Making diverse friendships and building diverse communities is hard work for everyone, and requires attention, careful thought, and sacrificial love.
In my Sunlit Lands novels, teenagers can enter a magical world, but only if they have a significant tragedy in their life—and only if they’re willing to make a deal. The dealmaker in the books is a magical troublemaker named Hanali. He invites teens to enter his homeland, but only if they’re willing to pay the price of working for his people, the Elenil, for at least a year.
As the books unfold, it becomes clear that Hanali has an agenda of his own, and that he’s trying to build a society of lost teens whom he can control for reasons that are not yet clear. One of the miscalculations that Hanali makes, however, is thinking that he will be able to better control human teens by purposely bringing in a diverse group. In other words, he thinks that if he gets teens of various genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and differing family backgrounds, that they will have less in common, and he will be able to control them more easily.
Hanali has an underlying belief that there is weakness in diversity, and I can buy into that thought sometimes, too. But Hanali (and I) couldn’t be more wrong. Here are five ways the characters in the Sunlit Lands books discover that being forced into a diverse society strengthens them instead of weakening them.
- Compassion. Connecting with people who are different from us stretches our characters and teach us new ways to experience compassion for others. In The Crescent Stone, one of the characters, Jason Wu, grows in his compassion for a young woman named Madeline Oliver when he discovers that she is coping with a terminal illness. And Madeline learns about the unique challenges Jason faces as an Asian American and how his picture of the world is radically different from hers in places. They both grow in compassion for one another in places where Jason wouldn’t grow if he only had friends who were physically well and where Madeline wouldn’t grow if she only had friends of her same ethnicity.
- Deep friendship. This may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes it’s easier to build deep relationships with people who are different from us. Madeline quickly makes friends with a young woman she meets in the Sunlit Lands, a Syrian war orphan named Shula Bishara. Shula has experienced deep loss with the death of her parents and siblings, and she and Madeline bond almost immediately. Culturally, ethnically, financially, and nationally they are different from each other, but they become close friends, like sisters.
- Unique problem-solving. When we’re all coming at a problem from the same cultural lens, we can fail to solve it because of our own cultural experiences and blinders. In the Sunlit Lands, Madeline’s boyfriend, Darius, who is African American, quickly sees to the heart of a problem facing the local people because it mirrors his own experience. Madeline struggles to even see the problem until Darius takes her on a guided tour. Together they come up with a solution that neither of them would have come up with on their own.
- New ways of seeing oneself. In The Heartwood Crown, everyone is treating Madeline with kid gloves, because she is obviously dying. In the midst of her pain and suffering, she struggles to be kind to those closest to her. Most everyone is putting up with this, but then one of Madeline’s Native American friends pulls her aside and shares that he believes Madeline is allowing her illness to make her someone different than she desires to be. He also shares some of his own wisdom from his cultural experience, and Madeline grows and changes as a result.
- Learning to love each other well. It’s easy in a homogenous society to make cultural decisions. The majority rules, and everyone is more or less happy. As we move into more diverse spaces, we’re forced to ask questions about how to build spaces that are neither my culture nor the culture of the person across from me, but a shared culture we both can enjoy and thrive in. Hanali is shocked to discover that these diverse humans—far from his expectation—thrive in relationship with one another and build a respectful, kind community that is inclusive but honest. One of the things I love about both The Crescent Stone and The Heartwood Crown is that the characters in both books learn to have a deep love for one another. The conflict comes from outside their diverse community, not from within it.
Are these outcomes of a diverse society true in “the real world” too? I believe they are. Making diverse friendships and building diverse communities is hard work for everyone, and requires attention, careful thought, and sacrificial love. But it makes us stronger, and it makes us better people.
Matt Mikalatos is the author of all sorts of wonderful books. He’s on staff with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and has been working the last several years to help this historically Caucasian institution make changes in their culture and philosophy to move toward becoming a truly multiethnic organization that is serious about reaching everyone for Christ, not just those in their own culture, nation, or ethnicity.
Check out his new novel, The Heartwood Crown, out now!