Becoming Multicultural: What’s Lost in Translation

When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. Squeezed into the car, we played a game as we approached Saint George Greek Orthodox Church—who was first to spot the steeple as it came into view.  We were not Greek, but of the two Orthodox congregations in the city, this was closest to us culturally. The other one was Russian and had a gilded onion-shaped dome. As Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, we had more in common with the Byzantine than the Slavonic tradition.

We were reminded that we were not Greek. My mother’s contributions to the women’s auxiliary cookbook were not included in the final publication because they were “not Greek,” though it did include recipes for things like pizza. My brother got bumped from playing the little drummer boy in the Christmas pageant in favor of a little drummer boy who happened to be Greek-American.

Despite our presence, and the presence of second and third generation Greek-Americans, worship was entirely in Greek.

When my family moved to a city that had more than one congregation in the Antiochian archdiocese, whose primary bishop, or patriarch, was in Damascus, Syria, the experience changed.  Made up primarily of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, we were no longer cultural outsiders. Worship was in English and Arabic.

Church was more than a congregation of the faithful. It was also a cultural ingathering of Arabic-speaking immigrants, many longing to recreate something of the old country on the cold and snowy shores of North America. One of the first institutions immigrants from Lebanon and Syria built on this continent when they began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century were churches, which aided new arrivals and provided solace for the homesick. Gathered together around shared language and culture, these churches were islands of the familiar in a strange new world.

Ethnic and religious traditions were inseparable in our home. In addition to our birthdays, we also celebrated our “feast” day, the day of the year dedicated to the saint we were named after, complete with cake and ice cream. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in late June, we usually went to the beach to celebrate.

I used to think that we made special foods—a thick, sweet pudding of apricots, wheat, aniseed and other spices called bourbara—on the feast of Saint Barbara because my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, was named Barbara. I didn’t realize at the time it’s a major holiday for Arab Christians.

Saint Barbara’s day was followed by Saint Sabas the next night and Saint Nicholas the night after that. On each night, we left out a plate of sweets on the dining room table. The saint whose feast it was each night visited us. They left coins for us on the edges of the saucers. We were forbidden to touch the candy until the final night—Saint Nicholas Day—when we collected our money and ate the candy. At Christmas, we decorated an evergreen tree, and then sat around the illuminated tree in the dark singing carols in English and Arabic.

During Lent, there were meatless meals that seemed to always involve lentils. (For years Lent and lentils in my mind resonated together). Years later, as a university student with a limited income, I ate plate after plate of mjuddareh (lentils, rice, and onions) wondering when that particular Lent was ever going to end.

The fast of course culminates in Holy Week and Easter. On Palm Sunday, we brought home the palm leaves from the church service. I never could learn how to fold and tie them into the shape of the cross, but other family members could. They would be tucked behind the corners of the icons that decorated our home—images of Jesus, the saints, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer,” as Mary is known).

During Easter, everyone was greeted with the words: al-Masih qam! (Christ is risen!).  For Easter, we decorated Easter eggs and played a game of cracking them. You held your egg in your fist, and your challenger would tap their egg against the top of yours and the one whose egg cracked lost the game. And whoever cracked everybody else’s Easter egg was that year’s champion. Other foods we made (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) and ate at home included date-filled pastry (kaik) that, because it was shaped like a donut was said to symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear, and another nut-filled pastry (ma’amoul) represented his scepter.

The foods, habits, and traditions of my ancestors were inseparable from the religion they practiced. Our identity as Arab-Americans was expressed in cultural practices of both home and church. Church was the only place, outside the home, that I heard Arabic being spoken. Church, the religion, was the container for a great deal of our ethno-linguistic identity, the repository and source for our culture.

The Orthodox Church in North America is usually thought of as an “ethnic church.” Most Orthodox Christians trace their roots to Eastern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. Ethnicity, from the Greek church of my early childhood, to the Arab church of my later childhood and youth, was a central ingredient of who we were together as the church.

When I could no longer in good conscience practice the religion, I went about searching for a spiritual home. I landed upon my local Unitarian congregation because they promised to welcome all of who I was. Advocates for peace, social justice, inclusiveness and the dignity of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists were my intellectual, political and spiritual kindred. I joined as soon as I was able.

What makes an “ethnic church” an ethnic church? Is it when most of the people there share an ethnic or cultural or linguistic identity? Most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I have served and known are overwhelmingly white and Anglo Saxon. Why do we not imagine Unitarian Universalism to be an “ethnic church”?

The hegemonic culture experiences itself as universal. I am reminded of this when I frequent a supermarket full of food and then find the aisle labeled “ethnic foods.” Because Anglo Saxons don’t have an ethnicity, the way that heterosexuals don’t have a sexual orientation, and men don’t have a gender. At church, this can mean that Western European culture is simply “music” or “literature” or “hymns.” And not “European music” or “Anglo hymns.” But on some special Sundays, we’ll have Latino music or African-American hymns or South Asian literature.

