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Working to broaden the week’s most segregated hour — worship

About 90 people are part of the 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Patrick Fore via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Through plenary and breakout sessions — and by listening to Presbyterians who are making strides toward building intercultural faith communities — the 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops got underway Saturday with about 90 people aboard virtually.

Before the group broke into nine breakout sessions, four plenary speakers addressed this question: How do you invite a majority congregation to embrace intercultural transformation?

“Intercultural ministry is not just one way of doing church,” said the Rev. Samuel Son, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Manager of Diversity, who organized the conference, which continues online Sept. 26. “It’s the essence of being church.”

Saturday’s plenary speakers included:

Henton, who was called to serve Derita Church three years ago, said the mostly white congregation began going down the road toward interculturalism about 10 years ago with three tools in its belt: leadership, prayer and what he called “holy desperation.”

The Rev. Eulando Henton is pastor at Derita Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Derita Church)

“Members were moving out of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood was becoming increasingly African American,” he said. Those members remaining were told, “I think you need a Black pastor here.” When he began his ministry there in 2017, a longtime church member wrote him this note: “I want you to know I have been praying for years for you to come to this congregation.”

Hairston grew up in Rainier Valley, a Seattle neighborhood where dozens of languages are spoken. “I loved every bit of it,” he said, especially going to school and sampling delicious food prepared by Koreans and Pacific Islanders.

“Then I had to leave and go to college (at the University of Washington). I realized it was not like my neighborhood,” he said, a reason he’s happy also to be preaching and working at Lake Burien Presbyterian Church. “I have felt called to enter into the joy of what it means to live into such a diverse space — and that we are really designed for it.”

Why, Son pressed the panelists, are many Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations more segregated than the neighborhoods they’re in?

The Rev. Amantha Barbee is senior pastor at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.

“It boils down to colonialism and support for it,” Barbee said. “Charity given to small Black churches makes [white churches] feel better — and they will stay down there and not worship with us.” Those working toward intercultural ministry must, she said, “look through the eyes of Scripture and Jesus Christ, hearing and seeing and feeling what it truly means to love all God’s children.”

“Church is about our comfort,” Henton said, describing the views of those not working toward inclusion. “Surely God would not put us in a place where we are uncomfortable. Why should we engage?” It’s because “intercultural relationships are indeed beautiful and filled with joy — and they are also challenging, messy and difficult because of this doctrine of white supremacy that is all around us.”

The Rev. Tail Hairston is Seattle Presbytery’s director of organizing, advocacy and development. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Presbytery)

Churches have often reflected community cultures of racism, classism and sexism, Hairston said, but it’s racism that “was the template used to segregate society,” which for white supremacists leads to this conclusion: some humans created in the image of God aren’t actually human. That idea “gets created and then reproduced because of the idolatry of comfortability,” that notion that says, “I am more comfortable with people who are like me,” he said.

According to van Beek, if being church is about feeling comfortable, white churches that won’t reach out to people of color “don’t want to feel guilty about not including others.” They might say, “Oh, we have one or two people of color — we’re good,” he said.

For many American Christians, religion is more an individual endeavor than a community undertaking, Hairston said. “I can say, ‘I am not a racist; therefore, racism is not a problem,’” he said. To those holding that view, “Race is personal and so is salvation. But racism is the water we swim in and the air we breathe … It’s not personal. It’s very structural.”

After the police killing of George Floyd, Henton shared with his congregation stories of his own police harassment while he was a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “Sharing my own pain, my own trauma, being that vulnerable, which was fairly difficult for me, helped spark conversation in the congregation,” which Henton described as right of the political center. “Now that I have been there a few years, they know me and love me, and we can have those broader conversations.”

“It’s about truth-telling,” Barbee said. “We have to be willing to tell the truth and to hear it, and sometimes it’s hard to hear it. It’s not easy to follow the law of God to the letter. It’s not designed to be easy … Some of us are preaching a whitewashed gospel, and we have congregations that get aggravated when we don’t.”

Henton said he’s careful when he preaches to point out ethnicity in Bible stories when it’s specifically mentioned. Acts 13:1-3, for example, the account of Barnabas and Saul being commissioned, contains “a list of folks with very different backgrounds,” he said. “When we started pointing that out, people were astonished.”

An intercultural house of worship is at the very least a sign Christians are about the business of bringing the gospel to all people.

“If I keep you from participating [in an intercultural ministry], I am saying, ‘You are not fully made in the image of God,’” Hairston said.

The 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops continue Saturday. They’re being put on by the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the presbyteries of Sacramento and Stockton and Charlotte and the Presbyterian Intercultural Network.

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.

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