Why do we expect others to feel at home when what’s around them seems so different from what they are used to?
In the back of the classroom there are two large tables with red plastic tablecloths upon which each of us has very proudly placed the dishes that represent us. We are immigrants from Eritrea, China, Morocco, Japan, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Vietnam, India, Greece, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Some of my classmates are engineers, lawyers, doctors, gardeners, housewives, farm workers, and construction workers. There is a rich diversity of languages, customs, level of education, migratory status, and economic level. My class seems to be a Tower of Babel.
I notice that none of us is quick to try the food. We could start eating from the dishes we know, but we also want to be polite and honor those we’ve never seen before. We are uncertain about what to expect, so we only look at each other and the food, and we smile nervously. Then a classmate from Eritrea is encouraged to try another classmate’s dish, and with her limited English, her hard accent, and a very big smile, she lets us know that she very much likes what she is eating. Little by little the rest of us begin to try different dishes. The dish from Eritrea is as hot as the Mexican food; the Salvadoran pupusas remind me of something similar my mother cooked on Sundays for lunch in Mexico. The Japanese dish has a soft texture and flavor. The Greek salad is refreshing. Even though the Moroccan couscous has its flavor, I’m not sure I’ll try it again. And the Russian cakes are delicious.
Flavors, colors, aromas, customs, languages, accents, and different stories are all blended in an exquisite way, just like the mole I brought, which represents an important region of my country. We are a multicultural group, understanding multiculturalism as the variety of features everyone has that distinguish them as individuals, and at the same time, identify them as belonging to a group or groups: diversity of age, culture, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, gender, language, place of origin, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
If our efforts in Unitarian Universalist communities to become welcoming and inclusive only mean to accept people of a different color or people with different sexual preferences, and we do not include people from different cultures, with everything that comes with each culture, then we might be falling short. If as Unitarian Universalist communities we are going to engage actively in this multicultural effort, I invite you to ask yourself: Are we open to including people from different cultures in our congregations? Can we strip away our preconceived ideas about other cultures? Do we really want to be welcoming communities? If the answer is yes, then let’s invite people from the different cultures that are around us, keeping in mind the responsibility that comes with this invitation.
But first, try a thought experiment:
Let’s say that I invite all of you, one by one, to come and visit me in my home. I’m your friend, and I consider you my friends. Therefore, once you are in my home, you must make yourselves at home. “Mi casa es su casa / My home is your home.” Now that you are in my home—your home—let me ask this: Would you feel comfortable wandering around the house, opening the fridge and eating out of it, turning on the TV, taking off your shoes, sitting down and relaxing? Would you do it? Why not, if we are friends, and I welcome you into my space?
Then why do we expect others to feel at home when it’s not the place they consider home, when what’s around them seems so different and distant from what they were used to having in their lives?
At all times and in all societies, cultural exchanges have been made. It is natural that in our first approaches with other cultures it may be difficult to understand and accept the cultural differences. It is even more difficult to take part in other cultures and allow them to change our own.
As individuals and as a community, we need to start to make friends with all those we invite to our spiritual home. Let’s venture out of our comfort zone, leave our homes, and visit our new friends in their homes. Let’s meet their families and their friends. Let’s eat with them, their food and our food. Let’s sing their songs and our songs. Let’s learn to paint our lives with their colors so that they can recognize something familiar when they come into our lives and into our communities.
We in the First Unitarian Church of San José have more than a decade of experience doing the soul work of building our beloved multicultural and multi-ethnic community, not just learning Spanish (or, in my case, English), but also learning new customs, new traditions, new ways of thinking and acting. We are learning to mix the Anglo culture and the Latino culture. Of course we do not have the perfect formula for how to create UU multicultural communities, because each community is unique. But what we know for sure is that with love, patience, and perseverance, it can indeed be achieved.
Adapted from a reflection for the First Unitarian Church of San José’s JUUNTOS/Together Project. Click here to read this article in Spanish.
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Dr. Roberto Padilla is the Spanish-speaking ministries coordinator at the First Unitarian Church of San José, California.
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Looking back on my summers spent at a beloved Unitarian Universalist retreat.
We cannot hear unless there is silence.