When Sue Park-Hur, director of racial/ethnic engagement for Mennonite Church USA, was invited by Leader magazine to write about intercultural churches, she knew right away that this should be in a conversational format with other Mennonite leaders who are committed to living out the vision of the church becoming intercultural.
Sue invited Iris de León-Hartshorn, associate executive director of operations for Mennonite Church USA, and Tina Schlabach, moderator of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference and co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, Arizona, for a lively conversation.
Why should we have a vision of an intercultural church? What compels you to pursue this vision?
Iris: Our true calling is to love God and our neighbors. These two commandments should be the core work of the church, and building intercultural competency gives us skills to engage and reach out as well as learn, listen, and be changed by our neighbors. I often think about the image of the banquet table and the call to invite people from everywhere to the banquet — those on the highways and byways. To be messengers of this invitation, we need to have intercultural skills.
Tina: In the past six years, Shalom Mennonite Fellowship has moved toward becoming intercultural without overtly trying to do it in the beginning. In 2020, we developed a worship series based on Safwat Marzouk’s book Intercultural Church: A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration, which has provided the theological underpinnings we needed for being church together. Marzouk rightly points out that from the birth of the church at Pentecost in Acts through the book of Revelation, we see God’s dream—the coming together of all people, all languages, all the diversity — the clear message that God’s kingdom is for everyone from the beginning to the end. It’s a compelling dream.
Also, the way that Jesus lived is compelling. Jesus came to save his own people, but he also listened, crossed boundaries, and included women, Gentiles, children, and sick people. So being intercultural is what Jesus also lived out. This continued with Paul when his life was changed, and he spent the rest of his life doing reconciling work between the Jews and Gentiles. Marzouk also points out that we can talk about reconciliation, but when we have different cultures and languages in our church, we have an opportunity to live it in our church life. Now we are engaged in it as a community, as a part of our common life. That resonates with me.
Sue: I think most of our churches desire to love God and our neighbors, to live into the vision of the church birthed in Pentecost and culminated in Revelation. As Mennonites, we value the importance of embodying our faith. So to do this, we need to hone our intercultural skills.
Iris: One of the biggest reasons I wanted to be part of the Mennonite church is the whole idea of praxis. Oftentimes, Christians think about and discuss our theology, which is important, but we sometimes fall short in practicing our faith. One of the gifts of the Mennonite church is that we try to practice what we preach. We don’t always get it right, but there is an innate cultural piece of practicing our faith that is so important. And that gives me hope in moving forward with this because we have this common desire to live out our faith.
What are the gifts and challenges of becoming an intercultural church?
Tina: One of the big gifts in our church is that we come from different backgrounds and experiences. We are about 60 percent white, 30 percent of African heritage, and 10 percent Latinx. We all share a great love of music and singing. We don’t always feel comfortable in each other’s styles, but all of us love singing. Some people who grew up in white Mennonite traditions love the hymns and beautiful four-part harmonies. Latinx congregants love spirit-filled songs with a lot of emotion in the music and do not hurry through this part of worship. The African members love dancing. They preach through singing, and movement is an integral part of worship. Doing call-and-response with the African choir is something that our congregation has grown to love, a huge gift.
One challenge, and it’s a good challenge, is that white Mennonites in the past wouldn’t allow dancing. A whole group of people can’t move and dance with ease because it was forbidden. They still have that angst and discomfort. I see the integration of movement in worship as a part of our healing journey, but it involves a lot of discomfort for those who did not grow up with it. So it’s really hard for them.
The church, and even the Mennonite church around the world, is much more Pentecostal, so Pentecostal threads have come into our worship, like someone speaking in tongues and shaking. That can be uncomfortable for those who have not been exposed to these ways of worshiping. Carol Rose [Shalom co-pastor] and I recognize that we need to do more education so we can interpret this better and help people get on the same page. This is recent, so we are trying our best to recognize these different styles.
