As a campus minister for almost 15 years I’ve spent a significant portion of that time working cross culturally. I’m a half Korean half white woman and I have made so many stupid mistakes I can’t remember even half of them.
Years ago I was teaching a Bible Study on how Jesus washes his disciples feet. A common application, for the white and Asian American students I had worked with, was to think of practical ways to serve the people in the dorms in which they lived. Usually students would decide to empty garbage cans, vacuum rooms, and do laundry. Since Jesus calls himself servant of all, students looked to do menial tasks of servanthood. As I led a group of about 15 African American women in the same section of the Bible, I laid out the same application, assuming they would jump on board. Right away one student spoke up. “I’m not going to do that. They already think of me as a servant on this campus. I’m not going to go around and let them think it’s true.” Other young women piped in as well. The women did not want to go around and empty garbage cans and vacuum rooms because many times, they had been treated as “the help” and less than by their peers. This had never occurred to me. I had no lens. I was totally unfamiliar with the everyday experiences of these young Black women and as a result I was suggesting applications that didn’t connect. I’m not saying that they were exempt from applying the passage, but I was ignorant about their experience and how it would shape applying this passage. I felt double stupid, because I was the leader of the group. I’m the one that should have known what was going on- instead, I was sitting there feeling dumb. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I remember mentoring a young Mexican American woman when I was in college. She had grown up in the inner city. I grew up in the lily white suburbs of Seattle. When she came to me with a crisis in her family, connected to a family member dying as a result of gang violence, I had no idea what to do. Her experience was so foreign to me, and I felt so insecure about saying or doing the wrong thing, that I just pulled back from the relationship. I didn’t understand that her sharing was an invitation to enter in. I just felt the dissonance and difference in our background and backed away. I didn’t know how to interpret or press through the dissonance.
As I continued working with groups of Black Christian students I found that I had very little awareness of issues that were common conversation among my students; from pop culture references, to music, to important issues- including discussions surrounding affirmative action or experiences with the police. I had to learn. I had to start by acknowledging what I didn’t know. And as a leader, it always surprised me how much it bruised my ego.
Watching this debacle with Rick Warren over the past month, I relate. Pastor Rick had no idea the cultural significance of what he was posting. He had no idea it would be hurtful. I’ve made similar mistakes- even as a member of the Asian American community I’ve found myself saying ignorant and uneducated things about China, its history, its relationship with Taiwan; things that have been hurtful to my friends.
And so I swallow my pride, and apologize, and try and learn.
Pastor Rick didn’t know what he didn’t know. Welcome to the world of cross-cultural interactions. You’ll never make it anywhere in cross-cultural community if you don’t get comfortable with feeling like a dummy some of the time. Over time I’ve learned how to handle my mistakes. Acknowledge, learn, apologize, feel dumb, drink a gin and tonic, watch Netflix, get back up.
The mistake he made wasn’t that big. It’s how he handled it. And it was on such a public platform and at a point when he already had so much influence as a leader. So instead of feeling stupid on small scale, he had to feel dumb on an epic scale. I have a feeling he really doesn’t know what hit him. My guess, and I really am just guessing here, is that he hasn’t had many ethnic minority friends that are willing to do conflict with him. Otherwise, he would have learned how to handle these types of incidences in private on a smaller scale.
One reason I think it’s important for him to learn and change his approach to these issues is because he has thousands of congregants that are learning from what he modeled. Now when one of his congregants- of any ethnicity- cause its not just white folks that need to learn to be cross cultural- makes a mistake, they will follow his lead. Pastor Rick told people that they didn’t get his sense of humor, to stop being Pharisees. And then he gave an un-apology apology, and deleted the post and acted like it didn’t happen. This is an awful approach to model to everyone who follows him. His limitations are now his congregation’s limitation.
It was critical for me that I had friends and students that were willing to walk with me, and frankly to fight with me. There were friendships where I was the teacher, and had to learn to graciously have conflict with friends. And relationships where I was the one who was saying dumb stuff, and I needed to be corrected. Real multi-ethnic community has to be lived out in real life and real relationships. Though some book learning has helped me become much more aware and fluent in issues that impact different communities, there is no substitute for human interaction. Now Pastor Rick will have to do his learning in a very public way. But better now than never.