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My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 4

Pastor Jim

Pastor Jim

Today was my last full day of this class. I meet again with the group at 9am tomorrow morning, and then the “Ministry in the City” class will end at noon, and I will head home to Seattle. I am feeling a bit bittersweet about this ending. I am VERY ready to go home. I miss my husband, my dogs, my cat, and my bed. I’m looking forward to seeing my step-daughter before she heads back to school, and hanging out a bit with my sister and her kids. I am VERY ready. And yet, I am sorry that this experience is almost over. I have learned so much already, even without the time needed to truly absorb it all. I expect I will reflect over the next couple of weeks, and will come to some epiphanies and realizations for which I will be very grateful. I will also miss the many gracious, amazing, talented, and giving people who I have met. This includes my host family, the many pastors, the choir, and congregation, all of whom have met us with open arms and open hearts. I feel as though I have been a part of this community, and I’m not ready to let that go.

I am the only one in my class who is going home tomorrow. The others are continuing with a second half of the Cross-Cultural Experience. In this second half, they will change to new host families, host families who are Hispanic and do not speak very much English. I will miss out on this, and I really am disappointed about that. I could have taken this part of the class, but it would have meant being away from my husband for another 2 weeks, and having very little time with him before going back to PLTS in February. Considering how much time I am already away from John due to going to school in Berkeley, I decided not to spend these next 2 weeks here in Los Angeles, despite how much I know I would learn if I stayed. These decisions are so hard.

And so, I am now winding down from my last full day, and looking forward to telling you a bit about it.

The day began with bible study at 9am at Holy Trinity Church. We were discussing Genesis 32, which is when Jacob wrestles with God. This passage is incredibly rich with meaning and lessons, and the discussion was full. We humans tend to believe that struggling or arguing with God is disrespectful, irreverent, or impudent. We can relate to Jacob, though, because, in actuality, we all wrestle with God. In fact, I was particularly struck by how Jacob’s struggle with God results in an injured hip as well as a blessing. This resonates with me as I often struggle with God… I struggle to understand and discern what God is saying to me, I struggle to accept the suffering I see in this world, I struggle to accept both my own injuries and my blessings, and I struggle to understand why. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I even struggle to accept God. At these times, I feel frustrated and unworthy. I know that my faith is not as strong as I would like, and I begin to feel despair. But then I remember Jacob. I remember that Jacob struggled, too. And when Jacob’s struggle with God was over, he left with a lifetime injury to help him always remember his struggle, and a blessing. My struggles often end this way, too.

After the bible study, the other students and I joined the choir to warm up, and then the service began. And what a service it was. Holy Trinity Lutheran celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., today, and so the service opened with a recording of one of his last sermons, called “The Drum Major Instinct.” There were many moments and ways that this sermon touched me. Dr. King spoke about how the race struggle is really a class struggle. And yet, because of a very “human” tendency to elevate oneself, we find ourselves pushing others down, whether that push actually helps or hurts us. Dr. King spoke of how this struggle is not just between people, not just between classes, and not just between races, but between nations. It leads us to war and death, despite Jesus’ call for peace and love. Dr. King spoke of the fall of the Roman Empire, and how many parallels there are to what we see happening in the US in the 60’s. Those parallels still exist today. Towards the end of the sermon, Dr. King speaks of all that Jesus did, and points out that he was a man who never owned a house, never had a family, never went to college, “he just went around serving and doing good.”

And then, in this sermon that Dr. King gave exactly 2 months before his own death, Dr. King spoke of how he would like to be remembered when he dies. He said that he does not want anyone to talk about his Nobel Peace Prize, he does not want them to mention any of his awards, or even where he went to school. Instead, he wants people to say that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life in service, that he tried to love others, that he tried to feed the hungry, that he tried to clothe those without clothes, that he tried to visit people in prison, and that he tried “to love and serve humanity.” This may be the part of the sermon that touched me the most deeply. It touched me mostly because it reminds me of my own father. My father has many faults; he made many mistakes. But I can honestly say that he tried all of the above, and for that, I consider him a great man.

