In a visit to Grace Cathedral eight years ago, Bishop Desmond Tutu gave a call for reaching across political, socio-economic and religious divides, proclaiming, “We are all agents of transfiguration. Go forth and transform your personal relationships, your community, your world, so it becomes hospitable to joy, to justice, to freedom, to peace.”

Our society today definitely needs transformation and that need has only grown as communication technology has splintered us apart. Other religious faiths make a similar call to translate our experience of the divine love to others living in the messy, hurting realities of life. This has to be done face-to-face, hand-in-hand, and it takes time to create enough trust for people to risk telling the truth of what’s going on in their hearts.

Social media was supposed to bring people together and create a more connected world. For example, Facebook’s mission statement is, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Although I’m a regular Facebook user, the biggest pitfall of social media that I’ve noticed in the past several years is that it enables us to “gerrymander” our social interactions to the point that unfamiliar experiences and ideas are excluded from our lives.

Social media was used in the 2016 and 2018 campaigns to amplify differences and even at times, to intentionally sow discord and division. In 2015, Pope Francis described the detrimental effects of the gerrymandering of our social interactions in paragraph 47 of his “Laudato Si” encyclical: 
“[W]hen media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. ... Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences.”

Each of us is a mixed bag of honorable, selfish, loving, hating, joyful and sad qualities and tendencies. It is easy to remember this in the people we call friends but it is hard to do that with those we don’t spend time with and extremely hard to do that with those we do know but disagree with.

How do we heed Tutu’s call to transform our relationships and world? First, we have to consciously spend time away from our screens. Second, we find opportunities to experience the shared humanity we have with those who aren’t like us.

One great example of bridge building between opposing groups is the “Hands Across the Hills” project created by Paula Green, a conflict resolution expert in Leverett, Mass. Green’s group wanted to figure out how to move forward as a divided country after the 2016 election. They ended up reaching across the political spectrum to the coal-country town of Whitesburg, Ky.

After two years of home visits, emails, Skype sessions and cultural events in both Leverett and Whitesburg, the people in the exchange groups have a true understanding of each other and friendships have been made they figure will last a lifetime. Green notes, “We humanized each other, because the Kentuckian stereotypes of us as liberal elites who didn't care about them, these walls of stereotypes and prejudices came down, and what we felt for each other was a very shared humanity at the deepest level.”

A very shared humanity at the deepest level — religious faiths that say we’re all children of God believe this too. Bakersfield College is looking to bring Paula Green out to speak about building bridges between opposing groups as part of our celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday celebration this year. Tentative date for her visit is Oct. 22. Please come.

Nick Strobel is a professor of astronomy at Bakersfield College and writer of the bimonthly star-gazing column. He can be reached at nstrobel@bakersfieldcollege.edu.