Becoming bridge builders

Posted May 12, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Jim Rice


At Washington, D.C.’s Gala Hispanic Theatre, according to founder Hugo Medrano, culture “is never a barrier, but always a bridge.” That’s a pretty good yardstick for churches as they experiment with new forms of digital communication: Will the use of social media serve as a welcoming mat that enables outreach to new constituencies, or an obstacle that renders some people ever more marginalized?

The answer, in some cases, might be “both.” The very tools that open the door to younger, tech-savvy seekers might make others feel left out, exacerbating chasms along the divides of race, age, and class.

The digital divide doesn’t play out exactly the way it did a decade ago, but technology barriers still provide handicaps for much of the population. For instance, the California Emerging Technology Fund reports that more than 10 million Californians are without high-speed Internet access—30 percent of the state, including about half of all low-income families. Income level isn’t the only factor, of course. Many people with disabilities report limits to their online access. In a study earlier this year by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 54 percent of adults living with a disability reported using the Internet, compared with 81 percent of adults without a disability. And only 41 percent of adults living with a disability have broadband at home, compared with 69 percent of those without a disability.


In the mid-90s, when the phrase was coined, the digital divide usually referred to the fact that blacks and Latinos had less—and slower—access to the Web. That’s not the case today, especially in regard to mobile technology. According to a July 2010 Pew survey, blacks and Latinos are more likely than the general population to access the Internet by cell phone. But Peter Chow-White, co-editor of an anthology on “Race After the Internet” to be published this fall, says there is still a racial divide online. “As long as you have structural inequalities in society, you cannot expect to have anything less than that on the Internet,” he says. “The Internet is not a separate space from the world; it’s intricately connected to everyday life and social institutions.”

While the technology may be new, these aren’t novel issues for the church. Questions of inclusion and exclusion, who’s welcomed and who is left out, have been with us at least since the arguments in the early church about whether the gospel was good news only for observant Jews, or for the gentiles as well. But perhaps now, as many churches explore how to catch up with the Twitter/Facebook/et al. revolution, is a good time to consider applying a foundational principle to decisions around social media. Two decades ago, a Catholic bishop in the Midwest mandated that the process around every decision in the diocese start with this question: How will this affect the poor and the marginalized? That same question can rightly be applied to any use of new media.

The gospel, of course, is for the early adopters and the never adopters, those who do and those who can’t, those who have access to every new thing and those who barely have the necessities. And that’s a good thing to keep in mind as we seek to be builders of bridges in all the ways we communicate.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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