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Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Sabor y Sazón

Editor’s note: We have Danny and all of the people who have been and will be impacted by Hurricane Irma in our prayers. We encourage all interested in supporting hurricane relief to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which continues to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Daniel Morales

I’m somewhat of a rarity here in Miami – I’m a native! My parents fled Cuba June 25th, 1971, and took up residence in Miami mainly because like so many other Cubans at the time, they felt their migration would be a short-lived one. In those days, Miami was not the glitz and glamour it is known for today. In those days, it wasn’t even referred to as the banana republic, a term some white folks sarcastically use today. As a matter of fact, Miami was actually pretty white back then. My father shared stories of the few occasions in the early days when renting a home for the family was a challenge, either because they were Cubans, or because he had too many kids; four to be exact. I sealed the deal a few years later.  

All throughout my childhood and adolescence I never really thought much about what it meant to be multi-cultural. Quite frankly, I never really gave much thought to diversity either, perhaps because I was so accustomed to being in the mixture of both a homogenous and diverse culture (stay with me for a bit, that will make sense shortly). The little Free Will Baptist church in which I grew up was its own homogenous community of Cuban immigrants in the middle of this growing pot of ajiaco or sancocho that Miami was slowly becoming. (Ajiaco and/or sancocho is a traditional soup/stew from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and various other Latin American countries.)

Beginning with the 70s and most especially in the 80s and 90s, Miami was notorious for being Cuban town. As a matter of fact, my early elementary school years were at a private school right in the middle of Calle 8 in Little Havana. And while it is true that for a while my people made up a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrants of Miami, I have to tell you, I was always surrounded by diversity and it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world to me. My classmates were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Colombian. They were Black, they were White, and truth be told, we made nothing of it; rather we lived and we did what kids do.

Diversity was not something I was completely in tune with – that is, until I became more immersed in my theological studies. Truthfully, I didn’t learn to embrace my own cultural diversity in light of the broader composite of the United States until I left my bubble of Miami and found my way up to Chicago, where I was no longer a part of the dominant culture.

McCormick Theological Seminary was crucial to my understanding of both the complexities and richness of my diversity. That understanding meant that I saw God not through the lens of the scholarship that has dominated theological studies for centuries; instead I came to understand God through the lens and experience of the people of the largest island of the Caribbean. And with that understanding also came greater appreciation for the sazón (seasoning) with which my culture and the various cultures of the Caribbean bring depth to the redeeming grace of Christ.  

El sabor y sazón de mi gente (the flavor and seasoning of my people) adds a certain flare and spice to the body of Christ, and to the broader body of the Presbyterian Church USA. Some would argue our rhythms accentuate the rich and bold ways in which Christ moves in our midst. And that is precisely where the beauty of diversity lies, because though we are all one in Christ, each one of us – each culture, race, and ethnicity – bring to life the unforced rhythms of grace.

For us Caribbean folks, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 3:28 would read something like, In God’s family we are all one; there is no Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican. We are all equal. In the Caribbean we all dance to the same sweet rhythms of salsa — be it from Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, or Jonny Ventura. (Well sadly, except me, I can’t dance!)


Daniel Morales is the director of university ministries at Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, FL. He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

A Method in the Midst of Madness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bridgett Green

What happens when chaos steps in and disrupts our present circumstances? We become dizzy and disoriented us as our world changes beyond comprehension. We lose a sense of who we are and what we’re doing. And we wonder what is God doing and trying to show us.

When the method to the madness is lost and we are simply left with just madness, how are we to respond? Examining the courageous leadership of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow nation, Jonathan Lear offers Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. His anthropological analysis with theological insight into Chief Plenty Coups and the Crow nation’s experiences of radical hope provides insights about how to face an uncertain reality with courage and conviction.

Chief Plenty Coups led the Crow nation at the turn of the 20th century when seismic cultural and political shifts devastated their way of life. Preserving their land, living off wild buffalo, and having a rich spiritual life were central to their culture. Invasions by white settlers, wars with other Indigenous nations, broken treaties with the U.S. government, and the utter annihilation of the buffalo created a massive shock wave to the Crow’s way of life and concepts of living.

Devastated by their reality, the Crow nation engaged in a radical hope to confront their present circumstances by synthesizing their traditions with a new conceptual framework for flourishing. Radical hope is the exercise of imaginative excellence for generating creative responses to world challenges. Rooted in vibrant ideals, it allows for a rewarding life in the face of hard realities. To have a radical hope, one must have a faith, or what Lear calls a psychological flexibility, to believe in possibilities without knowledge of how they would manifest.

As a young man, Chief Plenty Coups received a divine message warning him of future destruction and encouraging him to listen carefully and to learn from others. The elders and the community adopted his dream. Not knowing how it would manifest, the people allowed the dream to generate a radical hope for survival that would surpass their understanding.

