Walk a Mile in Their Shoes for the Sake of Mission

The old saying goes that if you want to understand someone, you must walk a mile in their shoes.

This is excellent advice for God’s people on mission. Proclaiming the gospel and making disciples necessarily requires some level of interpersonal connection. How can we relate to people who need the good news but think, act, and speak differently than we do? We can start by viewing the mundane task of travel as an opportunity to intentionally walk (or ride) in their shoes.

Walking in the Neighborhood

A great way to begin is by literally walking the same routes as those with whom you’re trying to relate. Whether you’re roaming the alleyways of Bangkok or strolling down a street in your own neighborhood, start by observing foot-traffic patterns, and then join in, following the same routes.

“Start viewing the mundane task of travel as an opportunity to intentionally walk (or ride) in their shoes.”

Every morning my neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, wakes up with joggers, dog-walkers, and early-birds out for a stroll. Foot traffic along the major thoroughfare increases as parents walk their children to the elementary school less than a mile away. In order to connect with people in my neighborhood, I try to adapt to their rhythm—walking when they do, where they do.

As a result, I see the same people every day. I gain their perspective on the neighborhood: the charm of the old architecture of the houses, the convenience of the corner bakery, the danger of the car traffic on the street. Walkers tend to have a bit more time, so they often stop to chat with people they meet along the way. They love to discuss the latest local news and complain about the recent crime wave in our part of town. Walking that mile in the shoes of my neighbors helps me become a neighbor to them. It fosters familiarity that opens lots of doors for conversation.

Driving in the Neighborhood

As it turns out, walking in my neighborhood gives me only piece of the picture. Many of my neighbors don’t walk at all. They travel along the same routes as the walkers, but they do so in their cars. From this vantage point, the mile-long journey takes just three minutes at thirty-five miles per hour. Traveling by car, houses whiz by in a blur. Neighbors out walking are not so much people to greet as obstacles to be avoided. Drivers are concerned about being held up by the crossing guard at the corner. They don’t stop in the bakery; they already have a commuter mug full of coffee.

Observation tells me certain people drive down my neighborhood street every morning: the upper-middle class on their way to work. They have good jobs, lots of responsibility, and little time. They tend to be isolated from their neighbors, processing the daily news instead with their friends and coworkers.

I develop empathy with drivers in my neighborhood every day on my way to work. For eleven minutes each morning, I see the world from the same perspective as people driving the same route. As a result, when I see those drivers in the grocery store, at my kids’ school, or at a sporting event, I can easily strike up a conversation because I’ve already put myself in their shoes by seeing the world through a windshield.

Taking the Bus

To really understand some of the least-understood folks around me, I can’t just travel the street by foot or car. I have to take the bus, as many of my neighbors do. A bus rider’s perspective on my neighborhood is quite different from that of the walkers and drivers.

For a bus rider, the one mile from my house to the school is measured in stops, not steps. Five stops, to be exact, with the same people getting on each time the doors open. On a bus, you’re a guest sharing space with other riders. Bus riders, therefore, carry themselves differently than the walkers or drivers do. Socially, bus riders are the very best at striking up a conversation. They’re friendly enough when talking about the weather or last night’s game, but when it comes to personal or spiritual topics, they’re a bit more guarded, a little more reserved. It takes some effort to deepen the discussion.

In my neighborhood, bus riders tend to be the economically disadvantaged and the elderly. These folks can’t afford to drive and don’t have the time or energy to walk. They rely much more heavily on their neighbors—anyone who can give them a lift, tell them the time, or help them with directions.

Taking the bus helps me ride a mile in the shoes of the people to whom I want to minister. I can understand when they’re running late due to delays. I understand why they aren’t familiar with parts of the city that don’t have good bus service (if the bus doesn’t go there, they don’t either). My ability to sympathize with bus riders increases a hundred fold simply by riding the bus.

“Being on mission in the world means we live alongside those who don’t know Jesus and adjust our lives to connect with theirs.”

Your community may be different. To relate to your neighbors, you may need to navigate the subway, take a train, or even ride a horse! If you ever serve overseas, empathizing with locals may require camel rides in the desert or zipping through traffic on a motor scooter. Wherever you are, the principle still applies: to understand those around you, travel along their same routes, using the same modes of transportation.

How we live matters. As God’s sent people, our approach to daily transportation requires that we consider more than just our comfort, safety, and convenience. Being on mission in the world means we live alongside those who don’t know Jesus and adjust our lives to connect with theirs. So find a mile, then pick a pair of shoes.