The “universal” culture of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant and Anglo. This is an historical fact, not an accusation. There is nothing wrong or shameful about Anglo Saxon or Western European culture. Because I assumed this false universal, it took me a long time to even realize the translation that had taken place in my religious life, from a Mediterranean medium to an Anglo one. It just took me a while to recognize that I had in fact gone from one ethnic church to another. And that I had lost something in that translation.

It was only after I began to bump up against prejudice toward Arabs and Arab-Americans among Unitarian Universalists that I began to wonder about such things. UUs are not immune to the ignorance about (and even suspicion and hostility toward) Arabs and Arab culture that is ubiquitous on this continent.

(There’s no reason to rehearse all the hurtful and ignorant things UUs have done and said, but I want to mention my favorite. I’m often asked when my family converted to Christianity, which is particularly rich since we are from Palestine, with roots in Jerusalem that go back hundreds of years. Where do they think Jesus was from, anyway? Europe? I usually answer, “Oh about two thousand years ago!”)

I’ve loved every Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been in—even the ones that were hard to love. UUs are my people. And at the same time, UUs are not my people. My people are also ones who revere icons and put out saucers for the saints and eat lentils during Lent. My ethnos is made up of people who speak Arabic (and speak it loudly) and pepper their speech with references to God—God willing, God forbid, praise God.

Unitarian Universalists ask, “How can we become more multicultural? How can we attract more members of different cultural communities to our congregations?” These are good questions. Let’s also ask, “What do members of different cultural communities lose when they join a Unitarian Universalist congregation?” Because the losses can be significant and can include being cut off from a major source of ethnic pride, connection and identity—the “ethnic” churches from which we came.

At times I have felt at home among the Unitarian Universalists and at times I have felt exiled among the Unitarian Universalists. Following the dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit has simultaneously meant finding a community of faith and losing an important access point to the culture of my ancestors. I found a place that speaks my religious language but that only speaks it in English.

Of course, there are other ways of remaining connected to my ethnic community—none of them are woven as tightly or thoroughly into daily life the way religious traditions are.

Except for food! Have you noticed how much I mention food? The food I eat and make has become the carrier of cultural traditions. I don’t speak Arabic in my household, but I do often eat Arabic food—even when it’s called by non-Arabic names like pita or baklava or even Turkish coffee.

And I rest assured that should my Unitarian Universalist congregation ever put together a cookbook of parishioners’ recipes, my contributions will be welcomed and included.

The Church of No Offense

A couple of years ago, I was considering coming to a certain church to do ministry with the congregation there. I came to the town to visit for a weekend, look at places to live, and speak with the committee that was searching for a minister. It was an established church in a lovely small town. I was shown around town by various members of the committee and at one point, walking around town, one began telling me the story of how he had come to this church.

“My partner and I were new in town,” he said. “And we didn’t know anybody in the area and we wanted to get better connected in the community. We figured joining a church was a really good way to start networking. So we looked around and decided on the Unitarian Universalist church in town because of them all, it was the least offensive.”  I enjoyed his frankness. This thoughtful man was a leader in his congregation, had found a home there. People join congregations for all kinds of reasons–advantageous business networking, finding a date, finding a job, developing a real estate practice. These are some of the real, practical reasons that people affiliate with communities of faith. They’re no better or worse than wanting a religious education for one’s children, exploring questions of meaning, comforting during a time of transition.

And the fact that this congregation didn’t promulgate anything he and his partner found offensive was the clincher. No hellfire and brimstone, no judging LGBT people negatively, no political positions, no onerous requirements intellectually, financially, or in any other way.

All kinds of people, in all kinds of conditions gather together in congregations for all kinds of reasons.

We need different things from church at different times in our lives–comfort, guidance, edification, challenge. When a local congregation is at its best, it is offering these disparate things simultaneously through its programs–its ministries–and its worship. We are also called upon to offer different things to our co-congregants and the institution at different times.

Sometimes, the church is a refuge, a haven, to gather in the brokenhearted and despairing. We gather for healing, to be strengthened, to be renewed in hope, to be reminded of our deepest convictions. Ultimately, we are gathered in this way in order to be sent back to the world. Our broken hearts are offered balm in order to go back to a world (a workplace, a family, a neighborhood, a nation) strengthened if not completely made whole. We are offered hope and courage in order to return to a world in which we strive to create justice and peace and a sustainable future for the planet.

There are plenty of Unitarian Universalists who have absolutely no interest in mission or outreach, let alone evangelism, and don’t think their congregation ought to be mission-driven. The purpose of the church, for these folks, is to gather the likeminded together for comfort and solidarity. Or simply gather the likeminded together. The shadow possibility of this, however, is that such congregations become ingrown, inwardly focused clubs that focus only on participants’ perceived needs and wants. If we gather together for the sake of gathering together, without a sense that we have work to do on ourselves or in the world to which our faith sends us, we risk ossifying into a cozy self-congratulatory group of likeminded people that is guarded, suspicious of others, and openly derisive of those who are not like us. Hardly in keeping with the liberal spirit.

There are also plenty who do not want to do or say anything that will offend anyone. Sermons that convict (to use an old Calvinist expression) are abandoned in favor of talks full of information or ideas that most will agree with. Certain words and expressions are informally (or explicitly) banned–you know, like God or sin or death or repentance–effectively blotting out exploration of major religious concepts. And nothing that will challenge anyone should be done or said or imagined. Because that might offend.

