Love for All

By David B. Smith

Photo by Shutterstock

I’m going to write just one paragraph, then go take a mid-morning nap . . . because I’m still coping with major jet lag! My three brothers and I just returned from a reunion mission trip to Thailand, where I grew up.

It was an exciting challenge to minister to an entirely different culture. Sermons, health tips, praise songs and children's stories had to be translated. PowerPoint slides needed fixing; Asian fonts were messed up. Our monolingual teens wanted to present drama vignettes to a Thai audience.

To beat the humidity, I sometimes replaced my morning walk with an 11-story stair climb up to the business center atop our downtown hotel. There a panoramic view of Chiang Mai spread out before me, and I prayed over that vista of a million good-hearted people who need to comfortably hear and embrace the gospel of Jesus in their own language and cultural trappings.            

Here in North America, the same challenge faces us – only multiplied manyfold. Because literally across the street from our own church are ethnic population groups where language and customs and dietary (i.e. fellowship luncheon) preferences are a formidable barrier to our witness. And the church we call home might be the singular avenue whereby they can come to know the gospel.

I live in Southern California where all mission-minded believers are acutely aware of the daunting challenge! "According to Professor Vyacheslav Ivanov of UCLA, there are at least 224 identified languages in Los Angeles County. This does not include differing dialects. Professor Ivanov estimates that publications are locally produced in about 180 of these languages" (Los Angeles Almanac).

My brother Dan pastors a thriving church in Garden Grove and emphatically declares: “Multicultural diversity is one of our core values. Acts 15 reminds us we shouldn’t make people jump through several cultural hoops to come to Jesus. ”They offer Bible study options in four languages, then everyone comes together for joint “big tent” church services. Vietnamese and Filipino subgroups are part of their mosaic, with local leaders hired for both fellowships. The church’s website runs in four languages with the click of a button; PowerPoint media efforts are scrupulously multilingual and vetted by professionals in the various language groups. The church has a dream of creating media libraries in a host of languages, both for local and global use.

Garden Grove’s mission trips target overseas destinations reflecting the church’s own ethnic makeup. Dan adds: “Our passion for multiethnic ministry and fellowship comes from our view of heaven, where people will come from north and south, east and west, to sit at the same great banquet table of God. So why shouldn’t we get started on that right now? We love getting a chance to sample a taste of all these cultures; life is just richer with the diversity. Obviously Jesus died for everybody, and we want to love everybody Jesus loves!”

A great panoply of tactics can provide us with entrée into many thrilling new settings. But two steps must precede our logging onto www.translate.google.com. First, we must become spiritually convicted that the people living near us – those who look, talk, eat, and entertain differently than we do – these people belong in our church! We must not only tolerate, but actively crave, their inclusion.

I spent three rewarding years as a graying Caucasian guy pastoring a church of young upscale Korean professionals. They were a commuting church, convening in Temple City from all over So Cal. They enjoyed one another; there was a strong, cheerful feeling of community there. Weekly feasts vibrated with kimchi and bibimbap. The twin ironies were that our rented church facility was situated in a mostly Chinese-language neighborhood. On top of that, most poor people just across the I-10 freeway came from a Hispanic culture. Did God want us to offer a Food Bank to draw these Spanish-speaking people, some of them fluent in the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous, to our well-coiffed congregation? Did He want us to offer them Thursday evening pizza Bible study parties? And did He want for us to baptize them and receive people like Lupe into our Korean fellowship? Heaven’s answer: yes, yes, and yes.

But as a church, we had to become convinced that our Korean church could not rightfully erect barriers or say to visitors or new converts: “Uh, so nice to see you, but let’s see, there might be a church better suited to you way over there.”

In unpacking Jesus’ beloved parable of the Good Samaritan, Herbert Douglas writes: “Our neighbor is every person who is wounded and bruised by Satan. Our neighbor is everyone who is the property of God.”1 Our challenges in outreach are not so much languages and fonts; there are a million inventive tools to surmount that. No, the greatest hurdle to overcome is within our hearts. We are understandably comfortable within our own people group: people who look, dress, sound, eat, and, most of all, think/believe like we do. In order to even desire to grapple with what Professor Ivanov addresses, we have to consider modern-day “Samaritans” as attractive trophies for heaven. We have to really want to love and convert such people. We must embrace the truth that language and dress styles are trivial matters weighed in light of the power and scope of Calvary.

Step Two is to understand this simple and powerful reality: simple kindness is more eloquent than a hundred translated praise songs or doctrinal statements translated into Tagalog. Here in Southern California, most ESL folks can navigate – or get their kids to do it – our English church website. They can probably even dope out the gist of my morning sermon, despite it’s being all in English and replete with lamentations about the Lakers being in last place. But do they sense our pervasive culture of kindness? Do we hug these people and intentionally sit with them and exchange email addresses during a fellowship meal? Are we appreciative of their native dress?

