My Advent manger wreath is finished, at least I thought it was until I started asking myself. Whom have I left out? Suddenly I realized how white my circle was. Yes, there were refugees in Africa and cleft palate sufferers in Mexico, but all of the friends and colleagues I had placed around the circle where white. I gasped in horror, ashamed of my oversight. Is this really my circle of friends I wondered? Am I really this detached from people of other cultures?
The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have impacted all of lives and hopefully made many of us consider the great divides that separate us from people of other colours and ethnicities. I wonder if in the roar of the protests what real changes we are willing to make to our lives. Are we really prepared for the huge steps we need to take to change so that people of other backgrounds and ethnicities feel not only accepted but welcomed as equals?
As I thought about that this week, I remembered a meeting I participated in with Native American leader Richard Twiss not long before he died. We don’t want you to invite us to your table he said, we want you to be willing to sit down and create a new table together he said. Leroy Barber expresses something similar in his book Red Brown Yellow Black White Who’s More Precious In God’s Sight? when he says that even when coloured people are invited to participate in white churches or white organizations, the culture into which they are invited is still very Anglo and they are not given the freedom to bring about change.
I know what he means. I have worked with a number of organizations that are ethnically diverse but their expectations in terms of schedule, dress, work techniques and worship styles are all very Anglo.
What would it take to create a new table to sit around at which everyone feels welcomed and their cultures are given equal value and expression. Mulling over these thoughts reminded me of something I read in The Spirituality of Imperfection:
All community begins in listening… to be present in a hearing way, to listen to others in such a way that we are willing to surrender our own world view. (94)
To truly listen, being willing to surrender our own world view so that together we can shape a new world view, is not easy but I think it is essential if we are to become the people and the community God intends us to be.
So here are some questions I am grappling with that I would ask you to consider too as we gather round the manger together:
1. How white is your leadership team?
A church or organization will never become truly multicultural until their worship and leadership teams and their Boards are ethnically diverse. And that doesn’t mean just having a few non white faces on the team, it really does mean inviting a new leadership style and a new organizational perspective that reflects the views and the cultures of all who are on the team and in the congregation.
2. How white is your culture?
This is an even more challenging question. Our church cultures are often both white and middle class. We give more value to those who have money, education and success. We judge people by how clean they look, how old their clothes are and even by what cars they drive. Subtly we exclude those who do not fit into our cultural viewpoint. The way we live reflects what is in our hearts and sometimes it is obvious that our hearts are very white.
3. How white is your theology?
It is twenty years now since I began reading African, Asian and South American theologians. I still remember how dismissive many of my colleagues were of theologies like liberation theology which grew out a culture of oppression and of Indian theologies that grew out of cultures of poverty or of South African Black theology which grew out of a culture of apartheid. Reading authors like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Cornel West has changed my life and my worldview. Listening to my friends at NAIITS and indigenous peoples in Australia and North America has even more deeply impacted me.
Each time I work in a cross cultural situation I try to listen to those from other ethnicities who view both the bible and faith from very different perspectives than what I grew up with. Often I find myself back at the drawing board wondering how I need to reshape my faith so that I am not excluding those whom God embraces. Jesus’ parables often focus on God’s inclusion of those whom the Jewish culture tended to exclude – Samaritans, women, lepers, sinners, were all included in his embrace. I am sure that as he told these stories the worldview and the culture of the he spoke to was slowly changed too.
Again I must harken back to Leroy Barber:
Jesus prayed in the garden before his death that we would be one people. We have a lot of work to do to become one heart and one mind. Locked into most churches is a designation or race or culture that separates, that shapes our view of each other and of God, leaving us isolated and divided. We are not the Church. We are at best, thousands of small pieces that contain strands of the Church. The Church does not have walls and designations; it is people from every walk of life pursuing the Kingdom of God here on earth. The Church is one expression of God here on earth. (203).
We live in such a divided world. What will it take for us to sit down with people of all races and cultures and create a table together? Lets take some time to not just think about it this Advent season but to do something about it too.