In The Episcopal Church, we are slowly acknowledging the cultural diversity that makes up our community. Resolutions from 2018 General Convention called for more consideration of ethnic liturgies and prayers for inclusion in future publications. No doubt, this conversation will continue through future Conventions. As more people are recognizing the issues of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination ingrained in our culture, we are compelled to learn about communities that are different from ours and how to authentically incorporate their contributions into our worship.
The Challenge of Cultural Appropriation
With this push to incorporate more multiculturalism into our worship, a major hurdle that will arise is the question of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the misuse of cultural materials belonging to a culture that is not one’s own. Cultural appropriation serves to relegate an unfamiliar culture to a lower class or to distance it from what is considered normal.
Sometimes, cultural appropriation manifests itself loudly, such as when people shout nonsense sounds during a song in Spanish, or when people think that all Spanish speakers celebrate Cinco de Mayo (my Mexican relatives do not even celebrate this day). Other times, cultural appropriation is more subtle, such as mumbling through a prayer in Spanish on the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe or adding a guitar to an English hymn to make it sound more “Latin.”
What the above examples have in common is the lack of a respectful relationship with people from the culture represented. Without respectful relationships, we rely upon our own knowledge about unfamiliar cultures, oftentimes using stereotypes or prejudices to inform how we approach them. However, when we cultivate respectful relationships with people from unfamiliar cultures, those relationships help inform how we lift up other cultures in our worship. Here are three practices to help initiate the respectful incorporation of materials from unfamiliar cultures into our worship.
Three Respectful Practices
Evaluate The Need
When planning multicultural liturgies and events, it is important to understand the need and purpose. Do you wish to commemorate the feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe because there are Mexican congregants in your community? Do you want to add a Directions Prayer to your liturgy on Indigenous Peoples’ Day to acknowledge some of the North American Indigenous cultures that may no longer be well represented in your community? Clearly understanding the need will help guide you when planning a service that will use materials from unfamiliar cultures.
Meet People from the Community
Meet people from the communities you wish to celebrate. If they are within your worship community, communicate with them, and learn from them.
Even though I had purchased a Taiwanese hymnal and I can read and understand Chinese, I did not know which hymns were appropriate to sing in our worship services until I talked to the Taiwanese members of my worship community.
Another time, I met an active member in my worship community who was Filipino. After talking to him, I learned about some of the music that was important to him as a Filipino Christian, and we started to talk about how to incorporate this music into a future liturgy. After much conversation and learning, he taught our choir one of these songs, and we sang it during a Sunday service.
If the unfamiliar culture is not yet represented in your worship community, seek them out. If your church is a monolingual English-speaking community situated in a Salvadoran neighborhood, reach out to the people in the surrounding neighborhood. Find a community center, shop at the local businesses, and interact with the community. Reach out to the multicultural representatives in your city or your denomination. Many dioceses/synods/conferences have multiethnic representatives on staff who can lead you in the right direction to interacting with different communities. Many editors and compilers of multicultural resources are also available through social media or websites associated with these resources.
Learn from Respectful Relationships
Learn not just about the specific prayers or songs to be used in your liturgies and services. Learn about their significance and context.
One year, when I was preparing the liturgy for the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, I planned to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for the processional hymn. I had learned from different people that this hymn is also known as the “Black national anthem,” so I thought it was appropriate to use for that Sunday. However, when we were beginning to sing the hymn on Sunday, I noticed that the procession did not happen at all as we were singing. It was not until after the service that the verger, who was Black, told me that it was disrespectful to do anything else during the hymn because of what it means to the Black congregants in our worship community. If I had had the conversation with her before that Sunday, I would have been able to avoid such a mishap. Although this experience has informed me of how one community approaches “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” this is not the only way to interpret it. In fact, another time, when I was at a conference that was beginning with this hymn, the Black choir director asked people not to stand during the singing of the hymn.
These examples around the same hymn show that we cannot apply the same technique or context for every situation, especially when we are handling materials from unfamiliar cultures.
Integrating multicultural resources into worship in a respectful way requires a commitment to ongoing learning and relationship building.
- Yes, attend multicultural services and observe practices from unfamiliar cultures, but also reach out to the leaders and cultivate relationships with them before taking these newfound traditions and making them your own.
- Yes, collect and acquire multicultural resources from different communities around the world, but also research their contexts and significance.
- Yes, observe, commemorate, and celebrate the achievements of great people from different, unfamiliar cultures, but also invite members of these communities for conversation, hire artists and speakers from these communities, and have them teach you and your community about their culture.
As leaders, we must keep asking questions and learning. Just as our own communities change throughout our lives, the communities we do not yet know are also constantly changing. As we continue to witness and celebrate the vast diversity of God’s creation, let us seek God’s love in every person, every song, every poem, every prayer we encounter.