Breaking Down Walls — Center for Action and Contemplation

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Breaking Down Walls

Unity and Diversity

Breaking Down Walls
Thursday, June 6, 2019

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis is senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church, a multiracial, welcoming, and inclusive congregation in New York City. We were honored to have her speak at our Universal Christ conference this March. Today I’d like to share a short excerpt from her book The Power of Stories:

Christian biblical images of the peaceable realm are abundant: Isaiah’s prophecy of a time when lions will lie down with lambs [11:6-7]; Paul’s teachings on the equality of male and female, Jew and Gentile, and slave and free [Galatians 3:28]; and John’s challenge to love the neighbor whom we can see as an expression of the love of God whom we cannot see [1 John 4:11-12, 20-21] all echo the gospel teachings of Jesus. Love is the ethic of Jesus of Nazareth—love of God, neighbor, and self. Jesus, Paul of Tarsus told us, is our peace, the one whose love breaks down walls of hostility that separate people [Ephesians 2:14-16]. The church, as the body of Christ, is called and commissioned to break down those walls wherever we encounter them. It is our mission, and we understand that.

Thus, every Sunday morning in American churches, bulletins, greeters, and signs on the door offer messages of welcome. Yet what is often meant by welcome is that strangers can come in as long as they look like us, don’t offend us, don’t challenge us, and work heroically to fit in with our communal sense of self. In American culture, what we are likely to be made uncomfortable by are racial and ethnic differences, generational differences, theological differences, or differences due to sexual orientation. But, as psychologist Robert Carter argues, what matters most in American culture is race. [1]

Though American congregations share the call to welcome, in fact, only 7. 5 percent of the over three hundred thousand Christian congregations in the United States are multiracial and multicultural, which means no one racial or ethnic group makes up more than 80 percent of its members. [2] Even churches with a sincere desire to diversify may encounter barriers, such as location, language, and worship style. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour in America still stands to challenge each congregation to examine the difference in its midst and to develop a higher capacity and moral compass to embrace it and to celebrate it.

The gospel message is clear, yet relatively few clergy are able to lead their congregants into this vision of shalom. Clergy do not lead in a vacuum; they work in a context and in a culture that is often counter to the gospel. In other words, the vision we are called to story is often met with resistance that needs to be navigated. We must learn to cross cultural borders and break down resistance to a radical ethic of welcome.

As a Catholic (meaning “universal”) priest and spiritual teacher, I take Rev. Lewis’ message to heart. I hope you will join me in committing to change our culture, communities, churches, and institutions into places where all feel like they belong and are completely welcome (which might mean changing a few things that we take for granted).

[1] See Robert T. Carter, The Influence of Race and Racial Identity in Psychotherapy: Toward a Racially Inclusive Model (John Wiley and Sons: 1995).

[2] See Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim, United by Faith: Multiracial Congregations as an Answer to the Problem of Race (Oxford University Press: 2003).

Jacqueline J. Lewis, The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multi-Racial and Multi-Cultural Congregations (Abingdon Press: 2008), 6-8.

Image credit: Pure Diversity (detail), Mirta Toledo, 1993. Art Collection of TCU University, Fort Worth, Texas, USA.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation itself. —Christena Cleveland
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