Differences: That which separates us must also unite us

January 28, 2007

This is a slightly modified version of a reflection paper I turned in for my recent January term class on Cross-Cultural Ministry.  It was a three-week intensive course, with several immersion experiences including a three-day trip to Piedras Negras, a town just over the Texas border of Mexico, including visits to several colonias, or very impoverished neighborhoods, which are described below.  Read about the local press response to us in my initial post here.  After describing the experiences of the trip, I relate this back to our problems in the U.S. and the Anglican Communion.

    Humility.  That is what I felt as I stood among the people in the colonias.  Knowing that these people had found empty state-owned land, used whatever resources they could find to scrap together homes that would barely pass as shelter for farm animals in my country; that in many cases they did not have utilities—no water, electricity, sewers, nor heating in the 30 degree weather; I felt humility.  I remember greeting one woman, looking into her face, smiling after introducing myself, and saying, “Es fria?” as a way to make conversation.  In response to asking her whether it was cold, she looked at me blankly—as if it was an irrelevant question.  I later reflected, as I grew colder and colder during the day and realized that the only building we would be in with heat was our hotel, that being cold was just a way of life during the winter.  Perhaps it is dramatizing the story, but saying, “it’s cold” was as ridiculous as saying “there is air.”  It was just part of their life.

    At the first colonia, we passed out bags of flour and cans of infant formula to those who were present.  When we ran out, we went to the van and distributed the Mexican candy we had purchased for our personal use to the children present.  There was enough flour to give a few people two bags.  Then, my heart broke when I realized that more people were still coming.  A boy with only one leg was slowly working his way up the street to meet us surrounded by his family—his disability made them late to the offering and so they did not receive food.  An elderly woman who got there late pleaded for blankets because she was cold.  She also wanted food—she had only eaten a tortilla and two cups of tea the day before.  We had neither blankets nor food left for her.

    As we drove away from that colonia, I cried.  I questioned my theology of abundance.  There was scarcity here.  There simply wasn’t enough.  Even though down the street there was a store packed full of all the things that these people needed, even though there are enough resources in the world to feed all the hungry and we have decided not to distribute them, there wasn’t enough here.

     At the next colonia, my humility deepened.  I became acutely aware of God’s presence with these people.  I realized that while I have talked often about just how big God is, I can never truly know just how big.  God has always been with these people in a way I will never truly understand because I will never live that life.  I sensed that they had a feeling of community and compassion for each other in that space that cannot be ascribed to anything other than a gift from God under such circumstances.  They did not fight for the limited resources they had.  They were gracious and let the most needy be served first—the children and the elderly.  Interestingly, there were few men in this location.  Perhaps they were off working.  I could feel that they truly loved each other.

     At the end of the day, we were invited into the home of a local faith healer who had just “channeled” the spirit of a popular Mexican historical figure in the name of Jesus for us (more about the “channeling” later).  The home was nothing more than a shack and the family had nothing, but we were given beans, tortillas, coffee, tea—everything they did have.  I realized then that this was not a land of scarcity.  This was a land of abundance.  It is just that in my U.S. cultural framework, I associate abundance with material things.  Not to trivialize their needs—they were certainly living at a basic, sustenance level.  But I realized that abundance is also a state of mind.  They gave out of their poverty.  Community and hospitality is their abundance.

     I realized that God has so much to do.  God has so many needs to attend to.  I was embarrassed that these people had such real, tangible needs, yet there were people in my class who were complaining because we were not eating American food—or even because we were “forced” to be present at all as a part of our curriculum.  I realized that it takes such an intentional effort to see things through Christ’s eyes—to find the Christ in others and to see the big picture of the human family—that we may never get there.  But I also realized that it is also not so important whether or not we succeed, but whether or not we try.  Trying to understand the differences between us while also understanding the similarities is one of the most important parts—maybe even the ultimate part—of that journey in order to see the big picture.  There is no human family without individual humans.  There is no individual human without the human family.  Understanding that relationship is critical if we are to live together with our differences and carry out the message of the gospel—to love our neighbor as ourselves.

