I came home from work mid-afternoon not long ago and walked in on a delightful gathering - four little girls plus Peggy were having high tea! Our dining room table was set with dainty silverware and miniature china cups and saucers, and an assortment of other little pieces that I cannot name. The lovely ladies seated at the table were adorned in lacy hats and pastel gowns and dresses they had carefully selected from a store of old treasures which Peggy keeps in her upstairs sewing room. They were nibbling on triangular shaped sandwiches and miniature pastries, alternately serving themselves and a favorite doll that sat at the table beside each of them. Each wore white gloves and curled her pinky finger as she sipped aromatic sweet tea from delicately painted cups. What made this lovely English-style party so remarkable was that all of the participants were African American, save one, and that was Peggy! There was a time when such a sight would have caused my stomach to tighten and set my mind to worrying. An educated family of European heritage living in the midst of a culture largely transplanted from Africa will do well to avoid the appearance of pretentiousness. This is especially true for outsiders like us who had come to live in an urban neighborhood with hopes of engaging in active community life. It was important early on for us to blend in and gain the acceptance of our neighbors. That meant learning to understand - and even to enjoy - the music and mores, the manners and customs of people from cultures very different from our own. Our children, of course, adapted quickly but it took a bit longer for Peggy and me to conform our appetites to the distinctive tastes of our new environment. Any behavior on our part that could be perceived as snootiness would be a serious impediment.
We joined a black congregation in the community and attempted to identify ourselves with the songs and struggles of an oppressed people. It took me a while to grow accustomed to the loud reverberation of the music but its power and spirit soon found place in my soul. We unclenched our grasp on long held values of punctuality and order, and yielded to a more relaxed style of worshiping. In our neighborhood, as well, we learned to adapt to a more unhurried way of relating, giving deference to the modes of our neighbors.
Subordinating our tastes and traditions seemed at first like the most appropriate and sensitive way of adapting to this new environment. The mild discomfort we experienced, partially because we were people of privilege identified with the dominant (and often dominating) majority culture, was eased somewhat by down-playing our background. We found ourselves depreciating and denying our own culture, gestures offered in the spirit of reconciliation that in time began to produce subtle internal incongruities. Eventually Peggy and I had to admit to each other that we really did miss the familiar ways of our upbringing. To try to conceal who we were, even for the right reasons, was at best disingenuous.
It was a snapshot of the New Jerusalem captured by the writer of Revelation that finally brought clarity to this issue for me. John pictured a city where people from every tribe, every nation, and every tongue live together as neighbors in harmony. The design of the City of God to which all the faithful of earth are headed is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual city - not a one-language, one-culture-fits-all kind of place. Which is to say that if God's intent for the ultimate city is diverse people living in harmony, then He must see value in the cultures that make us distinct. There is obvious Divine interest in community that reflects the unique human histories which have meandered through time acquiring collective personality traits all their own. And surely that must include the culture of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants - my culture!
Assimilation and conformity, it appears, are not in the plan. There is also an absence of ethnic hierarchy. John's vision has shown me that when I pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done..." in my neighborhood in the heart of Atlanta, I am ultimately asking for God's presence and peace in the midst of equally valued people whose histories and hues differ broadly. There is no place in this scheme for depreciating anyone's culture, including my own.
So Peggy freely enjoys her tea parties with neighborhood children these days and I listen to my classical music (and sometimes a little country!). We delight to add to the mix of this diverse community the sounds and flavors, traditions and legends that our rich heritage has passed along to us. And we feel very much at home.
Warm Thanksgiving wishes from our home to yours.