Friday, 5 August 2016
Writer Charlene Delos Santos
I was born in Manila, Philippines, and moved to Melbourne with my family in 1989 as a 6 year old. One of the first conversations I had with my cousin (who had already been living in Australia for a few years) was “Who do you barrack for?” I didn’t understand what ‘barrack’ meant, but this conversation resulted in me deciding that Collingwood was my team (many of you probably think that was the worst decision!).
But as a 6 year old in this foreign place, all I wanted to do was fit in! So if barracking for a footy team was one of the things I had to do, so be it!
The tension of working out where I fit in culturally continued to play out during my teenage and young adult years. I belonged to a youth group where most of my friends were white, blonde, and tall. I always felt like the odd one out, being Asian, having black hair, and being very short. And of course as a teenager you just want to fit in and be like your friends, so I tried to figure out the brands of clothing to wear and the type of music to listen to so that I wouldn’t be associated with being Asian but that I would fit in with my white friends. It wasn’t that my friends didn’t appreciate my cultural background, I was just a bit fearful of sharing what it means to be Filipino—maybe they would think I was weird; after all I already looked different from them! And as a teenager, all I wanted to do was fit in.
It wasn’t until I was 18 that I started wanting to embrace my cultural roots and became part of a missional community which was predominately other second generation Asian-Australians. That’s where I felt like I was at home—this was my tribe. We experimented with food from our different cultures, we would attempt to speak in our native tongue, and we shared our struggles of being Asian and Australian. I had a couple of mentors from this community who helped me to explore my cultural identity. And within this context we sought to follow Jesus.
In my early 20’s I started working for Scripture Union (SU). Similar to my youth group, I also found it quite hard to feel at home at SU because the staff team were mainly white. I had started there as an intern, and then became an employee. I had grown up with a worldview where respecting your elders and your boss was high priority, and what they say goes. I found myself quite torn because I was now expected to speak up and express my own opinions even if I disagreed with my boss or older colleagues. But this would be considered rude and disrespectful in my Asian culture—especially being one of the youngest on the team! It took me a while until I recognised some of these worldviews and values clashing within me. I started feeling more at home at SU when we started recruiting more employees, interns, and volunteers from diverse backgrounds. What a difference that made for me to feel at home!
As I get to know other second generation people from diverse cultural backgrounds, the theme of ‘home’ and where we fit in always comes up. We’ve grown up here in Australia, learning the culture, yet still have connections with our motherland because of the values that are instilled in us from our family and relatives. We are trying to juggle different worldviews, because we don’t quite fit into a single culture. We’re trying to work out who we are and where we belong.
God’s Work Of Bringing Cultures Together
In Revelation 7:9 (NIV) we are painted this picture:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
Here we read that God is bringing people of different cultures, nations, and tongues together. I can’t help but question whether the spaces that we gather reflect this picture. Now as a 32 year old, whenever I go to a conference or a training event or a meeting, my eyes always scan for people of colour. I have the same longing as I did growing up—am I welcome here? Do I feel at home? Am I welcome to express my culture?
Here in Australia we have an amazing opportunity and challenge, for the Church to reflect the picture of diversity and join in what God is doing! We are blessed to have so many cultures represented here in Australia. Yet we are also challenged as racism and prejudice stream through our screens and streets. I think we are afraid of those who are different from us—we are afraid of ‘the other’.
We only need to delve into our short history and see the hurt and pain from our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I have only recently begun the journey of trying to understand some of this myself, as I get to know and make friends with Indigenous people and look into our racial history. I have visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, and was really upset at the decisions that our government has made that marginalised people of colour (and what our government continues to do!). We still have a long way to go, but I believe we are in a unique time where we can journey with God in bringing about people from different cultures, eating, and celebrating together!
All around, there are groups creating spaces for people from diverse cultural backgrounds to come together and learn from each other.
Syndal Baptist Church is made up of people from over 50 cultural backgrounds. In the 70s a Vietnamese congregation was formed as part of the church, and then over 15 years ago a Chinese congregation joined. Many questions came about in regards to whether these monocultural migrant ethnic congregations had a future. With this challenge, the church has embraced a multicultural vision and has been thoughtful in how to integrate people of different cultural backgrounds and to especially think about the second‑generation children and young people. They have encouraged people from non‑English speaking backgrounds to develop their own ministries, they recognise different social behaviours and approaches of Australian-Chinese children and have adapted their Sunday School, and more and more they are seeing an integration of several cultures in their children, youth, and young adult ministries.
Praxis is a network of Christian youth work practitioners and deliver a Diploma in Youth Work in partnership with churches and organisations. One of their aims is to develop culturally intelligent youth workers. I have seen their students delve into their cultural roots, explore why culture is important, visit and learn from an Indigenous community, and reflect on their own journey.
Surrender Australia seeks to have Indigenous Australians be a core of and central voice at their conferences and events. They create a unique space where the wider church can hear and learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters and those on the margins. A highlight of the Melbourne conference is Indigenous Night, where we hear from Indigenous elders and leaders share what God is doing in their communities. There are very few spaces where over a hundred Indigenous people from all over Australia gathers with the wider church and have their voices heard.
These are just some of the stories from groups who see the importance of culture and seek to cultivate and celebrate diversity.
The more we recognise the call to build faith communities that embraces the diversity of cultures, the more we realise our need to build on our cultural intelligence and competency. Soong-Chan Rah writes that “cultural intelligence requires delving deeper into the biblical, theological, cultural and sociological issues as well as understanding the practical element of cross-cultural ministry.” It requires us to look at ourselves, our history, and our prejudices. It requires us to think creatively about how we make room for people to make connections and seek to understand each other.
Some questions and ideas to explore with your church as you seek to move towards the vision painted in Revelation are included below.
As you explore some of these questions and ideas within your church community, my hope is that you will become more aware of young people with a similar story to mine; that you will take up the challenge to walk alongside cultural groups who are at the fringes of your church, community, and gatherings; that you will be more sensitive to individuals and groups who are seeking to be heard and to find their sense of home. I look forward to hearing more stories that reflect what God is doing as he brings people from every nation, tribe, people, and language together to ultimately find their home in him.
Get a trainer to come in and help your leadership team to reflect on culture.
Reflect on your team make up, attitudes, systems and structures, and what barriers might there be for people from other cultures to participate in the life of the church. Do your systems and decision-making processes encourage participation, oppress others, or create barriers for people to participate?
Who holds the power in your church to make decisions?
Read up on books on cultural intelligence. Soong-Chan Rah’s book Many Colors is a good start!
Hospitality and Gatherings
What type of meeting and gathering spaces do you create? What do you eat and how do you celebrate when you gather?
Do you acknowledge the traditional owners of the land when you gather? How much does your church community know about the Indigenous people and land where you gather?
Reflect on your local community
What cultures are represented in your community? What do you know/don’t know?
Does your youth ministry reflect your local community? Are you and your young people in spaces where you are getting to know people of other cultures?
What prejudices might you be holding within yourself that God needs to bring to light and work on?
What journey have you taken in understanding your own cultural tale?
What have you done to understand the journey of our Indigenous people?
 Soong-Chan Rah, 2010, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church.
Originally published in YVQ12: MESSY.
Written by Charlene Delos Santos. Charlene is married to Michael, and they live in St Albans where they enjoy eating and drinking with people in their community. Charlene has worked in the schools ministry department with SU Victoria for over a decade and is currently the Operations Assistant at Surrender Australia.
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