Text: Acts 11:1-18
Sometimes your job description doesn’t tell you everything you’re supposed to do. When I was a youth minister at the Korean United Church in Vancouver, part of my job was to organize softball practice for a church tournament. Many Korean churches in the greater Vancouver area participate in this annual tournament with overwhelming enthusiasm. The church I was serving, being the oldest Korean church in Vancouver, was proud of its reputation as one of the top teams. The youth who had garnered fame were now in their 40s but the new generation didn’t live up to their reputation. So the pressure was on me, the youth minister to work with the younger ones so they would not mar the reputation. Well. The whole time I was there, our team barely moved to the next round, and we got more sympathy than ovation. Despite the results, I became very interested in softball, and I organized some fellowship matches – the parent team vs the child team, and the Koreans vs the Taiwanese.
A sport brings people together. There was a huge support from both the Korean congregation and the Taiwanese congregation. We had been planning and preparing for the game extensively, but there was one thing we didn’t discuss – the most important part when it comes to play the ball game, fast pitch or slow pitch. Turns out, the Taiwanese only played slow-pitch softball, and we only played fast-pitch. As you can guess, there was confusion on both sides, and most players were not getting adjusted to the different pitch. Before the next game, we got together to talk about how to respect each other’s differences, followed by a potluck dinner. Understanding one another through a dialogue was more important than who was going to win.
That was one of my first intercultural encounters in Canada, and it set my framework for intercultural ministries. We usually assume that other people would do the same as we do. Chances are that we find our differences at the last minute, and a conflict is unavoidable. An intercultural ministry is quite the reverse. We can proactively engage others on a deeper level “choosing listening before judging, sharing before turning away, receiving before dismissing, and loving before condemning. Becoming an intercultural church is a way for us to live into a renewed relationship, both with God and with one another in all the complexities and diversity of this broken yet beautiful world God has created.” There are no experts on intercultural ministry. We are all beginners because there is always room to learn, grow and improve at every step we take in our journeys.
would be helpful to differentiate between interculturalism and multiculturalism. One good example of multiculturalism is Folklorama. One of the founding members of this popular festival, the largest and longest multicultural festival in the world, expressed her concern that it has become a business oriented event. Although I have enjoyed visiting different pavilions, what’s missing for me is deeper interactions with people from different cultures. The two weeks of festival is set up for cultural shopping. People pay for a taste of a certain aspect of a particular culture, adding more experiences without engaging others. One of the prevailing cultures in our society, consumerism eats away at what was originally a community building event. You can see that there is no such thing as a culture-free zone or a culture-free perspective.
The problem of Canadian multiculturalism is that while trying to accommodate diverse populations, it doesn’t challenge the dominant culture. There was a political reason behind the creation of the multiculturalism policy in 1971 – trying to gain more voters, and not to face any opposition. In theory, the policy implied an end to systemic racial and cultural discrimination, but in practice, the government didn’t even spend the money ending discrimination and inequality, except funding folk dances, festivals, language training and songfests. Reading Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s speech on multiculturalism , I see the strong emphasis on the personal freedom of cultural expressions, but not so much on the collective transformation of the society by diversity as if such policy is only the matter of individual choice. From the beginning there was an intention to maintain the status quo, and the Indigenous population wasn’t even considered in making this policy.
The intercultural vision challenges us to go much deeper. It challenges the dominant culture to recognize that their way of living is not universal, and that no culture has a monopoly on wisdom. We are called to let “outsiders” lead, and to accept the vulnerability of not having all the answers. The United Church defines an intercultural church as a welcoming, relational, adaptive, justice-seeking, intentional and missional church. Intercultural means living together with a respectful awareness of each other’s differences. We do this by examining ourselves, building relationships, and distributing power fairly.
The fundamental question for us to ask ourselves is why becoming an intercultural church matters. Individually and in community, we do everything through the lenses of our cultures. Our experiences and understandings are shaped by our cultures. Since we cannot capture the complexity of God through our limited cultural understandings, our understanding of God is limited when we see this God through only one dominant cultural perspective. Intercultural experiences can help release us from clinging to our instinctive perception. We can deepen our understandings and experiences of God and of one another by affirming and welcoming a variety of expressions of faith.
That was what was happening in the early Christian church. And that’s what it took for the Christian church to move from a culturally bound community to a spirit-filled, diverse and ever evolving community. Peter was criticized by other believers because he did what his tradition and culture never allowed him to do – eating with the gentiles. So he began to tell a story of his intercultural encounter, how the Spirit was working in others as it was working in himself. All he did was to let the Holy Spirit to work through him, and to move freely among the people who were gathered regardless of their backgrounds. “Who was I that I could hinder God?” That was the most honest response to the power of the Spirit. That experience changed Peter, and eventually his community of faith.
Becoming an intercultural church begins when we give the Spirit a breathing space. All we need to do is to let the Holy Spirit to work through us, and to move freely among us. The movement has already begun right here among us through our openness, welcome and generosity. It will continue to change us, shape us, and renew us. We will respond saying, “Who were we that we could hinder God?” There is no winner or loser when it comes to intercultural ministries. We are all players, taking part in the work of love, justice and compassion under the guidance of our wise and experienced coach, the Christ Jesus as we never stop learning, growing, and evolving.