Lessons from the Multicultural Movement

“Multicultural,” like lots of words that have to do with different races and ethnicities coming together, has contested meanings and must be handled with intentionality and care.

When I use the word “multicultural” here I am pointing toward an intentional way of being in relationship, an intentional way of forming communities that sees differences and power-sharing as requirements..  I am sensitive to the fact that for some people of color this term is suspicious and requires unpacking.  I am aware, too, that for many white people the way I am using this term does not provide an attractive invitation, but instead sounds dangerous and misguided.

For the last three years I have served on the national board of the Presbyterian Multicultural Network (PMN), a grassroots organization that seeks to connect, nurture, and imagine multicultural ministries of all kinds in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And for the last two years I have served as the moderator of the national board of the PMN.

Members of PMN Board at Big Tent 2011

Just a few days ago I cycled off the PMN board and am reflecting a lot these days on what I’ve learned, how I have changed.   Here are just some of the lessons I ‘ve learned along the way.

  1. Listen quietly and speak honestly—from the heart.  No more lies.
  2. Do not be afraid.  Vulnerability and incompetency are part of the deal.
  3. Trust God and be ready for surprises.
  4. Every person is a gift who has wisdom that I need to hear.
  5. Leadership is a collective effort.  Diverse systems require leadership that is not egocentric, narcissistic, results oriented, and embedded.  Diverse communities require leadership that is relational, pastoral, rugged, visionary, and provisional.  Power sharing skills are required.
  6. The hard times are profoundly painful and disorienting.  God uses these hard times to create the conditions we need for something new to take hold (like a refiner’s fire, a cleansing, a leaven, a watershed).  The good times nourish and feed us because the journey is long (like manna from heaven, like the bread of life, like living water, the cup of salvation).
  7. White people are the hardest to sell on a “Pentecost vision” (see Acts Chapter 2) of the Presbyterian Church—that is that the Church is called to be a gathering of diverse peoples “together in one place.”  White people are the most resistant to this work and many tend to have a posture of judgment and criticism when things feel uncomfortable or when we feel incompetent.
  8. Waking up to whiteness is not something you do at a one-time workshop. It is a transformative journey that finds integrity in true cross-cultural friendships and truth-telling communities.
  9. I don’t have to understand everything or fix everything.
  10. Church will never be the same for me—it feels more elusive in some ways and more palpable than ever in other ways.  Profoundly healthy and dynamic communities are not homogeneous; they are diverse on multiple layers of who they are and how they understand themselves.
  11. Colorblindness is not the goal.  Striving to be colorblind is a white aspiration for a whited-out world that isn’t honest about itself, its beauty, its sin, its pain, or its promise.  In a colorblind world the privileges of whiteness are simply normalized and renamed—they are masked in a system that boasts fairness and access and individual volition.  Then whiteness can be rewarded and the lies of racism find a deeper place to call home than skin color. Seeing whiteness for what it is is a requirement for us to find ways into loving and vital communities of difference.  Colorblindness is not the goal.
  12. The most tenacious wounds and marks of racism, violence, fear, and distrust are in a deep, unconscious, embodied place.  We hold them at bay by trying to explain and defend instead of feeling our way.  Deep healing (Jesus-style) is at stake.

I join with my brothers and sisters in Christ in the multicultural movement of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) when I say that being multicultural is a Divinely-created mode of being (of being human AND being church) that seeks to gather diversity of all kinds, at all layers of who we are.  And this diversity is gathered and incorporated in such a way that differences are of the highest value for creating healthy, vital, and Spirit-filled lives and communities.

I give thanks for the generosity that God shows us when we are “together in one place” like in that Pentecost moment in Acts 2 (The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2).   I give thanks for the glimpses I’ve seen, for the tastes I have had of these life-giving relationships and communities.  May God grant me the wisdom to keep learning.


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