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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Galvan

Being Inclusive and Intercultural in an Exclusive and Multicultural World

What is Your Identity?

Over the years, I've worked with several groups coming up with anti-racism statements or policies. Recently, as an introduction to one of those groups, the Rev. Rashelle Hunter gave a presentation that used something called "The Identity Wheel" or "The Wheel of Social Identity."

It comes from the premise that each one of us is a combination of different "identities." For example, according to the census, I'm a Hispanic/Latina. But that's not necessarily the way I see myself. I'm a Puerto Rican, Caribbean, Latina woman. I'm a Christian, Presbyterian. I'm a daughter, a sister, and an aunt. I'm a pastor, an editor, a writer, and a musician. I use she/ her/ ella pronouns.

Organizations are employing "The Identity Wheel" as a tool to raise awareness and acknowledge the diverse social identities individuals hold, and how these identities influence perceptions and treatment by others. Let’s take a moment to think about five questions that relate to our identities.

  • What identities do you think about most often?

  • What identities do you think about least often?

  • What identities would you like to learn more about?

  • What identities have the strongest effect on how you perceive yourself?

  • What identities have the greatest effect on how others perceive you?

I'm confident that many of us can relate to several aspects of the wheel, and perhaps even to some that aren't included. Acknowledging our diverse identities should steer us away from viewing people through the overly simplistic lens that society sometimes adopts. Simultaneously, it invites us to ponder God's creativity in blessing us with such multifaceted life experiences and beliefs. There is a beautiful way of thinking about this and connect it to God’s imagination and creativity, that I've adapted a little bit: We are God’s box of crayons, each of us unique but when we get together, the picture is complete.


An Inclusive Church

Considering all these identities as manifestations of God's creativity enables us to contemplate how each of them is an intentional part of God's kin-dom or family. Presbyterians for Disability Concerns adopts this inclusive perspective, which aligns with the definition of inclusion advocated by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation.

Inclusion is an attitude and approach that ensures all people, regardless of ability or background, can meaningfully participate in all aspects of life. Inclusion is an approach, not a program. An attitude, not an activity. Inclusion is belonging!”

As a denomination, we believe that everyone should be welcomed and included in the fellowship and ministry of the church:

A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church. No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” (G-1.0302)

In the passage that we just read, we see that some of the inspiration for the church's inclusive stance comes from the Bible. Acts 11:1-18 recounts the apostle Peter's experience of witnessing God's inclusive nature. We find a more detailed account of this story in Acts 10:1-48. Peter describes a vision he had, wherein a sheet filled with various animals, deemed unclean according to Jewish dietary laws, descended from heaven. A voice instructs him to kill and eat, but Peter hesitates, citing the laws that forbade such actions. The voice then responds, "What God has made clean, do not call common." . Or as The Message says “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”

Peter recounts this story because he faced criticism from some Jewish leaders in Judea, the circumcised, for dining with Gentiles, the uncircumcised. This incident is also referenced in Galatians 2:11-14. The episode serves as a poignant reminder of the church's struggle to grasp God's expansive understanding of inclusion. We often find ourselves grappling with contrasting notions of who belongs in God's kin-dom or family. Yet, God's intention has consistently been to embrace all individuals, irrespective of their ethnic or cultural backgrounds, into the community of believers.

The early church faced the challenge of expanding beyond its origins among the Jewish people. Gentiles, too, received the Holy Spirit, signaling a profound shift. Unlike humans, the Holy Spirit recognizes no barriers. Our triune God operates beyond such limitations. God's love and grace transcend human categories; they encompass all. Similarly, the church is called to embody this inclusive love and grace and give witness of it to others.


An Intercultural Church

Professor Mitzy J. Smith, in her commentary about this passage notes that

“Peter does not mention Cornelius by name in his apologetic response to the interrogation from the Judean circumcised brothers. He refers to Cornelius as “the man,” (Acts 11:12) and he references him using third (he/his) and second person (you) singular pronouns.”

She says that this is evidence of how difficult it is to see others as fully human, and remarks that

"Many white brothers and sisters and some people of color deny that they ever perceive or treat people who are racially or economically different from themselves with bias. This is despite being entrenched in racialized, class-conscious institutions and traditions that presume people of color, women and others to be inferior."

