Home at last! It was a very long journey back to Leicester from Pittsburgh that began yesterday with a visit to a huge cathedral-like Presbyterian church. A few of us staying on after the conference decided to experience an American church. It was a glorious building, with a very good choir and handbell ringers. The sermon was an introduction to the process theology of Pierre Teillhard de Chardin – a bit deep for me on a Sunday morning!
I’m not a huge fan of process theology but I am attracted to the idea that the journey matters. My journey back home after church yesterday has been a long one and has given me some time to process what I have experienced this week and how it might impact on my life and ministry back home.
But processing isn’t always a positive image. When we arrived at Boston International Airport, it was heaving with people and we had to queue for a long time, weaving up and down those moveable barriers. Then we had to remove shoes, belts, watches and jewellery so that we could be processed through the security system. My insulin pump set off the alarms of course!
What I noticed was that processing large numbers of people is a dehumanizing experience. You are just one of hundreds of passing faces and even if the staff are wonderful compassionate people in normal life, it becomes a challenge for them to treat every one as an individual human being.
The same can be true when it comes to large ethnic groups or nations. When we see them as a mass, we risk dehumanizing them, speaking of them as if they were one unchangeable entity. It becomes easy to talk about ‘them’, the ‘other’.
I had some of my prejudices challenged this week by getting to know individual Americans. And I think that’s why I want to disagree with the African American pastor who said during the conference that multicultural churches never work. If we barricade ourselves off from our black, white, muslim, Christian, American, Syrian neighbours as people then we will never move beyond the stereotypes and assumptions that we all carry.
Pittsburgh sits at the confluence of three rivers. The Allegheny and Monongahela flow out of Pittsburgh as the one Ohio River and of course you can no longer trace the water from each of the individual rivers. It’s all just water.
I would like to think that my presence this week as a church leader on the ground, together with other church leaders from local Pittsburgh neighbourhoods, helped in some small way to ground the theory of the high level academic discussions that were taking place.
One contributor talked about our God being a ‘grounded God’. As I continue to process and tease out the learning from this week, I hope I can be faithful to our grounded God, keep my feet on the ground as I journey on, making time to notice and appreciate my neighbour in the process. Once I get over the jetlag at least!