Now, as I write this, I realize that perhaps this sermon struck me deeply for another reason, as well. Perhaps it hits home because of the blog I wrote just the other day when I found myself back “On the road again.” In that blog, I spoke of my own struggle with letting go of my own luxuries of a nice home, nice clothes, and nice dinners. I do still struggle with all of these things and more, and yet, I can honestly say that I try to love, feed, clothe, visit, and serve others. And, like Dr. King, that is truly how I hope people will remember me.

I did not have much time, though, to reflect upon all of this at the time. When the sermon was finished, the service began with the choir’s processional into the church. We began with “The Lord Is Blessing Me,” sung with much gusto, pleasure, and heart. Now, I should say, this pastor and choir director are the same pastor and choir director who visited PLTS back in September when Pastor Jim preached “Who are our Ninevites?” and I blogged about the experience. Worshiping with Jim and Donnie truly is an experience, and this was no exception. The church was full of gospel music, heartfelt praise, and all-encompassing love. I saw people taking pictures and video of the service, and if I can get my hands on the digitals, I will post them with this blog on a later date. There are no words to accurately describe the experience. It is simply beautiful and heart-soaring, and the heart begins to soar as early as the processional.

After the Prayer of the Day, Pastor Jim opens us up to “Good News” time, when people are invited to share any good news going on in their life. I have now seen this as part of a few different services, and I have to say… I LOVE this practice. What a great way to build community, helping people celebrate together and care for each other. This was no different. Next, Pastor Jim did a welcome to all visitors, including a specific call-out for those of us visiting from seminaries. A long and meaningful “Passing of the Peace,” followed, where I not only shook hands and hugged those up in the choir loft with me, but then stepped down into the pews and received and gave peace to many others. Eventually, we heard the call to return to our seats, and then the service continued with the reading of Scripture, followed by something very unique and, again, heart-moving.

After the Scripture was verbally proclaimed, the youth of the congregation bodily proclaimed it through dance. This was absolutely incredible. It began with a young girl, probably 3 years old, while the others were crouched behind the choir loft, waiting. After she had finished, around 20 more youth, between the ages of 6ish through 14 or so, joined her, and the dance was amazing. Fluid movements and graceful coordination filled the floor accompanied by smiles and support clearly visible within and among this group. They danced to a medley with meaningful words in contemporary music, and it was so easy to see how much FUN they were having!! As I watched, I found my eyes filling up with subtle tears. Again, words are not sufficient. When they were finished, we were all moved so strongly that most of the congregation not only clapped, but stood up cheering… so proud of their daughters and sons.

When the dance was done, the gospel was acclaimed and proclaimed, including a little skit performed by a couple of young men. The young men were playing the part of two of Joseph’s brothers, speaking about how annoying their little brother is, and how his words really anger them. It ended with the line, “I want to kill him! Then we’ll see about that dream!” My most memorable line as Pastor Jim’s sermon began was when he proclaimed, “They can kill the dreamer, but they can’t kill the dream!” How incredibly true. I had never thought about this way of tying the biblical story of Joseph with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but it works perfectly. A person’s dream is a person’s “soul force,” and when an entire community embraces the same dream, the power of “soul force” is amplified! But… what exactly is “soul force”? Pastor Jim spoke of it with examples. It is why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. It is what motivates a person to die for a cause.  I think of “soul force” as the force within each of us that keeps us moving. It identifies injustice, it motivates us to do something, to stand up, to speak out. It is the force within us that feels with and for others, the force that self-identifies and that connects outside of ourselves. It is our most passionate dream, it is our calling. It is God within us, speaking to us, speaking to others through our beings, our words, our actions. And so we are asked… what is our “soul force”? How is it calling to you?

The rest of the service was more prayer and song. We finished with the choir processing out, and as I walked by and looked into the faces of everyone there, I could see and feel just how happy everyone was to not only be there, but also to have me there with them. There is no better welcome.

