“If then God gave them the same gift that was given to us
when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I that I could hinder, God?”
-Acts 11: 17
God’s door is open. Who are we to stand in the way? Anyone who participated in last week’s National Multicultural Conference in Charlotte, NC still has those words ringing in our ears.
From the theme song written by Bruce Harding especially for the event, to our preachers, our tracks, and our celebrations, this open door is more than a slogan to us. It is a place we crossed into anew in the days we spent together.
Multicultural conferences are my favorite denominational events to attend. They are like a booster shot of Holy Spirit power and vision. We catch a glimpse of the redemptive possibilities for us as Church in all its joy and in all its pain.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at large says lots of things these days about growing the church deep and wide, about being inclusive, multicultural, and cross-cultural and all the other current buzz words we want to use to describe ourselves. Despite this rhetoric, the worshipping communities that have the PCUSA symbol out in front of their church buildings tend to be almost totally filled with white middle to upper class professionals who listen exclusively to organ music, sing from the blue hymnal, and read from a bulletin written only in English.
This disconnect between rhetoric and reality is where we encounter most potently God’s open door. The sharp edge at that threshold is not about rhetoric—it is about relationships. The open door is a dangerous place: we can’t cross through it without being changed in the most intimate ways. And this transformative power of the open door is something so many of us felt last week.
If any came to the Multicultural Conference last week and didn’t have a good time, they must have slept through it. And if any came and were not confronted in some way by their own blind spots then they were not paying attention. Multicultural ministry is really about coming to know ourselves with more clarity, with the veil lifted, with the doors open not just to the church, but to our very hearts.
Where are you vulnerable? Where are you afraid? Where are you holding on for dear life? Encountering an open door in those places may be something we brace ourselves for or avoid for a long, long time. But one thing is for sure; you walk through when you’ve arrived there and no sooner. No one can pull you through. There are no short cuts.
I am always thankful to witness the different places where people are on their journeys at these events. And I marvel at how much I learn about myself and my own limitations and possibilities.
Some people come who still have a lot of resistance and apprehension. Others are fully present and feast on the abundance of inspiration and generosity of the event. Others are restless to think of returning home to churches where this open door vision is not only foreign to their community, but it is undesirable and avoided at all cost. Still others come and wake up in a new way to what’s waiting for them back at home—perhaps a nesting fellowship they had held at arms length or a subtle gathering of new ideas they had previously seen as problematic.
As the co-chair of the planning team I have participated in this event during the last two years from conception to gestation to birth. The blessings are more than I can innumerate. The most startling thing is how generous God was in the teaching moments, in the struggles, and in how challenges and triumphs poetically made their way through the work and the relationships.
Two years ago I thought about quitting this effort almost before it got started because of a string of disappointments and conflicts and then the sting of being misunderstood in a profound way by another member of the planning team. I felt like there was no way he was going to ever see me for who I really am. I worried that working together was going to be impossible and I just wasn’t up for impossible.
I took a risk to keep serving on as the co-chair of this committee. I was making myself vulnerable to more disappointment, frustration, and misunderstanding. And there was a part of me that really didn’t want to keep going.
God’s call seems to work this way sometimes—you know it is a call because you would not have chosen it yourself. The generosity of God’s step-by-step power kept me grafted into this effort. The authenticity of it is what made it such a blessing, and that authenticity can only be God-given.
Getting out of God’s way for me meant not taking things personally and at the same time not being afraid to take personal risks in building relationships. All along the way these opportunities kept coming our way as a planning team—to connect as real people even as we saw our efforts as much bigger than ourselves. It is rare to experience a team who accomplishes so much together at the same time that it deals with as many disappointments, stressors, roadblocks, and unknowns as we did.
If there is one thing I can say without a doubt it is that this conference was in no way superficial or built on empty rhetoric. This conference was the unfolding of God-given vision and messy relationships. It is the child of high and dashed hopes. And the music we made, the dances we danced, the lessons we learned, and the stories we told were truth: spontaneous, idiosyncratic, and beautiful truth.
In the homestretch of our preparations we experienced the seemingly obligatory staff turnover from Louisville. And we were grieved by the dismissal of almost the entire presbytery staff in Charlotte just a few days before the event. God’s open door does not come without the intermittent attempts of others to slam it shut in your face. It is inspiring to see how so many of my colleagues on the design team continued to give their all to this effort even after they lost their jobs.
Each morning of the conference we began our design team meetings with silence and a candle lit as an emblem of our trust in God. We were not doing this work for any institution, but for God and to be more faithful in our walk as Jesus followers.
That clarity of purpose makes encountering challenges not a personal affront. Instead we recognize it as par for the course when we follow Jesus. He kept us going because his love gives us a way to feel the freedom of God’s open door.
I will always remember this team and this conference for its clarity of purpose and its joy. When all was said and done, God cleared a space for us to laugh, dance, sing, and fall in love again with what Church can be.
I will also remember another person, not on the team, who confronted me during the conference with some difficult feelings, some things that were hard to hear. Again, I felt misunderstood just like I had when my work on this event had barely gotten started. And I felt the hard barriers between this person and me because of my whiteness, because of her experience with white people who I do not even know, and because even with the best intentions I can still mess up.
Intermingled with all the delight of our multi-lingual, multi-generational, multi-ethnic together-in-one-place experience was the pain and sadness of this conversation. She may never be able to see me for who I really am. I unintentionally hurt her because of my race, an accident of my birth, and an undeniable part of my identity. That is a deeply painful truth.
At the same time her feelings were hard to hear, she gave me a great, great gift. Hearing and receiving difficult feelings from people is painful but it is connection and relationships. And it is not just about my connection with this person who told me honestly about her feelings. It is much deeper than that.
The pain we both felt is not just ours, but it taps into a deep aquifer of connection to the tears and wounds of generations of human beings who have misunderstood each other, hurt each other, and struggled to see the finger prints of God in their troubled connections. The tears I cried were for all of us—for all the ways we fail to meet each other where we really are in our heart of hearts.
Multicultural ministry is open door ministry—and that means hearts open to the collective pain in which we share both culpability and victimization. And this kind of ministry is impossible without a constantly evolving sense of our selves in that ambiguous and conflicted identity.
My work in the multicultural movement comes from my heart—and it keeps it beating at the same time that it continues to break.
Robust life and grief.
Disappointment and delight.
Any multicultural conference worth its salt has it all. God knows we need it that way in order to get out of the way of the multitude who seek a new world, and to get out of the way of ourselves so we can truly find the person God created us to be.
Being present in those open door moments helps me to remember that I move back and forth through that door all the time. Sometimes I am on the side inviting others through to an expansive life-giving place. And sometimes I am waiting for an invitation to walk through to an even more generous space.
Sometimes the gifts God gives us at this open door are not simply open arms and celebrations, but truth and a chance to go even deeper into the healing power that resides in each of us, the flame of Christ that flickers there.
God’s door is open. Who are we to stand in the way? May we all find the grace to answer that question with more than just words, but with our broken and beating hearts.