In Acts 17, Paul speaks to Athenians on their turf at Mars Hill. Paul enters into the Areopagus, an historic center for politics imbued with centuries of Greek mythology, and relates the Gospel in terms that Greek political leaders of first-century Athens could understand. It is in that place where Paul connects the dots between the Athenian’s “altar to the unknown god” and the know-able, relational God whom is accessible through Jesus Christ.
In present-day, Clear Lake, Texas, we are situated in a suburban setting that is home to cultural representatives from virtually every continent in the world, and representing the major (and minor) religions of the world! This interesting mix of world religions in our own backyard, coupled alongside the gradual decline in membership among mainline Christian denominations, should cause us to reflect on the role of a church like UBC in our community and in our world today.
One way we are trying to address this difficult issue as a staff is through partnerships with other believers who are situated in similarly diverse urban settings. We have a lot of expertise to give as a church, but we also could learn best practices and methods from others who are engaging on the ground-level with people from every nation and every tribe! We need help connecting the dots of our faith in Jesus in ways that make sense to those in our own diverse region.
Many of the UBC staff recently traveled to New York City to meet with Metro New York Baptists in order to explore areas where we might be able to help one another address issues of “the church” in large urban contexts. We met several church-planters who are engaged with vastly different groups of people in the NY metro area. One worker is planting a church among college-students who have little or no church background. Another church planter is engaging with an historically, Afro-Carribean area of Queens that is in the midst of neighborhood upheaval due to rising rental costs and gentrification. A third church-planter who is Hatian, is addressing needs among Hatian immigrants living in Brooklyn.
Lastly, the person with whom I personally most connected was Boto, a twenty-something church planter who came to the US from India when he was 20-years old. Boto is working among South Asians (India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tibet) in the Jackson Heights area… the area he lovingly calls “Mars Hill.”
Boto took us on a cultural adventure of the neighborhood, but I was most impressed by his gentle demeanor with the people he has developed relationships with in the neighborhood. At each location he took us to, we saw the true connections Boto has made with shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and even the local Hindu priest.
We visited a Bangladeshi Hindu temple and were able to expand our understanding a little about cultural and religious practices in that setting, but I was most impressed when Boto mentioned having prayed with the temple priest and his family when they were going through a particularly rough period. Doesn’t that seem so crazy, but yet so profoundly wonderful? A young man named Boto is able to enter into the sacred space of another religion and hold that difference in tension long enough to build a relationship with the Hindu priest! The relationship has opened the door to sharing life together and to praying to Jesus together.
As UBCers, we should always be looking for ways to engage cross-culturally during the 50-weeks we are not on mission trips overseas and out of town. It is fine to go “on mission”, but our calling is to live “missionally.” It is part of our identity in Christ, not merely a trip that we do.
Part of the transition from doing missions to living missionally, requires that we take part in the formation of networks of believers who share our passion to show the love of Jesus to the diverse populations in our cities. The development of this type of network is probably the best part of my recent trip to New York.
The trip to NY further strengthened my desire to develop partnerships with majority-world Christians who have a much better sense of the cultural and religious nuances of their own cultures than we do. Our exposure to other world religions and cultures can certainly take place through short visits and “mission trips”, but I think the greater value is in sustained and ongoing relationships with people such as Boto, in New York, who can also inform our own practice among similar South Asian populations in Clear Lake. It opens the opportunity for a reciprocal relationship where we share our resources and what God is doing in the life of UBC, while also being challenged to engage cross-culturally in our own neighborhoods.