyone asks questions or shows spiritual interest. If you are fully available to Him, each person you relate to is directly available to Him. He is within their reach. Let Him fill your heart, and let your heart show.

The opportunity to witness may never happen if you’re waiting to moderate 28 Bible studies. But you can speak often of a powerful, loving, approachable God. Every truth of God’s Word, and everything you believe as a Seventh-day Adventist, follows that certainty. He promises to build on His love.


In the long story of salvation, what your new neighbor needs is not new at all. The wave of refugees moving into your neighborhood may look like a recent phenomenon. Your ministry may be pressed to reach out in new ways. You may need more sensitive, patient methods. But nothing is new about God’s longing for all His children to know who He is and what His love is doing for them. Nothing is new about God’s ability to use you in the most adverse circumstances to reach as many as possible with His final invitation of hope.

Kathie Lichtenwalter, M.A. in Islamic Studies, writes from Beirut, Lebanon, where she serves as liaison to the ministerial spouses of the Middle East & North Africa Union. She and her husband, Larry, who is dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at Middle East University, are immersed in the spiritually engaging mission of expressing God’s love in fragile times to both their Christian and non-Christian friends.