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Intercultural Journeys

February 26, 2013

This is the second in a series of articles seeking to provide a beginning understanding of what it means to be “intercultural” in a congregational context. The first article can be found in the Nov/Dec issue of Gospel Evangel.

My Journey

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I began my intercultural journey some 30 years ago, back in middle school. Some of my friends came from dramatically different cultural backgrounds than my own. My interaction with these friends and their families were the beginnings of my journey. Other milestones included a college trimester overseas and various cross-cultural experiences in the Goshen area.

Over the past 10 years, I have more aggressively pursued engagement in cross-cultural situations. It wasn’t until this recent period, though, that I began thinking about where I was at on my intercultural journey. Indeed, I hadn’t even realized I was on one, as is most likely true of many, if not most, of us.

Any discussion that attempts to address both perceptions and realities of how we engage in cultural commonalities and differences can be very sensitive. My hope is to foster reflection on the following questions: Where are you at on your intercultural journey? Where is your congregation at on its intercultural journey?

An Intercultural Foundation

Viewing cross-cultural interactions through a lens of commonality is foundational to the intercultural journey. Common ground provides a basis on which to build. As church members who share a common past adopt this lens of commonality, several patterns emerge.

When encountering someone from a cultural or racial background different than our own, it is common to have an authentic interest in the other. In the excitement of developing a cross-cultural relationship, church members desire to share their traditional ways of doing and being with the hope that the other will share the same passion for their tradition.

In many Mennonite congregations with European roots, this excitement often means sharing the beauty of a cappella, four-part harmony. Congregations with another background might experience a similar excitement while sharing traditions from their heritage. In either setting, members hope appreciation for their tradition can be a uni-

fying force. This desire stems from a focus on commonality. It signifies the beginning of an intercultural mindset.

A more well-rounded focus on commonality is evident when we carry on traditions in new ways. In particular, a church might find as it reaches out to people from a different background, that the same songs can be sung in new ways. In a Euro-centric Mennonite congregation, traditional hymns might be sung with a worship band, or in a different language. Subtle changes like these should be celebrated because they can be a challenge. Indeed, they signify the beginning of intercultural exploration!

Poised for Growth

Actively identifying common interests and beliefs is invitational in nature and is an important part of intercultural growth and development. At the same time, it is only the beginning. An opportunity for growth lies in recognizing that both faith and culture shape a congregation’s beliefs and actions.

Although a culturally different member might truly appreciate the tradition, the congregation must recognize that there is much more to the other person. Common appreciation for traditions or rituals is only the foundation.

Where there is a dominant culture within the church, cultural and racial minorities may initially be attracted to the impassioned kindness they find. Yet with time some may leave due to a lack of congregational appreciation for the minority participants’ different gifts. An invitation to share their gifts, with support from both leaders and lay persons, is critical for congregations to remain multi-cultural.

We as congregations and individuals often encourage a focus on commonality. Sometimes, however, this creates a false impression that differences don’t exist. When differences do arise, judgment sometimes occurs, leading to the departure of cultural or racial minorities. Amidst our focus on commonality, it is important that we deepen our awareness of the pervasive presence of culture, to nurture an open-mindedness to cultural difference, and to understand the “other” more fully as the next steps for intercultural transformation.

By Darin Short, Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church

Author’s note: These articles focus on the broad context of the congregation, with less attention given to specific contexts like worship, education, mission, etc. Ultimately, this means you will be left with the challenge of applying intercultural concepts to the specific contexts you find in your church. Hopefully you will obtain the requisite ideas and inspiration to begin asking foundational questions regarding the intercultural nature of your congregation.