Disciple: It Starts with Relationships
What cultural competency training won’t teach you
By Summerlee Walter with Christine McTaggart
The dual diocesan foci of evangelism and reconciliation have generated a lot of enthusiasm among congregations and individuals.
Some congregations are just starting to learn about anti-racism work for the first time, while others have been marching since the Sixties. Nervous stories from people new to sharing their faith out loud combine with sighs of relief from those who now feel comfortable saying the “E” word loudly and proudly without worrying about the negative stereotypes it accumulated throughout the years. No matter a church or individual’s comfort level with reconciliation and evangelism, there are basic principles that should guide our work.
Three members of diocesan staff who have experience working across cultural lines — the Rev. Audra Abt, missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries; Toni Hagerman, missioner for Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte, the Diocese’s refugee services hub; and the Rev. Rebecca Yarbrough, a key member of the Galilee Ministries team — shared their advice for reaching out to new communities: immigrants, refugees or the neighbors we have yet to meet.
FORGET YOUR ASSUMPTIONS
“The biggest thing is letting people tell you about themselves instead of making assumptions,” Hagerman advises. She explains that sometimes a volunteer at Galilee Center will see a woman with darker skin wearing a hijab and assume she is a refugee, when in reality she is an American Muslim or the citizen of a European country who married a member of the American military and moved to North Carolina.
“They could be as American as apple pie,” Hagerman says.
Abt explains how, several years ago, medical professionals in California realized the healthcare field was not serving non-white patients as well as it could because unseen biases and unspoken assumptions were interfering with care. The solution was not cultural competency training, which can often amount to little more than a new set of human resources-approved assumptions about groups of people. Instead, physicians received lessons in cultural sensitivity, which trained them in every encounter to presume they don’t know and instead really listen to the patient.
“That listening takes a humility and a patience and a willingness to be wrong, a willingness to listen longer and to let go of what we think is the right answer,” Abt explains.
FOCUS ON FORMING RELATIONSHIPS
“We have to remember that refugees have been run out of their homes, and may not have really been ‘welcomed’ with love and full respect in the camps in which they stayed,” Yarbrough explains. “And they had to run a gauntlet to get into this country.”
Abt points out that welcoming a new family into a church is the same regardless of their race, country of origin or background: All visitors and new members need to feel they’re cared about, and who they are and what they bring with them matters.
“It’s not just about incorporating a new member into the established culture,” Abt says, “because everyone who comes through the door — anyone we encounter — brings a faith with them, brings something they know about God and about the world that we don’t.”
She suggests, to practice building relationships with people we believe are very different from us, starting closer to home by imagining each person we encounter, no matter how well-known, is someone we’re meeting for the first time in a cross-cultural encounter. How does that make you see someone who you’ve presumed to know? What does difference mean? Is it a barrier? Or is it just an invitation to be more open to somebody?
“We can spend a decade as part of a church community and not really know everything about the person sitting in the pew next to us and what they bring with them, how their faith might be articulated differently or lived out differently than ours.”
In interactions in which language barriers exist, Hagerman suggests keeping it simple.
“We all smile in the same language,” she says. “You can communicate ‘You are important, and you are welcome’ without any language at all.” As Hagerman points out, many non-English speakers understand simple, friendly phrases like “Good morning” or “How are you?” Hand gestures also help, as does participating together in activities that don’t require much spoken language, like gardening or cleaning up after a communal meal.
Individuals coming out of the same community have common concerns, face common challenges and share common experiences. Abt emphasizes the importance of engaging with groups and advocates from the community whose members you or your church seek to engage. Finding ways to get involved with neighborhood coalitions, local advocacy groups or community centers where people speak out of and on behalf of their community demonstrates that a congregation cares about their neighbor’s concerns. The key to these interactions is for people from the dominant (white, middle-class) culture to be willing to take a back seat and listen.
Abt also encourages people interested in reaching out to members of a different community to do their own learning about the culture, history and issues affecting their neighbors. Both the internet and community leaders are good sources of information.
DON’T START WITH PROGRAMS
While English as a Second Language classes and bilingual preschool programs are vitally important resources churches can provide when there is a community need, these programs are effective and successful only after a church or organization has done the hard work of forming relationships with and really listening to members of the community they hope to serve. Leading with a program before doing the groundwork is a recipe for frustration and misunderstandings.
PARTNER WITH EXPERIENCED GROUPS
Churches interested in addressing immediate community concerns can be essential partners for organizations in need of donations, volunteers or space in which to conduct programming.
“Don’t focus on something being ‘your’ program,” Hagerman advises, “but help with the resources organizations need to do the good work they’re already doing on a shoestring budget.” The Galilee Center, for example, provides physical space to six different community partner organizations ranging from a Loaves & Fishes food pantry to Refugee Support Services to a counselor specializing in cross-cultural work. They have also dedicated several acres to a community garden.
For those interested specifically in helping to welcome refugees, Hagerman points out that, in the face of slashed government funding and widespread staff layoffs, what resettlement agencies need most right now is financial support.
Regardless of your or your church’s current level of involvement with evangelism, reconciliation or cross-cultural work, the most important thing is to start engaging with your neighbors — those you’ve known for years and those you are meeting for the first time — in genuine conversation, listening with a sense of openness and seeking to understand their perspectives. Regardless of cultural differences or disparate backgrounds, relationships are the foundation to welcoming and serving new communities.
MEET THE MISSIONER FOR LATION/HISPANIC MINISTRY
The Rev. Audra Abt assumed the role of missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries earlier this year. Prior to starting her current position, she served at St. Andrew’s, Greensboro, as the assistant for mission/outreach and for ministry with children. Since 2013, she has been helping develop a bilingual house church ministry among Episcopalians who are Latin American immigrants and others from the U.S. (“The Open Door House Church,” Disciple, Fall 2015), and she continues this work as the Greensboro area missioner for intercultural ministries.