According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055 the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority, much of this change driven by immigration. Furthermore, at a time when traditional white protestant Christianity is on the decline, a number of immigrant churches continue to show growth. And while many a small immigrant congregation shares worship space with larger white mainline church, there often is little meaningful interactions between the two. Although these diverse congregations share communities, worship and congregational life remain separate.
With global neighbors at our door step, congregations can become the “cultural bridge” to connect diverse communities. However, rather than focusing on what we can do for them, why not ask what can they do for us? What is it that they bring to inter-cultural relationships?
Having worked in immigrant churches for two decades, I would highlight several strengths immigrant congregations and families bring to intercultural relationships:
- People who live in multiple cultures often have cultivated empathy for those who are different. Awareness of pain, suffering, discrimination, and alienation can escape those who live in the dominant cultures, where common values and privilege are often taken for granted. However, immigrant persons, living outside of the dominant systems, can have unique insights into the cultural ways of the majority as well as those living in the margins of society. The empathy that is needed to connect and form relationships with people who are different is nurtured in a diverse mileu.
- People who live in multiple cultures often have more creative resources for problem-solving. Having been exposed to diverse beliefs and worldviews enables people to consider different perspectives, form new ways to solve problems and respond to complex situations. Having been in varied social locations and often marginalized, these people are able to consider positions from many angles and make balanced and fair decisions.
- Immigrant families already have developed the skills to navigate multicultural contexts. Multicultural families live with two or more cultural mores, values, and languages, and often these clashes cause conflict.Living in such a diverse familial context makes it necessary to navigate daily through particular and nuanced ways of thinking, doing, and being in different cultural contexts. Skills of accommodating and negotiating become a lifestyle that are used in family relationships, friendships, work relationships, and through other encounters in communities.
Multicultural persons have the internal resources to live among many cultures and can bring those skills to connecting and building relationships. Here are some suggestions of what your church community can do, individually and collectively, to form relationships and build cultural bridges.
- Accept persons in all their authenticity. In my counseling practice, when new clients present or respond in odd and unnatural ways, I listen more deeply. What I have learned is that the more I hear about their life stories, the more their “eccentric” ways of being make sense. This can be said about clients who have had unconventional upbringings or who have been brought up in cultural contexts other than my own. Each person becomes a unique individual within the constraints and freedoms of the interactions between the biological and the cultural, social and familial environment. Accepting persons in all their authenticity is to respect the cultural influences on their formation and to value them in all aspects of their personhood.
- Connect on the human level through universally shared experiences. We are much more alike than we are different. Our bio-psycho-spiritual processes are similar, with many common experiences and shared responses binding us together. In spite of sharply contrasting cultural norms, customs, and mores, people from different cultures may have more in common with each other - between cultures – than with some in one’s own group. For example, parenting, as a global experience, with various aspects (immense joy at child’s birth, brokenness within our families, deep grief of losing a child) can help create empathy and connect people across cultures.
- Build relationships through sharing of cultural traditions such as food. Food is more than a source of nourishment and represents important ways of being in the world. Traditional food and eating habits embody the landscape, climate, and tradition of one’s cultural group, symbolically representing a people and their culture. Sharing food creates a new dynamic cultural space, generates conversations, and builds relationships by inviting others to participate in the emotional, psychological, and social life-source of a people.
Multicultural society displays the creative and diverse nature of God. As a country founded on immigration, God is here in our midst. We encounter God as we engage in relationships with our global neighbors. Through our familial and congregational intercultural relationships, we become skilled in creating a “new cultural space” where all people are welcomed to interact with one another.
Together we can transcend the binary tensions of majority-minority positions—and instead co-create mutual relationships.
http://www.faithcommunitiestoday.org/sites/default/files/American-Congregations-2015_0.pdf; Cf. http://faithcommunitiestoday.org/decade-change