The biggest challenge of all was dealing with the pandemic. It was the hardest pastoral care challenge I ever had. It was terribly painful. We had so many different culturally based responses to dealing with COVID-19, ranging from “Get all the vaccine you can” to “No vaccine because it will do terrible things to you.” Masks to no masks. I have learned from Sarah Augustine, a Mennonite leader who is a Pueblo (Tewa) descendant, that some of this is because of systemic racism. Some communities of color have been damaged by pharmaceutical companies experimenting on them. Even if people don’t know about that, it’s in their bones—an important lesson I’ve taken very seriously. A lot of misinformation was also circulating. Teenagers who were home during the pandemic became very susceptible to the information on social media. Other people who had already come through a lot of adversity were not afraid of COVID. Their theological foundation was to depend radically on God. One person almost died of COVID and was on a ventilator for two months. She’s home now, and I will forever be shaped by the way our prayers healed her.
We spoke out about respecting our differences around COVID. Even though it was hard, I think we did well. We consistently followed the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and our local health department. A lot of grace was offered to one another even when it was hard. Through all of it, we saw more clearly what we believe, and we saw each other more clearly. That was difficult, but we went deeper together as a congregation because of it.
Sue: Yes, we can see others more fully as we reveal our full selves. It’s difficult to hold open such a space as a congregation, but when we do, it changes our lives.
Iris: I agree. Transformation should be mutual. I have seen many people go abroad for service and exchange opportunities. Some have returned changed, and they lead their congregations with a deeper understanding and commitment to become more interculturally engaged. They are less afraid to be pushed out of their comfort zones.
When I joined the Mennonite church, my boundaries were pushed as well. I had to consider connecting with people who never lived outside of their homogenous neighborhoods. How could I relate to them? If I was going to work for the church, I needed to figure this out.
It’s funny because my work moved me to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I moved from a diverse congregation in Houston, Texas, to Lancaster, an area steeped in white Mennonite culture. For example, on my first day of work in the office, I noticed how quiet the office was. So I went around the cubicles introducing myself to everyone, asking about their work and their families because I was trying to connect with them. I quickly found that some people didn’t understand why I was doing this and thought that I was interrupting their work. I certainly wasn’t trying to interrupt them. I simply wanted to build a relationship so we could work together. Eventually, they got used to me asking them questions to check in, and I got used to giving them space to work.
Tina: That’s a great story.
Iris: I think the challenges are the systemic realities. Systems change so slowly—it’s like moving a freighter in the middle of the ocean. It takes a lot of time, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to do it. I made peace with myself that it may not all happen in my lifetime, but I need to do my little piece in it. As a church, we need to move forward with this vision knowing it won’t be complete, but we do our part.
Sue: For me, as a child of immigrants growing up in Los Angeles, I was in a small Korean immigrant church bubble. The church was a haven where I could be with people who looked and acted like me, and who were on a similar faith journey. The church became a safe and central place in my life as I tried to navigate my place in a new country that didn’t quite know what to do with the growing groups of Asian immigrants in their communities.
In addition to experiences at school, I would say that my intercultural skills were honed during my early teenage years at my parents’ small businesses. My parents had a mini market near downtown Los Angeles. Most of our neighbors were Spanish-speaking, so I had to quickly learn some basic Spanish. I had to engage every person in our neighborhood with respect. They were our customers, each of them with complicated stories that somehow brought them into the store.
I think the children of immigrants in our churches can identify with navigating the many cultural spaces throughout their day: code-switching, speaking different languages, translating, and carrying our bodies differently in different situations. I see them as gifts in our churches, as leaders who have skills to adapt and learn and who will continue to lead us to deeper understandings.
What are some things that can help our churches become more intercultural?
Tina: Maybe we can start by assessing who we are now and what diversity already exists. How has God worked in our story? The trouble comes when we say, “This year, our goal is to become intercultural.” That’s not how God works. For Shalom Mennonite and the Latinx people who attend, we were out in the community in a particular way. We were involved in the border work because we live close to a border. If we had not been part of the border work, the Latinx people would not be part of our church. We met them through our work for immigration justice.