This truth recognizes that, even with hard work, all of us live within systems that condition us, whether we like it or not, whether we notice or not, to defaults that show implicit or explicit bias. And if you don’t know what I mean by bias it is: “A preference for or against an individual or group that interferes with or influences fair judgment. Bias can be both conscious and unconscious.”[1]

Inclusion stands as a vital component for the church, but our acknowledgment of how we treat one another, learn from each other, share power, relate, and engage with the diverse identities we embody is the witness we offer to the world. It demonstrates that this inclusion profoundly influences how we, as the body of Christ, conduct ourselves in a world that insists on exclusivity and not on inclusivity.

The first time that I saw the differences between what it meant to be multicultural, cross cultural or intercultural came from The United Church of Canada’s “Vision for Becoming an Intercultural Church.”

Multicultural, for example, is explained in this way:

  • We live alongside one another.

  • We value tolerance, and celebrate one another’s culturally distinctive food, dress, music, dance, and other outward expressions of culture.

  • Power differentials are not addressed. It does not allow for exchange between these cultural groups and tends to focus on representation.

In Cross-Cultural:

  • There is some reaching across boundaries.

  • There is an attempt to build bridges between cultural communities by sharing, listening, learning, and being open to changing.

  • Often cultures are compared or contrasted with one another, and one culture is deemed superior or inferior to another.

  • Power differentials are still not addressed.

  • Cultural differences may be understood but are managed in a way that does not allow for collective transformation.

And then, there’s Intercultural.

  • There is a comprehensive mutuality, reciprocity, and equality.

  • Social structures and everyday interactions are defined by justice, mutuality, respect, equality, understanding, acceptance, freedom, diversity, peace-making, and celebration.

  • People from different cultural groups interacts with one another, learn and grow together, build relationships and become transformed, shaped and molded from each other’s experiences.

  • The focus is on relationship building (not survival) deep connections, interactions, mutual gifting, respected and mutual learning.

  • No one is left unchanged in the intercultural process; some examine their own culture more deeply; some are changed through their interaction with others, many learn about what it means to be community together.

  • Racial and cultural power imbalances are addressed; people are enabled to learn from each other and lead toward transformation.

Peter had been challenged by God and taught that God desired to include those who were unexpected, impure, and even perceived as enemies in God’s family. However, he struggled to mention Cornelius by name. In Galatians, Paul highlights this matter:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood self-condemned, for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.

It's insufficient to merely coexist. We must strive to become an inclusive church in an exclusive world and an intercultural church in a multicultural society. Mere acknowledgment of diversity is not adequate; the church must actively embrace and celebrate it. Members must acknowledge the existence of racial and cultural power imbalances and commit to empowering each other while addressing implicit biases.

As a church, it's imperative to cherish and celebrate the diverse contributions, perspectives, and experiences that each individual brings, endeavoring to engage with and learn from one another.

As a church, it's crucial to advocate for mutual understanding, respect, and empathy, nurturing a collective sense of unity and shared identity despite cultural disparities.

We must speak Cornelius’ name. We must approach the table and have meals with those who are different without hesitation or trepidation. It's essential to uphold what God values and to freely exchange the gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit among each other.


Apple and Magnolia

a.        One of the things that I love about the book Apple and Magnolia is that the book is inspired by scientific research showing that trees can communicate with and take care of one another.

Laura Gehl, the author, shares that,

 “Their roots are linked to an underground network made of fungi that connects them to other trees. In some forests, nearly all the trees—even different kinds of trees—are linked together. Using the network, trees share important resources like water and nutrients and even send alarm signals to one another. Scientists sometimes jokingly refer to this network as the wood wide web, and just like the internet (the world wide web), it’s an amazing communication system.” [2]

Humanity can learn a lot from nature. As we celebrate Earth Day, let us remember God’s heart and intention is creating such a diverse and beautiful planet, connected in ways that we cannot imagine. And let us also remember what Audre Lorde said far better than I could: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Let us use an exercise as our family prayer:

  • Start as a seed, with your arms folded against your chest.

  • Now grow . . . grow . . . grow . . . until your trunk (body) stands tall.

  • Wiggle your roots (toes) in the soil.

  • Reach your branches (arms) up as high as you can. Touch the sky!

  • Wave your twigs (hands) to say hi to the birds and other trees.

  • Shake your leaves (fingers) in the breeze.

  • Grab each other’s hands… the roots that strengthen our lives.

[2] Apple and Magnolia: How Trees Are Connected to One Another and To Us:

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