Ideas to help individuals, families, and churches build and celebrate authentic community with people from different backgrounds.
E L Sherene Joseph
Since moving to the United States two decades ago, God has refined me, stripped me of expectations, and taught me to better trust Him. It was never what I dreamt of, but it has taught me to consistently live in the in-between space and carry the tension of not-quite belonging. Every time I feel like I don’t fit in, I am reminded that I belong to God's kingdom. Living in the in-between is what I am called to do.
In India, I knew how to live my everyday life. But the United States presented a number of cultural differences. Like everyone who moves to a new country, I wanted to feel like I belonged. Despite how fun and exciting this journey was, it was often very challenging. I was always aware of my difference—for many, I might have been the first South Asian they had ever seen.
It took my family and me a long time to feel "settled" in America. As an immigrant, I was far away from my family and friends. I needed to build an authentic community to fill this gap here in the U.S.
Volunteering in schools, serving with the PTA, and attending Bible studies were all part of my journey. But at first, taking these steps felt awkward. It was vital for me to lean into the discomfort. When you sit around a table with other people, share a meal, discuss scripture, or share prayer needs about your family, barriers naturally break down. In that process, I discovered common bonds as a Christ follower, but I also learned common bonds as a mother, wife, and daughter, and those bonds helped build those relationships.
Building authentic & inconvenient communities with people from diverse cultures, countries, and even religious backgrounds is challenging—that’s why we have to be intentional.
And while we often speak of "cultivating" diversity, our world is already filled with diversity and brilliance. This means that diversity is not an option, but a necessity.
Become a multicultural individual
It's hard to become a multicultural family or a church and is not something we can adopt overnight. The only way to do it is to start becoming a multicultural individual. Culture is not just our race; it includes our economic status, gender, ethnicity, age, upbringing, and even exposure. For example, my husband and I are Indians, but we have cultural differences because I was raised in Oman in a nuclear family, while he was raised in a small town in India in a multigenerational family. Every person around us has been influenced by their personal experiences and cultural values. We need to stop, slow down, and acknowledge those differences everytime we interact with someone. We often fast forward our way through life without paying attention to the beauty in diversity around us. Consistently nurturing a healthy respect for diversity will help us, as individuals and Christ followers, to gain a broader understanding of the world around us.
When we think of hospitality, we often think of sharing meals or inviting people to our homes. The early church in Acts 2 practiced hospitality with not only shared meals, but also shared finances and resources to support each other. Sharing a meal is a good first step, but we need to ask ourselves: when we entertain guests, do we gravitate towards people who are like us, or are we willing to be hospitable to those who are culturally, economically, politically, and even spiritually different from us? By practicing radical hospitality, we can learn from other cultures instead of imposing our traditions on them. Vice President of the SEND Network & church planter Dhati Lewis has said, “ We will never be able to diversify our churches, if we don’t diversify our dinner tables.” When we start at the dinner table, living a multi-cultural life will automatically seep into other areas of our life.
Intentionally teach our children about diversity
As parents or caregivers, we plant the seeds which help our children learn about the differences in the world. We live in a world where our children often grow up in homogenous bubbles with zero exposure to other cultures or ethnicities. Even with the United States becoming a melting pot, families still lack diverse communities. The only way for us to change that is by exposing our children to diversity in a very intentional way. We can ask ourselves: is there an option to travel to another country by sacrificing our annual family beach trip? Can we go to an ethnic restaurant for Friday night dinners instead of eating pizza? Can we visit a cultural exhibit at a museum, view a documentary about another people group, or have a friend take us to a movie in a different language? All these options need not necessarily be expensive or budget-breaking. We can make choices which work for each of our families. When we educate our children in diversity, we help open their horizons and cultivate empathy.
Embrace unity in diversity in our churches
It's possible for a church to be multi-ethnic and welcoming to all people while never moving towards a multicultural body. It’s not easy for us as individuals to have a multicultural outlook, let alone expect that from our churches. Embracing unity in diversity is hard, but the gospel is not limited to one specific culture, so diversity is a part of the Christian doctrine. Whether we worship God in India, Europe, Africa or Asia, we still worship the same God and we believe in the same gospel. The American Church needs theology which is more globally inclusive, looking to the global Church as an example we can learn from. When we start to do that, we will understand better how every culture approaches the faith and the ways their culture has shaped their theology. We can be united in loving God, worshiping and obeying His commands, but we can also live our faith with our unique cultural backgrounds. Some ways to embrace diversity in our churches include: diversifying our liturgy, featuring music from other countries and in other languages, or reading scripture in many languages. With intentionality and a desire to learn, we can move towards a truly multicultural church.
When we step into a community with diversity, we receive a fuller understanding of people—and of God's glory. From Genesis to Revelation, God's vision has always been a multiethnic kingdom. And in order to share the gospel with the unreached, we must become comfortable with diversity. Stepping out of our comfort zone is going to be messy and hard, but it's also part of our mission as believers.
Let's lean into our discomfort and become intentional about cultivating a beautifully diverse community. In doing so, we will reflect the glories of God's kingdom to a world that desperately needs Him.
This spring, support the work of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which provides resources like the Spiritual First Aid course for pastors, church leaders, and laypeople.
E L Sherene Joseph is an Adult Third Culture Kid, an aspiring writer, and a storyteller at the crossroads of Christianity, Culture & Community. As an immigrant to the United States, she has a unique perspective on how faith is intertwined with culture and community. She is passionate about educating others about the challenges faced as an immigrant while also building inconvenient community. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram.