Language matters, it is a code that communicates values, world view and priorities. I was born in Guatemala to two loving christian parents and at the age of 9, we left a life of country clubs, pageants and wealth to immigrate to the USA (yes, it is possible to live a well-off live in latin america). It was the next faithful step in my parent’s journey of discipleship. The meant, learning a new language, a new code, a new shift in priorities and and thus my journey with language, God and diversity began.
It was a typical day in Southern California. It was a typical sunday morning and I was rocking the layered, boho-chic-“I woke up like this” but took 30 min to get ready look. I confidently walked into my church building and as I headed down the hall to arrive to the room where the “latinos” gathered, as I briskly walked…for I was late…I heard my name being called out and quickly turned around. For the next 15 minutes I heard a laundry list of grievances regarding a celebration we “latinos” held the night before. The monologue ended with stinging words:
“do your people have an understanding of how things work around here?”
Hands tight, heart beating, tears on deck, I opened my mouth, apologized and walked away. What I really wanted to do was yell, scream, punch, curse…but that just wasn’t the behavior that a woman of color was allowed to respond to such heartache-because it made others uncomfortable. As I headed down the hall, the echoes of the worship resounded through the walls
Ven, es hora de adorarle….ven, y abre tu corazón a el…Ven.
(come now its the time to worship…come now its the time to give your heart…Come.)
Y toda lengua confesará que él es Dios…
(One day every tongue will confess you are God…)
I did NOT want to sing the song that invited me to worship in in a place where all tongues were welcomed. That day, I needed God to be on my side.
To this day, those words still sting. Still hurt. Still burn, and I still hear them spoken in the lives of churches whom I have been a part of. Perhaps not in the same structure, but with the same tonality and meaning. It is often said the the way towards unity is just to anchor our identity in Christ, but I always wonder, what kind of Christ?
In terms of (the English) language, we capitalize the I. The language points to the value of individualism. The way I think, relate and worship God are important. Both God and I are important subjects in the sentence. In spanish, we would never capitalize “yo” (unless its the beginning of the sentence). My english language communicates to me that I am just as important as God in my relationship with him. In spanish, yo no lo soy (i am not). In my own journey of being a member at both Spanish only and English only congregations, these are some of the reflections I have arrived at (yes I know they are biased and individual experiences). With undocumented migration being a cornerstone experience in the Latino church in the USA, in the churches I worshiped at, God was often portrayed as the one who is most like an empathetic caregiver. But also, with the deep historical narrative of corruption, dictatorships and injustice in many of the latin american governments there was also a deep fear of God. So from my Latino church I got to the conclusion that God was a police man whom you couldn’t argue with (because you can die) but who was empathetic if you relocate countries due to the unjust ways the US has traded with Latin america that has now left you with no job and streets filled with violence and drug wars for the consumers across the border. On the other end, my English church experience preached the fact that God was a God of order and law, and that if you break the rules then don’t be surprised when the consequences come. Worship songs talked about Jesus like he was my clingy boyfriend whom I can be embraced by. This God also loved me and had made me unique and special unlike anyone else. So this God was like an approachable teddy bear who had a hidden agenda of what he really wanted, he spoke in positive and inclusive tonality while judging others in the midst (including me).
This is why it is problematic that we just slap on “unity in Christ” as a solve-all clause for what it means to be united in our diversity. Instead, I would argue that our unity is found in a Jewish man called Jesus. Jesus was a male Jew. I am a 1.5 latina. The Jewish tradition impacted and shaped who Jesus was, and it was from that context that he operated from. A true unity can only be achieved when the particularities of our social location are named, celebrated and welcomed at the table of blessings. The Jewish Jesus is the host of the table at which all are welcomed. Homogenizing our differences does not achieve unity, they (it) achieve a false sense of one (oneness). I am hopeful in this work because I have seen this play out, I know it exists.
Jr. high camp. Mountains, creeks, cabins. Two boys sitting across each other at the dinner table. It was dinner time. I joined the boys table and for a while the conversations were all about the pool, games, and critters found in the creek when all of a sudden, a different conversation oozed its way in. We will call these individuals A and B. A was a boy who came from a predominantly white middle class family. B was an undocumented student that was considered “at-risk” (whatever that means).
A: Hey, you know how we are learning that we are like family once we love Jesus?
A: Well, since we are family then can I ask you a question?
A: Dude, why are you like, always really late to youth group?
B: What??!?? Im not late.
A: Mmmm….well you always miss the games.
B: Wow, didn’t know we had games at youth group
(B looks at me and A just giggles to himself)
A: Do you guys have clocks at your house?
B: Yeah! We also have phones, and those tell us the time too!
(he said this with some real sass)
Me: Hey B, how about you tell us what happens right before youth group.
(I was trying to salvage the moment…and the awkwardness)
B: Well, on wednesdays my mom gets off of work at 5:30pm and then comes home and makes dinner and then we all have to finish before she then cleans up and then we go to church.
A: Ok that is wednesday, how about on sunday for sunday school?
B: On sundays, we have breakfast and then come to church.
A: So you are just late because you are eating? My family eats too you know.
B: Well I don’t know why we are late, but I rather eat with my family
that be on time for games. Can I ask you a questions?
B: Why do you care that I am on time?
A: Because you are a really good runner, and we would really dominate the games if we were on a team together.
B: Dude! We totally would!
(high fives and smiles are exchanged followed by silence)
A: So, are you going to stop being late?
B: Mmm. I dont know. Will you stop caring about me being late?
A: Probably not.
After this conversation, I told them that I would try to add a game towards the end of youth group to see this epic partnership. My heart was all sorts of warm. Two boys, recognized their differences but continued to sit at the table and shared salty chips and kool aid. It was a Eucharist unlike any other.
Fast forward two weeks….as we were getting the games set up I called out B’s name by mistake. A, yelled from across the field, oh! he’s late cause he is eating with family but he will be here soon.
Here is the awesome part: two 12 year olds had a conversation through which A expressed a time based culture (US) vs B coming from an event oriented culture (Latin America). B was late because meals took a long time and they are done when all had enough to eat and drink and were satisfied. Meals can take 25 min to hours on end (longest lunch to date lasted 4 hours). A, was coming from a time oriented culture in which meals are scheduled and finalized after the time allotted permits. It is understood that all are to eat, drink and fellowship during a time frame of 30-60 min. These two boys understood what it meant to recognize their cultural differences, but didn’t continue to try to persuade each other towards their (own) way. They named and celebrated their differences.
The work of unity is difficult – messy, confusing, slow and difficult. It’s a lesson I continue to learn everyday through conversations filled with words that I listen to, interpret and internalize. My prayer is that we may be people who do not try to talk off our differences but learn to name and navigate them with grace and truth. May we not use blanket statements to cover up the things that make us uncomfortable but may we be disciples of the Jewish Christ. I hear language that is not inclusive, honest and welcoming everyday. I grow tired and frustrated and often want to quit. It is in those moments that I recall A and B. They taught me what it looks like to speak about diversity but still sit at the table whose host is Christ, the Jew. Language matters.