Day 2 at House of Bishops was a field trip. My group visited Good Shepherd Church. I chose Good Shepherd randomly but it proved a fortuitous choice for three reasons. First, it turns out my good friend and seminary classmate, the Rev. Maggie Hanson Taylor, was the musician there for a number of years back before our seminary days. Small world.
Second, Good Shepherd runs a delightful kindergarten for the community and they have a strong program of pastoral support for elderly people in the neighborhood. They enlist the kindergartners in the care of the aging. It is a fantastic example of a church connecting with the actual real life needs of the community outside its walls. That’s what living, thriving congregations do.
But, third, and most importantly, Good Shepherd, Taipei has been one parish with two different ethnic/ linguistic groups worshiping and serving together for over 50 years. There is an “English-speaking congregation” and a “Mandarin-speaking congregation.” (The quotes are because a lot of people in each congregation are to greater or lesser degrees bi-lingual; and because in Nevada we would prefer to say these different groups are part of the same congregation – just different terminology.) They portray the situation as one of great harmony, cooperation, and partnership. Today it truly is.
But coming out of our experience in Nevada, where different ethnic/ linguistic groups in the same parish sometimes eye each other with distrust and even hostility, I asked if the situation had always been so harmonious. The answer was decidedly “no.” So I asked how Good Shepherd had negotiated the rapids of racial and cultural difference. I was hoping to learn something helpful. They had a lot to say about their struggle to get along and some of what they said strikes me as potentially helpful indeed.
The first major answer is that the natural divisions of race, culture, and language were surmountable because of – drum roll – Christianity. The challenges of getting past those natural divisions were their opportunity to actually practice (as in do it badly until you can do it better) the teachings of our faith. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you all are one in Christ.” Galatians 3: 28. If our Holy Communion is not a lie, then these divisions are overcome by our connection to Christ. “There is no Latino or Anglo, Black or White, straight or gay for we all are one in Christ.” If we are one with Christ (which is our only hope of salvation), then we are one in Christ. That is already true in our souls. If we are to align our lives with our souls, and so live authentically and coherently, then overcoming the divisions prescribed by the world – not by God – is essential spiritual practice. It is our path of sanctification.
The second major answer was “partnership in mission.” The New Testament Greek word for it, used over and over by St. Paul, is koinonia. It means something akin to what community organizers call “public friendship” Public friendship does not mean we are intimate buddies. It doesn’t mean we laugh at each other’s jokes. It doesn’t mean we necessarily choose to watch baseball and drink beer with each other. But it does mean we trust each other and can work together for a common goal. We cross the divides in order to achieve a common mission. So, in order to bridge the ethnic/ linguistic barriers in our Nevada congregations, what we need is sense of shared mission.
I have noticed that where a congregation is not energetically engaged in a goal, particularly one of serving the community outside the church walls, such a congregation is apt to squabble over the smallest things. The differences that separate us matter when we don’t have a project important enough to set them aside. Where there is such a common mission, the differences don’t seem to matter.
Third, and most realistically, not everyone is going to be on board with bi-lingual/ bi-cultural church to the same degree. A majority of people in each group will prefer to stay in their comfort zone, worshiping and having fellowship with people more like themselves. Trying to force them into relationship will be counterproductive. What we need in each congregation is a critical mass of people who see the diversity of the parish as a plus and who intend to take on the project of relationship building. Such people will be the bridge. The others will come along slowly over time. Good Shepherd has been at this for 50 years. Naturally they are way ahead of us in Nevada. But even at Good Shepherd the project of Christian faith transcending cultural difference is still a work in process.