“Diversity” probably means too many things to too many people. So, maybe it is time just to talk about things like having lunch with somebody new today. “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” is a program being promoted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, Ala. The center’s December 2006 newsletter provided details about the program as it was put into practice at Hall-Woodward Elementary School in Winston-Salem, N.C. The article opened with a description of a little boy leaving the lunch line with his plastic lunch tray, who started to walk toward a familiar table in the cafeteria. A teacher’s voice rose above the lunchtime din to say, “Find someone you don’t normally sit with.” The teacher then directed the little boy to an empty seat next to a girl from another class. “I don’t think she wants me to sit there,” the boy said, but the girl asked the new kid to tell her what was his favorite movie. He sat down and joined in the table talk. “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” is observed at some 10,000 schools across the nation, according to the article. About four million youngsters participated last year on Nov. 14, the designated day. The program is designed to help students break out of their comfort zones, instead of staying in their own small groups and never taking the time to get to know new people. Tafeni English, the “Mix It UP” program director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is hoping schools will become engaged for more than just a one-day event. She said a survey of organizers showed that the day helps raise awareness about social boundaries in schools, successfully gets students talking with new people and even fosters friendships across group lines. And, she adds, “Our research tells us that the program is most powerful when students ‘Mix It Up’ throughout the year.”
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The school story reminded me of the account in Luke’s Gospel, of how Jesus intended to pass through Jericho, but then invited himself to stay at the house of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, a wealthy man, and also a man who was “short in stature.” So he climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus as he walked by. Jesus saw him and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zachaeus “came down quickly and received him with joy.” Other people complained about Jesus: “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus said, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.”
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Jesus invited himself into the home of someone who was not very popular – and a conversion happened. The school principal in the story said she discovered that “We are so much more alike than we are different.” Examine the limits of your own circle of friends and acquaintances. Take the time today to get to know someone you wouldn’t ordinarily have lunch with — perhaps at a school or a nursing home or a homeless shelter. Find out what your school is doing to help students broaden the circle of their friendships. Start or support a program to help. Take a good look at someone new in your town. Climb a tree or study a new language or do whatever you have to do to sharpen your observation of the strangers among us. You never know who you might get to meet.
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