What Are We Creating? A Conference Wrap-Up

30 May

It came during one of the last plenary discussions on Saturday.  It was a statement that seemed more like an afterthought, but I would not hesitate to say it prompted a question on the minds of many at the 2010 conference.  A woman made a comment that essentially was asking what comes next in the evolution of ministry across cultures in the Presbyterian Church.  She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘we have the words’ and then she added, ‘we also have the numbers.’  to which I wanted to add,

“But what and where is the creation?”

Our denomination and other church bodies that share its concerns have been crafting the words and cultivating the language of both multicultural ministry and racial justice for decades now.  In turn they have been intentional about diversifying the ethnic backgrounds of its leadership.  But what does it all mean in the pews? in the hoods?  in the lives of those who we do not yet know?  In other words, with the changes that are upon us and the changes we are looking to make, are we paying enough attention to what we are actually creating?

The cross-cultural reality we are walking into is like a body, with a will a shape, a character, with a mentality and capabilities all its own.  True, its difficult to control all those factors with something as complicated as cross-cultural relationships.   However, what we do and leave undone, what we encourage and discourage, or as Jesus put it (Matt 16:19, what we bind and loose here during our lives has significance.  Our call and our identity as Christians is to embody the faith we were given in the culture in which we find ourselves.  Sometimes we worry too much about whether we can do it or want to do it, without remembering that even as we talk about it, we are unwittingly living and creating a cross-cultural reality.

What will this cross-cultural thing we are creating look like?  Perhaps it will just look like people occupying the same space, the same land without a common bond.  Or maybe it will just continue old prejudices in new, inventive arrangements?  I had a discussion with a high school age participant at the conference who bemoaned African vs. African American prejudice and bigotry she has witnessed at her school.  Perhaps this is just the tip of the iceberg of the mutant forms of conflict that are brewing.  A Multicultural future is by no means a reconciled one.

When we ask what comes next in determining the character of the new culture, we have to acknowledge these are institutional questions.  They are educational questions.  They are community development questions.  They are artistic questions. Where I feel the conference and the network has a growing edge is in providing the space for these new questions.  Let me break those down alittle…

  • Institutionally: How do we adjust our practices in the worshiping community to empower those who need resources to do that “new thing”?
  • Educationally: In the economy of theological education, where are the venues for church leaders to pair up community building skills and theological insight?  For example, if a lawyer, diplomat or social worker walked into a seminary or church, how would any of the courses they take or bible studies they do transform their sense of individual calling, but also their understanding of the profession they practice?  To me a lawyer shouldn’t walk away from such an opportunity with just 4 more letters after their name or with just another pair of bible reading glasses.  They should walk away a different lawyer. with a better idea of who they need to serve and how they need to change their lawyering in order to serve better.
  • Community Development:  How is the cross-cultural work related to the Missional work that we must do in our localities?  I’m reminded of what I heard Fr. Michael Pflager recently say about the necessity of communities, particularly people of faith to take control of the situation in front of them instead of waiting for others.

    ‘Dr King wouldn’t have cared about dialing 311 to check on a neighbor.  He would have just gone up to their door and checked on them.  He would have organized block by block to reclaim a neighborhood.’

  • Artistically:  How do we fire up the creative energies, or as Rev. Garcia put it ‘cast the nets on the left side (left brain) of the boat’?  When and where does a mashup, hybrid way of worshiping and creating material culture (media among others) have room to breathe?

Finally, as someone who is not only an ethnic minority, but a third-culture person, I felt the strangeness of having that particular identity barely addressed.  If it was just me, I wouldn’t mind, but I know other people who fit the profile and have the concerns.  And if would even look at the statistics, we would realize more and more of our children in America will be some amalgam of third culture kids, crossing boundaries from school, to play, to home and later to work, that are largely invisible to us today.  Why wait and find out what new culture will be created, when you can help cultivate a vibrant, reconciled, cross-shaped culture today?

The benefit of a conference is that it brings so many people together under one roof who could not otherwise be so closely gathered.  But as my previous post alluded to, when we cram too many goals under one, universal structure (the conference) or (the Session meeting), what comes out may look frustratingly incoherent or unprocessed.  Those involved in multicultural ministry in the Church need new ways of coming together, for fellowship, for educating ourselves, and for experimenting in venues where its OK to fail.

A conference like this one is a solid beginning, but Lord knows it cannot provide the nourishment needed on its own. The way in which we come together affects the outcome as much as the topics we choose to talk about.  The one helps or harms the other.  As someone I know suggested, perhaps there is a need for a conference to talk about relationships and community building among different ethnic minority groups in America themselves.  Perhaps we need a gathering to talk about the role and burden of bridge-building, third culture people who so often are positioned to do the teaching and the reaching and the consoling between different groups.  That’s not to necessarily separate or exclude anyone in the culture we are creating, but to allow the focus and new voices that are often needed for progress to occur.

All that being said, I’m glad for attending. I want to thank the organizers and participants of this conference for their efforts in bringing such a wide and varied group together, and even embracing the loving critiques that were presented.

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