There was some community/social time immediately following the service, but then us seminary students were gathered and led into a tour of the neighborhood where we noted one block of multi-family homes, and another block of single-family homes. We stopped and discussed one place only a few blocks from the church where there had been a gun shooting only a couple years ago, and we spent some time speaking about the presence of gangs in the area, and how this impacts the youth. We returned to the church in time to meet up with our host families for an amazing lunch, with ribs, corn, potato salad, greens, beans, and gumbo!!! There was also sweet potato pie and brownies. I, again, ate way too much food. I enjoyed, during dinner, talking with my host family as well as Pastor Reggie and his wife (from the Ascension Church on Day 2).

As I finished eating, Pastor Jim sat down with us, and we had a helpful discussion regarding how one introduces this kind of culturalism into the more typical “white” Lutheran church. I was very appreciative of this conversation, as this is something I have been struggling to grasp during my entire time here. I very much feel called to helping the ELCA become more open to “non-white” cultures. It is so inspiring to see the few Lutheran churches that do this well, and I often wonder how I can follow in their footsteps. My dream is to foster a church where whites, blacks, Hispanics, and others all come to worship together, in an appreciation for what each culture brings. Yet, I have sensed some hesitation from many white, ethnic (often Scandinavian) Lutherans who feel very closely tied to the Lutheran traditions and liturgy, which often feel very stifling to those of other cultures. I find myself frustrated, trying to figure out how to introduce the gifts of these other cultures in a way that most of those who are in the congregations now will embrace and enjoy like I do (if not as much as I do). My conversation with Pastor Jim was very helpful, and we plan to continue it tomorrow.

As the hall was emptying, Donnie (the choir director) walked through, and we engaged in quite a long conversation. It seemed like it was only a few minutes later that I looked around and realized that Donnie and I were alone in the hall. We had been speaking for quite some time, and the others had all gone home.

Donnie and I walked each other out, said our goodbyes, and I headed back to my host family’s home. There are so many people I want to keep in touch with. I hope and pray these relationships do not end when I leave tomorrow.

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My Cross-Cultural Experience: Day 1

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

If you read my previous post, you already know that I am in Los Angeles for a class. Well, the class began tonight, and I thought I would try blogging every night, in an effort to share what promises to be a very interesting experience. First, some context.

One of the required classes for a Masters in Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) is this class, also called, “Ministry in the City.” Although students may propose and complete an alternative experience to satisfy this requirement, the experience that PLTS provides for its students is in LA. It is designed to embed students in a community that is different from their own home community, and hopefully different from any community in which they have previously participated, so that they can learn and experience not only a culture that is different, but also how ministry within that culture is changed. Since most students at PLTS are white, the cross-cultural experience that PLTS provides begins within an African-American community in one of the LA neighborhoods that many people believe is “unsafe,” Inglewood. To illustrate what I mean, within only the past few days, when I told a few friends that I would be living in Inglewood for the weekend, my friends expressed concern for my safety, and spoke of the city as the slums of LA.

This morning, since I had some time, I drove down to Inglewood, and specifically the neighborhood where I would be living, even though I was not due to be here until 5pm. I drove down from downtown LA, and noticed how the nice malls turned to strip malls, and the cute restaurants became fast food joints. I did see more trash in the streets, and the skin color of the people walking around became darker. When I turned into the neighborhood, though, the trash disappeared. The houses were modest, but well kept with nice yards. As I looked around, I wondered… why do people call these the slums?

