I remember the day I first heard the words “Cultural Boundaries Project.” As executive minister of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention (DCBC), I called Gil Rendle at the Alban Institute for help in strategic planning for the convention’s future. The DCBC serves more than 150 socially and theologically diverse congregations throughout the metropolitan Washington region. When Gil recommended Jacqueline Lewis, Alban’s consultant for the “Cultural Boundaries Project,” I wondered whether an expert with such a title might be too limited in her approach to a Baptist convention. After all, as an African American ministering in the city, I felt that I was painfully aware of the cultural boundaries in my community and needed to get beyond them. I didn’t feel the need to be reminded of my community’s cultural boundaries, or of the challenges associated with them.

Subsequently, I went along with Gil’s referral and invited Jacqui aboard as our consultant. Fortunately for us, she was available. To my surprise, she never said a word about boundaries—cultural or otherwise. After spending several sessions with our leaders, grappling with ideas, values, assumptions, vision and mission statements, and process questions, Jacqui said her term with our group was completed. Our robust group of Baptists represented congregations of multiple shapes, sizes, hues, ethnic backgrounds, and languages. Our urban, suburban, and economic differences were spread across the three national Baptist bodies with which we were affiliated. With Jacqui’s help we reached agreement on a vision and mission statement, values, priorities, and next steps for our envisioning process—all that, and we were not sidetracked by cultural boundaries.

The Conversation Group
Then one day, while I was celebrating Jacqui’s splendid capabilities as a consultant, she invited me to participate with her and several other colleagues in the Negotiating Cultural Boundaries Conversation Group. The group’s objective was to explore the motivations, perspectives, and values that lead us to practice ministry intentionally along cultural borders, and our desires to negotiate the challenges we encounter. In sharing with me sample questions for the conversation group, Jacqui presented issues of fundamental concern for me in the practice of ministry:

  • Why am I serving multiple congregations whose members come from diverse walks of life and perspectives when I could easily be serving in a setting with only people who look like me, talk like me, and share nearly identical life experiences?
  • What is the nature of the inescapable call to practice inclusive ministry? What is the source of my motivation and passion to endure the misperceptions and misunderstandings associated with ministry on the borders?
  • What kinds of experiences influenced my worldview?
  • What resources inform, equip, and re-energize me in the practice of ministry on the borders?

These and related questions struck a chord with me and offered hope that others were also serving along cultural borders with a sense of call and intention—people who wanted to reflect critically on a wide range of questions related to this ministry.

Having taken part in the Cultural Boundaries Conversation Group for several months now, I feel both personally and professionally empowered by relationships with a collection of clergy professionals who approach ministry from various perspectives. They are as diverse in their racial and ethnic identity, their cultural experiences, and their appearance as they are in their ministry assignments. It is unlikely that I would have ever crossed paths with some of these folk were it not for the conversation group. Or, had I met them outside the group, I would not have assumed that we had much in common apart from the vocation of ministry.

Diverse Histories, Similar Encounters
In the conversation group we discover our commonalities only as we scratch, shovel, and sift through shared readings, personal stories, and group activities. We are uncovering similar experiences, convictions, and thought patterns that hide beneath layers of hard dissimilarities in genealogical and geographic background, theological orientation, ethnic and cultural experience, and overall social location. What would these people have in common? The group includes

  • a Latina Presbyterian pastor in New Jersey;
  • an African American male who is a regional minister for Baptists in the Washington, D.C. area;
  • a Jewish woman in Connecticut with a doctorate; and
  • a Caucasian minister with several years of pastoral experience, who now writes books from his home in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.

Our commonalities do not leap from our biographical sketches. The components of our identities in terms of race, gender, theology, memories, and backgrounds differ dramatically.

In fact, we are learning that we have been defined by our differences throughout our lives to such an extent that we now embrace and celebrate diverse components of identity when we encounter them as part of our life’s mission. We share experiences that have sensitized us to race, gender, and other identity issues. We are highly developed in our awareness of ethnic, cultural, class, and generational particularity. Moreover, we are motivated to live, move, and minister along the same boundaries that often divide people—so that we may exemplify and promote diversity and inclusivity.

Boundaries from Childhood
I am learning that cultural boundaries have been present in my life from the outset, and that I have always felt challenged to confront them—by necessity, by family and religious values, or by a sense of justice and destiny. I have heard it said that we can trace life’s most enduring lessons to our childhood. The Cultural Boundaries Conversation Group has provided a safe space for me to recollect and to reflect aloud on my earliest experiences of cultural boundaries, though at the time I did not think of them in such terms. The conversations have also helped me to acknowledge that I encountered multiple boundaries in my experience. Having grown up in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1960s, I find it too easy to think of boundaries only in terms of black-white relations.

