The first time I stepped onto her porch, it was a sweltering hot summer day in Maryland. I’d been encouraged to visit the woman who lived in this house because she was offering a Bible study for young women, and that’s exactly what I needed. Although I’d been raised in the church, I was really just a young Christian at the time—only a year into a personal relationship with the Lord. I was still unsure about a lot of things, including what it even meant to be a disciple. I wanted to learn.

The door opened, and Mary stepped into my life with her smile, warm hugs, homemade bread, and Snickers cookies. But she didn’t stop there. She shared the Word of God and taught me his truth. It was Mary who prayed me through some of the most difficult times in my young adult life. It was Mary who became one of my closest confidants and advisors. It was Mary who corrected my many shortcomings.

Mary was the first woman who intentionally discipled me. As a young midshipman from South Carolina attending the United States Naval Academy, I didn’t know how to cook. I rarely washed my own clothes. Aside from keeping a clean house, being hospitable, and throwing a great party, I knew little about homemaking because my mother proudly took care of those things. Her priority was to ensure that we, her children, had every opportunity to prepare academically and athletically for our futures. And while personal leadership, responsibility, and accountability were ingrained in me at a young age, I never learned certain life lessons as a child.

Mary gained wisdom from persevering through life. She was an older white woman, a former nurse, a devoted wife, and a stay-at-home mom. This mother of five (four of whom were still living at home) regularly taught women’s Bible studies, homeschooled her children, and was devoted to serving midshipmen, her church, and her community. She baked the best treats from scratch. During my visits, she would cook and I would eat. I was quite pleased with this arrangement. We were very different, and God used our differences to create opportunities for learning and to grow a beautiful relationship.

We didn’t define our friendship. Exactly what words do you use to define an uncommon yet intimate relationship that crosses generational, racial, and cultural lines? Because I didn’t have the right language, I had difficulty explaining our relationship to other people. Mary wasn’t a biological family member, nor was she my godmother or a surrogate parent. I would say things like, “She’s my spiritual advisor” (which surely gave the image of a false prophet with a crystal ball) or “She’s my spiritual director” (an unfamiliar term at the time, but which has now become a well-known term). It never occurred to me to say, “She is discipling me.” That language was not commonly used in my church context.

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Our college environment had an organic leadership component that included mentoring, but I never thought to use the word mentor to define my relationship with Mary. In hindsight, I see this as one of the problems with compartmentalizing our lives. In my mind, mentoring was something that happened professionally. I fully expected military officers to teach and train me, to point me in the right direction. Mary was doing the same kind of work, but because she was operating in the “spiritual part” of my life, the label “mentor” did not come to mind. Mentoring was the true nature of our relationship, however, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Mary and I had many personality differences, but we continued in our relationship by embracing unity or oneness in our diversity. Because we were both a part of God’s family, we took the risk and confronted our fears. We asked each other difficult questions and did not shy away from conflict. We didn’t try to pretend that we were blind to “color” or that our racial or ethnic heritage did not influence the way we read Scripture, voted, or viewed the world. We weren’t afraid to share our emotional baggage and how our different social and economic experiences shaped us. We were different, and that was okay. In fact, it was good and necessary for our growth and for our service to the church. Because we were willing to push through our areas of discomfort in spite of our differences, God stretched us individually, and we are both better as a result. Mary changed the way I saw the world, and I influenced the way she viewed others who did not share her same experiences.

Mentoring across racial, ethic, generational, and socioeconomic lines influences the way we experience God and love others. Through mentoring, we make relationship commitments that require us to embrace people as God does and welcome diverse relationships that reflect true unity in the body of Christ. When we learn to love those who are different from us, we begin to see beyond ourselves and through the eyes of Jesus instead. In his book, The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, Mark Labberton writes:

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Seeing is important and reliable in many ways, but it is neither neutral nor comprehensive. Sight is not just what we see but how we see—and that is the function of values, experiences, relationships, associations, beliefs, culture, race, gender and age. This means that everything we see passes through invisible lenses of perception that take a lot of the information the eye receives and the brain sorts, and place it within the framework of our experience or understanding or plausibility…. Spoken or unspoken, our sight filters instantly allow some information in and keep some out, categorizing, framing, typing. They prioritize what we are attracted to and barely register what we find irrelevant. We move seamlessly from sight to perception, from the information available to the assignment of value and meaning to what we see. We don’t see ourselves perceiving. We just see. This means we can be blind about our seeing. Just as sight is not neutral, it is not comprehensive. That is, physical sight goes only so far; it does not include what is invisible…. So, beyond the typical range of limitations is the fact that we cannot see or know someone else’s heart. That is the fundamental and profound limitation in our sight.

God values diversity in our relationships because it helps us acknowledge our own blindness and our tendency to misperceive or wrongly judge the motivations of others. As we grow in relationships with those who are different from us, we begin to clean off our eyeglasses and enter their life experiences with compassion. Our sight improves. We cannot wholeheartedly or effectively make disciples of all nations and fulfill the Great Commission if we have limited scope and poor vision that prevent us from loving our neighbor across town or down the street.

In her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, reconciler and social psychologist Dr. Christena Cleveland writes, “To respond to God’s call fully, we need to express our interdependent diversity in individual churches, denominations and organizations as well as in the worldwide body of Christ.” Mentoring through diverse relationships helps us live as people of integrity in light of the gospel we proclaim.

Taken from Mentor for Life by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson © 2016

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson intentionally serves as a credible witness of Christ’s leadership to engage, equip, and empower people to live and lead on purpose. A former Marine Corps officer, she has over 15 years of leadership and mentoring experience in the military, government, church, seminary, and nonprofit sectors. She is a leadership consultant, mentoring coach, and speaker.