Thursday, April 5, 2012

Diversity, Connectedness, and Solidarity: A Few Thoughts on Re-Entry (Brian E. Konkol)

In the summer of 2003 I participated in three weeks of orientation to prepare for international service with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Global Mission. At that point I had never left the shores of North America. Among other things, those in attendance learned of cultural sensitivity and personal security, and we also discussed a wide variety of topics surrounding discernment, faith, globalization, and racial privilege. While I cannot remember all that took place during those important weeks in Chicago, I do recall the period as extremely helpful and totally worthwhile. In reflection, I realize that no amount of orientation could have fully prepared me for the wonders and complexities of international service, yet I continue to recognize the value in such preparation, and I remain dearly thankful for the training I received from the ELCA.

In the nine years since those initial orientation sessions in Chicago, I have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, visited an assortment of continents and countries, experienced various cultures, met a multitude of amazing people, and experienced the love of God through sights and sounds that I never imagined possible while growing up in central Wisconsin. As a pastor of the Lutheran Church, I have participated alongside local companions in hundreds of worship services and ceremonies, walked countless rural paths and urban streets, visited numerous homes, listened to people of diverse faith and cultural perspectives, and at each step I have tried to learn with humility, speak and act with boldness, follow the way of Jesus, and hear God’s voice in the midst of uncertainty and struggle. All together, my views on faith and responsibility have grown, my assumptions have been challenged, my articulation of the Good News has widened and deepened, and with each passing day I find new ways to participate in God’s mission alongside people who often think, act, believe, and look differently than myself. All in all, I have changed a great deal since 2003, and as Kristen, Khaya, and I prepare to return to the USA later this month, I pray that these changes are for the better.

When I began international service in 2003, I was barely removed from college, ready to be finished with formal classroom education, and I was certain that I would remain single for the rest of my life. However, in the years since I have become a married man, father, uncle, ordained pastor, and a PhD candidate. Life has changed! And so, as Kristen, Khaya, and I pursue new opportunities in the USA, we do so with a recognition that life will continue to change in the years ahead, and this journey will bring with it a whole host of thoughts and emotions. And so, with these various reflections in mind, while there is not nearly enough time to fully contemplate what is taking place around us, I believe it is important to make time to process the experience of transition as it occurs, consider what God is showing us during these moments, and continue to discern how lessons learned from the global village may be applied and developed in the years ahead. In other words, while it is impossible to summarize all that I have learned since 2003, and it would be hopeless to try and review all that I feel during these intense weeks, I believe it is useful to share a few thoughts as our re-entry into the USA draws increasingly near.

Diversity: Different Does Not Equal Wrong

Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist, once remarked: “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit”. With these thoughts from Davis in mind, I have recognized over the past years that there are countless “models of reality”, thus there are numerous “unique manifestations of the human spirit”. In other words, God is creative! And so, I recognize that my experiences as a white, North American, male, Christian-Lutheran from central Wisconsin are only one model of reality, thus when encountering another culture and/or religious tradition, although an initial impulse may be that of discomfort, it is most often because of difference, and not because of wrongness. And so, to make a long story far too short, I have learned to resist judgment, understand the many stories beneath and around “the story”, and as a result, move past tolerance and instead practice acceptance, wonder, and hospitality.

I recently spoke with a close South African friend about diversity and inclusion, and we recognized that the global community is intended to be a grand choir, in that we have commonalities (singing the same song), yet diversity (different tones and pitches), thus the beauty is found in unity, not uniformity. In other words, if each voice in the choir was exactly the same (uniformity), it would be an awful sound! And so, because “all God’s creatures have a place in the choir”, one of the keys to functioning faithfully in a diverse global community is a recognition that difference can illuminate the overall sound (“…some sing low, some sing higher!”), and at our very core, we are all singing the same inclusive lyrics, for we are members of the same choir, the global community, created in the Image and Likeness of God. As a result, while there are indeed billions of unique “manifestations of the human spirit”, the Holy Spirit of God connects us into one community, thus we recognize the importance of restoring this community through a deep and sustained commitment to hospitality.

Connectedness: I am Because We Are

One of the intellectual foundations of Western thought is “Cogito ergo sum“, or “I think therefore I am”. This statement from RenĂ© Descartes has influenced a wide variety of North American life, and while a full articulation is not intended here, what is worthy of attention is the focus it places upon the individual. In other words, the statement from Descartes assumes that human existence can be self-contained and/or self-reliant, and as a result, such thoughts give birth to various terms in the English-language with “self” as a prefix. For example, we often hear of self-confidence, self-conscious, self-expression, self-criticism, self-deception, self-defeating, self-denial, self-discipline, self-esteem, self-expression, self-importance, self-improvement, self-interest, self-respect, self-restraint, self-sacrifice – and the list goes on! Amazingly, the equivalent of these “self” words cannot be found in many non-Western languages, which reveals a great deal about separate views of the world. All together, while many could provide various reasons for our North American vocabulary choices, I would argue that it is an indication of how seriously we perceive independence, for the “self-made woman” and/or “self-made man” continues to be viewed as ideal.

