Friday, January 18, 2019

Heinrich Bolleter: Experiences in Multicultural Community

Today's post is by Heinrich Bolleter, retired bishop of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference. The article first appeared in German on Rev. Bolleter's personal blog. Translation is by UM & Global's David Scott.

A "multicultural community": for many, that rather sounds like an exotic concept.

I have experienced the reality of churches that are multicultural already for 25 years in my service as bishop of Central and Southern Europe. For instance, in Voivodina, Serbia, there are churches in which Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Ukranians, and so-called Danube Swabians lived with one another. In North Africa, there are churches in which Kabyle people, French, and black Africans, who had immigrated from the south beyond the Sahara, lived together.

With the new wave of migration in Europe, we also speak of a growing number of multicultural communities. With us in Aarau, we have many colors and cultures in our church services: Asians, Africans, and Swiss. Alongside this, an Arabic-speaking congregation has formed. I would exaggerate if I said that this community ran along under one church roof without tensions. We learn the right approach to one another. Experiences of respect and acceptance arise in lively and sustained exchange with one another.

In the United Methodist Church (EmK) in Switzerland, we have two classical models:

1. The integration model - the joint congregation

The first model strives to integrate speakers of other languages into the local congregation, that is to say, to be and form church together with in-migrating people and groups. That is a large challenge, not only in common worship, which requires translation capacities and the desire to operate on a larger bandwith, but also a broadly supported openness to interpersonal contacts and intercultural experiences. Thus can a "we-feeling" develop in a multicultural congregation. Despite linguistic barriers, the multicultural community can avoid social isolation of immigrants by taking great joy in interacting with them. Stephen Moll writes about an experience in Baden: "Relationships and friendships are central. Cooking and eating together is a wonderful way to meet at eye-level. We also involve the asylum-seekers in the responsibilities for the life of the congregation." (Column in «mein TDS» 2018/30, page 14).

2. The migrant congregation

Language is not the only reason for forming a separate migrant congregation. It is a deep desire for "home" in a foreign land and in a foreign culture. The question arises whether a migrant congregation is a congregation for a limited time or one of lasting institutional size? It is said that the children of immigrants rather tend to be Swiss and join the group of Swiss congregations. The third generation of immigrants will likely think again of their roots in their family's country of origin. Migrant congregations are therefore being visited by members of the third generation of immigrants, although they could easily integrate into the multicultural "Swiss congregations." The migrant congregation remains a place of "safety," a refuge, where one can absorb the culture shock. The migrant congregation remains a great help against the emotional and social isolation of the immigrants. The characteristic quality of a migrant congregation is "here we are like a family." Here I point to the book of an Arabic friend of Jörg Niederer's, Usama Al-Shamani. It received the sponsorship prize of the city of Frauenfeld. His book bears the title, In the Foreign Place, the Trees Speak Arabic ("In der Fremde sprechen die Bäume arabisch").

Multicultural Experiences - Biblical Models
The question of biblical models leads us to the conclusion that multiculturalism in the church is not a modern phenomenon. The Bible is full of multicultural experiences.

Migration is present in the reports of the Old Testament and the New Testament. That helps us see today's churches with new eyes.

What I have seen in church and society has sensitized me to read anew these texts in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. I have discovered that God has frequently led the people into intercultural experiences to allow them to grow and mature in life and to strengthen and distinguish themselves in their service.

God's call made the people in biblical times into boundary-crossers and bridge-builders between cultures.

I now point out here examples of how God led people across their own boundaries of ethnicity and culture to prepare them for and summon them to service.

Moses, who was commissioned by God as the "savior of the people of Israel from Egypt," is a dramatic example of how God works across the boundaries of culture. Moses was born as a Hebrew and raised in the court of the Pharoah in Egypt. On his flight into the land of Midian, he married a foreigner, Zippora, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian.

Moses spoke with an accent. He was an outsider to the Egyptians and also to the Hebrews. His "yes" to God's commission made him into the leader on the flight from Egypt.

Naomi and Ruth: Naomi and Elimelech emigrate from their home into the land of the Moabites. The reason was a famine. Her husband and both sons die. So she leaves with her daughter-in-law Ruth, a Midianite, to return to the Promised Land. Through marriage with Boaz, Ruth became a mother and a limb in the family tree of the Messiah.

In the New Testament, it is Jesus who, in a multicultural world divided by religion, crosses the boundaries of religion and culture in the name of God. He went physically across the boundaries into gentile territory and thereby broke a taboo of the Jewish community. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well and thereby broke through the social, cultural, and religious rules of his time. This behavior as "boundary-crosser" was a hallmark of his way and service. Many more examples could be compiled.

The Acts of the Apostles reports how the growing number of Christian congregations must wrestle with whether they can - or should - reflect multicultural society (especially in urban areas). Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women, rich and poor, joined the Christian communities. Through the Passover event and the mission command, the communities in Jerusalem and Antioch became multi-ethnic and multilingual. The Apostle Peter confessed: "Now I am learning in reality that God does not regard the person. Instead, persons from every people group are pleasing to him, if they fear him" (Acts 10). So what is the distinctive mark of a Christian community? Not nationality, not uniform culture or equal social standing, but faith in Jesus Christ alone is the definitive bond of the community.

In the net of relationships among natives and foreigners, among the various ethnicities and cultural expressions, we seek our identity today as a multicultural congregation following Jesus.

Open Doors for Multicultural Encounters
Multiculturalism was already in biblical ages the normal case. Here are two more reminisces:

In the booklet of daily watchwords of the [Moravian] Brethren, a prayer from Africa reads, "Lord Jesus Christ, you were born of a Hebrew mother. Babylonian wisemen paid homage to you. You were full of joy at the belief of a Syrian woman and a Roman captain. An African carried your cross. We thank you, that we may belong to you. Help us to bring people of all races and nations into your reign as co-heirs." A living fellowship, which follows this Jesus, must have open doors for all. Article 4 of the constitution of our church also holds fast this point: "All, without regard to race, color, national origin, status and social position should participate in the life of the church and receive the sacraments."

By the way, the United Methodist Church has always grown the fastest among migrants and people on the edges of society. Our mission therefore does not allow national, political, and other loyalties to limit unity in Christ. If God loves life, then Others are not excluded. We need a "church-with-one-another" which makes a contribution to reconciliation among people. Experiences of respect and acceptance are rooted in lively and sustained exchange.

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