By Andrea Johnson
Several years ago my husband and I had the privilege of serving as youth pastors at a predominately African church. (We were the second White family to join.) Our pastor, Isaac Oyibo, had named the church All Nations as it was his dream to have a multi-cultural church. That’s a lofty goal and certainly not easy to accomplish, but we had so much fun trying. Our members included people from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Sudan, Togo, Rwanda, Cameroon, the Philippines, and Mexico!
All Nations did not feel like a stretch for us. Pastor was so welcoming we felt like we fit right in. We loved the enthusiastic, celebratory worship. The sermons were biblically based and rich with illustrations from a culture often more similar to that of the Bible than what we had experienced ourselves, and we learned to see through different eyes.
Sure, some customs annoyed us, such as “African time.” If an event was supposed to begin at 1:00, we soon learned not to show up until 2:00, and even then we would be the first ones there. And many events, such as outdoor potlucks or weddings, lasted forever! When our oldest son got married, several of our fellow church members graciously came to his wedding even though he attended another church. We warned them ahead of time that it would be a short wedding, only an hour, and that if they came late they would miss it altogether. Most of them arrived in time to see the cutting of the cake after the ceremony!
When my mother passed away, several church members graciously (and bravely) drove two and a half hours to a very rural setting, an area that didn’t see many people of color. Even though some of them didn’t arrive until the funeral was over, it meant the world to me. The presence of these close friends with whom I worshiped and fellowshipped week after week was hugely comforting and, I knew, sacrificial. Maybe they knew more about the importance of these types of events than we did. A funeral or a wedding or any chance to fellowship was not simply one more item to check off their to-do list for the day but a chance to “be” with brothers and sisters, whether to celebrate or to mourn.
As the church began to fill up with more White people, our cultures collided at times. White people wanted church to begin and end at specific times. I remember one time winding down a sermon shortly after noon when service was scheduled to end, only to notice a large extended family coming through the back doors of the auditorium ready for worship. I felt like I needed to extend my message for at least fifteen minutes more so they would not feel as if they had taken the trouble to dress up and come for no reason. Truth be told, they were probably more in need of the fellowship than the sermon!
One instance, though, drastically challenged my way of thinking. I was directing a production of an illustrated sermon for Easter, for which a narrator would read a script while other people acted out the narrative. Illustrated sermons worked best for us because many of our people had several jobs or other circumstances that made it difficult for them to commit to all the practice times. Most actors would be able to get by even if they could attend only one or two practices. We did, however, need Mary at most practices and Jesus at all practices.
The man who played Jesus was perfect for the part. A godly, humble man from Cameroon, Roger had a powerful voice. He fasted for weeks leading up to the performance and learned all of Jesus’ words so he could speak them out at the proper time. When Roger spoke the words of Jesus on the cross, as He cried out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) it was heart-wrenching, as if all hope was lost. Chills ran down my spine.
But . . . about a week before the performance all the actors, including several youth, had gathered for a scheduled Saturday morning practice. I knew we had an hour and a half before the parents (including several time-conscious Whites) would be arriving to collect their kids, so every moment counted. And guess what? Roger was nowhere to be found!
I was starting to panic and growing more than just a little frustrated. How can we practice the crucifixion without Jesus?! I tried Roger’s phone but to no avail, and we moved forward with practice as best we could. I was thinking, I hope he shows up to the performance! Finally, with about a half hour left to practice, Roger finally arrived. My relief at seeing him may have hidden my annoyance, who knows? But then he explained the reason for his tardiness. He had not slept in nor had he forgotten the time. He had been leaving his apartment to come to practice when he noticed his neighbor sitting in her car with the hood raised, desperately trying to get it started. She needed the car to get to work or she could lose her job. Of course Roger came to her aid, taking her to drop her car off at a garage and then driving her to work across town.
Immediately the Lord reminded me of the story of the Good Samaritan. Most likely the priest and the Levite who passed by the injured man had important places they were supposed to be. The priest was probably due to perform his important duties at the temple. The Levite could have been on his way to practice to sing at the temple services. I imagine the Samaritan too was on his way to a critical meeting. Maybe he was scheduled to negotiate an important deal that could make him rich or at least provide for his family for another month. Likely they all had people expecting them, depending on them. I doubt any of them were just out for a casual stroll. But as we know from the story, as important as all their duties were, Jesus considered only one of them a good neighbor.
As we interacted more with people of African heritage, we learned that many of the things we thought were “right” were only “right” in our cultural context. For us, being late for an event is considered rude because it means you do not value the other person’s time. For many of our African friends, rushing a conversation with the person you are with presently just so you can move on to a meeting with someone else is considered rude. We learned not to judge another person’s traditions or actions unless we’ve made an effort to understand the reasoning behind them. Even then maybe instead of judging, we should just accept the other person as they are. Jesus called us to be a neighbor, not a judge. How many of us agree with everything our spouses do? And yet we accept them.
In this issue of the Message, we are focusing on building unity. I submit that we will never have unity until we spend time interacting with and listening to people outside our comfort zones. The Good Samaritan didn’t need to know or agree with the politics or the customs of the man lying helplessly on the side of the road. He just knew he needed help. What about you? Are you a good neighbor?