A Home for Every Culture at Conference Assembly

by Emily Ralph Servant, Director of Communication

For this year’s Conference Assembly, several Franconia Conference congregations are providing side dishes of traditional foods for Saturday lunch.  “Having food from our home country means that we are welcome in the space, and the Conference is our home and not a foreign place where we are not welcome,” reflects Hendy Matahelemual, pastor of Indonesian Light Church and a member of Franconia’s intercultural team.

For recent immigrants, food from their home country is like “food for the soul,” Matahelemual observes, and having those foods at Conference Assembly is about more than just “bringing our home with us”; it’s also about redefining the norm of common experiences like Assembly.

“As time marches on and our world changes, we sometimes have to look at our practices to see how we can do an even better job,” says Scott Roth, Eastern District’s Conference Minister.  “It seems that in our past, we just assumed that everyone will be assimilated into what ‘we’ do.”  As the two conferences move toward reconciliation and as the new conference continues to grow across geographies and cultures, Conference Assembly has become an important time and place to “take into account a grafting of some practices, whether they are from churches, cultures, or whole conferences.”

Together, the two conferences have congregations that worship in six languages: Cantonese, Creole, English, Indonesian, Spanish, and Vietnamese; within these congregations are people who come from many more countries, cultures, and traditions.

In the past, the joint Eastern District and Franconia Conference Assembly has worked on integrating languages by providing simultaneous interpretation through individual headsets, singing songs from a variety of cultures and in multiple languages, and translating conference documents.

Building on these practices, this year’s Assembly will feature voices, languages, songs, and styles from the cultures that make up the conference community.  Worship planners are working to include more than just participation from members of the conference who aren’t from the dominant culture; they are actively seeking to give space for shared leadership in the design and implementation of Assembly itself.

Working toward interculturalism at Assembly can be messy, time-consuming, and difficult: translators and designers spend months preparing documents and PowerPoint slides; musicians wrestle with learning new music and blending as a team; planners explore the meanings of words, themes, and imagery within a diversity of cultures.

“We are all learning to be good hosts and we are learning to be good guests,” suggests Marta Castillo, Franconia’s Leadership Minister of Intercultural Formation.  “The rules are often unclear but we can always choose to be kind and we can choose to be gracious.”

And in the midst of the challenges, the process can also be beautiful.

The goal of intercultural practices is mutual transformation, Matahelemual stresses.  This sharing of food and language and culture is simply the starting point; as we continue to get to know one another, we become changed by our relationships.

Then, he says, we create a home for every culture, where, together in community, we can enjoy “a Tamales of Christ, a Nasi of Christ, and not just a Bread of Christ: a food of heaven for all cultures.”

Come enjoy Soto Betawi, tamales, sandwiches, ice cream, and more at Conference Assembly this November 1-2, 2019, at Souderton Mennonite Church (register here).  There is no charge for the meal, however generous donations will be accepted to help cover food and Assembly costs.