“I come from a place, I am going to a place, I am and I am.” –Jo Carson
We came from California, Georgia, Utah, Michigan, North Carolina, and New Mexico. We came from New Jersey, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina. We carried with us and within us cultures, languages, stories, habits, manners and mannerisms from centuries and generations and from all around the world—from Korea to Africa, from Ireland to Venezuela, from Germany to Scotland, from Greece to Egypt and other places we did not or could not name. We came from families, from congregations, from partnerships, and from unique journeys. And we found our way to Montreat for a week in November to listen, to speak our truths, to worship, to wonder, to try new things, to meet new friends, and to grow.
The third annual Multicultural Institute at Montreat was about building multicultural community by speaking truth, hearing each other, and showing up with all of who we are from the very start. Participants described their experience as “inspirational,” “very worthwhile,” “outstanding,” and “eye-opening.” We learned a lot together, not just by talking about it, but by being together.
Lesson number one is that we need to let go of our need to control, to plan, to choreograph the movement of the Spirit. Our work instead is how to cultivate openness in ourselves so that we are ready to respond to opportunities when they come our way. One of our faculty members decided she could not come to the Institute just a few weeks before we were to gather. Storyteller and musician Paula Larke stepped in and carried with her the song and the drum beat that would so deeply in-form our time together. Our Spanish teachers, Lilia Ramirez and Gustavo Vasquez, came to Montreat from West New York, New Jersey where they had been without power for a week because of Hurricane Sandy. In the days leading up to the Institute, Gustavo, Lilia, and I struggled with how they could leave their two girls (2 and 5) under the circumstances and how we could possibly have the Institute without them. With God’s grace and with assistance from unexpected places, Gustavo and Lilia were able to bring their girls with them to Montreat. Almost simultaneously a faculty member in our Living Harmony class, Elise Witt, let us know that she would be bringing her mother who is 92 years old. Before we even arrived, God’s generous Spirit was creating the conditions for our event to embody layers and layers of diversity. A visual image I will hold in my heart for a long, long time is at our last evening worship service watching 92 year old Inga assist 5 year old Lilia with making her shaker make a sound as 2-year old Savi watched and sang the words to the song we were all learning.
Lesson number two of multicultural ministry is to be intentional about sharing power in every layer of your community. From two years old to ninety-two, we gathered together for worship, for fellowship, for learning and we made space for each other to really be there as ourselves. From turmoil and from malaise we were stirred by each other’s stories and perspectives. From plenty and from need we realized our own growth edges with more clarity as the week unfolded. From discrimination and from privilege we posed our questions to each other. We came with our experiences, with our pain, with our hopefulness, our skills, and our limitations. And we practiced sharing power in our modes of discourse, in our worship planning, and in our willingness to engage in unsettling conversations about race and privilege. Perhaps most importantly we took risks and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, to learn new songs, and to move in new ways. Power sharing nurtures us all and creates space for transformation. Seminary student, Constance Johnson, described it this way: “I left a new person with new hope for the future for God’s world. I know that we have tremendous work to do, but this conference gave me the confidence to know that the pain and discrimination due to cultural difference I am witnessing within the church, seminaries, and presbyteries are not long with us.”
Lesson number three of multicultural ministry is this: the way is made by walking. It happens when we keep taking the next step in front of us. And we practiced this mode of trusting God together in not knowing exactly how something would work, but trying it anyway. One pastor of an increasingly multicultural church says that, “the Institute gave me an opportunity to explore how the congregation can effectively grow into its multicultural identity.” He came, he explored, and he goes home to take the next step in front of him and his congregation.
We came from diverse places and we are going into increasingly diverse spaces. We are renewed and regenerated by our time together. And we will find our way by walking.