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Tuning up the welcome wagon

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What does multiculturalism mean for our churches?

Any time I evaluate photos of people for publication, I ask: is there a mix of women and men? some variety in ages? more than one skin colour pictured? My grid of cultural awareness also monitors communal gatherings – church services, conventions, lectures, concerts,
outreach events.

As a Mennonite, conformity with secular standards is generally not something I value, but in the case of multiculturalism, I think Canadians are on to something. We prize our reputation as a country that welcomes newcomers and refugees exactly as they are – something that sounds awfully similar to the mandate Jesus gave his followers (Matthew 25:35–36).

As Mennonite Brethren in Canada, called by God to love our neighbours and seek justice for the oppressed, how do we respond to the strangers we meet?

Has the church missed the boat?

The local mall food court is a hub for my community. What I see there – neighbours of Aboriginal, African, and Asian background – is not reflected in my church. The diversity of peers from public university courses is not mirrored in the graduation photographs from MB colleges. The colourful throng found on city buses bears no resemblance to the crowd at an MB convention.

Is the church lagging behind society at integrating minorities? Do we mix with people of other ethnicities less often and less effectively? If everyone in our churches looks the same, we’re neglecting not only far-away strangers, but coworkers, fellow students, and friends. As people driven by mission, that should concern us.

Canadian MBs are proud to say we worship in some 21 languages from Arabic to Vietnamese, but in many cases, those churches are monolingual and relatively monocultural. Why is it that we work and study together, but worship separately?

As countries in the Western world begin to close the door on accepting outsiders, the church can send a countercultural message of Christ’s love by demonstrating openness to those who are different from us. In an interview on page 10, pastor at The Life Centre (MB), Abbotsford, B.C., Bindu Sidhu says by worshipping alongside Anglo-Saxons, Kenyans, and Chinese, he can witness to his Punjabi friends that Jesus is for everyone, not merely Europeans.

Embarking on God’s adventure

Canadians didn’t come up with multiculturalism; God inspired his servant Paul to write, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). From the call of Abraham (Genesis 18:18) through the prophets (Isaiah 2:1–3) and Psalms, to the book of Acts, where Peter finally began to understand that “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34–35), the LORD declares his heart for the nations.

If God’s love is for all, it follows that God’s communities on earth reflect that, not only through Canadian-Chinese churches, but through congregations that welcome all as equal brothers and sisters in our largely homogeneous MB churches.

This welcome means not only inviting friends to do things “our way,” but to share their gifts, and teach us different ways. In this issue, Ken Peters challenges churches to become not merely multicultural but intercultural – where minorities may not only attend but contribute (page 11).

Getting back on the bike

Here, it gets uncomfortable. It’s fun to sample homemade Chinese food and model West African jewelry, but inviting a Karen refugee youth to join the worship team may require the group to learn a different music style. Sitting under the leadership of Latin American brothers and sisters may mean relaxing our notions of time schedule. If our churches are truly to be places of welcome, it’s not enough to fill the pews without changing the way we do things.

From Cameroonian villagers, I learned about using my inhibited Mennonite body, not only my well-trained voice, to worship God in song. Acquaintance with a young woman from DR Congo provides the opportunity to humble myself, not only by exercising my mediocre French, but also by learning how to be a friend across uncertain cultural expectations.

We’re tentatively getting to know one another; stepping on each other’s toes now and then, but responding gracefully as we learn from those mistakes. Her courage, generosity, and beauty of spirit are teaching me new things about God. I hope she’s getting something out of the bargain too.

As followers of this loving God and residents of a culturally diverse nation, the greatest mistake we could make is not to try at all.

Karla Braun is associate editor of the MB Herald.

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