Cross Culturalism – when worlds touch

On Friday, we went to Champs, the sort of American Sports bar, run by a Brit. It is a hang-out for ex-pats, and on Friday its karaoke night. We were there because it was Grace and Anna’s Science teacher’s surprise birthday, which ordinarily would not have garnered an invitation, except Mr. O., happens to also be good friends with some of our Ashesi friends, and so we’ve seen them socially in a context other than the Lincoln School. It was in intersection of worlds, and that tipped the balance enough be among those who yelled “Surprise,” and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

Four worlds have emerged for us here, four worlds from which we draw our friends. These worlds are Elim Church, Asbury-Dunwell Church, Lincoln School, and Ashesi University.

So on Friday, we’re at Champs, and I see the nervousness of our kids teachers (or was it What are THEY doing here?!) as we walked in. I went over to the superintendent of schools and said, “This has got to be weird for you.” Yeah. “I mean I’m a pastor, and this would be like going out with my staff, and some of the parish shows up.” Yeah. “But I want you to know that we’re here as friends of Mr. O., and not as parents of your students…and that’s why we left the kids at home.

“That’s when it does get a little weird,” he said. “When students, or ex-students walk in, and there is this awkward moment.” That’s how it feels when worlds collide, or at least touch. When one set of friends that are completely distinct from another, mix. What my wife would call a set intersection. I’m so used to changing who I am to fit a particular context, and when two worlds touch, or collide, I’m not sure who I am, because in some respect, I feel like I’m defined by the people I’m with.

But not tonight. Who wants to be defined by people singing “I’m on the Top of the World,” or “I’ve got you Babe?” The experience is surreal, even more so than karaoke usually is. I mean here we’re doing a Japanese invention, singing American pop music from 70s, 80s, in Ghana, Africa. So the singers alternate between ex-pats and Ghanaians, and each are trying to be something they are not, musicians. Still it was fun, interesting, and oh so surreal and the birthday boy, Mr. O., turns out to be a surprisingly good singer, and entertaining to watch.

On Saturday night, we hosted Ethnic Food Night, with our Ashesi friends. Our Ashesi friends have a quarterly tradition of an Ethnic Cook-in, where they gather and all cook an amazing dinner from scratch. We were invited to a Cuban Cook-in the first month we were here, and what fun it was. Several weeks ago, Suzanne floated several options for this week, and the Ethnicity that was picked was an “American Thanksgiving.” One of the staff, who had gone to the US for university and graduate school, had always wanted to go, but had never been invited to a Thanksgiving. She put it this way, “I’ve heard so much about Thanksgiving, and always wanted to experience it, so please, please…” Personally, stories like that break my heart, for her to have spent eight years—and eight Thanksgivings—in our country, and never sat at the table…shame on us. So Saturday we held Thanksgiving, on December 9.

It made me think of one of my favorite Thanksgivings that happened my first year of college when I was out east at Berklee, and my folks were overseas. This much older woman (she was 30) from the college gathered us lost sheep together, and cooked each of us a stuffed Cornish game hen. We brought all the fixin’s and what a great memory. We were an international crowd of nomads who live too far to go home, so in her small apartment, eating off borrowed card tables and plates, we gathered, and gave thanks. How I wish our Ashesi friend could have had that memory.

We ordered (and cooked) a large local turkey—it came with its feet so we know it wasn’t butterball; had real mashed potatoes; homemade stuffing; carrot-pineapple jello salad; baked pumpkin; hot apple pies; cheese potato casserole; all made in our kitchen from scratch. Not only was the food amazing, and it really did feel (and taste) like Thanksgiving, but the conversations while we cooked them and then after dinner, were amazing.

I think that is one of the things we appreciate most about being here is the many cultures. I mean growing up in Iowa wasn’t exactly the most culturally diverse experience.

At the pastor’s conferences I’ve attended over the past few years, many have emphasized the need for churches to become more culturally diverse. The world is changing, they tell us, and our pews need to reflect that change. Consider my adopted home state of Texas, where the once predominate white culture is now just the largest of the minorities…there is no majority. In my lifetime Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans are expected to become the largest minority, and someday the majority, and if our churches don’t start getting that soon, then we’re just latest a bump on the last wiggle of the dinosaur tail.

So here I am in a culture overwhelmingly African, and yet there is a minority of us that is quite culturally diverse, especially on Sunday morning. In October I taught the 10-11 year olds Sunday School class at Elim International Church. It was a group of anywhere from 20-35 kids, about half Ghanaian, and the rest a mix of British, South African, German, Syrian, and the five American boys (these were the wild ones). There is even a kid named Hunter, and I have to laugh, because like the one he reminds me of, this one can be quite a handful sometimes, but has a heart of gold. Must come with the name.