In wonderful contrast to “I think therefore I am”, the African philosophy of ubuntu states, “I am because we are”. Among other things, ubuntu recognizes that individual autonomy is totally impossible, for a person is only a person through being in relationship with other persons. In other words, all people are products of their environment, and thus all people have to rely upon others each and every day. While ubuntu recognizes personal initiative, drive, and the ability to shape our surroundings, it also acknowledges that relationships form existence, and thus connectedness is essential to an understanding of a full life. As stated by Benezet Bujo, ubuntu recognizes that “a person only remains healthy in a holistic sense by living in harmony with the whole creation”, thus “to be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish humane relations with them”, which includes a “peaceful co-existence” with all of God’s creation. All together, ubuntu views total independence as a myth, for while personal responsibility and freedom is indeed important, we are all intimately and intricately interconnected with all people in all places throughout the world.

Solidarity: Walking Together

With the above thoughts in mind, I have come to recognize that the global community is extremely diverse, yet it is also intimately connected, thus we are called by God to walk together in a solidarity that seeks interdependence and mutuality. While I am indeed extremely different from the South Africans and Guyanese people who I served alongside, we are also incredibly similar and deeply connected as people created in the Image and Likeness of God. As a result, because of this common thread of mutual humanity, we have a profound responsibility to walk in solidarity with one another in the journey of life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.

With King’s thoughts in mind, and with ubuntu in my heart, within this “inter-related structure of reality” I am not merely a citizen of the United States and a rostered pastor of the ELCA, but I am something much larger – “I am” a person of faith who believes in the value, sacredness, and dignity of all life because “we are” members of a common humanity that is deeply loved by a gracious God. As a result, I believe that following Jesus in daily life means to recognize that injustice anywhere has an impact everywhere, and we possess a personal responsibility to look beyond the borders of race, gender, culture, religion, and sexuality, to ensure fairness and opportunity for all that God has brought to life. I thank God for the global church companions that have taught me these lessons, and I pray for the integrity to keep such wisdom deep in my heart and mind for the rest of my life.

Thoughts on Re-Entry: The Next Step

I have already begun to hear others speak of our departure from South Africa as the conclusion of our global missionary service. I totally disagree with this assertion, for in many ways it is only the beginning. I believe wholeheartedly that God’s global mission through Jesus is about reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, thus a global Christian missionary is one who seeks to reconcile, transform, and empower, by the grace of God, and for the sake of the world. I cannot see myself stopping such activity at any point, as everywhere is the “mission field”, each day constitutes numerous “mission trips”, and every local action has a global reaction. In a world that possesses division and violence, I believe God is on a global mission of reconciliation, and I plan to participate fully within in. In a world were billions of people scrape through life in spirit-destroying poverty, I believe God is on a global mission of transformation, and I plan to participate fully within it. In the midst of a world that is thirsty for compassionate servant-leaders, I believe God is on a global mission of empowerment, and I plan to participate fully within it. And so, our global missionary work has not concluded, but it will transition to something new, and by God’s grace I look forward to this new, exciting, and challenging chapter.

And so, once again I will participate in a global mission orientation, but unlike the sessions that took place for a few weeks in Chicago nearly nine years ago, the upcoming orientation period will never conclude. As the cycle of orientation and disorientation is – in many ways – a life-long process, Kristen, Khaya, and I will return to North America and always seek to learn about the joys and struggles of the people whom we are called to accompany. In addition, we will always discern who God is and who we are in the midst of such diverse settings, and we will always consider how we may contribute to what God is doing to and through an ever-changing and increasingly complex world. We will remain mindful of the lessons we learned in Guyana, South Africa, and beyond, we will hold tight to the wonderful friendships formed, and we will continue to be shaped in the years ahead alongside whatever local and global community we are placed. And so, as we enter into this process of transitions, decisions, and additions, Kristen and I ask for your ongoing thoughts and prayers, for just as so many have loved and supported us throughout the past years, we trust that such encouragement will continue in the time ahead. We look forward to this next chapter of life and ministry, we thank God that so many will walk this journey alongside us, and we look forward to all that God will do “to us all” and “through us all” in the years ahead.