Building Cross-Cultural Competence

Russell Schoch
April 1, 2007

The Strategic Plan, 2005–2010, adopted in January 2005 by the Board of Trustees, has as one of its goals dismantling racism and building cross-cultural competence: "PSR will equip leaders with the values, skills, and commitment to cross-cultural competency necessary to build anti-racist institutions and dismantle systemic racism in society, and model this commitment and work in its own campus community." One story provides a look at where PSR stands in relation to the goal of dismantling racism. The story below details the contextual learning experience of three students as they work to build cross-cultural competence.

"In our multi-cultural and multi-religious world," according to PSR's mission statement, "effective leadership requires the kind of understanding, perspective, and skill that comes from engagement with diverse communities and contexts for ministry." As Rev. Virginia Chase, director of contextual learning at PSR, puts it: "Ministry is done in a global context, and therefore our students need to know something about contexts other than their own."

The contextual learning office Chase directs was set up following the seminary's redesign of its MDiv curriculum in the fall of 2004. The class graduating this spring will be the first to have completed three years of the new curriculum, which has as one of its components an emphasis on moving the mind and body "off the Hill."

This is done in three ways, Chase says. First, contextuality is being added to courses. Assistant Professor Boyung Lee, for example, takes her "Introduction to Christian Education" class to an Episcopal church to study the architecture and the symbols — the sacred space — and then relates this to religious education. A second component is that MDiv students are required to do six short-term "events" during their three years here, journeys that get them out of their own context, put them in places that challenge them, perhaps make them feel uncomfortable. "It could be a different racial situation, doing something with the homeless, or with a different faith tradition," Chase says. "It's different for each person, but it's something that challenges them. That's the point."

A third part consists of contextual cross-cultural courses. Students are required to complete one three-unit "immersion" course as part of their MDiv degree. Usually done during January intersession, these courses can be local, national, or international.

"PSR is in the forefront of this new area in theological education," Chase says, "and students report that their contextual learning experiences have been life-transforming." In what follows, three current MDiv students write about their recent contextual-learning immersion experiences.

Robyn Morrison
Robyn Morrison's field education placement was with the nonviolence organization Pace e Bene. She represented the group at the worship service commemorating the fourth year of the Iraq war, March 18, in Washington, D.C. This served Robyn as a contextual learning event.

If anyone had told me a year ago that I would get arrested in conjunction with my Pacific School of Religion field education and contextual learning experience, I would never have believed them. As the daughter of a small-town county attorney, I grew up with a deep respect for justice, law, and order. I was as far from being a "rebel" as you can get.

Within the first month of working with Pace e Bene (PeB) I watched, from a safe distance, the activities of the Declaration of Peace. I then started to seriously consider whether I had the courage to stand up for my convictions the way the rest of the staff had done on a number of occasions. At first, I worried that getting involved in an action would be too disruptive to my studies. On the other hand, I knew if I was ever going to step outside of my comfort zone, I should do it with the collective knowledge, experience, and support of PeB.

One of my field education learning objectives was to explore how to build stronger connections between Christian churches and peace and justice movements. How to be a prophetic voice for justice and take action led by the Spirit, without being 'exclusive' or offensive to people of other faiths. My commitment to peace and justice comes from my Christian faith and so does my courage to speak with a prophetic voice. At the same time, I am cautious because so much injustice and violence has been perpetuated under the blessings or guise of Christianity.

When I first heard about the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, on March 18, I made up my mind that I was going to Washington, D.C. I simply had to be a part of this distinctly Christian action. It was time for Christians who believe in the justice-seeking Jesus, who practiced and taught nonviolent resistance, to speak out loud and clear against a war that has often been cast as a war of good against evil. I read about the spirituality of nonviolent civil disobedience, prayed, consulted with my mentors, and eventually decided to do it.

The day before I left, I was blessed and commissioned by a circle of PSR students. I knew that many were praying for me. I was honored to represent PeB as part of the processional for the worship service. The service was prophetic and powerful. Although the evening was long and bitterly cold, I was blessed to share the experience of getting arrested for the first time in my life with 222 amazing and diverse Christians. The weekend was pure, undeserved grace, God's grace given freely by the countless people who worked behind the scenes for months to make the event possible.
At one point during the weekend, someone remarked how wonderful it was to have "so many Saints willing to be arrested this way." Someone else responded: "I'm no saint. And what the world needs right now are a lot more prophets — we already have enough saints."

