Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Coffee with a Foe

Written by: on April 1, 2024

Looking at this book on my shelf did not excite me as I thought about reading it. However, I was pleasantly surprised that I found the information useful and relevant. I certainly did struggle to get through it though as I kept finding myself distracted repeatedly.

We have a couple of house guests staying with us for a month. One is a six-year-old boy who has come to Mayo Clinic (located in our city) for open heart surgery. He has come with his older adult sister from Papua New Guinea. I dutifully brought this book with me to the hospital every day this week. I found that a hospital setting is not ideal for staying on task. Everything was new and constantly distracting. Even when I had plenty of time to give attention to reading, I found that my brain was too tired and too much in a fog. As I kept reading, I realized that everything I was doing was requiring system 2 kind of thinking and nothing could be done on system 1’s autopilot.[1] I wasn’t familiar with the hospital’s parking lot, elevators, hallways, appointments, or the post-op room. Everything took lots of brain work to process.

Yet, after visiting the little patient (now at my home recovering well) day after day, I found myself suddenly in his room on the 5th floor without much brain work to get there. System 1 was beginning to take over and less brain energy was being used. Dr. Rock gives some brilliant insights into how we can prioritize our brains with using the metaphor of a stage with actors, an audience, and a director. He addresses some things I already do such as, giving the “brain a rest by mixing things up”[2] and prioritizing tasks for when I am “fresh and alert.”[3] Rock also advises people to “label emotions,”[4] take the other person’s status into account[5] and think through the topic of fairness.[6]

One topic that I found interesting and pertinent to my NPO is the topic of friend or foe. He writes, “Here’s one big reason collaboration is difficult: just as the brain automatically classifies any situation into a possible reward or threat, it does the same with people, determining, subconsciously, whether each person you meet is either a friend or foe.”[7] My NPO is focused on trying to find a way to encourage the Christian community to integrate with the Somali community in my city. I have realized that these two communities simply live side by side with each other with very limited interaction together. But Rock helped solidify why this is the case. “People you don’t know who are also a little different from you, tend to be classified as foe until proven otherwise.”[8]

We see each other’s community as an opponent or a foe. How do I work to overcome this? One Somali Imam (like an Islamic priest) has been adamant that the only way to support them in this community is through social justice and political advocacy. Though I agree with him that the laws can be unfair and that there are societal injustices the Somali community faces, I disagree with him on how to move forward. I think that the broader Christian community will continue to see the Somali community in terms of foe if there is a constant political battle taking place. As Rock writes, “You don’t interact with a perceived foe using the same brain regions you would use to process your own experience… you don’t feel empathy with him or her.”[9]

In contrast with the Imam, my perspective and approach has been to build a mutual relationship with Somalis over a cup of tea or coffee at a local establishment. I have pointed out to the Imam that when him and I sit together in a coffee shop we are doing the work of bridging the communities together. When people from both the Christian and the Somali community see us sitting together having a cup of coffee it shows that we are friends and not foe. Thus, it allows our communities to begin to see each other as less of a foe and more of a friend. Essentially, if the Imam is a trusted friend of mine, then it allows for more Christians to see him as a friend as well. When this friendship is developed through “shared goals” we might, “Turn enemies into friends.”[10]

Thinking through my NPO in terms of our brain chemistry is not something I had thought through before and it is helpful to have new terminology and insight into the reasons beyond the relational barriers I face.


[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 1st ed (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 20.

[2] David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, Revised and updated edition (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2020), 16.

[3] Rock, 15.

[4] Rock, 113.

[5] Rock, 180.

[6] Rock, 188.

[7] Rock, 162.

[8] Rock, 162.

[9] Rock, 166.

[10] Rock, 168.

About the Author

Adam Cheney

I grew up in California, spent five years living along the beautiful coast of Kenya and now find myself working with refugees in the snow crusted tundra of Minnesota. My wife and I have seven children, four of whom have been adopted. I spend my time drinking lots of coffee, working in my garden, and baking sourdough bread.

