I may need to clear up some confusion.
By now, you may have deduced I have a passion for seeing the Body of Christ do a better job of worshiping and living out our faith together, across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines. I believe we divide ourselves too much, it’s true. However, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea and think I have it all figured out. I don’t.
When I tell people about our church, the listener often gets a bit misty-eyed and says something like, “Wow, that sounds beautiful.” Even when I tell them the gory details of how hard it is, and how much confrontation we’ve experienced, and how many members we’ve seen turn their backs and walk out the doors for the very last time, the good parts always trump the bad.
Essentially, our church has three separate congregations. One congregation is Chinese, with services held in Mandarin each week. For a while, I was trying to learn the language, but I am a poor student. Another congregation is made up mostly of refugees from Burma, and the language they speak in their services is Karen. I can say about two or three phrases in Karen. The third congregation speaks English, and is comprised of a mishmash of races, ethnicities, and cultures. Sometimes, my east-coast English bumps up against the midwestern version, and I have to backtrack and make apologies.
Every month, on the third Sunday, the three congregations worship together.
It is beautiful, and if you were to walk in off the street, you might think we know what we’re doing. Or, maybe our growing edges would glare at you and make you flinch. I’m too close to it to know for sure. What I do know is that we have come a long way, and, we have a long way to go.
In my dreams, our three congregations worship together every week. We have each other over for dinner, where we eat food we’ve never seen before, and learn traditions we’ve never imagined. Our children have sleep-overs at each others’ homes, and they are much more fluent in the different languages than are their tongue-tied elders. We have UN-style interpreters who make it easy for us to understand the sermon when preached in a different language. We have a choir, where we sing songs in all the languages represented by the people in our congregation.
The reality, however, is that we still need the three congregations.
When a few members of our church sat down with Helen Fagan, to learn some strategies for moving forward in such a diverse community, we learned the importance of returning to places of comfort, even while working toward building a more diverse environment. Helen taught us, in order to move forward, every now and then, a person needs to return to her place of cultural comfort.
It’s similar to missionaries who go on furlough from time to time. At regularly scheduled intervals, missionaries return home, not only to help raise support and share updates with those who partner with them, but also to experience the culture with which they’re most familiar. They fill up all the empty places where they’ve poured themselves out, making ready to return to the culture which is not their home base.
So, imagine being a Burmese refugee who grew up in a camp in Thailand and who speaks only Karen. Imagine boarding an airplane one day and then flying halfway across the world. Imagine landing in a place where the temperatures drop to negative double digits, and where no one speaks your language and where, in many cases, the people never even knew there was such a thing as Karen. Imagine moving into an apartment (an apartment!) where everything from the plumbing to the light switches are way outside your comfort zone. Imagine having to work with social workers and government agencies and teachers at your children’s school and not having any idea what in the world is happening. And imagine having to do that for all of your waking hours, every day, seven days a week.
Then, imagine, through the grapevine, hearing there is a place where, once each week, you can let your hair down, worship God in your own language, hold a bible in your hands and understand what’s written there, sing songs you’ve sung for as long as you can remember. Imagine what a bright beam of light that must be!
It’s the same for the Chinese people in our church, many of whom are studying for (or already have) advanced degrees and work for American companies, but for whom English is not their first language. And American culture is not home base for them. Each Sunday, they’re afforded an opportunity to soothe their homesick hearts with a language that comes easiest to them and (because they have dinner together each week) eat food that tastes like childhood.
It’s part of the reason we still have black churches and Hispanic churches and Chinese churches and all the other racial, ethnic, and cultural versions of church on Sunday morning at eleven o’clock. In America, for people of color, it’s often a wearying journey to function in educational, medical, governmental, social, commercial, employment, and economic systems established by a culture not your own. Sometimes, going to a church where everyone looks like you is not just personal preference and the easy thing to do. Sometimes, it’s a matter of keeping your sanity and finding an anchor in an overwhelming world.
Why It’s So Slow, Slow, Slow
So you see, it’s layered. It’s messy. It’s complicated. And I don’t write flippantly about tearing down walls and erasing lines. This is hard work, and there are so many reasons that it is slow, slow, slow. Add to all of this the fact that—regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture—we’re each on our own journey of cultural competency. Some, for whatever reason, aren’t willing to give at all. They’ve dug in their heels, stopped their ears, and crossed their arms. Others are nearly at the top of the mountain. Then, they turn around and see so many, still milling about in the foothills, and they grow impatient. They charge ahead, pioneers leaning into the elements, but all alone. And then, there’s everyone in between.
A Place to Begin?
I’d love to wrap this up with three points that will get us all on the same page. But, even that wouldn’t do the trick. Because my three points won’t work for everyone. The people in the foothills need a different answer than the people charging forward near the top of the mountain. But maybe I can offer us a prayer to pray. Something that might get us started, no matter where on the journey we find ourselves— from those of us who don’t think this is even worth talking about, to those of us who practically weep when we see the deep, deep lines of division and the complicated webs that keep it that way.
How about if we pray something like this (and if you do pray this prayer, would you please tell us in the comments?): “Dear God, show me. I’d like to see. If I’ve gotten in the way, forgive me, please. If I can help to make it better, please show me. Amen.”