“The turkey tasted just like my mom’s turkey.” So said Sandra, a recent newcomer to Canada from Colombia. She was part of the First Mennonite Church (Kitchener) annual Christmas dinner. Our congregation’s tradition is to have both Canadian turkey and El Salvadoran turkey, mashed potatoes and rice, gravy and sauce. And tables full of special dishes of vegetables, salads and desserts, from traditions all over the world. We were 200 people, enjoying food, song and community together, people from many different cultures, languages and countries. It was a joyous celebration!
Our congregation is seeking to not only be multicultural, but to be intercultural. In a multicultural congregation the most powerful culture dominates in “how things are done.” In contrast, an intercultural church emphasizes and builds on difference as a key to building community. Safwat Marzouk from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, in his book Intercultural Church, says that an intercultural church embodies an alternative to the politics of assimilation and segregation.
Those are lofty goals. Marzouk says this is a biblical vision, affirming cultural, linguistic, racial and ethnic differences as gifts from God that can enrich the church’s worship, deepen its sense of fellowship and broaden its witness to God’s reconciling mission in the world. Can the church, our church, be a witness to Canadian society around us of the power of the gospel to hold us together with our cultural differences? Or is society around us, particularly in urban centres, moving ahead more intentionally in becoming an intercultural community?
We at First Mennonite Church love to celebrate our differences as gifts from God. After our Christmas dinner, we all enthusiastically sang carols in English and Spanish. We willingly learned an Arabic song taught to us by Rebecca, originally from South Sudan. Our most recent refugee family, from Iraq this time, was delighted to join in singing in Arabic. We are a faith community joined together not only by song and food, worshipping and praising God together.
But it is not easy becoming an intercultural faith community. Cultural differences go much deeper than food and song. Even at our Christmas dinner, people sat at tables to visit and eat with the people they are most closely connected with, and this continues to divide us.
Planning happens in different ways. There was a time of confusion around planning for lemonade after church in the summer. The sign-up sheet on the bulletin board had some empty spaces and there was informal communication about who was going to take care of the needs. The end result? Those relying on the paper tried to find people to fill the empty spaces and those relying on word of mouth made sure it was taken care of. We had a lot of people providing lemonade. We are learning to trust that both systems work.
We value the bridgebuilders among us, people who can help us understand and trust other ways to make things work.
The Sunday after our Christmas dinner KyongJung was our preacher. He greeted us in English, with a strong congregational response, and then in Spanish, also a strong response, and then in Korean, but there was silence. We are still learning. Then KyongJung said that we must look for the redemptive signs of the Kingdom of God in order to have hope. Yes, for me our congregation is one of those redemptive signs of the Kingdom of God.
Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont., moderator of MCEC, member of MC Canada Joint Council, and staff for MWC. In this column Arli speaks only for herself.