There is one word that is particularly vital to understanding people who are in some way different; one word that allows for the hospitality toward strangers to be real and authentic; one word for the work of being an ally to come alive. The word is imagination. Imagination is the critical piece of recognizing and honoring differences.
There is no way to fully understand another person’s experiences. You know your own experiences. Someone may be able to tell you about their experiences but you can’t fully understand them the way we like to think we can. In a very real way we are each isolated within our own experiences. I can only know what is going on from my perspective. You can tell me what you see and experience, but I have to filter what you tell me through the only connection I have with the world, and that is my own experiences.
And that would be a dire scenario if that really were the end of the story; but all is not lost. There is hope through imagination. Imagination builds a bridge between what I know of my experiences and what you share with me of yours. This is why so much of religious language is built upon metaphors. I have an experience and then use analogy to help you imagine what my experience was like. Imagination is the bridge.
There are a great many things I have not experienced. I don’t know what it is like to have a parent die. I don’t know what it is like to feel threatened because of my skin color or my religion. I don’t know what it is like to be openly gay. I don’t know what it is like to be in prison. I don’t know. I have never experienced any other of those things. I can, however, gain enough of an understanding of each of those because I can listen and because I have experienced many other things and I know how to listen and I have a good imagination.
Stretch yourself, imagine a new possibility. Begin where you are, listen to other people, entertain strangers in your midst, and stay open to the hope of new being bursting into your life in ways you’ve never imagined.