I love a good story. Virgilio Elizondo, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology, passionately tells the story of his life on the border of two cultures in his book The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet. Elizondo discusses mestizaje—the process through which peoples mix biologically and culturally to make a new people—as a way of explaining who he and his people are on the border of Mexico and the United States, both physically and socioculturally. How does being on the border shape them? And how do they shape the border? What can we learn about border living from Jesus, the one who, as a Galilean, was mestizo himself, and a border crosser?
One conclusion that Elizondo draws about Jesus is that
In his Mestizo existence Jesus breaks the barriers of separation, as does every Mestizo, and already begins to live a new unity. . .The Mestizo affirms both the identities received while offering something new to both.1
Elizondo argues that Jesus’ life in Galilee meant constant border crossing. All kinds of people passed through the border region of Nazareth occupied by Roman soldiers. Encountering other cultures shaped Jesus’ identity, making him what Elizondo calls a cultural mestizo. Elizondo and others suggest that Jesus’ racial and ethnic identity was mestizo, or mixed, as well.2 For me, the multicultural/multiracial identity of the historic Jesus is as important as his poor, humble beginnings. God used an unlikely agent to work wonders in the world; it is a strategy that God has used repeatedly.
The Borders Jesus Crossed
Even if one does not embrace the mestizaje of Jesus, the gospels tell stories of Jesus crossing other borders as well. His table fellowship was scandalous; he broke bread with sinners and tax collectors. He spoke to the unspeakable; he touched the untouchable. He challenged the cultic status quo. Bible scholar Brian Blount’s insightful exegesis of the story of Jesus turning out the temple concludes that what outraged Jesus was the way the temple refused to become a house of prayer for all the nations. Jesus, who was called to preach the kingdom with his words and in his healings and exorcisms, effectively performs an exorcism of the temple. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Blount, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes:
For Mark the future should exist in the present; the Temple should be a house of prayer for all the nations. . . . When the leaders, the priests and the scribes, refuse to allow this to happen, they refuse to let the Temple bear the fruit it has always been intended to bear. Jesus’ “casting out” in the Temple, then, was as potent a symbolic strike against the Temple as his exorcisms were against the kingdom of Satan.3
Border Living Stories
Elizondo draws on his own story as he analyzes the parallels between the sociocultural identity development of Mexican-American peoples and that of Jesus from Galilee. Early school days in a German Catholic school in Texas were painful for young Virgilio. His language was banned, the food was strange, and he was lonely. Feeling guilt and shame for being different, he experienced going to school as a daily border crossing. Reflecting on his boyhood later, Elizondo writes:
As I look into the past and try to understand it from my present perspective many years later, I re-experience the original pain, sadness, embarrassment, ambiguity, frustration, and the sense of seeking refuge by being alone. Yet I can also see that it was already the beginning of the formation of the consciousness of a new existence—a new mestizaje. The daily border crossing was having its effect on me. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t even know why it had to be. But that constant crossing became the most ordinary thing in my life.4
I, too, am a border person. How did we, Virgilio and I, get to be this way, comfortably negotiating multiple cultural boundaries? I live and work on the edge of cultural boundaries—race, ethnicity, gender, and theology, for example—every day as an African American clergy leader in a predominantly white denomination (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]), as a doctoral candidate, as a consultant for the Alban Institute. When not traveling for work, I live in the greater Washington, D.C., area. These experiences are not new for me. When I consider my life as an unfolding narrative, I find formative chapters in many overlapping stories that shape my identity as a border person who negotiates cultural boundaries constantly.
Stories shape the complexity of my identity. My parents told some of the stories to me, as did my peers, the media, and others in the culture. Other stories are my own experiences, remembered and revised as I make meaning of them. They lie alongside other meta-stories—the biblical story, for example, and the story of my people from Africa here in America. Those stories inform my sense of God (my God image) and my theoethics (how I live my life because of what I believe). My gender, my sexual orientation, my trust (or lack of trust) in others, my successes and failures—all of these and the stories that inform them are part of my complex storied self.
