The Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj
We are in a tremendous transition worldwide. For the first time in our national history, many regard Christianity matter-of-factly as one among many religions. Leaders in the church struggle to make sense of the religious signs and symbols to a generation of people who have walked not only out of the church but also walked away from all forms of religion. Surface understanding of their forbearers’ faith and lack of knowledge about people of other religious faiths have made the traditionally Christian families vulnerable.
These crises raise difficult questions about the nature of Christian mission, oneness in the mystical Body of Christ, and active participation in the global nature of the Church. As United Methodists, we are faced with our own challenges and concerns.
As a church and society, we live in an unprecedented intersecting place of post-Christian west and non-western Christianity. We are going through a seismic shifting of the center of gravity of worldwide Christianity, right from our midst to the global south. In this context, we, the people called United Methodists, strive to live fully into the local church while experiencing the currents that constantly shape its identity. The local is no longer merely the local. It is glo-cal, both global and local.
Signs and symbols
In order to effectively communicate with those around us, we need to have a meaningful relationship with our culture. Our images, pictures, icons, signs, symbols, message, and metaphor must make sense. We ought to learn to work outside the native culture on a daily basis and practice our faith as a way of life and an orientation toward common humanity. More importantly, we need to acquire skill to build the invisible bridge between the usable past and the living present, newcomers and old residents, at the end of a seemingly dead-end street.
This Blessed House is a book about a newly married Hindu couple who bought a house in Hartford, Connecticut. When Sanjeev, the husband, had bought the house, he was wholly impressed with details like the wainscoting, the solarium, and the brass finishes of the house. But somehow he missed the other details that showed that the previous owners were serious Christians. When he and his new wife, Twinkle, moved in, they found a huge statue of the Virgin Mary hidden among the leaves in front of the house. They also found pictures of Jesus and Christian artifacts in the attic, backyard and other places of the house. After much disagreement between the two of them, they finally made a compromise, and placed the statue and several Christian artifacts on the mantle of the fireplace, out of sight of passersby but in sight of anyone entering the house. These were decorative pieces with no spiritual or historic value; just a conversational piece with no intrinsic worth.
I, often, wonder if what we display, say, and do in church make any sense to those around us, especially to those who do not share our religious beliefs and cultural values. The biblical perspective on life asserts that meanings are never private but always communal. Meanings are never to be found in an isolated historical context but always as an integral part of an ongoing, living process.
Kingdom values and Diasporic Communities
Just like the story book seller of the house who probably assumed that the next owner of the house would be a Christian, and would appreciate the religious relics he had left behind, we cannot afford to take anything for granted during these changing times.
The reality of 21st century demographic trends requires a different mind-set and a more meaningful relationship with our neo-neighbors who are from different religious and cultural background. It warrants an interdisciplinary approach with “Kingdom-orientation,” as I will explain shortly. We ought to be adaptable and learn to iterate.
Globalization today has given us an enormous opportunity to witness to the Gospel as we come in close contact with people who were too far from us in the past geographically and otherwise. Over 250 million people move around the world as refugees, migrant workers, students and business people. Our urban centers, school campuses, factories, offices and places of community gathering have become a mosaic of racial, cultural and ethnic diversity.
Just like Cornelius, Apollos and others who came in contact with early Christians during their diasporic journeys in the Acts of the Apostles, and became messengers of the Gospel themselves, we can take this rapidly changing world context as a missional opportunity in welcoming the strangers. This requires, more than anything else, intercultural sensitivity and effective communication skills. This approach is not to replace traditional missiology but to supplement it.
A word of caution. When a new diasporic group of people move into a host community, they are often vulnerable in a strange land and strange culture. They are also likely to be associated with a package of negative linkages. During such times, advocacy as a missional tool would give validity and cogency to our mission engagement. Biblical characters such as Joseph, Moses, Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel, Peter, Paul and several others who had served as agents of advocacy can serve as our role models.
A Tear in the Communal Fabric
Not too long ago, on a rainy afternoon, I took a book length manuscript to a local office-supply store for copying in order to overnight it to the Abingdon Press. Unfortunately, the employee of the store ran into a problem with the machine. As I was in a hurry, I offered to pick up the manuscript the next morning. When I went back the next morning, the manuscript was nowhere to be found. Three of us, including the store manager whom I knew well as pastor of a local church, searched the entire section of the store with no luck. About twenty minutes into our vain search, one of the workers took me aside, using words that cannot be printed here, and said I was creating unnecessary commotion by involving the manager. In his verbal tirade, he finally spat out saying, “Get out of here, you… Pakistani …Muslim.”
I looked straight into that man’s eyes and said to myself, “I can get you fired in thirty seconds … you must be a miserable guy to treat a valued customer like this.” After lingering for a couple of more minutes, I quietly slipped away to the parking lot.
Gathering myself for a while in my car, I said to myself, “What would I say, if my best friend met me in this face?” I would say then and now, “It is time for us, friend, not to stay apart from the sites of struggles. It is time to communicate our commitment and concerted efforts to be the Body of Christ seriously (Ephesians 1: 20-22), while striving to live as members of the wider kingdom of God. It is time to address the ever mushrooming stereotypes and gaps in intercultural understanding. Mission centered on the kingdom of God is integrative and holistic. It is time, my friend, to practice painstakingly being the salt of the earth, light of the world, and yeast in the baking dough. It is time for painstaking advocacy for “neighborology” to take root in our midst. While every non-Western Christian in our midst is a “potential missionary” of the gospel, it is time to address the persistent negative perceptions surrounding the immigrants living among us.”
In case, you are wondering whether I was able to recover my book length manuscript from the office supply store, I was, thanks to my flash drive! The manuscript was soon published as Many Faces, One Church: A Manual for Cross-Racial and Cross-Cultural Ministry by the Abingdon Press. Every book has a back story. May our personal, social, and collective memories serve as a call for advocacy efforts to realize God’s kingdom which is already here and not yet.
The Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is the president of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists and is the pastor of Shrub Oak United Methodist Church in Shrub Oak, N.Y.