Ferguson & Your Church: A Plea for Building Cross-Cultural Community (Pt. 1)
The whole world is following the tragic events that have unfolded in Ferguson, MO. Yet another young man has died, due in part to the suspicions raised by his brown skin. Outrage, despair, vulnerability and helplessness are some of the emotions that are circulating via social media. Many of us who live far from Ferguson are touched by this calamity, not only because of the deep sadness of the atrocity itself, but also because deep down,
We know that the same racial tensions, mischaracterizations, and unjust power dynamics that resulted in Michael Brown’s death are present in our own neighborhoods and cities.
This is clear, not only in the available statistical data, but also in the countless anecdotes, off-handed comments, and cruel jokes that we encounter in every-day interactions with neighbors, co-workers, family members, and sadly, church members. I often hear the discourses of the arm-chair sociologists in my city and wonder if they have ever even had a single conversation with “the other,” let alone a meaningful friendship. Their analysis of events like Ferguson is often rife with ignorance and inaccurate generalizations because it is supported by mere hearsay.
As I have personally mulled and mourned over the events in Ferguson I have become all the more convinced of the urgency of my calling as the pastor/ church planter of a cross-cultural church. Can I be more bold?
I’ve become all the more convinced of the urgency of the Christian calling to participate in building cross-cultural community through the local church.
Pundits on television can make a case for the demilitarization of police and the need for tighter sanctions imposed by the justice system. They can demand greater accountability for elected officials and urge you to contact your local representative. There is merit in these suggestions, and by all means, I encourage you to engage civically for change, as a responsible citizen.
However, my plea to professing Christians is this: work to build cross-cultural community in your local church. Yes, you and yours! I know that there are many dimensions and dynamics to such situations. I know that any solutions will be multifaceted and more complex than any single initiative. But I am convinced of this:
One of the most significant things that you could ever do to contribute to the peace and health of your community, as a Christian, is participate in establishing the unifying presence of a cross-cultural church.
In a healthy cross-cultural community the social myths are exposed and rejected, the embrace is pursued, and the power dynamics reflect justice. This kind of community can serve as a sort of hub that uniquely connects ethnic and socio-economic worlds that have historic enmity, mediating with the most revolutionary and restorative idea to ever touch this world: grace. Grace can elevate the socially downtrodden and moderate the socially self-righteous, bringing them together in the center where they both find the cross. Grace covers a multitude of sins and corrects a multitude of errors. Grace alone provides the resources for forgiveness and true change. Grace always holds out the possibility of new beginnings.
This is not about being “politically correct.” God’s agenda is not about being nice, it’s about his coming kingdom. It’s not an addition to the gospel, it is a faithful working out of the gospel. Cross-cultural community offers a unique foretaste of the kingdom that is to come. Authentic, healthy, Christian, faith is about a dividing wall of hostility that has been torn down (Eph 2), a self-righteous pride that has been laid down (Phil 2), and a people that has been raised up to walk in new life (Rom 6). We are called to live out God’s story amidst the diverse demographics surrounding us and the end of this story must shape our personal lives and our communities now. The objective accomplishments of Christ in the gospel are meant to be subjectively worked into our communities in real-time. In other words, what is true about us is meant to become true among us. This is not luxury, it is a necessity.
As my good brother, Mark Robinson, has deftly commented, “Christians have lost their prophetic authority to speak to the racial dimension when we made peace with ethnically/racially segregated churches.” This has, without question, been a point of massive failure in the American church. And yet, the stubborn call of a risen Christ remains: “Show the world who I am through your oneness” (John 17). With his invitation to return to his vision and participate in his work, the Lord holds out the prophetic hope that he will restore to us the harvest that the locusts of racialization and ethnic idolatry have eaten (Joel 2). Will you return? Will you rend your heart or move on to the next item in your Facebook newsfeed? What could it look like to begin? I’d like to address a few groups of people over the next few days in order to humbly offer a few suggestions and reflective questions that may aid your entry into the meaningful and urgent work of building cross-cultural community. This list is not comprehensive- it’s simply a starting point.
Church members, can I talk to you for a minute?
The significance of your role in this work simply cannot be overstated. If the whole idea seems intimidating or elusive, consider the following ideas…
Have courage. It has been said that courage is not about one massive act of bravery in the crucial moment, rather, it’s a cumulative virtue that develops by making thousands of small decisions within the context of the mundane moments of life. Will you enter into the dialogue? Where will you spend your time and with whom? Do you encourage insensitive jesting with a courtesy laugh or challenge it? Do you teach your children about the cultural biases prevalent in media? Small decisions- massive significance. Passivity is not a Christian response to social chaos. In fact, as Dr. Beverly Tatum has helpfully illustrated, unless you are walking in the opposite direction, the moving walkway of racism will carry you along in its drift. In other words, passivity is complicity for the Christian- it’s called corporate solidarity. The reality is that none of these simple acts requires a heroic effort- just courage.
