As I write I am in Chicago at McCormick Theological Seminary for my fourth class on a long journey toward earning a Doctor of Ministry. The title of the class: “Culturally Attentive Ministry.” As we consider such questions as, “What presumptions and predispositions about other cultures and races have influenced your practice of ministry?”, I can’t help but get more excited and more anxious about my congregation’s Mission Month this year. The planning team has collected a top-notch group of leaders to guide our conversations as we seek to learn and grow as culturally attentive Christians.
Scholars seem to agree that race is a social construct of power, privilege and prejudice. Ethnicity is “blood and belonging.” Our country’s history with race is a painful history for many, though there are some bright moments. As a white, heterosexual male, I have come to realize over the past two decades how much privilege and power I have been given, that I did not earn, by this history and system (there are many who have had to work much harder to get much less). I can wallow in my racial guilt, or seek to be a part of transforming the culture that created this system.
Yes, there are white people in poverty, but that cannot negate the reality that so much of our culture has been shaped by the “norm” of white culture. I look at President Barack Obama and so many other optically black people (regardless of their ethnicity) who have excelled, despite the cultural privilege that leans heavily toward people that look like me, and I wonder how much they have given in to the normalization of whiteness exhibited in how they dress, speak, and act.
My wife asked our children, who are born to both European-American and Chinese-American parents, if they knew their cultural heritage. They quickly responded: “Yes, we are half Chinese and half regular.” People laugh when we share this story, but I find it troubling as it epitomizes the “normalization” of white-ness: “regular.”
I am excited and anxious about the conversations we might have in the coming month, a congregation that is some 99% white. What is our response (as opposed to reaction) to the clashes of culture and race (often under the surface), and how do we engage the very necessary conversations of “difference” faithfully as followers of Jesus? A classmate of mine shared, astutely, conversations around race are as much about self-awareness as it is about cultural-awareness—we must know ourselves in order to recognize the prejudice within us in order to seek true reconciliation and forge new relationships with the perceived “other,” whether that other is a black person, a brown person, a Mexican person, a gay person, a handicapped person, etc.
Jesus seems to have captured this self-awareness as an awareness of the true presence of God within him. He then seems to have sought to help others discover that same presence within themselves so they might recognize it in others. Most of his teachings seek to shape how we not only treat one another, but more deeply how we see each other. What lenses do we use to view the “other”? Do we use lenses of fear and anxiety? Mistrust? Or are we able to discover a lens of curiosity and relationship-seeking? Does our lens highlight difference or similarity? Can we discover a lens that values both, and doesn’t minimize one or the other?
I cannot say whether we are being called to become a multi-cultural congregation. I am learning, and as one of our guests, Eric H. F. Law, often shares, there is value in gathering with similar people, but only so it might better help us know ourselves in order to greet, engage and truly love the other. He says it better, but isn’t this what Jesus tried to share and who is the prime example for us of One who was fully able to be himself in the presence of God, and is inviting us to do the same.
In any case, I look forward to being on this journey with you this month and beyond. May we continue to ask questions and wrestle with the gift of ambiguity and hope.