Actually, I didn’t wonder that. I know why. Because it is a black neighborhood. This is not to say that anyone who calls Inglewood is racist. For example, my friends who think of it as “unsafe” have probably never even driven through here. They think this area is a slum because that is what they have heard from others. It is an image, a caricature that has been passed down from the mid-1900’s, that is racially based. As I learned this evening, in the mid-1900’s, the nicer neighborhoods in LA were “white only” neighborhoods. Many of them had “sundown laws,” that allowed blacks to be in town while the sun was up, but required them to be long gone when the sun went down. And so, these neighborhoods were born. Neighborhoods made up of blacks, most of whom did not have much (if any) financial opportunity. Because they were, and are, mostly black, they were considered to be slums that are not safe places for any respectable person to be. Curious, I even looked up the crime statistics of Inglewood, and compared them to a city that is considered to be one of the safer ones in California, Sacramento. The crime rates in Sacramento are actually worse than Inglewood. But I have never heard Sacramento called “unsafe” or a “slum.” It is true that when I compare the crime rates between LA overall and Inglewood, there is a one point (out of 10) difference in the violence statistics with Inglewood slightly more violent. However, a one point difference does not seem to me to warrant the “slum” reputation.

This class is coordinated through a local Lutheran (ELCA) church, Holy Trinity Church, and that is where the class began. As we found the room in the church, we were greeted with offers of bottled water, granola bars, and coffee/tea, while we introduced ourselves to the other students and instructor. We chatted for awhile, and then were given some information and background about the area. The church invites its congregants to host us, and we were given a schedule of events, along with a list of students and each host family’s names, addresses, and phone numbers. Ideally, every student has a different family with which we live during our long weekend here. After the orientation and getting-to-know-you was done, we moved into the Parish, where dinner (lasagna) was served. Some of the host families joined us for dinner, and we spent some more time getting to know each other while we broke bread. The church’s choir rehearses on Thursday nights, and we were invited to join them. All of the students opted to join the choir, and we enjoyed a couple hours of rehearsing gospel music together.

The rehearsal was difficult for some of us, as those of us who are in choirs in our own home churches (or elsewhere), are used to being given sheet music and following the tune by reading the music. In this choir, though, most participants do not read music, and so instead, we are given sheets with words only on them, and expected to follow along in our respective parts! Although this did not seem to be any problem whatsoever for those who are members of the choir, it was very difficult for me!! I found myself wanting to make up my own harmonic tune to go with what was being played on the piano, but I discovered that we WERE expected to sing a specific line of music. Just because the sheet music was not written in front of us did NOT mean we were not expected to discern the appropriate melody or harmony and sing! Thankfully, my fellow Sopranos were happy to sing loudly in my ear so that I could pick it up and join in with them. This is just one example of how being embedded in a different culture will make some differences more visible and even envious. I am very envious of their ability to pick out the appropriate part in the music by ear!

My host family was not able to join us for the dinner, but the matriarch did join for part of the choir rehearsal. I met her after choir, and she waited for me to finish up some of the logistical necessities, and then led me to her home. I met her husband, and she showed me around her very nice home. Similar to the houses that I saw when I did my “drive-through” earlier in the day, her home is modest from the outside, but quite roomy and well kept with beautiful wood floors, a bit of crown molding, and a nice, large kitchen. I have my own bedroom, and she graciously offered me coffee and tea, and told me to help myself in the morning to any of the breakfast items she pointed out as she gave me the tour. She explained that she will not be here in the morning when I leave at 8:30am for my class day tomorrow, because she works at UCLA. I asked her what she does, and found out that she is a micro-biologist! (So impressive!) She and her husband were very tired, and need to get up early, so after making sure I had everything I needed (including the wireless code, which is enabling me to write this), they headed to bed.

Tomorrow, I have a long, busy day. My schedule begins with meeting up with other students at Holy Trinity so we can carpool over to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. From St. Mark’s, we will be led through a “community walk,” where we will experience and observe another community in Inglewood, including lunch at a local restaurant. At 2pm, we will meet with representatives from UNIDAD (United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement), and then meet someone at a local Family Center. We have dinner at 6pm with the local pastor of that church, and then will attend a Hip Hop Worship at Ascension Church, which is led by the youth of that church. I have to admit… I think the Hip Hop Worship is going to be the highlight of a very full and interesting day!

And so, I am going to head to bed. As I sit here, I take in the silence from outside. No road noises (unlike my own house at home), no sirens (also unlike my house), no disruptions. It sounds and feels pretty safe to me.

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