With radical hope, the Crow nation kept their lands and mountains despite the pressures and broken treaties by the U.S. government enacted in the reservation system. Chief Plenty Coups encouraged generations to go to white schools, explaining that knowing what the white man knows would keep him from being able to oppress them. Eventually, the Crow nation built on their reservation Little Big Horn College that incorporated their history and traditions with western education. The Crow nation developed a new conceptual framework for flourishing.

When we experience a loss of identity, culture, or vocation, it’s an opportunity to follow the wisdom of Chief Plenty Coups: 1) access the real challenges; 2) seeks God’s will; 3) discern with community the vision; 4) have faith God’s vision (versus the prescription); 5) listen and learn from various sources; and 6) respond creatively and courageously to the present reality (and not a reconstructed version of the past).


Bridgett A. Green is a teaching elder and is completing her dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. Living outside of Nashville, she serves the church as an acquisitions editor at Presbyterian Publishing Corporation; as a trustee on the board of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and as a trustee on the board of the Mountain Retreat Association (aka Montreat). She resources people as they practice Christianity with the tools of sound biblical interpretation, rigorous theological inquiry, and good questions.

Resist Right Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathy Wolf Reed

Earlier this year I was fortunate to read Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Like many of Brueggemann’s works, the book is both brief and powerful, making it (somewhat ironically) an ideal choice for those in professional ministry.

Striking to me was Brueggemann’s description of ancient Egypt: defined by anxiety, overly concerned with productivity, and overcome with an idolatrous worship of commodity. This exhausting mode of existence is not only an apt description of modern day society but modern day mainline Protestantism as well. I suppose that’s why I have not been able to get this book out of my mind.

Amidst threats that somehow our hard-earned commodities might not be safe or our ability to be productive could become compromised, human fear propels us into overdrive. We believe that if we could just do or have more, we might attain the peace our hearts long for – peace that in truth comes only from relationship with God. In the church, the tendency toward commoditization manifests itself as measuring ministry in numbers: membership, budgets, baptisms. We look across the street at what others are doing and think, “Maybe we should start a new program for singles/coffee ministry/contemporary worship service.”

Brueggemann names the flaw in our logic, describing the “endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough… yet” (page 13). He reminds us how in the Sabbath commandment, our God “nullifies that entire system of anxious production” (page 27). God gives us not just an option but a direct order to place boundaries on our inclinations to perpetuate anxiety.

“Such a faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance.” Brueggemann writes. “It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment” (page 31). He goes on to remind us how Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

I cannot think of a more relevant book for today’s world and church. I am grateful for the gift of a biblical framework through which to understand my own anxieties and the restlessness of the society and systems in which I serve. I recommend this book to all church leaders as we continue to navigate anxious times.


Kathy Wolf Reed has served as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, AL since 2014. The Mayberry-esque setting of Auburn provides a context in which Kathy and her family (co-pastor husband Nick and their three small children) can enjoy all the perks of small town life while the presence of a major university offers them constant opportunities to attend interesting programs and cheer on the Tigers from football games to equestrian meets.

The Courage to Die

by Jessica Tate

I’m an Apple (computer) enthusiast. While I’ve resisted temptation of the iPhone 5, I have been paying attention to its press. In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Steven Pearlstein noted a trend in the tech world. Three of the most dominating firms have tanked in recent years.

  • Nokia was once the mobile phone leader with 40% of the global market. It had a smartphone prototype a decade before iPhone came out, but didn’t turn technology into competitive product quickly enough. Now their marketshare is cut in half.
  • Blackberry sales are down 95% and business experts wonder if Research in Motion (its maker) will survive.
  • Best Buy killed Circuit City and Sears once upon a time, but now it is getting creamed by cheaper on-line options.

“One lesson to be drawn from all three stories,” Pearlstein writes, “is the danger faced by dominant firms that refuse to cannibalize themselves–to give up existing sales in order to get the jump on next-generation products and services.”

Apple, he says, ruled the personal music player with the iPod, but realized that if someone developed a phone that could play music as well as the iPod, they’d be toast. Rather than try to shore up the iPod market, Apple cannibalized themselves, introducing the very product they feared most. The results speak for themselves.

Franklin Golden, co-pastor of Durham Church, shared the inspiring story of Durham Church’s revitalization effort at the NEXT gathering in North Carolina this summer. Durham church is a multi-cultural congregation devoted to reconciliation, service and evangelism. They have some grace-infused stories to share about overcoming racial and cultural differences and dealing with issues of power head-on.

“Other pastors say they want the deep ministry Durham Church has,” Golden said. “No, you don’t,” he replies. “You don’t what this. Not until you’re ready to give up all the trappings of church.” The hard-earned wisdom they’ve received is this: “When privilege and power come up against the reign of God you can run away or you can die.”

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  — John 12:24

I wonder what we, as a church, might be holding onto too tightly? What part of ourselves must we let go, let die, so that we might bear much fruit?


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.