Fostering curiosity in a time ripe with judgment I Worship

By Rev. John Beck, Pointe of Grace Lutheran Church | Nov 15, 2017

As I write this column, I am getting ready for the second gathering of the mayor’s advisory committee on diversity. Thanks to the mayor and other leaders in Mukilteo for initiating this effort.

Before moving to Mukilteo in 2015, I lived in Chicago where pastor/spouse Joan taught at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  During our five years there, I learned pieces of American history that I had somehow missed along the way, even though I was a history major at Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma.

During the 1800s and well into the 20th century, anti-Irish sentiment ruled in many parts of the country, including Chicago.  While geographically uneven, this negative appraisal of Irish immigrants was often combined with anti-Catholic sentiment.

“Irish need not apply” was a common sign in store windows seeking workers.  In Chicago, the parish I served was in a once primarily Polish neighborhood, an area punctuated with some Swedes.  I learned that segregating and negative attitudes were similar for the Poles as for the Irish.

As these ethnic groups gradually assimilated and established a stronger economic foothold, other groups took their place, providing important labor for factories and the gradually expanding American economy. But add to this the increased challenge for immigrant communities who were not white.

Judgment that darker skinned people are “lesser” had been built into America’s founding documents.  All of these historical realities create a context where it seems easy for some to identify which characteristics, traits and cultural patterns are acceptable, and which are better than others.  Such judgements, sometimes unrecognized, have created a cultural context that divides up the nation and world.

My thesis is simple.  As Americans, we are predisposed to evaluate and judge rather than to be curious about others.  Sadly, we are often not even aware of our judging mindsets.

In Northern Minnesota when my 18-year-old father arrived in this country from Norway, he experienced abuse and manipulations from other Norwegians who had come over earlier.  Luckily, he was rescued by a pastor’s wife who brought him to southern Wisconsin where he was surrounded by a German immigrant community.  He learned a little German, and combined with his struggling English, he made his way through farms and factories as he sought a better life in his new country.

As I grew up, he and my mother modeled a wonderful curiosity about people, cultural patterns and life in the ever-expanding world of the second half of the 20th century.  However, they also maintained some extremely narrow, parochial, judgmental views that I now realize were (perhaps unrecognized) racist.

How do we foster personal curiosity as we engage our community (our neighborhood, our street, our church, our school, our Starbucks)?  I think there are three quick answers:

First, I develop my ability to listen better, rather than adopting the current trend to rebut, interrupt or preach at people. Listening is not easy, especially if everyone is fighting for airtime. Am I already forming my next statement while you are still speaking?

Second, I recognize the need for finding a good question to ask.  What did I just hear?  Do I really understand it? Can I say back to the speaker what I just heard?

Third, I consider the possibility that I might not understand fully.  Cultural patterns from other ethnic or racial communities may be different than what I am used to. What is the pearl inside this oyster? Perhaps it’s something that I can’t really understand without more curiosity and exploration?

I am thankful for the mayor’s committee because of the chance I have to explore my own “cultural iceberg” that for many white folks often has never been explored.  (Google “cultural iceberg model” for a quick exploration of an idea that has really impacted my life and ministry). I am going to try and be a better listener, and hopefully more curious, as we do our important work together.

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