Jumpstarts for Diversity Work: Heritage Months & Special Days

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November is U.S. Native American Heritage Month; Black History Month is in February. Even if you’re not Native American or black, these stories are your stories. Embrace them in your church and use these special observances to jumpstart conversation and action toward intercultural understanding and cooperation. 

Plan and host a competition among church youth (or Sunday school classes of all ages), in which is each person or group presents the story of a famous person of the heritage being celebrated. If it is not your cultural heritage being celebrated, invite a friend or church or community leader who is to be among the judges. Present the winning reports on your church’s website or bulletin board, or ask the winner(s) to make a presentation during worship time.

One congregation included inserts each week for Black History Month. The inserts included facts and pictures of famous United Methodists of black/African descent. On the last Saturday of the month, the church held a chili supper and played “Black History Jeopardy,” like the popular TV game show. Members of the winning team received prizes, including calendars, bookmarks, and small trophies.

Ask for help and advice from United Methodist or other church leaders in your community, particularly those from the particular heritage you’re celebrating. Even better, ask two or three different people for guidance. (No one person is the “spokesperson” for an entire racial-ethnic or cultural group; a mix of people will enrich your experience.)

 One Korean-American congregation invited a Japanese-American United Methodist to their congregation during U.S. Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, which is celebrated each May, to tell the story of her family’s time in an internment camp during World War II. Based on that experience, youth from both congregations united to sponsor an annual service of celebration of their Asian ancestry.

Avoid stereotypes and out-of-date resources and images. Remember that a Chinese-American born and reared in the United States will not have the same life experiences, eat the same food, or even speak the same language as a Chinese-born citizen. A person of African descent may also be German, Spanish, Brazilian, or Canadian. Ask and learn about the contribution of and current concern facing people in your town or city. Respect the dress and cultural symbols of other people; what you may call “primitive” and “costume” are actually traditional clothes that hold a special value; ask before you wear the traditional clothes of other groups.

Planning sermons, activities, and opportunities for learning during heritage month celebrations (and around such observances as Human Relations Day and World Communion Sunday) can be a first step understanding the struggles, stories, and contributions of people of God of which we may be unaware.

These months are a reminder that stories of our church, nation and world include stories and contributions of people who, because of bias and discrimination, have traditionally been excluded by mainstream textbooks and media. Help build your congregation’s intercultural understanding and efficacy in connecting with diverse people by honoring the heritage of all people. Go beyond cultural “sampling” to establish friendships, and learn and teach each other something new and wonderful.

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GCORR is building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.