The son of a Baptist deacon and a Pentecostal deaconess, I was the youngest of seven children in our West Savannah household. But when we moved to East Savannah after the death of my father, I encountered additional boundaries. It is clearer to me now that my childhood and youth entailed countless boundaries related to class, gender, generations, academics, theological perspective, worship style, geography, political orientation, and so on.

Identifying the Borders
The discussion goes beyond the question of whether to cross the borders. The conversation centers on how we identify the borders. We have also given attention to various approaches for negotiating borders while being mindful of the values and perspectives that inform us as we do so. I now recognize that I have not simply encountered multiple cultural boundaries throughout my life, but that at some point I began to gravitate toward boundaries. Eventually, I discovered my comfort zone, even my life’s mission, along the borders. It makes sense that I serve in an organization that is affiliated with not just one but three national Baptist bodies, consisting of broad theological, social, and economic diversity. I find that I am in mission on the boundaries on purpose.

I am also discovering that I have much in common with clergy of various traditions who have negotiated cultural boundaries throughout their lives. I now recognize that I am surrounded by clergy from all walks of life who have had radica
lly different life experiences from my own, and who emerged from those diverse experiences to practice ministry along the borders just as I do. In one group exercise, I was amazed to find that although clergy experiences and backgrounds differed considerably, our experiences all fit into similar categories. My ministry is strengthened when I can reflect on border issues with other clergy as a means of strengthening my own ministry along the borders.

Congregations on the Borders
Most important, I am learning from the Cultural Boundaries Project that the congregations I serve are strategically situated along multiple cultural borders, and that they consist of people who have negotiated boundaries all their lives. As such, our congregations are poised to be agents of reconciliation, diversity, and inclusivity. If I can help many of the pastors and laypeople in our congregations recognize that they are not constrained or limited by borders, and that they are empowered by their experiences as “border people,” then their vision for ministry and sense of mission will expand exponentially.

I am more sensitive now than before to the pastor of a church that was at one time a traditional suburban Southern Baptist congregation, but that today thrives in one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the Washington metropolitan area. More than 40 nationalities are represented in its membership, and at a time of widening ethnic tensions in our world, this congregation witnesses daily to the reconciling power of the gospel as pastor and members celebrate their existence on the borders.

I am highly motivated to provide encouragement, prayer support, and denominational resources for a laywoman from the Northwest. Reared on a farm where her father hired migrant workers from Mexico, she later studied at a college in California where being a white female placed her in the minority. Today she works in the corporate sector in Washington, D.C., and is a mission leader in a diverse congregation in the heart of the city’s Chinatown district. She is preparing for yet another mission trip to South America. As a border person, she says, she is touched by the examples of humility that she sees in working with people on the borders. She also feels compelled to confront injustice wherever it surfaces, especially in the Christian community.

An Empowering View
Finally, viewing my ministry from the perspective of negotiating cultural boundaries has given me a fresh perspective on all aspects of my work. This conversation has empowered me to celebrate the fact that my life, theology, and sense of mission are all informed by a complex array of cultural factors. My ministry is strengthened when I reflect critically on these factors with others so influenced, and when I am aware how these factors affect my decisions, actions, and worldview. I now understand my ministry to a large degree as helping congregations to discover the tremendous need to negotiate cultural boundaries, and to develop the motivation and fluency to converse with people from all walks of life to build communities of faith that reflect and honor the larger community wherein we serve.

Let me add in closing that the hesitations I acknowledged at the outset about enlisting the Cultural Boundaries Project consultant to work with a Baptist convention have disappeared entirely. Although Jacqui Lewis never talked about cultural boundaries while working with us, it is apparent in retrospect that she was negotiating cultural boundaries the whole time, and demonstrating a great deal of mindfulness, thoughtfulness, precision, and effectiveness in doing so.

More About the Cultural Boundaries Conversation Group

The Cultural Boundaries Conversation Group, led by Alban Institute consultant Jacqueline Lewis, has been meeting once a month for the past year. The purpose of the group is to bring together parish clergy, denominational staff, and Alban Institute staff who are passionate about this issue and who serve or have served multiracial/multicultural congregations and support their denominations’ efforts to do so as well. Several group participants have also researched and written on the subject of negotiating cultural boundaries, such as race/ethnicity, gender, and generations.

The group is composed of five women and seven men and is multiracial/multicultural (four African Americans, six whites, one Latino, and one Jew). The group represents several denominations: American Baptist, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Reform Jewish, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Disciples of Christ.

Together the group has read a number of contemporary articles on managing boundaries, race, and economics, as well as books on the subjects of theology, congregational studies, and psychology. Specific books include The Future Is Mestizo by Virgilio Elizondo, Coming Together by Curtiss DeYoung, and Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon.

If you would like to learn more about negotiating cultural boundaries, consider taking Jacqueline Lewis’ Alban course on the topic (see ad on page 4). You also may contact her directly at jlewis@alban.org.