Jan is a smart and deep thinker. You know that verse in the bible that encourages us to rejoice with those who rejoice? That’s Jan. She is all about celebrating the success of others. She wants people to know about the good things God is doing in and through you, and she cheers the loudest whenever anyone reaches a goal, accomplishes a project, passes a test, or graduates from college. It’s refreshing to know someone who is always for me. When she doesn’t get me, she asks me to make myself clear. She wants to understand. I hope you get to meet her one day.
What was your experience with race when you were growing up? What did your family teach you about people who were of a different race? What did your church teach you?
During my preschool years my family lived in south Texas right on the border. The Rio Grande River could be seen from our back door in our first house. My father taught in a mission school for Hispanic children and we attended a Hispanic church. My dad was recruited for that school because his Hispanic college roommate was from that community. So my parents saw Hispanic people as friends and co-workers. (We have a picture of me in my stroller holding hands with a little brown boy!)
During my grade school years we lived in a small Minnesota town that was close to 100% white. When I started 7th grade, we moved to Lincoln and helped start a new church near downtown. Some of the children coming to our Sunday School were African American kids from the neighborhood. They were welcomed but I think we saw them as the “other”. I don’t think my church taught anything specific about race other than the platitude that God loves all the people of the world. I think my parents were fairly open to people of other races. They didn’t express overtly any negative concepts about people of color that I can remember, but I know that as a person of privilege I certainly absorbed plenty of prejudice from my culture in general.
I attended an all-white Christian boarding school in high school and then attended an almost all white Bible college. I remember having one black male friend there; we were an attendant pair at a friend’s wedding. Except for a summer missionary experience in Guatemala, I didn’t really have much adult contact with people of color until I attended the University of Nebraska.
As a graduate student, I met the man who would become my husband. He is African American and he has changed my life and my perspective about race more than any other experience. Although I am not a person of color, my experience of being his wife and the mother of two bi-racial sons has changed me in many ways. So for 38 years, a very significant factor in my identity has been that I am a member of an African American family. My family of origin has loved and embraced my husband and sons, for which I am blessed and grateful.
From your perspective, can you tell the story of how the congregation has changed (racially, ethnically, culturally) over the past eight years? What does an African-American pastor bring to the congregation that might be unique? What things were easy to adjust to? What things have been more difficult?
When Pastor Harry and Dee came to lead our church we had very few people of color other than my husband and sons and a few international students from the university. There were a few Asians who were members and some African Americans attending occasionally. Now it is not unusual on a Sunday morning to see a congregation with almost half of the people being African American, Haitian, Hispanic, Chinese, Native American, Korean, or from several countries in Africa. It is truly wonderful to have such variety within our church. We also host a congregation that worships in the Chinese language in our building in the morning. Another congregation made up of people who fled Burma and lived in refugee camps in Thailand worships in the afternoon in the Karen language. Sometimes all three congregations worship together and it is glorious! I love teaching Sunday School for children whose families came from China, Burma, Africa, and sometimes from the U.S.!
The cultural changes are a little bit more subtle. We don’t know for sure, but possibly some of the people who have left the congregation left because they couldn’t make the cultural shift. Pastor Harry’s sermons often challenge us to stretch, sometimes by referencing his cultural background or perspective. Sometimes he refers to African American history or current issues, such as the African American community’s reaction to the Trayvon Martin verdict. I appreciated his acknowledgement of this issue in public because it was real and genuine and important to be spoken. His preferences and background in the area of worship music probably created some friction for some folks early in his tenure. But the congregation has mellowed and perhaps Harry has mellowed too so that now the worship music provides an opportunity to truly worship with a blend of different kinds of music. Pastor Harry’s upcoming sermon series on intercultural understanding in the context of Christian community will likely create more tension and along with that, more growth in our knowing and loving of each other.
What Pastor Harry brings that is unique is that he is more spontaneous and free flowing in his personal approach, style, and sometimes in the actual expression of worship than other previous pastors. We have learned to expect the unexpected! Who knows if these traits are due to Harry’s cultural background, to his personality, and to a little of both? But it has been refreshing to many. Harry has changed also since he arrived in that he is more accepting of some of our quirks as white Midwesterners with our unique mindset. He actually says he loves us!
What is the benefit of the ICU group? What have you learned about race as a result of being part of this group? What have you learned about yourself? What has surprised you the most, with regard to what you’ve learned about yourself?
I have learned the importance of the personal story. Hearing everyone’s cultural story was very helpful in understanding each woman’s approach to life. I have come some distance in seeking to appreciate each person’s value, to respect her approach to life, and to recognize and honor the ways she differs from me. I have learned to listen to others better and not to react so quickly. I have come to desire more conversation about race and culture and to look for ways to bring about that conversation.
I found the understanding gained from the IDI to be very valuable. Since I am married to an African American, I had expected that my responses would be more interculturally developed and competent than many other white people, but I was surprised that my assessment showed I had a long way to go in cultural competence. Apparently, the attitudes and viewpoints connected with being a person of privilege are very deep and entrenched. Hopefully by becoming aware of my needs to develop in this area and taking steps to address these needs has helped and will continue to help me grow and change.
Can you tell the story of a turning point in your thoughts about race and the church? What about race in America?
I don’t have just one story, but I will mention several vignettes. One was the time you asked Michelle (from Africa) to say a prayer of thanks before a potluck meal. He prayed in French and I don’t remember if he also prayed in English. But it didn’t matter because we all felt his strong connection with and gratitude toward God in his prayer.
Another was when Richard asked Katrina Ponte to read a Scripture passage in Russian. I also remember praying with Katrina and encouraging her to pray in Russian if that was more comfortable for her. Both were beautiful experiences. Hearing Kimberly and Canes and Suzie sing animatedly in Creole is also so beautiful. The fact that we don’t understand doesn’t matter. We share the same Lord and the same Spirit.
One of my favorite memories is the first pastor’s anniversary Sunday, when the Chinese, Karen, and English choirs also sang together, not only in English, but also in our own languages simultaneously. What a taste of heaven! The choir from Sioux Falls was also very inspirational in the singing of songs in the African American tradition. That Sunday also brought me a little bit of discomfort as Pastor Williams delivered the message in the style that we think of as stereotypic of the Black church (and lasted a long time!) and his choir members gave charismatic expression during the altar call. It made me uncomfortable because I realized I am still too stiff and too inhibited in my worship, but it was a good kind of discomfort.
I also remember being very proud of Pastor Harry on a couple of occasions away from our church building when he gave the keynote address at the Martin Luther King observance at the Capitol building and when he gave the sermon at the MLK observance at Mt. Zion Church. He really took on the role of a prophet, calling us to act in ways that would make a positive difference in our world for people of color. My earlier pastors did not have that “bully pulpit” for the community as Harry did. I don’t know that any of these marked a turning point in my thoughts, but they represent some of the many experiences we have been privileged to have in our multicultural church.
My thoughts about race in America have been impacted by my experiences at church in the last 8 years in the following ways:
My political positions have become less conservative and leaning more liberal (except in two or three areas perhaps) and my voting choices have reflected that shift.
I have changed my TV viewing habits and am now more interested in a middle to liberal viewpoint on the news and culture than before.
My reading of your blog and other bloggers you cite has challenged me to think more deeply and broadly about race in America and about the many and varied expressions of being Christ’s follower in the Christian community.
My observation of your relationship with Harry, its mutual respect, spontaneity, strength, and playfulness has been a real example to me of what a Christian marriage should be and what strong marriages in the African American community can accomplish in the strengthening of our nation. (I see many of those same qualities in the marriage of the Obamas).