You can count me in as one of the prophets. My field education experience with Pace e Bene and my contextual learning event has equipped me to be a rebel and a prophet for peace and justice. My first arrest for divine obedience will not be my last.

Sonja Ingebritsen
Sonja Ingebritsen gave poetic form to reflections of her experience in the Tenderloin in the immersion course taught by Yvette Flunder (CMS 1995, MA 1997), senior pastor and founder of City of Refuge in San Francisco.

The Un-Even Church

Ruby lips,
three-inch stilettos,
brother comes dressed like a sister.
The good church says,
"All are welcome, brother-sister,
even you."
But brother-sister knows
that "even" means "tolerance"
and "tolerance" means "not one of us"
and "not one of us" means brother-sister is
on the outside,
only now he-she's expected to admire
the open mind of the good church
and be grateful.

Ratted hair,
missing teeth,
sister comes smelling of the streets.
The good church says,
"All are welcome, sister,
even you."
But sister knows
that "even" means "tolerance"
and "tolerance" means "not one of us"
and "not one of us" means sister is
on the outside,
only now she's expected to admire
the charity of the good church
and be grateful.

"All are welcome,
even you."
with all the substance
of mist in the fog-burning hour.

The real church
is the un-even church
that trades its tired us's and them's
for we altogether.
"All are welcome," it says.
And it is so.

Emily McGaughy
Emily McGaughy says she experienced several "turning points" in her South East Asia immersion trip in January, led by PSR faculty members Mai-Anh Tran and Jeffrey Kuan. Here she reflects on two of those events.

On January 9, 2007 our group concluded our time in Hong Kong by visiting the Chi Lin Nunnery. This Buddhist site contained statues, walking paths in a sanctuary of gardens, devotees, and local nuns. We saw a woman flailing her arms in devotional prayer, koi fish sharing food, and trees blossoming without impending danger. The Holy Spirit softly stroked my heart as I walked along the path. Our time at this site allowed us to explore, inhale, observe, and take it all in. I cried because the beauty there overpowered me.

On January 17, our group ventured into the rural fields of Vietnam, where American soldiers once set up camp for the purposes of war. I had gone to South East Asia with a curiosity about war. Born in 1981, I was the child of two Vietnam-era activists. Anything I knew about the war America waged in the 1960s I heard through the voices of privileged, white, middle-class Protestant parents. Here in Vietnam, I heard another voice about war, perhaps from the whispers and screams of history, when my PSR colleagues and I took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

These tunnels were built by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. An elaborate tunnel system stretching for 75 miles, they are centered 30 kilometers from Saigon and exist today as a tourist site. The NFL used these tunnels as a place to retreat from and organize against U.S. troops who were occupying Vietnamese territory just a few feet above.

I was apprehensive about descending into those tunnels because they were small, and once you passed a certain point, you could not see a thing. Wanting to get out of my comfort zone on this trip, I chose to go down anyway. Besides, I was following Jeffrey Kuan, and I knew he'd help me if I needed it. But 30 seconds into my descent, I froze with sheer terror. I couldn't see or hear anything; Professor Kuan was far enough ahead of me that he might as well not have existed. I panicked. I couldn't move or say anything. The prayerful place in me cried out for help. The voice of wisdom came in response, and I knew it was safe for me to retrace my steps. I had the choice to back out of this situation.

When I finally got above ground, I began to cry and couldn't stop when I thought about all the women and men and boys and girls who spent days in those tunnels without the option to surface — they could not "back out" of their situation.

After returning from South East Asia, my experiences at the Chi Lin Nunnery and Cu Chi Tunnels remain most vividly. I cannot forget their magical and haunting power. In the pathways of Hong Kong and the fields of Vietnam, I stumbled upon a truth about human potential: a person can create for beauty or for cruelty, every minute of every day.

In deep concern for the Earth allowing me, the sisters and brothers traveling with me, and the generations coming after me, I choose beauty, not cruelty. Some days the choice is clear; other days the options appear vague, muddy, and hopelessly complex. In the face of the latter, faith enters, begging us to pray: I hope the choice of beauty, the actions springing from this choice, and the memories made by those actions, make my Creator and Beloved content. For all the ways I encountered potential, choice, and memory in Southeast Asia, I am thankful. Amen.