     Just as important as our ability to minister to the poor is our ability to minister to the empowered—I was perhaps challenged in this area more than any in this experience.  There were several in the class who were challenged by the idea of looking at the needs of the Mexican poor through a new lens (the Mexican’s own lens) instead of through our own commonly-portrayed-in-the-media Anglo-American lens.  I even heard someone ask, “Why is it that we {the U.S.; and I think she really meant the Anglo-American U.S.} always have to be the bad guy?”  This made me ask myself: “What is it that makes us need to hold on to our own perceptions of how things are?”

    Under the surface of her question is, I think, a need to have an America that doesn’t hurt people (see also, US Empire:  action in Iraq, inaction in Darfur, etc. end of sarcasm).  Why is this?  What is it that she gets out of having an untarnished America?  This is a hugely important question.  This reminds me of the “love it or leave it” mentality of the Vietnam era—the false dichotomy between critical reasoning and patriotism.  You can love it and question it.  It may be precisely because you love it that you challenge it.  The same is true of our crisis in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion:  What do people get by succumbing to the illusion that their view is free from criticism or fault, that it has no flaws, rather than acknowledging the flaws and working together to fix them?  Acknowledging imperfection does not mean loving a culture, an identity, a tradition, any less.  I have not yet seen any human construction of this world— including religion—which is free from defects.  Yet we have a tendency to want to look past the defects in many cases rather than acknowledge them.

     I can’t answer for any one individual, but I have my suspicions.  My guess is that, at the end of the day, it all boils down to fear:  fear of change, fear of loss of power, fear of the unknown, fear of—whatever.  But fear is powerful.  Fear inhibits a lot of good things.  And it isn’t always a conscious motivation, which makes it even more dangerous.  All of that “below the iceberg stuff” is hard.

    When we do have these differences, or when we can’t let go of our will to have our predefined images be left intact, it is extremely important to understand “the other,” whether the other is a middle-class Anglo-American struggling to understand why the border policy should be changed, a Mexican immigrant who cannot find food, an African-American who is denied a job, or a Nigerian archbishop who has inhumane policies against his own peoples and disrupts the rest of the Anglican Communion in the process.  Our host, an Anglican priest, ministered to the faith healer we went to visit.  He did not believe in the faith healer’s powers, and he the faith healer knew it.  But rather than sitting in pious judgment as the other priests and ministers in the town did, he realized that many of the townspeople DID trust the teachings of the faith healer.  He went to the faith healer in order to engage him and his followers where they were, and then challenge them, lovingly, to move forward.

     Coming to meet “the other” on his own terms is of paramount importance.  We too can go to the other, embrace those things that are wonderful and then challenge those things that are not—challenge the differences that cause social injustice, individual spiritual burdens, and so forth—and move the individual, the culture, forward.  We cannot do this with judgment (punitive, harsh, condescension), but with love.  That includes challenging U.S. Anglo-American culture and moving it forward.  Our immigration policy is a great example, and that caused a lot of friction for a few people in my class.  But religion has always been in conversation with culture– that is an historical fact, and that will always continue.  It’s just the way it works.  (I’m writing more about that in a separate post.)

     Humility is of the utmost importance in going to “the other” to meet them in this journey.  I went to a mission in a conservative diocese for another portion of this class in order to visit an Hispanic mission.  While I was there, the priest obviously changed his position towards me once he knew I was gay.  He no longer encouraged me to stay with a local parish family during my visit.  I know many people in the GLBT community who think that responses conservative dioceses and bishops should be changed by force.  That anger comes from the hurt and disappointment of exclusion, of discrimination, and of oppression.  It is not unlike the anger that can so often be found in the writings of the original Liberation Theologians, especially in its early days (or even, I suppose, the response of the U.S. to 9/11 with the invasion of Iraq).  But if we, on the outer edges of the circle, so hurt and angry, seek only to move to the middle and replace the existing powers with ourselves, we will only become the new oppressors.  We must instead widen the circle to include all.  That is why my response to this priest was not anger—not demands to be treated equally—but a response that tried to understand his cultural context so that I could meet him where he was and then invite him to see a different point of view.  What the Spirit does from there is between him and God.  After all, it is not about me being in control, but God.  That attitude, that way of responding, requires a lot of humility and a lot of personal and spiritual strength. I acknowledge that not everyone can participate in ministry in this way.  One that has been hurt must first find healing before participating in such a ministry.  Similarly, one that is already in the center of the circle must be willing to share that power with others.  That requires a lot of trust, faith, love, and humility.

