The Joys and Challenges of My Early Rural Life
I grew up in a rural town tucked away in gold country in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were many wonderful things about the environment in which I was raised, but cultural diversity was not one of them. To this day the physical landscape of my hometown still dwells deep within me so that I feel mysteriously comforted when I am near mountains.
My love for cultural diversity was an acquired taste that did not happen until I made my way to college and then later to graduate school in Los Angeles. It was here that my separation from the great outdoors of northern California was more than compensated for by the rich diversity of peoples, cultures and religions from around the world. It was in this context of encountering people from different cultures that I was also confronted with my own ethnocentrism. It is impossible to be aware of your culturally embedded ways of living and seeing the world when you are not aware that you have a culture! Over time, personal relationships developed with patient friends from places like Iran, Armenia, Ethiopia, Mexico and China. As this happened I gradually became aware of my own cultural identity and I came to appreciate and love the differences that made my friends who they are.
Engaging Our Muslim Neighbors in West Michigan
A few years ago a good friend of mine who serves as a pastor in Tempe, Arizona shared with me a simple practice that helps people in his church—people like me who grew up in cultural and ethnic enclaves—to take some first steps towards appreciating the beauty of another culture. Pastor Jim has developed what he calls a Peace Feast, an intentional gathering of friends that seeks to first financially bless a restaurant locally owned by those who are not a part of the majority culture in that area, and second, to give people a simple and positive experience of other cultures. (You can read more about Jim’s discussion of the Peace Feast here.)
In my first few weeks here at Calvin Seminary I sought ways to help the seminary community engage with the immigrant communities right here in West Michigan. This past December, I had the wonderful opportunity to join my Muslim friend, Sam, and ten Calvin Seminary students and faculty for a rich meal and conversation at Le Kabob. During the meal the owner, Amir, shared with us his story about his family’s immigrant experience coming from Yemen and what it is like for him to be a Muslim here in West Michigan. Given the reports of religious extremism constantly bombarding us from the media and politicians, personal encounters with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds can go a long way in helping us love our neighbors by undermining the “single stories” about other people and groups circulating through our society.
Don’t Overlook the Power of A Meal
One student who joined us in December reflected on the experience this way: “[T]able fellowship is among the most wonderful and beautiful of human experiences, one especially potent and effective for breaking down barriers between people, whether those barriers be acknowledged or not. Sharing a meal, talking together about family and life and challenges—these are all very human things, and it connects us, shows us how we are more like each other than we initially may have thought.”
Join Us for a Conversation!
This summer Calvin Seminary is honored to host Dr. Richard Mouw from Fuller Seminary as he explores the theme “Loving Your Neighbor Today: Living the Second Commandment in Today’s World.” This theme of interfaith engagement with our neighbors is one of the topics that will be addressed at this three-day conference on July 19-21. You can find out more information here. I look forward to seeing many of you there!