Drop your guard. You have been wrong about “the other” and so have I. And unfortunately, there are many more mistakes and insensitivities that lie ahead of each of us. We are going to screw things up! But how will you react when someone identifies those mistakes and confronts you? Are you afraid of a gloriously messy community? Will you settle for a nice, neat, homogeneous community that takes few risks, makes no cross-cultural progress, and offers an overly reductionistic foretaste of the kingdom? In my experience, a defensive posture is usually a cover-up for major error in one’s life. It’s a fear of exposure due to the insecurity and untenability of one’s life or outlook. I know how personally devastating it can be to consider the many ways we have contributed to racial and ethnic tensions and injustices. But this is precisely where grace shines! The grace of God in Jesus Christ enables you to drop your guard because it levels your pretensions of strong performance without dislodging you from his love.
We don’t need to fear exposure. In fact, like an old school photographer, God develops his people through exposure- Exposing our need for grace and exposing unseen depths of his love for us.
This is good news! The truth is, we are worse than we thought we were. But the gospel holds out more hope for our transformation that would could ever imagine.
Be a student of culture. You can learn a great deal about a particular culture through listening to its music, watching its movies, reading its literature, and attending its meaning-making events with an open heart. But you can’t enter into these situations with your mind already made up and your assessment in hand. Delay your judgments and be teachable. Just because a particular cultural distinction doesn’t make sense to you, doesn’t mean that it is not good, valuable or true. You simply cannot elevate your cultural preferences to the level of biblical laws or norms. The student of culture rejects cultural and ethnic idols. What you learn will be incredibly important, but who you will become in the course of this humble learning will be priceless.
Expect Culture Shock. This phenomenon takes place when you experience frustration from not knowing the rules or having the skills for adjusting to a new culture. It’s a disorientation that one experiences when all the cultural maps and guidelines to which we are accustomed no longer work in a particular situation. Many global missionaries can attest to the challenges of culture shock. At the same time, they can also attest to the power of God’s work in their hearts as they have broken through the clouds of culture shock into new views of God’s creative landscape. As with many things in life, the nature of your expectations will profoundly shape your experience. Expect it. Work through it. Pray through it. Grow through it.
Bring healthy criticism to your assumptions. Refuse to deal with “the other” based upon hearsay or anecdotal “evidence” concerning what “those people” are like. Don’t assume that your cultural expression is the way things ought to be. Ask yourself, “Am I unfairly dismissing, criminalizing, or patronizing an entire group of people? Do I assume that a positive experience with any representative individual from that culture is a statistical outlier? Am I assuming that we like the same things or share the same cultural values? Do I hold low expectations of people because of their ethnic heritage? Do I assume incompetence or devious motives of people based upon their appearance, ethnic heritage or socio-economic status? Am I unfairly suspicious of certain people groups? Criticize your assumptions and bring them into line with the truth. Raise your subconscious assumptions to the level of consciousness through honest self-assessment and evict the lies from your mind.
Talk to your leaders. If this cross-cultural commitment is not currently expressed as a value in your local church, ask your leaders to consider how your church may pursue a more meaningful connection with the representative ethnicities and class distinctions within your target location. Offer yourself as a change agent in this pursuit. Pray for and pursue meaningful relationships, partnerships (schools, non-profits, local businesses) and service opportunities to open doors and create dialogue for the sake of true connection. Ask your pastor to consider a community meeting to pray and discuss the possibilities.
Diversify Dinner. Sharing a meal has a profound effect on relational connectivity. As Christine Pohl has argued, hospitality is a Christian tradition. The hospitable heart makes room for others, both in the home and in the local church. You may have a tight living situation and have no hope of claiming a spot on The Food Network, but that doesn’t matter- the state of your heart toward others does.
You don’t need to cook like Bobby Flay, but you do need to love like Jesus Christ.
And as Pohl helpfully mentions, “One can’t claim the role of host all the time; … it is a gift also to be willing to be guests and to share in people’s lives.” Show others the dignity and value of receiving their hospitality- especially the poor, if they extend an invitation. Few things bless the poor as much as promoting their agency in the life of the community. This is a tangible example of what it looks like begin the shift of power dynamics within your community.
Cultivate a sacred imagination. Spend time in imaginative prayer for what your local church could look like if it were to faithfully follow a cross-cultural trajectory. Do you pray imaginatively for your church membership and leadership to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood? Do you call out to God, full of faith, for this to become reality in your context?
If our memories of cross-cultural failure and apathy are more powerful than our dreams of cross-cultural connection and love, then we are discounting the power of the resurrection and the hope of the gospel.
This is the reality: corporate and societal problems do not typically find individualistic solutions. It takes the shared vision, spiritual creativity, and faithfulness of an entire community to see this come to life. He who has ears…
2 Chronicles 7:14 If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.