Welcoming is an adjective that nearly every church uses to describe itself. But the truth is not every, and far from every, church community is truly welcoming. Hospitality is something that is culturally specific and contextualized. In the area – Presbytery (in our lingo) – where I serve as pastor this is causing considerable problems. It boils down to churches misunderstanding each other, and in the end being deeply offensive to one another. We too quickly turn on each other out of fear that comes from our anxiety in significant multicultural diversity, church decline in terms of money and people, and a fear of institutional death. Our relationships of cooperation and collaboration are considered open and reciprocal. But what we need to be asking is wether our partnerships are transactional or relational, or a mix. We need to recognize how these partnerships are intimately connected to the unspoken cultural norms and assumed notions of both individualism and collectivism.
At a recent celebration of a pastor colleague’s ministry, what I mean was really spelled out in a celebratory sermon. Here’s a video of Pastor Moratya sharing the reflection. It includes comments about how an inter-church partnership started from a simple desire for relationship. Pastor Morataya speaks about how hospitality is experienced and how it at times is merely talked about.
The problems occurring in our presbytery area include two distinct church sites. They have differing conflicts but both boil down to this divide between transactional and relational. Both conflicts involve an hispanohablante (Spanish-speaking) community, composed primarily of hispanic immigrants, and for lack of a better word Anglo, White, or North American cultured community. The Hispanic ones view the sharing of property, building space and ministry collaboration as a relational thing. It’s something that you do with a partner, a friend, someone who respects you and who is respected in return as a full and capable partner. The North-American cultured congregations seem to see the situation as one that is more transactional. That’s not to say they don’t appreciate the relationship. But it’s transactional because their notion of ministry grows from a deep cultural value of individualism. The partnership is one in which goals are to be achieved: numbers grown, money received, space used. One side employs the vocabulary of partnership, unity, cooperation, support, shared ministry. The other side employs similar yet different words: partnership, cooperation, nesting, using our space, a church we’re helping, rental relationship.
Both imagine a similar connection, but they’re actually talking about different things. One vision fears the relationship, what it could cost the “mother” church in terms of people, numbers, money, and visibility. When rent, building use monies, or shared ministry costs cannot be paid in full, the cultural paradigms of the congregations interpret it differently. The Anglo culture often fears insolvency, having to pick up the bill, bail someone else out, that the costs will somehow bring their community down. Members of the Hispanic cultural paradigm often feel deeply hurt in reaction to what they experience as rejection, pseudo-friendship or pseudo-partnership. In a society in which they have suffered much rejection and despair as immigrants and minorities, they experience this relational misconnection as yet another affirmation of injustice in a long series of financial impotence and cultural exclusion.
I have not done detailed data research on the state of inter-cultural multi-church partnerships across our denomination and country. And I would surmise that they often fail because of this divide between transactional and relational, between individualistic and collectivistic. In the church I serve there is a national push for greater diversity, reflecting diversity of race, class, gender, orientation, language and culture. This comes from the mammoth shift of “white” culture as dominant to one of many minorities that has already happened, or is happening now. But we might just be wasting our time and money, and other people’s good will, if we don’t recognize and confront the entirety of the icebergs¤ that float among us as we navigate the multicultural seas of 21st century America.
¤Icebergs are commonly used as a metaphor for the complexity of multicultural relationships and partnerships. An iceberg is dangerous because only the tip is visible to sea going vessels. If one navigates around an iceberg merely by sight of what’s visible, disaster is fairly certain. In general 90% of the iceberg’s mass and volume are not visible, hidden underwater. In much the same way, our relationships contain cultural differences, assumptions and expectations that are for the most part “not visible,” that’s to say unspoken, assumed, not articulated.