Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Racial Garden

Last week I helped a friend move from Chicago to his hometown of Buffalo, NY. Edward and I have known each other for nearly five years; and it's a special relationship for me. Not only is he a true friend who sticks closer than a brother, but Ed's the first black guy I've ever been really tight with. He's the Eddie Murphy to my Joe Piscapo in the SNL rendition of Ebony and Ivory. And we clown around and laugh just as hard together.

We spent four days visiting his family, spending time with his friends, attending his home church, and running countless necessary move-in errands. It was awesome for me to be the only white guy in virtually every community we visited. I was usually graciously welcomed and included. At times, it helped that I was a pastor. In some places I forgot about the difference of race; in others, I was painfully awkward and out-of-place. I finally tasted a bit of what Edward goes through.

Ed lovingly and gently helped walk me through the cultural differences. Like all culture, the African-American worldview shapes a person's approach to life, spirituality, community, self, and everything else.

In Buffalo, I saw praise that's powerful and participatory. Art drips with the weight of pain, provision, and promise. Dignity and significance are hotly pursued and protected and are generally earned through communal recognition of degrees, titles, and achievements. Family is central and far-reaching. Neighborhood and church are core communities and the front porch is always open for business. The pastor is lord of his congregation. Men wear suits; women wear hats. Women are less than men. Blessing usually means money and status. Food is rich and frequently shared in gatherings and visits. People sit together, even when they have little to talk about. Almost everyone hugs (I love that). Many have been pulled over and questioned in their car by police without reason. History, home, and roots become issues of loyalty. Congregational multiculturalism often seems improbable and irrelevant. And on and on.

That's just a tiny sampling of my wholly inadequate observations on the experience. It was a lot to take in. I saw God's created glory and His redemptive kingdom. I saw human corruption and demonic influence. I saw the struggle between them. And when I came back, I ... was ... exhausted. Cross-cultural experiences do that. I was observing, interpreting, adjusting, adapting, and responding every moment of every day. In a sense, it was work. I was immersed in a new river with new currents, rapids, eddies, and obstacles that were unfamiliar to me. It was rich, deep, and an overwhelming blessing... and it was draining.

I'm back in Chicago now. Back home. My mind, heart, and body are recovering; and as they do, more thoughts keep rising to the surface. Just four days of going and all this has come and is still coming. Just four days of going and my passion for the reconciling and reconnecting kingdom of God has taken several steps forward. Just four days of going and I'm changed a little. Just four days of going across a cultural border, opening my heart, and immersing myself in its relationships.

There is power in the going.

And what would happen if we spent more than four days enjoying the treasure of cultural diversity together? What would happen if we gathered on the common ground of God's kingdom without sacrificing the unique beauty of each culture? How would we do that? What would come of it? What if we began looking for borders to cross? Ethnic churches to visit? Parts of town to eat lunch at? What would happen if we moved our residence there? What we we began crossing borders ... Chicago and Buffalo ... England and Iraq ... Judea and Samaria, even to the uttermost parts of the earth?

I had breakfast with a Chinese friend this morning. She described the kingdom of God as a garden filled with the flowers of races and cultures. All different. All beautiful. All contributing to the beauty of that sacred space.

The kingdom of God is a garden. Who wouldn't want to join that?

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