     It reminds me of this quote from our an earlier seminary experience: “Preaching humility to the powerless is enslaving, while preaching humility to the empowered is liberating.”1   How could I possibility have walked into a mission to poor immigrants, worried about where their next meal was coming from, and preached about the humility they need to have around issues of sexual orientation?  Similarly, how can a straight person walk into my home sub-culture and possibly try to preach to me about the “dangers of a homosexual lifestyle” without any humility about how God might be working in me and what I already know?  It is little wonder that a hermeneutic of suspicion (or distrust of the way the Bible is read by the hierarchy) develops for people who are so disenfranchised from the establishment.

     I must admit, though, that I wasn’t comfortable at first with the idea of going into another culture and challenging it at all when we began the class.  Moving another culture forward brought to mind images of Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”—which required Captain Kirk not to interfere with foreign cultures—a rule he violated often (never with negative consequences, of course).  It raises questions for me about who is making the decisions about what needs to be changed.  In the colonization of Mexico, the Spanish missionaries made some decisions about changing the culture that were inappropriate, in my view.  Many innocent Native Americans were killed, or taken into slavery during their “conversions” to Christianity.  My professor suggested that we must develop a theological system of rules to discern whether the decisions we make about changing other people is good or bad.  Of course the same problem exists even if we develop such a framework:  Who is making the theological system institutionally?  It all amounts to the same thing.  Somebody made a theological system long ago that said that gays and lesbians should be excluded, and we are working hard to change it today.  If the “wrong” decisions are made, as with the Spanish missioners, it can take centuries to undo the damage.  I am more comfortable with the idea now of moving a culture forward, but I don’t know if there is an absolute answer to this question.

     In doing ministry to people different from myself, I think I will now ask myself the question my therapist once asked me about better forming my own interpersonal relationships (believe it or not, I was once very withdrawn!):  “How do you express interest in the other?”  If we are called to love our neighbor, I doubt it is by first making a judgment about what needs to be challenged.  I believe it is first by expressing interest.  That comes by showing that we want to learn about the other, that we have a genuine, compassionate, and caring curiosity about how they live, think, and love.  I cannot do that if I walk into the situation with an agenda in my back pocket, but only if I keep my mind open in the spirit of cooperation and curiosity of how God has developed them before I arrived on the scene, and how God might be present in ways I have never experienced before.  Only then can we start a mutual exchange of ideas that may lead to something which is ultimately better for both of us- a two-sided changing that leads to both being better off by the relationship.

     Finally, I believe this was the most relevant course offered in seminary (granted I’m only one semester through!).  Talking across the divide, appreciation of differences, and location of oneself on a theological, cultural, and geopolitical spectrum are skills sorely lacking in the church, the country, and the world today.  Working with differences is regarded as unnecessary in our culture.  The state of our church is proof of it.  Without the core skills that this class offers our church has no future.  If we believe in Christ Jesus as reconciler, than this is a big part of the work we are called to do.  We can only offer up the tools which help in the work of reconciliation.  It is up to each of us to pick them up and use them.

     Just as with the priest in the conservative mission who turned me away, once the gifts have been offered, the rest is between God and the persons who have been invited.  And if God can’t do it, well…  I guess in my world-view that is just what God DOES, looking back through the progression of our human race from the beginning of time, as more and more societies and different peoples started to mix, with God patiently calming the waters with love as we constantly churned them up—whether the waters calmed in 1 year, 100 years, or 1,000 years.  So I’m hopeful that we’re heading in the right direction, and, in the fullness of time, will get to wherever it is we are supposed to go, towards one big inclusive family.

j

 Groody, Daniel.  Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrent Journey of Heart and Spirit. 
Oxford: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002.  p. 101.

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