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Success and near-misses (such as serving lasagna for brunch) are part of intercultural ministry

Pennsylvania pastor shares joys, struggles of sharing and celebrating cultural heritage together

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Noé Juarez

LOUISVILLE — Leaders of churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be pastoral, intercultural and even fun — but it’s rarely spontaneous. Those sought-after qualities normally require careful planning and even some buy-in from the targeted audience.

But it’s richly rewarding work, according to the Rev. Dr. Noé Juarez, pastor for mission and family ministries at Highland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Juarez presented a workshop Saturday during the 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops, which continue Sept. 26 and are being put on by the Presbyterian Intercultural Network, the presbyteries of Sacramento and Stockton and Charlotte and the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Juarez said he uses humor as a way to get people to open up. Rather than directing barbs at others, Juarez, who’s originally from Peru, tells jokes on himself. An example: What’s the definition of xenophobia? It’s the fear of Peruvians. “The safest way not to offend others,” he said, “is to laugh at yourself.”

Juarez said he learned English by watching the sitcom “Friends” and listening to English-language songs. These days and in previous callings in Florida and North Carolina, he and church members delight in hosting intercultural ministry events involving food, art, music and dancing. Celebrating in those ways allows participants “to be more festive and to have an open spirit,” he said. Special worship services followed by shared meals, art, music and dancing during important events on the church calendar — Pentecost and Christmas come to mind — “has always been meaningful,” he said. “It’s amazing how we can learn from each other in fun and meaningful ways.”

Juarez said he finds biblical and theological understanding of interculturality in these key passages:

  • Genesis 1:27 — All humanity is created in the image of God.
  • Genesis 11:1-9 — The Tower of Babel as a place of pride, fear of one another and confusion.
  • Acts 2:1-8 — The story of Pentecost shifts the paradigm of confusion into the celebration of all peoples. The language and culture of every person are celebrated.
  • Revelation 7:9 — The vision that every nation, every tribe and all peoples worship the Lord together.

Over the years, Juarez has helped offer any number of intercultural events that have blessed worshipers at the churches he’s served. World Communion Sunday and Christmas “are good times to be intercultural,” he said. In his present community, Lancaster residents hold a First Friday community event. Artists from different backgrounds share their work, and musicians “from all kinds of genres and backgrounds” play.

Other forays have been less successful. When he led a Hispanic ministry in North Carolina, he tried to unite his mainly Mexican community with a growing group of Cuban immigrants. “In my naïve understanding, I thought we could all come together for worship,” Juarez said. “We lost half of our Mexicans and half our Cubans. I am from Peru and I tried to be neutral, but their music and their attitudes were very different. The Cubans wanted upbeat, Caribbean music, and the Mexicans wanted something different. If I could go back, I would try to find a few things they had in common, and then gradually try to bring them together.”

At another stop, he led bilingual worship every Sunday. “That’s hard for the preacher,” he said. “It was just too much. In my experience, it works better to worship in one language or the other. You can occasionally combine them, but not every Sunday.”

Another important consideration: Who’s in charge of the kitchen?

At one church he served, members and friends served a once-a-month brunch from 10:30 a.m. through noon for the community “and for our homeless friends,” he said. On one occasion, the matriarch of the family in charge of the meal that week decided she wanted to provide the community with the best food she could: lasagna.

“Some of our white members were upset,” Juarez said. “How dare we serve lasagna for brunch? Our homeless friends enjoyed eating lasagna at 10:30 in the morning, but for some of our Anglo friends, that was not acceptable. It’s important to have clarity in communication.”

Juarez said he continues to learn as he continues honing intercultural ministry.

“In my journey as an intercultural person, I have learned to celebrate the best of all worlds, to be authentic and open to learning about other people, backgrounds and cultures, and to enjoy delicious food and music and dances from other cultures,” he said. “Leading an intercultural church is not easy. It can be exhausting, but it’s about finding ways that can be fun and meaningful so that everyone can celebrate their cultures through music, worship, food, arts and festivals.”

The vision glimpsed by John of Patmos and recorded in Revelation 22:1-5 is the one Juarez aims for in intercultural ministry: the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

That kind of therapeutic approach is clear in the Greek, he said. The healing God wants to provide us is “for all ethnic groups,” he said.

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.


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