God's Cross-Cultural Word: A Testimony
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
One of my greatest challenges at Emmanuel was when I preached. Each time I did, I found myself doubting. I stood at the microphone as a young white man, raised in suburbia, and a Christian school student who had lived an insulated existence in many ways. I stood in front of a room of one hundred individuals, most of them African-American, most of them living in the streets or in a shelter. Others had housing but did not know where their next meal was coming from. Stories of drug addiction, abuse, family neglect, violence, and sexual abuse sat before me. Every time I stood up to preach, I stood in a room filled with a pain I did not understand. Did I have anything to say to these people that did not come off as patronizing? Did God really have anything to say to these people, at least something He was capable of saying through me? At the time, I thought God was helping me see just how deep the world’s brokenness really is and how far Jesus went to deal with it once and for all.
Each time I spoke at Emmanuel, I thought of the passion story in all four Gospels, especially Jesus’ cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV). God the Son Himself shared in the deepest cries of pain that were in that room at Emmanuel. Another one of my favorite passages also formed me during this time: “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8). The Apostles’ Creed put it starkly: “he descended into hell.” While I did not understand the suffering in the room around me, Scripture testified that Jesus did. The message I had to share with them was of a God who had been to hell and back out of love for them.
Yet I remained self-conscious. In light of recent discussions in culture about the role of white privilege, I was afraid of how the audience would perceive me. I could imagine their questions: “What does this kid know about how tough life is? He’s had it cushy. What could a white kid know about my life?” As I continued in my role at Emmanuel, however, I found no one explicitly said anything of the sort to me. Instead, I had individuals say things like, “Thank you for that message, pastor”. Others asked questions about Christian faith. Some would even ask me what the message was that day, worried they had missed it. Other guests were excited to come up and read the Scripture verse for that day in the microphone themselves. My self-consciousness never fully went away, but as I continued to hear their responses to the messages, I began to see how God has entrusted me with the story of Jesus. While my own culture and experiences played a role in how I told the story, and I certainly needed to be careful of my own biases, I saw God’s mercy overcome what I saw as my weakness. It was as the prophet Isaiah said: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7). Isaiah said nothing about the ethnicity of those feet or the roads they had traveled on. They are beautiful because they bring good news.
Understanding my role in another culture was not my only challenge preaching. The room was not always attentive. Groups of people would talk at their tables during the message. Another individual with mental illness would yell in line at the drink table. I was speaking the good news of peace to a room that was not always peaceful. Internally, I found the same agitation in myself. While I appreciated those who tried to quiet the others, for those few moments, they merely added to the noise in the room and I found myself growing increasingly agitated. I had to learn to pray between sentences and then pray while I was speaking. The Jesus Prayer from the Eastern Orthodox tradition was particularly helpful. A simple, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” was enough to quiet myself before the cross and empty tomb of Jesus, enough to speak of the peace found in Jesus to that crowded room.
Over the course of my time there, I felt more connected to the community. People were asking questions. Others were using the prayer sheets I had written to help them pray through our Scripture passages each week. Yet the focus of the day was still the meal we served. We did a lot of good by providing that meal, but it never felt like a community of disciples. Looking back, I know exactly what I could have done differently. I could have sat down at a table and talked to the people there, getting to know them and sharing in their stories. Perhaps they would ask more questions about Jesus. Perhaps I could have told more of Jesus’ story. At the time, I was wrapped up in handing out meals and waiting on tables. The idea of sitting at a table felt terrifyingly foreign to me. I see what I could have done differently, but if given another chance, I am not sure I would act on it even now.
In my opportunities to speak, in my interactions with guests, and with my failures to sit and meet with guests, I believe I learned one key lesson: the Word of God is not bound to a culture. This was a lesson much different from the one I thought I had set out to learn. In courses such as Missional Ministry and Cross-Cultural Evangelism, I read and wrote about how the Gospel can be translated, but I only truly began to grasp what that meant during my time at Emmanuel. I was responsible for recognizing my biases, insecurities, and cultural understandings of faith and I was also responsible for learning the biases, hopes, and doubts of the community I was speaking to. Yet the weaknesses in myself and the differences between me and the community at Emmanuel could not hold the Gospel back. God uses faithful people to tell the story of Jesus across all boundaries. During my time at Emmanuel, I grew in my confidence that God can use me to speak what He wishes to say to a gathered community.
As I transition from Emmanuel and church ministry to Christian education, I do not want to lose what I learned there. One of my criteria for joining a church is to find one that loves the community around the building, especially those who lack material means and have life experiences different from my own. In the meantime, there are other local ministries that reach out to those experiencing homelessness closer to my home. The next step for me is to sit down and meet someone with a different life story without an agenda and without a chance to carefully prepare my statements ahead of time. There, I want to see how God teaches me to share the story of Jesus across cultural differences one-on-one.