“What does this mean?”

On Sunday, 19 May, the Church celebrates Pentecost. In Acts Chapter 2:1-13, we are told when the people from different cultural backgrounds witnessed what happened they were “amazed and perplexed” and said to one another: “What does this mean?” (Acts 12:12)

Two thousand years later, I believe it is valid for us to ask the same question – “What does this mean?” This is a story full of metaphor and symbolic meaning. Obviously the story of Pentecost can mean different things to different people in different contexts. But what does it mean in our context – particularly in a multicultural context?

To the Jews, Pentecost is an annual festival. For Christians, Pentecost is a day on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus.

Before the events of the first Pentecost, which came a few weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were followers of Jesus, but no movement that could be meaningfully called ‘the church’. From an historical point of view, Pentecost is the day on which the multicultural church started. The ‘first’ church was a diverse church – culturally, ethnically, racially and linguistically. Diversity is the DNA of the multicultural church.

In the Christian Pentecost story we are told the disciples are filled with the spirit of God and suddenly speak in different languages. And Jews from different countries and language groups who have gathered in the city were able to hear “about God’s deeds of power” in their own languages, their heart languages. What does this mean?

Whatever else it might mean, it means that all cultures and languages are honoured and recognised. When the Spirit let the various people in Jerusalem hear the message in their own tongues, the Spirit also paved the way for a church that would no longer be controlled by the original disciples in Jerusalem or their cultural successors.

For me the Spirit was saying that the language and culture of a Cappadocian, Phyrgian, or Mesopotamian were just as efficient as the language and culture of the disciples in expressing the message of the gospel. What happened at Pentecost was that at the very moment of its birth, the church was crossing cultural boundaries in such a way that it would be just as much at home on one side of the boundary as on the other.

One of the most vexed issues in the multicultural church today is language. A multicultural church is a multiple language church. And yet many within our church believe that English (the language of the dominant and majority culture) ought to be the “Lingua Franca” of the multicultural Church and it is. Probably the only time when other languages are heard in most congregations is when Pentecost Sunday comes around.

We need to understand that language can give a strong sense of belonging or being excluded. The first step of all invading forces in wars of the past was to eliminate the use of the native language – this stops dissent but also destroys group and national identity. Not being able to speak or understand a language effectively excludes one from a group or nation or makes one a second-class citizen.
We must not forget that we all have a heart language, the mother tongue in which we first learn to express love, joy, sorrow and need. Heart language is rich in nuance, humour, gesture, and inflection. It’s the words you naturally dream in, the genres and images you use to change minds. In short, heart language is such a crucial part of cultural identity.

I love these words from Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Twenty-eight years ago the Uniting Church in Australia declared that we are a ‘multicultural Church’. At the 13th Triennial Assembly meeting in July last year it promised a renewed approach to multicultural and cross-cultural ministry.

The statement, One Body, Many Members – Living faith and life cross-culturally, prepared by the Multicultural and Cross-Cultural Ministry of the Uniting Church in Australia and presented to the 13th Assembly asks members to recognise key requirements of living in a healthy cross-cultural church community.

The statement reminds the Assembly that to be multicultural, the church must embrace theological richness and difference, be inclusive in its ministry, be committed to education and discipleship and practise affirmative action, among other things. And one request that drew attention during question time was the calling of members to value multilingual ministries “by encouraging its ministry leaders in their initial training and continuing education to learn a second language”.

Some members were concerned about the practical ability of some to learn a second language. However Rev Koh-Butler reminded members of the benefit of learning another language – “a new language would always give a better understanding of cross-cultural issues”. The fact is that those of us who are from the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) background have learned a second language – English.

Rev Rronang Garrawurra, National Chair of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, added to the conversation by saying: “We’re talking here about understanding and respecting each other in the way that we talk, the way we act and the way that we think.” And he continued, “A word of encouragement to my interpreter [Howard Amery] because I appreciate what he does because he understands my language very well.”

What does this mean for us in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania?

I would like to make a simple suggestion – wherever and whenever the Church gathers (congregations, presbyteries or Synods) and has appropriate resources, intentionally read the scriptures in languages other than the language of the dominant gathered group (the dominant language can be projected on the screen).

That means in an ethnic Korean congregation, the Scriptures can be read in English or other languages. Some might think that my suggestion is tokenism but I believe it’s symbolic and sends a very important message of inclusivity. By doing this we are affirming that in a multicultural church we honour, respect and recognize other “heart languages” and “God’s deeds of power” can be heard in languages other than the dominant group.

Swee-Ann Koh
Director: Cross-cultural Mission and Ministry Unit

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