Some evening last fall, I sat in a room with fifty or so people to listen to Nikki Lerner speak on multiculturalism in America. Nikki Lerner spoke out about her struggles growing up feeling the pressure to adapt to the dominant culture in order to succeed. There was pressure to wear her hair a certain way, behave a certain way and speak a certain way so that she could fit into dominant culture and in order to avoid being stereotyped by her “other-ness” or “difference.”
She explained that this wasn’t a true celebration of diversity and challenged us to meet people who were different from us where they were instead of expecting them to assimilate. She encouraged us to get to know the sub-cultures that lived within our neighborhoods – really get to know them. Not to just tolerate them, but have conversations and understand how they did life differently. She challenged us to speak their language, learn about their traditions and partake in it. That was a true act of celebration.
I made it my mission to really get to know my neighbors. I knew they were Caribbean, had lived in Brooklyn for over 50 years, and for at least two generations. I made it my mission to be a part of a sub-culture in my neighborhood and joined a Capoeira group where I had to learn to speak (and sing!) in Portuguese and play a Brazilian percussion instrument to participate. I took myself out of my comfort zone of the dominant culture to learn about, participate and celebrate groups of people who were different from myself.
But it wasn’t enough anymore. Simply getting along wasn’t making enough of a difference. Sure, it broke down some personal stereotypes that I had held about certain people but was it a true demonstration of God’s love?
Lisa Sharon Harper, in her book “The Very Good Gospel” takes it a step further by saying we are called to see the image of God in one another.
We are created to love one another and to steward in caring for this earth together.
That is our purpose.
I was challenged even further because up until this point, I thought I was doing my part in loving my neighbors, especially those who were different from me. But were they all that different? They were all people of color, all around my age, and all in the same socio-economic bracket. Even in stepping out of my comfort zone, I was still comfortable. In sitting in comfort, I wasn’t being exposed to some prevailing issues that were at hand within other communities. I wasn’t hearing the stories of the poor, the exploited, or the criminalized. Those were the people groups who were difficult to be around and those were the difficult and uncomfortable stories to hear. Those were the people groups who have been trapped in systematic oppression and it’s just too uncomfortable to hear about the reality of that.
Society, and the Church, tells us there are broken people who are far from God. There are people who need to find God and will then find freedom and flourish. Church tells us that they have separated from God and that our role is to help them find God.
Lisa Sharon Harper challenges us as the Church to do more than pray for these people:
“God wants to use faith-filled people to bless all of society, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to father the fatherless, to bless the prisoner, and to bless whole nations.”
As the Church, and as society as a whole, we aren’t doing that. We are accusing people of taking advantage of the public housing system, we are calling single mothers irresponsible for living off the welfare system, we are calling for the killing of certain criminals….We are condemning an entire nation in the midst of civil war… These are not demonstrations of love or honor of the image of God within all people, of all circumstances, of all nations.
Lisa Sharon Harper reminds us that the ministry of Jesus centered around loving the least of these:
“…unless we are actively loving the one with the least access to food and water, the least access to health care, the least access to good housing and education, the least access to justice within the justice system, the least access to a welcome in the immigration system – unless we are actively loving the least-deserving among these, then we are not loving Jesus.”
This is what the ministry of Jesus was about. Actively loving one another in this manner is what we were created to do and it is these actions that bring heaven here on earth.
We have the honor of Lisa Sharon Harper’s presence as one of our speakers this fall as part of Faith, Culture and Questions. Let’s get our tickets and get uncomfortable.