It was one of those mandatory meetings: an invitation printed on the bishop's own letterhead, followed up by phone calls from the bishop's superintendents. I didn't get one. Jie did.
Ethnic pastors who are serving Caucasian congregations were required to attend...and bring a car-load of their white parishioners with them. It was a seminar on "cross-cultural" appointments in our conference. To my knowledge, we have no white pastors serving in Black, Hispanic, or Asian congregations. Somehow (to make the attendance look better?) several all-Black congregations, served by Black pastors, were also told to attend...and bring their people with them, even though they are not technically "cross-cultural appointments."
When Jie got home that evening, I listened to a vociferous hour long recitation of her day, fueled by frustration and fury over what she had endured. The next day, I called a colleague of mine whose wife happened to also be there. I started the conversation by telling him that my wife yelled at me for an hour when she got home. He said that his wife yelled at him for an hour when she got home!
It seems like something worth investigating. So I did. An unofficial estimate of attendance put the gathering at around 65 people. About ten participants were white. A small handful were Asian or Hispanic. And the rest were either African-American or African immigrants. It lasted for five hours and consisted of lectures...from two white women.
The white woman from Washington D.C. told the group how bad racism was, theoretically speaking. And from the stories I heard, the woman from our own conference (the organizer) seemed to me to have mostly bullied and intimidated everyone.
How do you bully and intimidate people-of-color at a cross-cultural seminar?
The woman from our conference was sitting at a table and taking money when people walked in. When Jie paid the registration fee for her whole group, she needed $10 bills to make change with the people who wanted to pay her back. But when she touched the $10 bills in the basket (English-as-second-language speakers often need to use gestures to clarify communication) the woman scolded her to keep her hands out... "I am in charge of this, not you!" Jie thought she was joking...but a look at her face told her otherwise.
When it came time to start the meeting, the woman at the money-changing table got up in front of everyone and started taking attendance...like they were in third grade. She called out the names, demanded explanations from pastors if their registered parishioners weren't there, and embarrassed people who came in late. Then she announced that she was a district superintendent ...and informed everyone that she wielded the power of the bishop at this event. Jie told me later, "I'm terrified of that woman!"
The group was then made to sit still for five hours while they were lectured on the evils of racism. When you make an ESL person (English is their second language) sit through five hours of academic lectures in English, there is no way the material can be digested. The result is that you leave the ESL person feeling inferior to the rest of the group. This is hardly a way to promote cross-cultural goodwill. In fact, such acts of intimidation and disorientation have long been the arts of racists: It is how African slaves were first subjected and dominated when brought to America. I am sure that the woman organizing this event is not racist. But I am equally sure she has no place conducting a cross-cultural seminar...or using the bishop's name to do so.
What would I do if I had a room full of such people? I would offer them a brief ten-minute outline of "culture," and then take the opportunity to ask questions and listen to them for five hours. I think it could have been a great day: full of stories, laughter, funny embarrassments, insights, and new wisdom. It could have been a time to develop new relationships and support networks. It could have been a time for district superintendents and general church officials to learn from the grassroots what works and what doesn't. Those of us who are ordinary pastors and laity aren't as stupid or evil as we are treated. We know a thing about navigating awkward and confusing situations.
are also experts, imperfect to be sure...but we know more than the authorities think we do about both the curses and blessings that come with cross-cultural experiences.
Early in my ministry, I served a small African-American congregation in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Jie has now served in three all-Caucasian churches: Pesotum, Chrisman, and Sidell. I know that she has often left those people confused...just as they have confused her from time to time. But I have seen enormous amounts of grace and mutual respect and happiness in the people of those churches...beyond my expectations. Sure, there have been some stinkers here and there. But the people of those congregations are overwhelming loving and truly Christian. THEY should have conducted this seminar.
A true expert on cross-cultural experiences would have stepped back and been only a catalyst to get that crowd talking.
This is personal for me. Cross-cultural experiences are a part of my life every day...more so than for most people. Jie and I never get a rest from navigating the cultural differences of language, food, generation and gender roles, rules for handling conflict, how to arrange and furnish a home, how to make decisions regarding money, how to deal with people one doesn't like, how to wash dishes, how to stay healthy...
Our 14th anniversary is this week, and by marrying a Chinese woman, I could not have picked a cross-cultural partnership that would have worn me out more! On the other hand, this cross-cultural marriage has enriched me more than I ever thought possible. It has been a source of pain, growth, humor, and abundant life.
In some situations, cultural differences extend to the arts, clothing, religion, political processes, death, sexuality, approach to time, play, competition, cleanliness, and truth-telling. Interestingly, there are wide cultural differences among Chinese...and African Americans...and Caucasians. And we live in the most culturally diverse country in the world. Our country is like my marriage: full of misunderstood comments and hurtful assumptions... but also new vistas on life itself and amazing graces. There's always something about each other we haven't discovered...or understood yet.
It is a joy and a privilege to be the church in a land of cultural diversity. Churches with cross-cultural appointments are the luckiest of all. And they don't need to be harangued and treated with condescension. God's wisdom is already within them.
All we need do is start the story-sharing... be indelicately curious about one another... and commit ourselves to a rollicking good time of argument and humor.
The next time an invitation comes to Jie from the conference, maybe I should warn her. A Chinese immigrant doesn't need intimidation from the church, of all places!
Of course, I can speak up in ways many people can't. Being an old white guy who is closing in on retirement, I don't need to be afraid of anyone... or any repercussions. But if the people who had to attend that meeting will speak up, perhaps the power of their "Amens" will protect everyone. It is long past the time to take on church leaders who continue to contradict what it means to be a people of Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.