So here I am with this culturally diverse group of preteens, and I am reminded that this is just the kind of church the pastor’s conference has been encouraging me to work toward. It is a lot of work. I don’t know if all 10-11 year olds are this way, but when you mix in what is going on with their hormones, and take away a predominate culture to teach from, all you’re left with is wild.

Multi-cultural[1] is a word that is bantied around a lot. Multi-ethnic or multi-racial is what I think most people are actually talking about. The difference is huge. Multi-racial (or ethnic) is when there are several ethnic groups represented, but one predominate culture. Like the idealized church that I once served in Texas, it was multi-racial, and mono-cultural. Multi-racial in that it ranks included a few Hispanic families, a few African-origin American families, a Native American, two Germans, many Yankees, and even a few Texans. It was mono-cultural in that we related to each other in the dominate white culture. Meetings, worship and most other functions started and ended nearly on time. I mean not to the standard that Germans start and end on time, but much closer than the more fluid understanding of time that defines many Africans countries.

I’ve been reading a book lately, “Why MEN HATE going to church”, by David Murrow. This book speaks into the multi-gender (and I would say, multi-cultural) aspects of a church. Murrow writes that men and young adults tend to be challenge oriented, and value adventure, risk, daring, independence, change, conflict, variety, pleasure, and reward.[2] Women and older adults, on the other hand tend to be security oriented, and value safety, stability, harmony, cooperation, predictability, protection, comfort, responsibility, support and traditions. Broad generalizations, but where women tend toward relationships, men are drawn toward action/adventure.

So I’m a Elim Church youth group, we start with prayer and some singing. It is being lead by a group of young ladies and they pick songs like Meet With Me, Breathe, All in All, Tradin’ My Sorrows, and I look around and see rows full of boys, bored out of their minds.

Murrow’s words haunt me: “Almost everything about today’s church—its teaching style, its ministries, the way people are expected to behave, even today’ popular images of Jesus—is designed to meet the needs and expectations of a largely female audience. Church is sweet and sentimental, nurturing and nice.”[3]

I realize these are all songs are just that, sweet, sentimental, nurturing and nice. They are songs about relationships, and completely missing the culture of the teen-age boy. I think back to years earlier, how that boy called Hunter would come to life when the children’s choir sang songs about God’s strength, power, and courage, and how he would almost die of boredom when the songs described relationships. A child’s face doesn’t lie in the children’s choir.

I’ve seen that look in my Sunday School kids when I’m telling the story of the Woman at the Well, and then watched how they come to life when we have a race to write out a particular verse in Jeremiah. Who can write it out fastest? Even the girls get excited, and the room buzzes with energy, enough to carry us through the rest of the morning.

The night before Champs, we went to the Christmas Program at the Lincoln School, and the concert opened with a number performed by the whole school. What a diverse group of kids, I’ve included a brief musical clip just to show the diversity. I find that we connect to the international community more than we do the West Africans. Part of me feels like we’re missing an experience, part of me feels relieved, that at least we’re connecting to something different than ourselves.

But on the Thanksgiving celebrated on December 9 in Accra, Ghana it was all about an American tradition and we have no trouble connecting. The food, the company, and the conversations are great. There are people from Ghana, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Canada, Texas, and Washington State, and we find there is much to be thankful for. For friends, both here and abroad, for food enough to eat, and for families, who gather to share a part of their lives (and their culture) together.

Just how many PhDs does it take to make stuffing?

Footnotes:
[1] Perhaps a few definitions would help:
Cross-cultural – one (or more) cultures relating to one another. For example when I go out on adventures with our day guard Emmanuel, it is always a cross cultural experience as I am trying to learn about Ghanaian culture, and he, American.
Multi-cultural – many in cultures, using many cultures to relate to each other. Multi-cultural means the different cultures are not represented (or valued) equally.
Multi-racial/Multi-ethnic – many races (or ethnic groups) are represented, it makes no statement about how the different cultures relate to each other.
Pluralistic – all cultures are valued and used equally, irregardless of their percentage make-up. For example, a pluralistic church service would have 5 minutes of white music, 5 minutes of black music, 5 minutes of Hispanic music, 5 minutes of Native American music… same would go for preaching. In reality, the pluralistic church can be pretty legalistic because the predominate value is representing each culture equally.
Mono-cultural – one predominate culture. It makes no statement about the racial make-up.
[2] Murrow, p18
[3] Murrow, p14

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