As I see it, we are storied selves. Our identity development, then, can be thought of as the process of finding our own narrative voice amid the speech of and in dialogue with others, as we interpret and make meaning of identity stories told to us by family, teachers, peers, and others. We are told multiple stories, and have complex, multiple identities (for example, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and religious traditions/belief systems). We can therefore think of identity development as how these overlapping, interweaving, multi-textured stories inform one another. What kinds of stories shape border people? What kinds of stories and experiences can form the identities of people who will be better equipped to deal with our increasingly multicultural world? I tell part of my story here, to place this conversation—this text—in a real-life context.
I have vivid memories of my early childhood. I remember the smells of dinners made in our kitchen in New Hampshire, after we moved off the Air Force base and into town, and the sounds of Dad watching football games in the living room. I remember the crush of leaves under my shoes in the fall, and the blueberry patch in the woods near our house, where Wanda and I, before the brothers came along, played. I remember starting kindergarten at one school and then moving to Michigan to another military base for first grade. I remember playing on the swing set in my backyard with buddies, sitting in a circle after recess, and going to birthday parties at the homes of friends. Lunchtime with bologna sandwiches, carrot sticks, and Oreo cookies was more fun because my friend Tommy not only carried my lunch box—he put my chair up on the table and napped next to me, too.
I remember the first time I realized I was different. When Lisa moved to town from “down south” somewhere, things started to change. She had a birthday party and did not invite me. She sat between Tommy and me, and put more distance between us than just her body. This was the first time I heard the “n-word,” as in, “Why do you sit next to that nigger?” That fall, Lisa, with her prejudice, and Kenny, another little black kid, moved to town and I learned for the first time that we—Kenny and I—were different. Our mothers, we learned from Lis
a, gave us chocolate milk from their bodies because they—and we—were [n-words]. It was shocking!
Mom and Dad took action after this event. Dad spoke to the base commander, and Lisa’s dad was told to manage his child’s behavior. That made Dad my hero. Mom told me that, as unbelievable as it was, some people would not like me just because of the color of my skin. She then said that I belonged to her, to Dad, and to God, and that I was able to do and be anything I wanted. I was comforted by that assurance, and felt deeply loved, but still surprised and somehow sad. I prayed that night that everyone would be the same, a child’s prayer to make the pain of difference go away.
Mom and Dad both did something else. They, proud African American people, began to teach me and my siblings about our family, history, culture, and heritage. The stories they told us about Africa, about enslaved Africans in America, about the Jordans and Lewises struggling and making it in Mississippi, and about their own journeys to the north and to each other gave me and my siblings a sense of self that made us know that being different was wonderful. We are a proud family: capable, competent, creative, curious, and caring. My parents deepened my sense of difference by mining family and biblical stories for pride, achievement, resilience, grace, justice, and love. Their determination laid a framework for me really to differentiate, to become myself. As a young woman, influenced by the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, and the culture of the 1970s, I joined in protests for racial equality and social justice, even as I continued to build friendships across racial, ethnic, and cultural differences.
Called to Be a Bridge Builder
My childhood church experienced the demographic shifts that many urban churches did then and do today. White middle-class people moved out of our community and were replaced by middle-class blacks, who moved in because housing was affordable and the schools were good. Our little church had the blessings of several cultures—our worship was filled with amazing classical music, traditional hymns, gospel music, and show tunes from Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell. I learned early that church meant having something for everybody—and that meant that God has something for everybody as well. My childhood image of God—One who loves, creates, and accepts everyone—stays with me, and only becomes more sophisticated with time. Loving and accepting one another is the best testimony to God’s love of us.
I think of “call” as learning to discern and hear the story that God is writing with us. Accepting our call means signing up as an active coauthor of that story with God and with our community. It means believing that our unique qualities and experiences are designed by God for us and for the world, and can be used to do God’s reconciling and saving work. When I accepted my call to ministry, I began to see that my story had unfolded in all the right ways. Discovering my difference, deepening that difference, and growing to accept and celebrate fully the differences of others were all overlapping stories of a border person in the making. In my work at the Alban Institute, I cross borders all the time, working across denominational lines, often in predominantly white denominational systems, and as a woman working in what is still too often a man’s world. I train clergy from many contexts in negotiating cultural boundaries—not just racial and ethnic boundaries, but sexual boundaries, gender boundaries, and religious boundaries. I feel called to live and work on the border, and so I do.
