Throughout my years of ministry, I have been blessed to have had many “border crossing” experiences with people of different cultures. In all of my ministerial assignments, in parish, mission and seminary, I had the opportunity to interact with people from a variety of cultures, and gained much from these experiences. I learned to appreciate cultural differences,and really tried to commit myself to learning what I could about intercultural communication.
In this day and age, we are very conscious of cultural differences because of our global economy, immigration and the ability to travel. But, intercultural border crossing experiences are nothing new. Within the Sacred Scriptures, border crossing experiences abound. Geographic, cultural and religious borders were crossed by the patriarchs.
The Israelites were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt to a nomadic existence in the desert, and eventually to the borders of their promised inheritance. Ruth, the Moabite widow who chose to remain loyal to her Hebrew mother-in-law even in the face of great hardship, found God’s favor, and was rewarded with marriage and is honored as an ancestress of King David and Jesus the Christ. Isaiah’s prophecy of the new Zion tells of the nations of the world walking in the light of the God of Israel. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain very obvious border crossing images in the mission exhortations of Christ to his disciples. The Acts of the Apostles captures the drama of the preaching of the Good News to the Gentile world, crossing not only geographical borders, but also the borders of religious sensibility in the debates over circumcision. St. Paul ministered to the new Christian communities throughout the known world, pushing beyond the boundaries of tradition and law to preach the Gospel of the risen Lord.
A significant border crossing exchange is the conversation between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman found in the Gospel of Mark. The woman requests that Jesus exorcize a demon from her daughter. Jesus’ initial response to her emphasizes that his mission is to reach out to the people of Israel first: “Let the children of Israel be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) The story does not reach its climax with these words of Jesus, but rather with the reply of the woman in her persistence: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” (Mark 7:28) With a turn of the phrase, she worked Jesus’ words to her favor. She communicated a profound insight about the love and compassion of God for all peoples, and Jesus granted her request.
Scripture shows us that the communication of the truth of God’s Kingdom cannot be contained within the particularities of one or another group of people. Crossing cultural borders to communicate the love of God is at the very roots of Christianity. Evangelization requires a willingness to cross borders, to extend beyond the familiar and the comfortable in order to enter into communion with those who are culturally different.
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes, authentic Christian witness includes involving oneself in the culture of those being evangelized. As Christ sought to win the hearts of those he encountered through dialogue, so too should the followers of Christ learn to dialogue in order to discover the gifts God has given to those they seek to evangelize.
Evangelization is at the very heart of the Church’s activity. Witnessing to the Gospel is deeply connected to the notion of Christian charity. Charity, the inspired outpouring of love for the sake of the reign of God, cannot be limited by the boundaries of race, ethnicity, socio-economic conditions or religion. Evangelization is an act of extending God’s love gratuitously.
Pope St. John Paul II, in a letter to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli assigning him to the office of presiding over the Pontifical Council for Culture, described the connection between Christianity and culture as “an organic link.” Through culture, the human person becomes more fully human. So faith is not something that can simply be added to culture, rather a synthesis of culture and faith is needed. The Church acts within culture as a leaven.
Evangelization always involves border crossing experiences. The borders might be cultural, generational, ethnic, or economic. The important thing to remember is that the individuals and groups to whom we extend ourselves as a Church, carry with them their own particular mentalities, sensibilities, and understandings of the world. The more we seek to understand the differences that exist, and the more we seek to apply the most effective means of communication, the better the chance of evangelizing in our diverse society. Evangelization is all about crossing borders, reaching out to all people, and sharing the love and the mercy of God. In our interaction with people different than us, the wonders of God’s love unfold in beautiful and astonishing ways.