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Appreciating Cultural Richness
Excerpted with permission from the book Transforming the City (1)

"When I first went to Mexico, I thought there was only one kind of tea (orange pekoe). Frequently, when I was in Mexicans' homes, my hosts would ask me if I wanted tea. I was surprised when I was offered lemon tea, chamomile tea, cinnamon tea, peppermint tea, tila tea, anise tea, and so on and so on. Within the category of tea, I discovered an enriching diversity of delightful surprises. This example has helped me to appreciate the richness of various cultures."
   - Lindy Scott, Mexico City

Cultural Flexibility

Traditionally all peoples have tended to personalize space, and then transform that space into a place with meaning which reflects a collective sense of being, i.e., a national or cultural identity. However, in today's world, cultures are no longer geographically static or passive, especially in urban areas. Cities today are magnets both for indigenous rural populations and for foreign immigrants, many of whom are political refugees. The nations of the world are with us on our city streets.

An appreciation of the riches of these varied cultures and their distinctive contributions is not embraced without effort. Theologically, it comes out of an intentional and deliberate effort to respond to God's will for the entire creation and a recognition that the essential nature of God is pluralistic community.

Most of us have generally grown up within a homogeneous experience, a monoculture with a certain level of ethnocentrism and biases. To consciously vary our point of view demands not only an awareness of how others approach life but also a high appreciation for the depth of that variety. In simplest terms, cultural flexibility means viewing the immediate environment or experience from the other person's perspective. On a more complex level, it means recognizing that everyone's cultural perspective will be broadly defined by race or ethnicity, and then further shaped by gender, inter-generational and subcultural experiences, religious beliefs, etc. (e.g., there will be significant differences in life perspectives between the Korean-born elderly and the foreign-born second generation; the poor and the affluent; gang members and law enforcement personnel; Latin American Evangelicals and Roman Catholics).

The ability to value another's worldview, i.e., to move from one worldview to another, does not suggest that we unquestionably embrace the other culture's approach to life. However, if we are culturally flexible we can develop better relationships because we won't stereotype others prior to knowing them. We do not have to deny who we are or reject our own culture. The value of cultural flexibility is that it can help us to better critique certain values within our own culture that we might otherwise hold as absolute. When we are attempting to connect to people of other origins, it helps to recognize that God has already worked in the cultures that have shaped their lives. Being culturally open allows God to reach out to us in new ways.

The urban communities we are called to serve are made up of many cultures, all of which are also shaped by their own cultural trappings. If we are to minister to those of other cultures, we must first understand how their own perspectives have been shaped. How have their systems, beliefs and behaviors been formed? How can our ministry be translated in ways that have meaning for our communities?

Our urban ministries need to value highly other cultures where they exist, even when our theology stands in opposition to aspects of the culture. As previously mentioned, our life and cultural experiences shape our individual perspectives of the world. There exists a level of security and comfort in dealing with the familiar when we are in our own context. This is natural. However, in moving appreciatively into another culture, we need to make a conscious effort to check our preferences and biases.

The presence of many cultures does not necessarily have to produce confusion even where they appear radically different from each other. By perceiving this cultural mix as a positive trait, a source of wealth to be cultivated, as opposed to a barrier to understanding and collective action, the various cultures may actually complement each other.


In the West we often speak of cities as centers of cultural complexity and diversity. Diversity is not a neutral concept. Throughout the world, diversity fuels the most bitter conflicts. Rwanda, with its tragic ethnic struggles, is sadly only one example of a nation torn apart by its diversity.

An Alternative Vision from France

One place we can look for hope is 'Francophonie' - 500 million people, in fifty French-speaking countries, on five continents). Francophonie presents a beautiful challenge to urban Christians to practice love and acceptance across many cultures. One definition of Francophonie is "human solidarity through cultural sharing." President Lamine Guye of Senagal said "Francophonie abolishes the distance created by History and geography, and draws the hearts near."

After the French-speaking colonies became independent in the 1960's, Francophonie was perceived as "a cultural commonwealth," an opportunity to re-create international (cross cultural) relationships with a different mind and perspective. It is, so to speak, "a dialogue of cultures." The motto of Francophonie is "Equality, Complementarity, Solidarity." We, as urban Christians, can redeem and adopt this motto and participate in this new idea for the world.

The church carries the message and the life-style of reconciliation. That's why Christians in Francophonie have had to repent on both sides: the colonialists from domination and pride, and the colonized from feeling of hatred, inferiority, fear or spite. This has actually happened at an international conference, when church leaders and authorities (in education, business, and government) came together from thirty-four French-speaking countries. In July, 1993, repenting with tears and acknowledgment of wrong from both sides, leaders from Europe were washing the feet of their brothers from the Third world and vice versa. Such a flow of healing was poured upon hundreds. Through their influence, thousands now carry that sweet flavor of forgiveness and reconciliation in their churches and communities. We feel it as one way our nations will be healed.

If we are humble and our motives are pure, we are able to recognize the values and riches of people from other cultures. This is how we really want to give and to receive from others. The French Christian network, COEF 5, has a logo which pictures that reality: torches are raised by hands of five different colors. As the individual torches come together, the central flame grows stronger for every one of them.

As Christians, we all will have to continue walking forward in that direction. And we will if we know the One "who created all things, that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. - Eph 3. 10 (Manifold means "multicolored" in Greek.) People from every tribe, every nation, language, color, sex, age and social class bring riches with them. The challenge for the church is to incarnate the reality of the Father's house here on earth with all the riches it contains." -Philippe Jordet, Montauban

Cross Cultural Richness: A Model for Communities

What are some practical ways the church can create cultural richness in our communities? We might start with a core group, and "explode" this model into larger circles.

