Reaching across cultures
A new presbytery venture crosses barriers of age, race and background to offer the gospel to all people
By Jessica Reid
Leslie Mardenborough grew up in a diverse Presbyterian church in the Bronx where people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds felt welcomed. Mardenborough is of Caribbean descent and prefers to be referred to as a black woman. When she left home to attend a college where she was in the minority, she encountered racism for the first time.
A new Cross-Cultural Network in the Presbytery of Hudson River, just north of New York City, has helped Mardenborough to confront the pain caused by racism and to empathize with others facing similar challenges. “I think about immigrants and other groups that are under attack,” Mardenborough says. “I now know it’s even more important that I begin to understand these issues.”
The Cross-Cultural Network is part of an effort to reach out to new people, says Hudson River’s general presbyter, Susan R. Andrews. “We live in a demographic region that is almost 40 percent non-Caucasian, but our presbytery membership is only 10 percent people of color,” Andrews explains. “Clearly the new thing God is calling us to do is to create a ministry of hospitality for and with our new neighbors.”
Members of seven congregations in the presbytery worked together to write a job description for a Cross-Cultural Network coordinator. Funding for the position came from a variety of sources: the sale of a church building, the Synod of the Northeast, the Presbyterian Multicultural Network, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s offices of Cross-Cultural Ministries and Multicultural Ministries. Presbyterian minister Sarah Henkel accepted a call to the position and is just completing her first year of a three-year term.
Beyond their comfort zones
“The gospel needs to be offered in a way that all people can receive it,” Henkel says. “Most often when we think ‘cross-cultural,’ we think solely of racial ethnic and language differences. Those are certainly important examples, but there is much more to it.”
The gospel needs to be offered in a way that all people can receive it. Most often when we think “cross-cultural,” we think solely of racial ethnic and language differences. Those are certainly important examples, but there is much more to it.
The Cross-Cultural Network also seeks to bridge the gap between older and younger people, to welcome people with limited physical abilities by ensuring that church buildings are accessible and to address the socioeconomic differences that often divide communities. Henkel facilitates cultural proficiency training to raise awareness within congregations. The hope is that members can begin to identify the needs within their communities and look at new ways to welcome others into the church.
“Part of what I’m doing is bringing up the topic in congregations, talking about the differences that exist and asking if those differences are being lifted up, if all voices are being represented,” Henkel says.
“The heart of Sarah’s ministry,” says Andrews, “is building spiritual relationships and friendships among groups of people and inviting people into experiences of personal and spiritual growth that push them beyond their comfort zones.”
Mardenborough, who is now a ruling elder at White Plains (N.Y.) Presbyterian Church, attended the first network-sponsored meeting, during last year’s Presbyterian Multicultural Institute at Montreat (N.C.) Conference Center. Those who attended came away with a “shared heart for the ministry” and have continued to meet regularly, she says.
The goal of the network, as described in its mission statement, is to “connect, nurture and imagine” the church as “holy ground where people of every culture, every generation, every tongue and every talent gather to encounter God.”
“The hope is that we will continue to grow in our understanding,” Mardenborough says. She and the others are trying “to look at how best to welcome people into our congregations and how to work within our congregations in ways that might challenge some traditional ways of operating.”
Mardenborough says the network has already challenged her own thinking. “For instance, I thought gay, lesbian and transgender issues were not my issues,” she says. “I thought I didn’t have to be concerned about them, but as I spent more time in this group and paid attention, I knew I had to step forward on those issues as well. It can’t be just what I face personally.”
Mardenborough says participants get encouragement from Henkel, who helps them articulate their vision. “She is somebody who spent a lot of time in terms of her own development and learning in this arena. She shares with us her experiences and what she’s learned elsewhere.”
A worldview-altering experience
Henkel got her first taste of cross-cultural ministries while working in Austin, Texas, with the nonprofit Manos de Cristo (Hands of Christ). Founded by Presbyterians, the organization provides emergency assistance, dental care and other services to low-income people. The job brought Henkel in contact with a large number of new immigrant families.
“It was a worldview-altering experience for me,” she says. “I learned a lot about what keeps these two communities—Hispanics and Euro-Americans—separate. Two reasons seemed to continue to come up: racism and very distinct socioeconomic realities.”
But Henkel also began to notice connections between the two communities, primarily through sharing of the gospel. As part of Christ’s church, she says, “we are called to serve one another, and in doing so, we break down the structures that divide us.”
What she learned at Manos de Cristo prepared Henkel to answer the call to ministry. After earning a degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, she worked with the South Texas Civil Rights Project and a bilingual Mennonite ministry at the U.S.-Mexico border. She was looking for a call within the Presbyterian Church to be a “bridge maker” among different cultural groups when she learned of the Hudson River Presbytery position.
How our church is supposed to be
Sterling Morse, coordinator of Cross-Cultural Ministries and Congregational Support for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), made the trip from Louisville to Hudson River Presbytery to attend Henkel’s ordination in March. He is excited to see a commitment to cross-cultural ministries taking root in the presbytery.
“Hearing of the Cross-Cultural Network was an incarnational moment for me,” Morse says. “I couldn’t wait to meet Sarah Henkel, participate in the laying on hands and begin our collaborative walk together.”
Morse points to resources offered by the PC(USA)’s Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries, where his own office is lodged, as a sign of commitment to diversity at the national level of the church as well. He sees cross-cultural ministry as a way of “engaging one another across jingoistic boundaries to develop globally diverse worshiping communities and to foster deeper missional relationships, forged in the fire of compassion.”
For Henkel, fostering deeper relationships means creating new opportunities for Christian fellowship. It means gathering people of different ages, races and backgrounds to celebrate life events, to share meals that are culturally diverse and, most important, to worship.
“We know that it’s not always going to look the same from congregation to congregation,” she says. “But I think there are ways of opening up to new relationships.”
Mardenborough, for one, believes the Cross-Cultural Network is already having a profound impact on her relationships with others in Hudson River Presbytery. “I feel totally at ease. I feel loved. I can say anything comfortably,” she says.
“We don’t always have to agree, but we are all moving in the same direction. It just represents to me how our church is supposed to be.”
Jessica Reid is an associate for mission communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
It's refreshing to read how God is using you to spread the word of God to all. Here in my area I see so many people of God with blinders and think only about themselves and the not the communiy. Will is so lucky to have you as a life partner. May God bless you and keep up God's work. One day Will will introduce you to Tio Oscar.
Brothers and sister with their skins other than black, yellow, brown or red are also people of color; lets say pink or white. Jesus never referred to his followers as "people of color". So we need to set free ourselves in our conciences and not to define any more our identity as "people of color". It is an old racist term that comes from the "white" european anthropology.
This sounds wonderful, God loves all of us and I know this is his plan that we all come together to worship him despite differences in all of us. I love what you are doing, and happy to know Leslie is a part of this great movement, I have all of you in my prayers and know mighty things in Christ are in the making!!