Meeting across cultures
This piece continues our series on the Uniting Church as an Intercultural Church seeking to live faith and life cross-culturally.
Assembly Associate General Secretary Rob Floyd shares some practical tips on how to create meeting spaces that honour our diversity and enable the full participation of the whole community.
Written by Rob Floyd
This month the Assembly is highlighting the one of its key strategic directions, Intercultural Ministry. How can we as the Uniting Church become a truly intercultural church, living out our faith together as increasingly diverse communities?
One of the tangible ways we might do this is in our meeting spaces. How can we meet in all our diversity in ways that make all participants feel fully included and equipped to participate? How can all members of our diverse community feel valued and respected? How can we make sure we are making good decisions for the whole community?
The Assembly Resourcing Unit has been reflecting on this and has come up with 12 practical ideas to help begin answering these questions.
This is not an exhaustive or definitive list. We would love to hear from people across the Church about how they work together interculturally to meet and make decisions in their communities.
Start with diverse leadership
Our gatherings become more genuinely intercultural when diverse voices and perspectives are involved in both shaping agendas and leading in them. Consider the gifts and skills of those gathered and be intentional about opportunities to share leadership and power by working collaboratively. Recognise that for different cultures, power dynamics - including how the ordained are perceived, gender and age - can be inhibitors to open conversation. Place people in leadership who are best placed to foster community and participation.
Use the agenda to set the tone for good intercultural engagement
- Consider inviting different people to offer a devotion or open in prayer, encouraging elements of language and culture.
- Read from the Bible in multiple languages.
- Consider whether there are any difficult or complex topics on the agenda that will require more preparation or where background information should be provided in advance. Make sure the whole community is fully prepared to discuss the business.
- Consider whether there are topics that might require translation in order to achieve full participation.
Use the room layout to foster community
Sitting in table groups or a larger circle, rather than traditional pew style, can create different opportunities for community to build. Encourage people to move around and change seats to keep meeting new people. Consider an outdoor setting, or the use of the floor with mats and cushions.
Create opportunities for community building
Especially if this group does not meet regularly or is meeting for the first time, make sure there are opportunities for people to get to know each other before and perhaps during the meeting. Guided questions may help this process and most people will enjoy sharing about themselves.
- Where were you born? Share about your family. Share about your Church experience as a child. How did you come to be here in this space?
Consider translation for making important information accessible
Sometimes there may be a need to translate key documents or important conversations for those who are most comfortable in a language other than English. Although there may be people within the community with the skills to do this (such as Second Gen young adults), don’t assume they have the capacity to do this regularly as they may already be negotiating many aspects of language and culture for their communities. Instead consider professional translating services, which is an investment in your community and not a financial burden.
Give every member of the community the opportunity to speak
Be aware of who has and hasn’t spoken and consciously ask people if they would like to contribute.
- In Australia we often assume that if people want to say something in a meeting context they will just speak up. In some cultures this is less common and can even be seen as disrespectful.
- Without applying pressure, the Chair may find that politely asking people who have not yet spoken if they would like to say something works well. It also shows that all voices in the room are respected and valued.
- There may be situations where offering to translate (both into and out of English) will allow people to participate in complex discussions.
Consider using small groups for discussion during the meeting
- Nominate small group leaders and encourage them to invite all members of their group to speak. This allows everyone to have a voice.
- Different members of the group can then be invited to give feedback on behalf of their group to the whole meeting. This may build confidence over time.
- For some for whom English is a second language, an opportunity to discuss in their own language group or with another from that group will empower fuller participation. For First Nations Peoples, an opportunity to discuss together apart from the larger group may also be important.
Listen deeply and speak thoughtfully
Remind members of your community that in any intercultural space it is important to listen deeply.
- Slow down a little
- Pause before speaking
- Leave some silences to encourage others who are less confident, or take a little longer to gather their thoughts
- Regularly check for understanding and invite other members of the community to be alert to how people are feeling and understanding all that is happening
Allow for non-verbal responses
From time to time create spaces where people can respond in ways other than verbally.
- People can physically stand up and move to a different place depending on how they feel about a particular matter
- People might be encouraged to pick up a picture from a range of images scattered before them, or on a screen, that reflects how they are feeling about a matter.
- People might be able to draw a picture of how they are feeling
There may be occasions where story-telling about another context, another church, another community (either real or imagined) can create a conversation that people discuss freely that highlights values and concerns that relate to our context but are not directly involved.
Create space for fellowship and hospitality - some good food always helps!
Where possible, try to bring the members of your community together over a meal.
- Encourage different cuisines, reflecting the diversity of your community
- Invite a blessing to be shared by someone in a language other than English from amongst your community
- Encourage some story-telling about the different foods, where they come from, how they are prepared, what might be special about them
- Sit people around tables and encourage them to engage across cultures
- If things start slowly, have a master of ceremonies who provides one or two conversation starting questions
- If it will help, consider inviting some younger members to translate some key elements. Respecting people for what they can contribute rather than making them feel uncomfortable in their second language is important.
Experiment and take risks
Your community will be willing to try new things if you have demonstrated welcome, care, respect and genuine desire to work together. Some things won’t work. Acknowledge the failures with good humour and humility. Invite your community to consider what can be done differently.
Working interculturally can be very enriching for people from across different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Initiating and maintaining clear, inclusive and culturally-safe communication channels and decision-making processes is vitally important to doing this well.
Please let us know how your community is managing church meetings across diverse cultural and linguistic groups. We would love to hear from you.