16 responses to “Coffee with a Foe”

  1. Graham English says:

    Adam, I also noted that comment on collaboration. I think it relates to my NPO as well. I love that you identified that mutual relationships have been the best way to deal with the brain’s recognition of “the other” as a threat. While this is a great strategy one to one, is there a way to do this on a larger scale?

    • Adam Cheney says:

      Great question and if I really knew the answer to it, I’d be done with my project already. Essentially the question is can relational status be done on a larger scale? Honestly, I don’t really think so. I think relationships are always going to be built on the small individual level rather than the group level.

  2. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Adam,
    How can you leverage the concept of “friend or foe” in your interactions with both the Christian and Somali communities to foster a sense of friendship and collaboration?

  3. Noel Liemam says:

    Hi, Adam, I was doing doing the ‘friend and foe’ so many times without even realizing it. As you mentioned, it is subconsciously. In this kind of situation, how can we let our guard down to foster mutual trust? Thanks again for your post.

    • Adam Cheney says:

      I think that our guard goes down slowly and with more and more experience. The more positive interactions Christians and Somalis have the more we will see friend in each other and the less we will see foe.

  4. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Adam, thanks for sharing your experiences! I’m praying for the recovery of the six year-old to be speedy.

    There are some very natural ways in which our brains work in which we have to work to change, such as the ‘friend or foe’ classification. In some ways, understanding why we have biases can really help us to change these biases.

    Have you found your friendship with the Iman to be fruitful? Have any others in the Christian and Somali communities followed your lead?

    • Adam Cheney says:

      I have found the relationship to be helpful but with limitations. He did invite me to an iftar dinner the other night at the local mosque. I invited some other Christian men to join me but nobody was able to come. It was a Thursday night and most sports are over so I think it was more of a “don’t really want to come.” It made me remember how challenging it is to work with both communities.

  5. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Adam, Finding a place to be quiet and concentrate can be difficult even at home. I can’t imagine how distractions are magnified in a hospital. I really like the NPO topic you are working on. I am curious, has the Imam accepted your invitation to coffee? I really think you are on to an important piece of the relationship puzzle. Praying it will be so.

    • Adam Cheney says:

      The imam and I have had coffee a few times. He is busy, with two other jobs and so it is limited but it has been good. He did reach out and invite me to an iftar dinner the other night at his mosque which I accepted. It was good to see him speak to all present about his desire for our community to flourish and for us to live together well. I do think we have different definitions of flourishing but it is a good place for us to continue to find ways to work together.

  6. mm Chris Blackman says:

    I LOVE what you are doing by simply sharing a coffee with the Imam in a public place. The ripple effects of that could be huge in ways that you may never know. I pray that God will open those doors for you and heal tensions on all sides.
    How is it going? are you seeing any changes in opinions, or is it far too early? Nice work sir!

    • Adam Cheney says:

      I wish I could see a difference. Honestly, both the Somali community and the Christian community are each very challenging in their own unique ways.

  7. Chad Warren says:

    Adam, thank you for your post and for sharing some of your interactions. You mentioned having new terminology and insight into the reasons beyond the relational barriers you face was helpful. Can you unpack a little more why that is specifically helpful?

    • Adam Cheney says:

      Good question. I think that the terminology of friend and foe is helpful because it allowed me the opportunity to realize that Christians in my community are often viewing Somalis as a foe to start with. They are not viewing them as friend. The initial response and assumption is foe (I hear versions of this almost weekly at church when I am asked different questions about them). So, how do I get Christians to begin to see others as potential friend rather than foe initially is a big task.

  8. mm Jennifer Eckert says:

    Love your diligence of friendship in building connections with others. Are you receiving any sort of pushback or support from other community members? If so, what are they saying?

    Keep up the good work.

    • Adam Cheney says:

      Just this weekend, I had a Christian woman, who is super evangelistic and involved in our church, tell me, “if Somali’s don’t want to meet with us then why should we try to connect with them?” That is the prevailing mindset. Essentially, why bother? On the other side, I know for certain that many Somalis have had lots of push back from their community when they have hung out with me.

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