After the first step of looking around and asking ourselves who we are, we can explore how to go deeper with the diversity we already have. If you are part of a welcoming community and are doing the work you are called to do because of where you live, then I can almost guarantee that you will have opportunities to invite people who are different from you into the church community.
Our connection with Congolese attendees began with a phone message on our church answering machine. The message was hard to understand, and the caller did not speak much English. We could have easily not followed up, but the Holy Spirit was nudging us. The only person I knew who speaks Congolese was Rod Hollinger-Janzen (of Mennonite Mission Network*). So Rod interpreted the first return call and was able to obtain the information we needed to connect with the family. They didn’t have a car, so they could not come to our church unless we went to them. We needed to do that work because they reached out. We learned that they were Mennonites and wanted to find their people. Being the generous, most amazing sharers of God’s kingdom that they are, they continually bring others to our church.
When you find people who are alone and are open to finding a faith community, take it very seriously. Be very honest about your faith community. Your church may not be for them. In that case and by all means, help them find a suitable faith community. But if they want to be part of yours, the journey will be holy.
Sue: That makes me think about missed opportunities when people have come into our church. We have dismissed some and hurt others. I know stories of people who visited Mennonite churches for weeks, some for months, and no one really engaged with them. One of my Indonesian friends, whose parents are well-respected Mennonite pastors in Indonesia, felt invisible and ignored. Welcoming can be expressed in various ways. In many Westernized Mennonite churches, we tend to show respect to newcomers by not overwhelming them and giving them space to check out the church. But we need to have the intercultural competency to know that welcoming sometimes involves more expressive and proactive engagement, acknowledging that we see newcomers and are glad they came to worship with the congregation. Some people need an interactive welcome, so they have the courage to return and consider whether this is the right church for them.
Tina: I’ve also connected with Living Water Community Church in Chicago, which has been intercultural for a long time. It’s good to learn from other churches that have been doing this ministry. At Shalom, we are now at a point where we want our leadership to reflect more of who we are. We want people of different cultural backgrounds to lead as deacons and elders. This is challenging because it involves more oral than written interpretation. It also means changing how we conduct church meetings. We now start every deacons’ meeting with a significant time set aside for scriptural meditation. We are on that very good journey.
Iris: Tina, you mentioned being an inclusive church, which means different things to different people. I heard some churches say they are inclusive, but that pertains only to LGBTQ people; no people of color attend in their congregation. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where the church welcomes BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] but not LGBTQ people. So inclusive has become a confusing or divisive word in our churches. We have this misconception that if you are inclusive, it means you agree with everything about another person’s belief system. But it doesn’t mean everyone in my church has to agree with everything I believe or that I’m inviting others who are most like me. So how do we find language that encompasses this expansive idea that all of us are welcome?
Tina: I also want to say a bit more about recent migrants. I think Mennonite churches do good work around border justice and advocating for migrants. But I love how Marzouk says we need to do more than advocate for migrants—we need to welcome recent migrants into our church communities. We are in different stages with this, but it is a compelling call for our churches. It’s transformative. Being the church together with different cultural groups is transformative. That’s what I love so much about this. God works through differences and transforms all of us. People who participate in border learning trips hopefully get a glimpse of how to welcome displaced people into their communities. One of the largest displaced groups is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Where can the Mennonite Congolese go to church when they resettle in the United States and Canada? I often wonder that.
The last thing I wanted to share is that we recently held a congregational retreat on diversity, a workshop called “Shining the Light and Healing Community” with special guest Masankho K. Banda from Malawi. How can we be always about finding light in each other amid whatever comes up? Because something will always come up! How do we reflect the light of Christ in us amid our diversity?
Sue: That’s the fun part—not knowing but trusting the Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
*Rod Hollinger-Janzen currently serves as the administrative assistant, Church Vitality, Mennonite Church USA.
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