PLTS Faculty on Multiculturalism
Each spring semester, members of the PLTS student body, in consultation with me as their faculty advisor, plan and conduct a retreat on our campus for between 40 and 60 high school students. The event takes place over one weekend; and PLTS students take responsibility for all aspects of development and leadership of the retreat, for which they can choose to receive academic credit.
Three years ago, we on the planning team were excited to learn that 1/3 of retreat participants would be African-American, representing a higher percentage than in previous years. We eagerly anticipated experiences of truly multicultural youth ministry. However, things didn’t go very well at all, especially at first. Some African-American participants felt left out of many of the planned activities. The leaders of the retreat became angry that many African-American participants chose not to participate in the scheduled events because of this. Disappointment and anger on both sides threatened to disrupt the retreat for everyone. Would we be able to find ways to address these experiences together?
We did our best. The first thing we learned was that rather than pretending that there was nothing wrong — or complaining and blaming each other privately — we had to be courageous enough to talk honestly together as a group about what was happening. In these conversations, PLTS students were able to express their fear that some African-American participants “didn’t like them” since they had chosen not to participate in something. African-American high school students and their sponsors were able to express their disinterest in participating in activities that didn’t allow for enough time to get to know people and feel free enough to talk about what mattered to them. Eventually, everyone could agree that the way things were going made us all feel under-valued and under-appreciated.
This potentially negative situation became a real learning opportunity for PLTS students, for me, and for all the youth retreat participants alike. Whether we wanted to or not, we had all come face-to-face with the realities of racial and cultural differences present everywhere in American life and in Lutheranism. When the weekend was over, PLTS students invited the sponsors of the African-American participants to become members of the planning team for the next spring retreat. Several of these sponsors eagerly agreed and have continued to be members of the planning team each subsequent year. By honestly recognizing the reality of our differences, we have learned the challenges and the blessings of working together, praying together, worshiping together, and caring together for the young people God has given us to serve.
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Some things have changed since I served an inner city parish on the south side of Chicago in the early 1970s. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power advocacy, our goal as pastors then was to racially integrate congregational life within urban neighborhoods undergoing rapid change in economic class and social self-understanding. Our orienting vision was the harmony of the one Body of Christ. The cooperative presence of multiple races would count, we thought, as testimony that the gospel was being rightly preached and the sacraments rightly celebrated. With the help of the Holy Spirit, such integrative harmony happened under my watch. Whew.
Now on the cusp of the 21st century, my colleagues and I at PLTS see the entire world as undergoing rapid economic, social and cultural change. How our culture handles plurality and multiplicity and diversity is itself a matter to understand and engage. As a faculty, we attend to these concerns frequently and regularly. We want to design and continually modify our curriculum to respond to cultural movement.
As a systematic theologian, I carry into the classroom the goal of challenging our minds to think through the implications of our faith. Those implications come from two directions. On the one hand, our minds need to grasp the significance of knowing that a transcendent God has spoken to us. God has spoken through the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ with a message of grace. The gospel of grace is not of our own making. It comes to us as a gift from God. On the other hand, our minds need to grasp the nature of the world around us, especially the culture into which we will pour our ministries. Our culture is shot through and through with modern thinking, and even postmodern thinking. The congregations and communities within which we minister are alive with assumptions about nature, science, democracy, race, religion, equality, justice, and most importantly, freedom. This is our world within which we share God’s Word.
We gain insight through engagement with those like us and unlike us. As a founding member of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, PLTS exists is part of a multicultural society, a crossroads for conversation with students and faculty from every continent. In the classroom we repeatedly pose the question: what is the relationship between faith and culture? The atmosphere for learning is charged with cultural consciousness. This consciousness makes each of us ask about the nature of our own faith in the God who transcends all cultures, including our own.
Sensitivity, adaptation and innovation are unavoidable abilities needed by our future pastors, educators, and other church leaders. Like the disciples becoming apostles on Pentecost and speaking languages that can be understood by a diversity of hearers, so our future sharers of Christ’s gospel will need first to hear and understand the cultures into which they are sent before they can speak the appropriate cultural language. Ministry begins with sensitivity, passes through adaptation, and leads finally to meaningful creativity.
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I teach a course at PLTS called “Preaching Across Cultures.” Students who take this course frequently want to learn how to “read audiences” from different cultural groups in order to customize their sermons accordingly. As logical and laudable as this approach might seem, it assumes that the real cultural challenge lies outside the preacher. This assumption fails to recognize that the most effective cross-cultural preaching often begins not with an outward, but with an inward look.
One of the biggest mistakes preachers make is to ignore their own culture. We are all intimately familiar with the cultures in which we were raised and still live, but rarely do we consciously consider the assumptions on which our daily activities and interactions rest. As one person put it, “If birds were suddenly endowed with scientific curiosity they might examine many things, but the sky itself would be overlooked as a suitable subject. If fish were to become curious about the world, it would never occur to them to begin by investigating water.” Birds and fish would take sky and sea for granted, unaware of their profound influence, because they comprise the medium for every act. The cultural universe that is home to us pulls us into shared experiences with some while separating us from others. This happens so naturally and automatically that we are usually oblivious to it happening at all.
The language we first learn as children exemplifies how unaware we often are of our own cultural universe. Not until we try to learn a second language do we usually begin to pay attention to the nature and rules of the language we have spoken our entire lives. In a similar way, paying attention to other cultures can serve as an impetus to more closely examine our own cultural universe. As preachers, what might this inward focus teach us? We might begin to wonder whether many preachers unwittingly live in the universe of American cultural religion where the oppressive actions of certain corporations are never labeled as sin. Such actions too often remain invisible, just part of “the way things are.”
Challenges like these drive home the point that our own cultural universe is not culturally universal. This lesson learned is a necessary first step toward adopting and using effective cross-cultural preaching strategies.
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Multiculturalism is as old as the history of the world and humankind in it. Since time immemorial, two or more cultures have been thrown together by a myriad of historical and biological forces. We could say that our own Genesis account starts with a male and a female culture and an agricultural and a shepherding culture, each confronting the other with major repercussions. Sometimes life-giving, sometimes life-thwarting, multiculturalism has been, is, and will continue to be a formative fact of who we are as individuals and communities. At PLTS we endeavor to be mindful, respectful, and loving of the multicultural individuals and communities that make us who we are.
We are mindful that as individuals, each of us is a product of many ancient and contemporary cultures—a mix of overlapping, cohesive, and conflicting contexts. We recognize that PLTS is part of a wider church community: the ELCA. We strive to nurture the growing diversity that encompasses the ELCA. We are further conscious that our seminary and our church live, move, and have their being in the United States of America. We give careful attention to the particular multicultural forces dominant at this moment in our country’s history. We also recognize that a global matrix of economics, politics, and communication binds all countries closely together. We look further than our shores to the global multicultural context of Christianity and Lutheranism of which we are only a part.
The coming years of ministry will unfold in, with, and through these various multicultural contexts. Our future church leaders need to grasp the dynamics of multiculturalism, appreciating how our own multiculturality fits within local, national, and global contexts. We at PLTS are committed to continuous self-examination and self-transformation. We strive to become a more open and inclusive community, a community that represents the rich diversity of the whole people of God. We seek to reflect this commitment in each course, each worship opportunity, each fiesta. We have promised to celebrate joyfully and learn respectfully from each other’s diversity. We are challenged to recognize our own multiculturality as a gift given to us by God. In word and in deed we are called to spread the love of God through the diversity of contexts that form us: our seminary, church, country, and world.
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