Circle 1: The Cross Cultural Ministry Team (the nucleus). Antioch was a model of leaders from different nations and cultural values, working together as a model of unity in absolute diversity. Their core group inspired many around them. {Acts 13.1,2}.

Circle 2: The International Church. Inspired by their church leaders, the different nationalities could live and work together with a sense of acceptance and belonging. These people would see ministry leaders from their own and other cultures and learn from them to love others. In Burundi, Africa, the inter-ethnic church which has leaders from both ethnic groups is able to grow and be a sign of reconciliation for the city of Bujumbura.

Circle 3: Acts of Reconciliation in the Community. The international church pervades the community with love and security. One example is David, a pastor in Bujumbura who faced his father's killers, sadly, his own relatives and neighbors, the first time he returned to his home country. He forgave them as he was preaching to these people he knew so well. All who know him respect his voice when he leads people to forgive in similar situations.

Circle 4: Reconciliation: A New Mentality. New ways of living and thinking start to become internalized. Differences are now seen as opportunities to enlarge our personal vision. No one feels threatened due to his or her culture, race, age or sex.

Circle 5: Cooperation and Networking. We start to build connections with Christians all over the world (whatever the confession) and with all the structures in the city. Every culture carries a special "grace" from the Creator. When we have contact with another culture, we receive and benefit from it. This refreshes us spiritually and widens our cultural horizons, letting us understand in full the meaning of the word "Complementarity."

There is one final note on cooperation with different types of people in the city. It is important that community development should not necessarily be thought of strictly in terms of Christian community development. The principles of community development are as applicable to non-Christians as to Christians. Spiritual values are cohesive even if they are not exclusively Christian. Also, as Christians we are interested in developing communities with many different needs, cultures and beliefs. It is in living our lives in the midst of cultural richness that our own faith comes to life and that our faith gains meaning to those who would not otherwise believe.

Cross Cultural Richness: Individual Models

It is possible to learn to be cross cultural if we keep in mind that God loves His whole creation. We will then go out looking for the deposit of his wisdom in the cultures of the world. One way to learn to be cross-cultural is by entering into a relationship with someone from a different culture. Certainly, background information on another country: its history, cultural perspectives, social mores, etc., is helpful, but actually being part of another person's social world is what begins the journey of becoming cross-cultural. This activity must not be undertaken with blinders on. We need to recognize that every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. But it would be counterproductive to enter such a situation with any notions of superiority.

Here are some basic guidelines for becoming involved in a cross cultural relationship:

It should be emphasized, however, that going abroad must never be a substitute for a cross cultural engagement in your backyard. Often overseas experience looks suspect when you cannot give an account of that same cultural group in your home city. It might be worth your while before going abroad to actually get close to the overseas culture within your home setting.

Another way of learning to be cross cultural is by listening to others and understanding their values. Listening is very important but equally important is resonating. The people who are different from your culture and from whom you would like to learn need to know where they stand with you. So, in the relationships that you form you must be prepared to say what you think you hear and then to share how that impacts your emotions as well as your world view. This must be done honestly regardless of what you suspect about the other person's honesty. Americans, especially, should avoid being seen as engaging in a perpetual interview. The important thing is to know that you are there to relate; in that relationship you will gain the insight that will not only shape your understanding but also your behavior in a genuine way.

To cross cultures, a certain amount of humility helps. Keep in mind that one's culture and beliefs are not (necessarily) superior to one's neighbor's. They might just be different. You might also need to accept that your cultural values are not only different but at points also very much lacking. When you notice this do not vilify your own culture totally but do acknowledge such a reality.

Story-telling is a powerful medium for quickly crossing over into another's worldview. There is something bonding about sharing from our respective life experiences, especially when those experiences highlight nuances unique to our culture. Information about significant people, heroes, social relations, foods, attitudes, conduct and philosophies of life, for example, tend to emerge through the telling of our life stories. However, story-telling should not be a substitute for serious study of other cultures. Readings in anthropology, psychology, sociology, autobiographies of significant people of other cultures, and literature from other countries or subcultures are also helpful in gleaning insights into other cultures. Be ready to recommend informative, thoughtful resource materials to others who want to learn more about your own background.

Culture/ Counter-Culture

In our concern to embrace the various riches of cultures within a given community or society, as Christians, we must also understand the difference between a plurality of cultures coexisting in a community (socio-cultural richness) and willful divisions which undermine and undercut the distinctiveness of Christian unity. Various forms of riches contribute to produce the Unity which is both dimensional and conceptual, distinctively Christian and culturally open and embracing.

One danger as our world becomes more and more interconnected is that certain positive cultural values (e.g., the importance of the nuclear and extended family in many cultures of the 2-3 Thirds world) are likely to be lost. Increasingly, we see the destructive effects of free market societies that prize the bottom line above all else.

Also, at times we need to recognize that some cultural values are downright sinful (e.g. Apartheid). These cultural transgressions need to be recognized, confessed and changed.

Transforming the City was developed by participants in a workshop organized by International Urban Associates (IUA), which brought together Christian leaders to ask the question, "What does it take to be effective in urban ministry?" Steve Ujvarosy, a facilitator for the project, granted us permission to publish excerpts from the book.

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