The Problem with ‘Welcoming’
My home church recently hosted a summer-long series of guest speakers under the theme “Expanding Our Faith.” Eager to gain insights from other religious traditions, we invited a rabbi, an imam, a Zen Buddhist monk, and an indigenous storyteller to preach on four consecutive Sundays. Our team chose songs, wrote prayers and selected images for the program that reflected the speaker’s faith tradition. Yet I could not help but notice the giant cross which hangs in the front of our church, above the platform where our guests spoke. On these Sundays, the cross seemed to dominate the room.
In her book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers provides strategies for ‘mainline’ (read: predominantly white, majority heterosexual) congregations who are seeking to welcome marginalized cultures and groups into their church. Spellers distinguishes between “inclusive” churches that practice incorporation and churches of “incarnation” who practice radical welcome.
An inclusive faith community incorporates new marginalized members without modifying its core dominant cultural identity or institutional structure. By constrast, in a community that practices radical welcome, the community’s cultural identity(ies) shift to enable full expression of a range of voices and gifts to be present. The power structure of the community changes so that leadership reflects all voices within the community. Radical welcome transforms every aspect of the community’s life together.
When we talk about becoming a multi-racial church, we tend to focus on what we can do to be accessible and “welcoming,” what signs we can add to the building, what outreach events we might schedule. We rarely (if never) sign on for power sharing or a complete top-to-bottom transformation of congregational identity: after all, many of our United Church of Christ churches have been around for hundreds of years. Congregational identity and a narrative of the local church’s place in a certain telling of American history is deeply ingrained.
In the same way, as we pursue engagements with other faiths, we strive to be welcoming and hospitable. We are courteous, work to pronounce unfamiliar names correctly, ask permission to take photographs. But we do not question how our way of being followers of Jesus, the ways we literally “do church,” inhibit our ability to communicate authentically with others.
Sometimes it seems that dominant white culture and dominant Christian culture are so interconnected as to be indistinguishable from one another. How “hospitable” can my church actually be to the indigenous leader whose great-great-grandfather was forced to attend a missionary boarding school whose teachers included members of my church?
What kind of justice work do Christians need to pursue in order to participate in authentic interfaith relationships? How do we need to change our way of holding and using power so that others can be present?
White-Christian Dominance of Interfaith Space
Perhaps the example of inviting guest speakers into my Christian place of worship is disingenuous, for a secular meeting place where many faiths gather would seem to offer more even ground. But I think the model of inviting others to come to us illustrates the problem. In the city where I live, interfaith work is organized by an ecumenical council (a group of Christians) whose buildings, lands, etc. play host to our multi-faith gatherings. Our meetings for interfaith racial justice organizing with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) are held in a white church.
When we gather, once a year, for Interfaith Advocacy Days, on the steps of our state capitol, I’m aware of the statues, memorials (even street names!) which pay tribute to ‘pioneer’ ancestors…those responsible for the plunder and desecration of indigenous holy places. There isn’t any ‘neutral’ territory outside the dominant white-Christian-culture of our society.
When we gather in a secular place, consider the structure and order of our interfaith prayer services: we always begin and end at an appointed time. We usually have a printed program listing the speakers, which means that certain people must and do speak (and the audience does not generally interrupt). We use certain words, which are believed to be “common”: prayer, blessing, litany. When we gather to celebrate many faiths, we still structure our gathering using a dominant white-western-Euro-American cultural model that is especially conducive to Christianity.
In racial justice organizing, we distinguish between multiculturalism and dismantling racism. Multicultural efforts often manifest as seeking to collect a kind of smorgasbord of cultural diversity, while efforts to dismantle racism resist the colonizer-collector attitude that treats diversity as a product to be bought and bartered.
Too often interfaith gatherings reflect a colonizer model: dominant Christian culture plays host for a buffet of faiths and cultures whose dishes provide “flavor and spice,” the “exotic other.” Power remains centralized in the hands of the host who invites and disinvites guests at will. This is especially evident in language.
