Kevin, a pastor from a primarily white congregation in the upper Midwest recently came to me with deep frustration in his voice.
“I don’t know what to do about this! We share our space with a Sudanese congregation. At first it was going great. We ate meals and sang songs together. Everyone enjoyed each other’s company. Just recently, however, some of the older women from our congregation are blaming the parents of the Sudanese kids for allowing them to damage their sound equipment and kitchen items. The trust has been completely eroded. I’m at a loss for how to proceed together.”
I listened to him and knew that he had run into a cultural iceberg of assumptions that needed to be unpacked.
Kevin and his congregation had been engaging across culture safely on the surface in what is called “objective culture” (food, music, language, dance, etc.). While this can be a helpful place to start, it largely ignores the “subjective culture” (values, assumptions, and beliefs) that is operating under the surface. When you listen to Kevin’s story, you can hear questions of cultural values colliding with each other that were going unnamed:
- How do you address elders?
- What are the roles of different genders and how do they interact with one another?
- How closely should parents keep tabs on their children?
- Whose responsibility is it to reprimand other people’s children?
- How do you express conflict?
- What role does a pastor or leader have in addressing this?
- What should the norms be for safety?
In our congregations and organizations, if we reduce our understanding of culture to just the kinds of food on our plate, we will miss the fullness of contributions that will give all of our lives more flavor. How can we experience the full blessing of relationship if we are not willing to understand what makes another culture great (and not so great)? We have a God who doesn’t just look at what’s on the surface but who sees the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). To truly see our neighbor’s heart, we have to be committed to doing the work of interculturality.
This work is twofold:
- Interrogate your own cultural patterns as an individual and organization.
That means that we need to look at how we approach leadership, time, space, safety, physical touch, conflict, emotional expression, leadership, gender roles, and worship, just to name a few. Once we have identified the ways in which our practices are culturally informed, we can graciously invite others to share their cultural ways of being and learn from each other with mutuality. Which brings us to the second task:
- Work to understand other cultural patterns that are different from you and/or your organization.
Through thorough research, you can begin to understand the norms of other cultures with whom you are in relationship and show up in better ways. Personal interactions, books, podcasts, internet research, and trainings are just a few of the ways that Kevin could attempt to understand Sudanese culture more deeply. When we learn more about other cultures, we learn more about our own culture, and ultimately about the beauty of God’s kin-dome. Many white churches in the US have attempted to understand cultural “otherness” without examining their own cultural assumptions and patterns. This is only doing half of the work.
God is calling us to understand the depth of our neighbor’s and our own experience, not just on the surface. We serve a God who enters into our lives and turns toward us with openness and compassion. Christ is inviting us to do the same with all of God’s children. Kevin has begun to educate his congregation on what it means to be majority white, and what it means to be majority US-born. As his congregation learns more about this, they will be better equipped to be good neighbors to their Sudanese siblings with whom they are in relationship. May we all be inspired to do the same.