Leading on the Border
If we define a racially mixed congregation as one in which no one racial group is more than 80 percent of the congregation, only 7.5 percent of the more than 300,000 congregations in the United States are racially mixed. And half of these are only temporarily mixed because of shifting demographics.5
Psychologist and educator Howard Gardner says that leaders are those who tell stories that effectively wrestle with the stories that already populate the minds of others.6 I agree, and would add that those stories, formed by the leaders’ storied selves, help create a group identity or story. So the vision articulated by leaders is affected by their vision of themselves. What kinds of leaders tell stories that encourage border crossing?
Gordon Dragt is the pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York (Reformed Church in America). Gordon’s story was forever changed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He vowed he would never serve a monocultural church again; he intentionally changed the identity of the congregation he was serving to reflect his values. These values have shaped his ministry ever since, and are shared and enacted in stories at the diverse congregation he serves in Manhattan.
Karen Hernandez-Granzen is a “Newyorican” (a Puerto Rican born in New York) Presbyterian clergy leader, and is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, New Jersey. Karen is proud of her multiracial heritage. She often tells the story of the richness of her Taino Indian, Spanish European, and African bloodlines. These multiple story lines shape Karen’s vision for her multiracial and multicultural congregation, in which Euro-Americans, Africans, African Americans, and Hispanics work and worship together.
I believe the clergy and congregants together are crafting a new group story, and a group sense of call informed by the leaders’ stories, the members’ stories, and master stories (for example, the biblical narratives—binding narratives like chosenness, vision, and mission). Stories shared in worship, in rituals, in liturgy, even at potluck suppers, build trust, create and uncover shared values, and bind the community together.
Joining a Multicultural Community
People choose multiracial/multicultural congregations for various reasons. Linda and Dave both grew up in middle-class white families. They found each other at a singles meeting and discovered their shared passions for music and people. They found their way to urban churches, where they stay because they are committed to diversity.
Pat and Jim, another white couple, share the same passion for diverse communities; such congregations are the only kinds of churches where they feel at home. Cherry, an African American woman who grew up on military bases, is a border person as well. She was often the “only” in her class as a child and feels at home wherever she goes.
Chris and Don, a gay couple who have been together for more than 50 years, worship in a multicultural/multiracial church because they have been on the margins elsewhere and want to be in a community where they can feel at home. Carla and John, an interracial couple, worship in such a church because they want to be where they and their adopted children can share what they have in common with others—their wonderful difference.
Whatever brings people to these congregations—to life on the border—once they come, they are changed. In other words, risk-taking experiences on the border change our culture and us; they create new storied selves. Like Elizondo, I believe that through these experiences we participate in creating with God something new—a new world paradigm, a new humanity, the Beloved Community.
As a leader committed to celebrating the wondrous differences in God’s creation, I tell these stories—my story along with others, to wrestle with the old stories of homogeneity and unicultural expectations in our congregations. If God, as Isaiah prophesies, is going to do “a new thing,” negotiating cultural boundaries will be at the heart of it. Together, we, the called-out ones, can help create new stories for a new religious reality.
NOTES1. Virgilio Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo: Life Where Cultures Meet, Revised Edition (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2000), 84.
2. Curtiss DeYoung, Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1995).
3. Brian Blount, “The Apocalypse of Worship,” in Making Room at the Table: An Invitation to Multicultural Worship, Brian Blount and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 22.
4. Elizondo, The Future Is Mestizo, 17.
5. C. P. DeYoung, M. O. Emerson, G. A. Yancey, and K. J. Chai, United by Faith: Multiracial Congregations as a Response to the Problem of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 2.
6. Howard E. Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995).