I’m currently in a writing project involving a fictional place called Bangkok Christian School. I’ve done Weeks of Prayer at several similar schools in Thailand, and boy, are they strict about the all-English language curriculum. A kid breaking into bootleg Thai has to pay a fine (about 70 cents, but on the local scale, it stings!).     
    
But when it comes to a guest speaker coming in to talk about the Bible, guess what? As a gesture of kindness, the school sets aside its own rule. They bring in a translator and allow the children to lean back and hear the gospel within the comfort of their own language and cultural trappings. Why? Because it’s the kind and thoughtful (and extremely effective) thing to do. It is kind to imagine the experience of the other person, the linguistic fog in their own heart, the sense of isolation.

In his standout book, The Contemporary Christian, the late John Stott has a chapter entitled “Transposing the Word.” He creates an almost amusing word picture about going to a distant land with one’s own cultural baggage. “I remember the shock I felt on my first visit to West Africa and its churches,” he writes. “I saw Gothic spires rising incongruously above the coconut palms, and African bishops sweating profusely in the tropical heat, because they were wearing medieval European ecclesiastical robes. I heard western hymn tunes being sung to tongues attempting to get round Jacobean and even Elizabethan English! It is, of course, easy to criticize, and, if we had been in the position of the early missionaries, we would probably have made the same mistake. Nevertheless, this imposition of western cultural forms was a serious blunder. What is needed instead is what Stanley Jones in India called the ‘naturalization’ of the gospel, which means its transposition into indigenous cultural forms.”2

It’s an unavoidable fact that a heart bathed in kindness will avoid the rigidity expressed above. When we truly love our neighbors and genuinely desire their good, it won’t bother us if the bulletin has the pastor’s devotional in two languages, if there is bilingual signage on the church property, if a Yugoslavian group rents facility space from us and we have to vacate the sanctuary by 3:00 in order to accommodate them.

I am struck by the unvarnished opinion expressed by 19th-century writer Ellen White, who unpacks the Good Samaritan parable going right to the heart of the matter: kindness. Caring so much for a person of that different demographic group that you risk reputation, your clean clothes, your own travel schedule, two days’ worth of hotel bills, and even a medical invoice from Kaiser! Wow! And she writes in rather determined force: “Selfishness and cold formality have well-nigh extinguished the fire of love, and dispelled the graces that should make fragrant the character. Many who profess His name have lost sight of the fact that Christians are to represent Christ. Unless there is practical self-sacrifice for the good of others in the family circle, in the neighborhood, in the church, and wherever we may be, then whatever our profession, we are not Christians.3

I take those ringing words and reflect on the recent shooting in an Orlando nightclub. Forty-nine victims were dead, many others bleeding and in great peril in area hospitals. What an incredible moment of kindness – and an ongoing expression of Jesus’ love – when a local church publicly offered its church sanctuary and needed staff free of charge to any grieving families needing a place for their funeral.

Were some of these victims “other?" I suppose so. Did the LGBT nature of the tragedy bring into stark relief church doctrines and position papers regarding human sexuality? Yes, again. But did a commitment to love and kindness trump the conclusions of many study groups? Praise God, yes.

Acts of kindness can be both so simple and also so memorable. My years at that Korean church were marred by my personal character flaw of being a finicky eater. To this day, my Thailand mission trips are marked by surreptitious excursions to Pizza Hut. And I struggled mightily and hopefully comically with the spicy Korean recipes my friends so enjoyed. I still remember one weekend where the tables were groaning under the weight of a lavish feast: kimchi, kimchi, and more kimchi. My shoulders sagged with self-loathing as I picked up the smallest possible plate and got into line. But my friend Vivian Kim nudged me to one side and handed me a nondescript paper bag. “Shhh, Pastor Dave, don’t say anything.” I peeked inside: two egg-salad sandwiches. Man, that’s kindness.

A few years later, I had moved on from this church’s loving embrace. I was sad to hear via email that Lupe had succumbed to brain cancer. Was I willing to come to the funeral and say a few words? Of course, and I stood in that sanctuary, the earnest Taco Bell-loving white pastor in this Korean church, in the middle of a Chinese industrial park, helping my brothers and sisters lay to rest a Spanish-speaking immigrant. I looked at the faces of my beautiful Korean friends and saw nothing but self-sacrifice and kindness etched there. I can’t think when I’ve ever been more proud, because, man, that is the Body of Christ for sure.