Engaging diverse populations in the church both locally and globally predictably generates conflict. This is true from the first day of the church’s existence in Acts and remains so to this day. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Such conflict arises out of competing loyalties, divergent assumptions, and contending values. Hence, I engage diverse populations with three primary commitments.
First, I have a commitment to remain present and curious. It is easy to withdraw at the first tension felt in engaging cultures that differ or even regional differences within the same culture. I have learned along the way to take a deep breath and stay in the discomfort long enough to learn what the other’s perspective is. Routinely I enter such situations, whether the classroom, a local congregation, or denominational or organizational governance body with a verbal commitment to be a learner. Typically the statement sounds something like this, “I see that we come to this meeting (or class) from a variety of perspectives. Given that, I make two commitments to you. First, I will be as clear as possible in my communication, please ask questions if I am unclear. Second, when it comes to understanding cultural or gender differences that exist between us I am your student. I can only know your perspective if you teach me. So, if I offend you, it is not intentional. It is ignorance that only you can help me understand and be aware of.”
Second, I have a commitment to recognize and encourage the capacity of the group I am meeting with to address their context and think through their challenges and solutions as a facilitator not a dictator. The apostles asked the Hellenistic Jews to identify their solution givers. The apostles did not select the deacons. They did provide a parameter that got the process of selection and then solution development going. Likewise in facing diverse populations I attempt to limit my input to helpful parameters or possibilities that the group must work through using their own assumptions, values, and allegiances. Assuming the capacity and capability of the group to engage the realities of the gospel in the context of their frame of reference works similarly to The Pygmalion Effect – the group rises to the occasion of my belief in them.
Third, and this is where I have experienced the best bonding and trust, I eat with them. It sounds amazingly simple – and it is. When I demonstrate respect for their culture by eating their food I join their social/familial network. I was once invited by my Pakistani neighbor to enjoy a meal with him and his family, all of whom were visiting from Pakistan. I faced predictable scrutiny and suspicion as a Christian among Muslims. Other than my host, everyone was very reserved until I dished up a serving of every course. I sat with the men who waited to see my response to the spiciest yogurt like dish. I took a big scoop with bread and meat (as I had seen them do) while an audible gasp rushed across the room. I opened my mouth popped the mixture in and munched with a smile of delight. The room broke into applause, smiles, and conversations started from every direction.
The church is always diverse where people live out authentic faith – encountering cultural and ethnic diversity is unavoidable around the God who loves the world. Perhaps the best overall advise? Be child-like in your approach to learning. You don’t have to “have it all together.” You just have to be easily approachable and engaging.