It is fine to offer respite to those working the vineyards of liberal political causes and social change movements, but respite cannot be the only purpose of a liberal religious faith community. Gathering together for the sake of creating a congenial environment for oneself is fine, but cannot stop there if we are talking about a church. I believe we need to also be upheld and challenged by the liberal gospel and so compelled by it to  go make a difference for it in the world.

The way I see it, the church exists for gathering, supporting and sending its constituent members. All three. When one of these gestures is lacking, something vital is missing.

Supporting or upholding members of a liberal religious community, as I see it, is in part to sort out not only how we are going to be the best of who we are called to be as individuals, adequately equipping participants for a robust ethical and spiritual life, but also discerning what repercussions our ethics and spirituality must have beyond ourselves. Going deeper ultimately equips us for going farther. The search for truth and meaning produces results which require something of us: how am I going to live my life in the light of this truth and meaning? What demands of me does this make on how my life and my society are to be ordered? Our congregations exist to help deepen our spiritual and ethical strength, renew our commitment to basic liberal principles. And it is not for our own sake only, but for the sake of a world (household, neighborhood, city, nation) that needs what we have to offer.

Not only does a liberal religious community empower and inspire its participants, sending them to the world, but our congregations at their best offer spaces for reflection and contemplation upon one’s experiences of tending the vineyards of a broken and hurting world. Or just living a life. We offer analysis in the light of faith for what we have experienced in our workaday world. Transformation and transcendence can and frequently do occur when a person is engaged in mission outside the confines of the church. The local gathered community offers a context in which to make sense of those experiences. It’s an interpretive circle of action and reflection, not only being sent but also arriving (wounded, inspired, vexed). Making sense out of our experience–making meaning of what we do in our day-to-day lives–is the task of theological reflection and is a discipline of the local church.

Theological reflection among us is hardly the memorization and study of a common catechesis–a body of approved doctrines. Saying we need more theological depth–more soul–in no way means “We all have to believe the same doctrines.” Peacebang puts it this way: “And I want someday for those of us who want to cultivate reverence, humility and soul to stop being categorized and dismissed as pissed off Christians who want to take over the UUA.” Amen!

Not everybody who is a member of a congregation is interested in theological reflection, developing a spiritual practice or pondering the meaning of life. That’s as it should be. These are not for everybody. There are also times in our journeys when we need them more than others. But for those who are looking for something more, a church ought to be offering it.

Signing up for an inoffensive club that has benefits for oneself can’t be the final word in what it means to be a community of faith.

What Are We Being Sent to Do?

I was walking along the sidewalk to the gym in downtown Boston the other day. A young man wearing a dark suit, black tie, and large square name badge approached me. I forget what his opening line was to me as we passed, but I knew that he was on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or Mormons). I didn’t slow down, but did engage him in conversation. “What do you know about the Mormons?” he asked. I told him that I knew they almost singlehandedly funded Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative that revoked the right of same-sex couples to be legally married in the state. Of everything that I know about LDS, this is the thing that most sticks in my craw. Because the church leader demanded it, Mormons across the country saw it as their religious duty to send money to the anti-gay forces in California. As we know, Prop 8 passed.

“I was too young at the time,” my Mormon proselyte shared, which considering it was only four years ago belied how young he actually was. He handed me a business card with a Web address on it. “Would you like to know more about Jesus or Mormonism?” he asked. “Jesus, yes. Mormonism, no,” I said handing it back to him.

I then explained my conviction that homophobia is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. “Well,” he said, his pace slowing as he dropped back, “Jesus believed in standing up for what he believed in.”

I don’t begrudge Unitarian Universalists for not sending our 18-year-olds to the world to convert others to our way of doing religion. But I do wonder: Do religious liberals have any sense of being sent to the world in order to do something? What is our work to do outside of the walls of our church?  Is church a place we visit on Sunday morning that has nothing to do with our Monday morning? Are we formed in some way by an essential message, or core values, that shape all of what we do within and outside the congregation?

Churches that are thriving are not necessarily the ones with conservative theologies or who proselytize strangers. Churches that are thriving are ones that have a strong sense of identity and mission, of knowing who they are and what they do. Declining churches characterize themselves as “a big family;” thriving churches describe themselves as “a moral beacon in our community.” Declining churches wait for people to find them; thriving churches are known in their communities for who they are and what they stand for and they attract people. A church’s mission is so much more than its mission statement: it’s a sense of purpose, focus, and vocation.

The word mission, of course, is rooted in being sent. What are we religious liberals sent to do?

As I reached the door of the gym after my encounter with the young missionary, a breathless woman caught up with me. She had a twinkle in her eye. She said, “I just wanted to tell you that you made my week. I saw you talking with that Mormon kid and the only snippet of your conversation I heard made me laugh out loud. All I heard you say was, ‘Jesus, yes, Mormonism, no.’ That would be a great bumper sticker!” I laughed.

Or a great sermon…