This week’s blog entries are by guest blogger, Jean-Luc Krieg, whom I met during my time in Mexico City earlier this summer. After you read this entry, see the reflection question I’ve put at the end to help us process the ideas and their implications for our own ministries.
In August 1997 I packed all my belongings, left my friends and family behind and arrived once more in a new culture: a blue-eyed and blond-haired foreigner, who had accumulated a rather diverse set of experiences as a global nomad, yet was quite naïve with regards to what was awaiting him in America. It was to become the only real culture shock I’ve experienced in my life to date.
I was thrilled at first at the prospect of being surrounded once again by many black people, since Philadelphia has a large African-American population. Very soon however, I found out that while I readily connected with other African students, it was much more difficult to connect with African-Americans. I had read and heard of America’s racist past, of slavery and segregation, of the civil rights movement and King’s non-violent fight for democratic rights for people of color. Yet nobody had prepared me for the continuous segregation, subtle racism and depth of pain and anger that I encountered as soon as I stepped on American soil.
Philadelphia’s parochial and provincial overtones astonished me immensely. Wasn’t this the “city of brotherly love”, one of America’s largest metropolitan areas, home to a rather multicultural population? When I visited churches Sunday after Sunday and found that the great majority of them were separated by skin color, I was startled. I had gotten to know classism, nationalism, tribalism and ethnocentrism, but I had never been made aware of the fact that color-racism continued to play such a powerful role in the United States, a country that was boasting a large population of born-again Christians. How could people preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and overlook the teachings of urban missionary Paul, who proclaimed to a pluralistic, multicultural audience that through Christ their dividing walls had been torn down?
While it became more obvious to me that much of America was full of itself and had little room left for “the other” (a reality that I found present not only among many whites, but also blacks and American-born Latinos), the aforementioned naiveté was still present when a few friends and I moved to a low-income Latino community in Philadelphia in 1998, and became part of a church plant in that very neighborhood. I loved my bustling neighborhood and soon felt “at home” in it. It was a place where I knew most of my neighbors and could hear their children playing in the streets after school. I was excited that I was able to combine my Seminary and Economic Development studies with concrete ministry-involvement.
Unfortunately, in the core team of our church plant – a group made up of an Anglo-American, a few American-born Puerto Rican brothers and sisters and myself – we did not take enough time initially to work through our cultural differences, expectations and questions related to race and identity. Many of these questions could not have been anticipated nor the expectations well articulated, though, given my own naïveté as well as the unresolved and unacknowledged internalized racial pain of some of the others in the team that eventually led to unhelpful projections. We tried to sort out a number of appropriate responses to some of the misunderstandings and misperceptions that occurred, and by God’s grace were able to experience some closure and reconciliation, though not to the extent I had hoped for. And so after over four years of involvement in that church plant I felt peace to move on. While life lessons learned from that time came with significant grief and hurt, they eventually taught me a lot about the power of forgiveness and strengthened my identity as a citizen of God’s kingdom; proud also of my identity as a third culture person and no longer in need to prove myself in a culture that labeled people according to color. Instead, I found my identity in Christ and with that new freedom!
For those of you who are Americans, what are your impressions of Jean-Luc’s outside perspective upon arriving in the U.S.?