The Local Church, Empathy, and Diversity

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I recently received a large grant for a sabbatical. During my three months away, I was able to visit various churches here in the States. My wife and sons spent a month in England with me as I did research at Cambridge. And for another month I was able to visit numerous sites from church history throughout Italy, ending with time in Rome and at the Vatican.

While in Florence I visited the tomb of Dante Alighieri (though he is not buried there). I’ve always been fascinated with one story about Dante in particular. According to legend, he had the habit of falling into ecstasy during Mass, being totally absorbed in the sacredness of the moment. One particular Sunday everyone in the congregation went to their knees in prayer… everyone except Dante. The next day he was summoned to the archbishop’s palace.

The archbishop told him that people had complained about his apparent disrespect. “I’m sorry for that,” Dante explained. “But I meant no disrespect. I was simply so caught up in the vision of Jesus on the altar that I didn’t realize what the people around me were doing.”
The congregation I’m privileged to serve is simultaneously blessed and challenged with incredible diversity. As one of our lay leaders recently commented, it’s hard “to make all of the Central Free Methodist communities (Nepali, Bhutanese, Haitian, African, African-American, Hispanic, Anglo-American, sober, recovering, middle income, working class, homeless, stably housed) feel that CFMC is their church.” He’s right. It is hard. And yet there is great beauty in such diversity.

We have five services every Sunday. Two are led primarily in English. In 2015 we established four new Free Methodist Churches in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, and they’ve already added four more. We also began working with Nepali communities in Atlanta, GA, Memphis, TN, Columbus, OH, and Fargo, ND, planting churches among people who simply want to learn more about our God of love and the salvation offered through Jesus. But every single one of them has had issues when it comes to the language barrier and to differences in cultural approaches to power, to money, and to how one deals with conflict.

So we’ve had many classes on cultural awareness, both for those who speak English and for those who do not. We’ve discussed ways to be culturally sensitive, and have spent a lot of energy trying to understand what food is appropriate to eat and how one says that they’ve had enough, whether one looks another in the eye or not, who is it okay to hug and who is it most definitely not, when do things start and what is considered “the right time”. As anyone knows who has worked with diverse cultures and communities, this list can go on and on.

This is why in the midst of the training and the trying to see through one another’s eyes we have been intentional to learn to see each other as Jesus does, with unmerited, unrelenting, unconditional love. We firmly believe that our best evangelistic efforts are not so much about convincing people that they need to accept Jesus as much as simply loving everybody with the love of Jesus. We don’t need to argue for Him. We need to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us, but we cannot approach anybody as an agenda or a project. They are simply a person, like any of us, for whom Jesus died. We should love them.  And in loving the diversity, we find ourselves less fearful and more able to embrace one another as sisters and brothers in this beautiful life.

Richard Rohr says that “the best of modern theology is revealing a strong ‘turn towards participation,’ as opposed to religion as mere observation, affirmation, moralism, or group belonging.” By treating all persons with respect and patience and grace, we’ve seen people from all backgrounds turn toward God, with whom they were always created to have relationship. They have joined us in the journey. And as we love them as unconditionally as we can, they begin to believe that Jesus loves them even more.

In the end, it’s not that different from Dante. If we all could get so caught up in our image of Jesus we would not be distracted as much by the differences in how we worship, or the language of our sermons, or the style of our music, or the flavor of our food. We would continually be able to pass over what separates us and marks us as distinct, the beautiful and wonderful things that make us individuals created with purpose and passion by our Compassionate Creator, and we could focus much more on the mystery that takes place whenever two or three of God’s children gather together. We would see Jesus present in our midst, uniting everyone with Himself as He is united with the Father. When the presence of Jesus is so absorbing in all that we do, we find that the distracting actions of those around us don’t seem to be quite as noticeable. And even then, they don’t seem to be quite so relevant.

For we don’t notice the pain or fear that can come from misunderstanding and distrust. Instead, we see the beauty in our diversity because of the unity we have in the One who died for all.

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