While we pride ourselves on hearing and understanding one another in interfaith dialogue, do we also notice whose vocabulary provides the scaffolding for the conversation? Who picks the terms, who decides what the words mean?
The Limits of Language
For example, my community includes a Umatilla/Nez Perce/Sauk & Fox indigenous storyteller and an Ifa priestess. When I talk about interfaith work with them, they resist my use of the word faith.
Faith is a dominant word, they tell me. They point out that, for example, in our country, one can be licensed as a Jewish or Christian or Buddhist chaplain, but not an Ifa chaplain. From their perspective, “people of faith” are people who follow religions with a history of oppression and domination of indigenous people, culture and spirituality.
When I ask my friends to name their spiritual practices, the words they use include: ritual, ceremony, meditation, dance, journaling, movement, smudge, prayer, spell casting, journeying, listening/talking to ancestors, circlework, dreams, pow-wow, feast, blessing.
The words I associate with “faith”: worship, liturgy, litany, communion, fellowship, confession are not words that they use. In fact, there is active resistance to using words that are Christian.
It isn’t that we have different words for the same thing, so that our task is one of simple translation. (I’ve observed other scholars attempt to place their labels onto indigenous practices, comparing passing the peace pipe to communion, for example, and have seen the violence inherent in renaming something against its intention.) For example, “ritual” is used instead of “worship” because the central task of a ritual is connection to elements of energy and/or ancestors, rather than praise of a deity. So while it might in superficial ways look similar (i.e. we sit in a circle, gather for about an hour, sing, hear a lesson), our gatherings are in many ways deeply, intentionally different.
For my friends in indigenous African and Native American traditions, spiritual practice in their own terms is a form of resistance to the European colonization, slavery and genocide that attacked and destroyed their culture and language. Many old words have been lost, and the new ones that are being reclaimed do not/will not fit into a framework of “faith,” not even for the sake of “interfaith dialogue,” for fear of once again becoming invisible and being erased.
For people seeking liberation from ever-present systems of oppression and domination, something like dialogue — an exchange of words and ideas between peers — is not the goal (or perhaps, not the first one). Sovereignty is the goal, liberation is the goal.
Indigenous peoples are actively advocating for their right to protect their land, practice their religion and nurture cultural and community life for future generations. African-American peoples are resisting white supremacist police and vigilante violence, affirming their right to life and to worship in Black churches that have long served to nurture connection and resilience.
While white people talk about making sure everyone has a place at “the table,” they do not consider how the white table itself is toxic and life-threatening to those they want to invite.
What does it cost people of color to enter white space in order to participate in interfaith dialogue? How might changes in power structures be a prerequisite for interfaith gatherings?
Letting Go of Power So All Can be Present
The accountability guidelines used by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) provide a valuable model for white Christians seeking to do interfaith work. SURJ members seek to show up for racial justice in two major ways: first, working within white communities to call out and change the ways they are perpetuating white supremacy through our ways of being in the world, and second, showing up with financial, physical, legal and spiritual support to POC-led campaigns for liberation.
As we understand it, showing up involves not talking at the public action: not to the press, not on the mic, not about our feelings. Showing up involves listening and holding back and questioning what feels like a natural impulse to make it all about us. Showing up means dropping off food for an all-Black gathering, taking off work to be in audience at the courthouse and at city hall, contributing money to bail and living expenses for local leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m wondering if white Christians can show up to interfaith work in this way. Perhaps the most useful white Christian participation in an interfaith setting would be to provide food, foot the bill for space rental, and not say anything, but just listen as indigenous and African and Asian Pacific Islander and Latino people share their sacred stories. Listen and reflect and listen some more.
White Christians need to stop worrying about how to invite everyone to the table of faith, and start wondering instead about all the other tables they’ve never visited…the ways of doing religion and being church and yes, even following God, where they aren’t in control.
This blog post is an excerpt of a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta, Georgia on November 23, 2015.