Celebrating our differences: a biblical vision for interculturality
“I was losing trust and hope in the work of intercultural ministry and in the church. I was disillusioned with how racism was institutionalized in Canada, including in the church I was proud of. So I went to the workshop with little expectation. What I experienced, however, was far beyond what I could ask for. All of us agreed that there was a transformation in the group. Each of us encountered the other, the holy, through honest and genuine sharing.”
–Rev. Min-Goo Kang on his 2016 Engage Difference! experience
In May 2021, Jonathan Schmidt graduated from Knox College with Doctor of Ministry degree. A staff member at The Canadian Council of Churches, Jonathan specializes in intercultural learning and ministry. His doctoral work focused on the history and impact of Engage Difference! Deepening Understanding for Intercultural Ministry, a five-day program that helps people to nurture cultural relevance, understanding, and awareness in their churches and communities. Vocations interviewed Jonathan to better understand interculturality and why it’s important to us as a church.
Why do you use the term ‘intercultural’?
In Canada, you’ve likely heard the term “multicultural,” indicating that many cultures are present; or “cross-cultural,” recognizing that the different cultures are interacting. But “intercultural” goes further: it recognizes different cultures are interacting, and that power dynamics are at work and need to be addressed. To be truly intercultural means that every person is able to be fully present as they are created by God, fully able to shape and be shaped by the other.
Interculturality goes beyond what we typically think of as “culture” – it’s about all the ways there’s diversity in the room: gender, migration history, sexuality, ableness, and all the other ways we differ from each other. It celebrates our differences instead of seeing them as a problem to solve. This is a vision of shalom and right relationship with all of creation, with each other, and with God.
What is the value of interculturality? Why should we care about becoming intercultural communities?
A situation where we have a dominant culture with others on the margins is behind many of the significant mistakes – like residential schools – that we as churches have made. We had assumed that we needed to bring others into our way of being, that our way was best. Colonization itself relies on people thinking their culture, their civilization, is superior to others. Christianity has done all kinds of harm because of those attitudes. Caring about interculturality is crucial to ensure we’re not repeating the same kinds of mistakes that we did in the past.
Within the church, Canada has people who have all kinds of different ways of knowing and experiencing God and being church together. This wisdom is a resource to the Canadian church, to help us know how we can change and respond to our rapidly changing context. If the church in Canada is going to survive, it needs to learn and adapt.
Further, being in relationship with people from other cultures who know and experience God differently, who have other ways of being Christian, broadens our own experience of God. Our faith is changed radically when it’s able to be shaped by other people’s experiences of God.
We also need to care about interculturality because this is what God calls us to, as the church: to be intercultural, to live out the blessing and also the command of shalom, and to be in right relationship with each other – with all of creation and with God.
How do we move toward this vision?
This isn’t simple work – just a program to attend, or a statement to make. Some of it will take generations. But the first step is the humility to recognize that we’re called to this, and – particularly those of us in the dominant culture – to be able to sit and listen.
It’s going to take the church’s deep commitment to being intercultural, to doing the hard, good, and joyful work toward interculturality. A big part of the long-term commitment is taking the time and energy to deliberately be in relationship with others who might be different than us.
Currently we may say (and believe) that all are welcome in our churches, but we’re not really interested in being changed by others. We have certain ways of conducting meetings, worshipping, and interacting. We have all kinds of conscious and unconscious ways of marginalizing others or keeping others out. To become intercultural, we’ll have to have honest relationships, really listen to how others experience our churches, and be willing to learn and change in response.
What the church needs is not a set formula to become intercultural, but an understanding of how to be faithful in these new contexts. We need tools and ways of being so that each community can figure out how they need to do this in their context.
A church that is intercultural would allow everyone to be fully who they are. People would want to be in this place and would be drawn to this community because they are valued as people, their culture is valued, and their ways of thinking are valued. Everyone would be valued as children of God.
One of the things that keeps me in this work, and one of the high points of my career and ministry, is that I actually get to experience what the church could be. I’ve had the privilege of holding Engage Difference! sessions across the country in many different contexts. I get to have glimpses of this intercultural community that God calls us to, “encountering the other, the holy” as Rev. Kang says.
I’ve seen participants learn how to listen to others who are different from themselves. They say that they’re better able to tolerate feelings of discomfort and allow themselves to be vulnerable. Many describe profound experiences of community at the program: “a real experience of being able to be who you were created to be.” The experience becomes a “celebration of difference.”
This is the vision for true intercultural community, where every person is able to be fully present and valued as they are created by God.
Learn more about intercultural leadership and learning, Jonathan’s doctoral thesis, and the Engage Difference! program at interculturalleadership.ca.