I spent most of my life surrounded by people more or less “like” me. Of course there are differences in any other seemingly homogenous group and, as a member of that group, one learns just how significant those differences can be. Yet, looking back, my experiences with diversity were relatively limited.
The small country church in which I grew up had one Hispanic family – we frequently prayed for an adult child who had some trouble with the law. My Christian day school was nearly entirely Anglo. Although the Christian college I attended has taken great strides to emphasize diversity and to help its students be aware of racism on its campus and further afield, I was still largely isolated from people who were different from me. As a graduate student I studied classics – still a field dominated largely by white men.
All told, I was able to live much of my life surrounded by people more or less like me.
Fast forward to 8 months ago, when I moved to Sioux Center, Iowa to pastor a church here. In the last ten years, Sioux Center’s population has seen its Hispanic population jump from 5% of the population to 15% of the population. Nearly every church in town is asking, “How do we minister to our Hispanic neighbors?”
The truth of the matter is that it is far easier for me to spend my life connecting only with the people who are like me. This is the far more comfortable route to take. I could easily ignore the neighbors who don’t look like me, who don’t speak my language, and who “probably wouldn’t want to come to our church anyway” (or so I find it easy to tell myself).
Yet we are called to a different pattern. Jesus tells his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another… By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). This, of course, is where it starts – with love for one another. The pastor of Amistad Cristiana, the Hispanic congregation in Sioux Center, reminded us of that in a dialogue about ministering to the needs in the Hispanic community here locally: it begins with relationships. And so that’s where we are starting as a church – with picnics and soccer tournaments and combined bilingual services with Amistad.
The call to move outside of our comfort zone and build relationships with those who are different from ourselves means more than just institutional decisions, however. More importantly, we need to take those same steps in our own lives and be willing to build relationships even with those who make us uncomfortable. This may mean learning a new language, trying new foods, or thinking more carefully about the stories we tell – but it’s worth it.
Sometimes, we have to do a gut check and may even find ourselves in need of repentance. For me one such moment came on Palm Sunday. My sermon series was on Sabbath and had largely been framed by the experiences of a substantial majority of the congregation with a fairly traditional, strict, mostly Dutch upbringing. As I looked around the congregation assembled on Palm Sunday, however, I realized that this was not the congregation before me. Our congregation was not as homogenous as I often assumed. Recognizing this reality fundamentally transformed the way I approach the task of preaching.
It’s Cinco de Mayo today – a holiday that is not mine and not a part of my tradition. Yet I find myself reflecting on my own shortcomings, my own privilege, my own tendency to assume that everyone is like me.
The truth is, I have a long way to go. I wish I could say that I am always willing to step out of my comfort zone to build relationships with those who don’t look like me or speak like me. I can’t say that because I don’t always do that.
By the grace of God, however, I am blessed with the opportunity to continue to learn. To try new things. To meet new people. To experience love in ways I never knew I could experience. And in so doing, to experience the love of Jesus in a new way.
Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone.