Making Room to Listen
How are our friends in the Telos Collective engaging culture, and how can they challenge and encourage us in our own context? We asked the Rev. Capt. Herb Bailey, Executive Ministry Director of Uncommon Grounds Café, a ministry of Church Army USA, to share what cultural engagement looks like for him as he reaches the least, the last and the lost in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
by the Rev. Capt. Herb Bailey
Sitting in the café, watching the influx of our morning friends grabbing coffee, breakfast, and chatting, I’m struck by the complex nature of each of their stories. One young lady sits across from me, hoping that no one asks her a deep question because she will inevitably weep uncontrollably.
Another friend, a woman of European descent, is thinking about her end of life. At 91, she is 20 years older than the next person closest to her age. She jokes with me about the reality that she has lived through the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and many other wars. She has seen the telephone go from bulky to pocket-sized. She brings a unique perspective to the table this morning as we prepare to discuss a few verses in the book of Hebrews.
Around the table, as we meet weekly for Bible study, we reflect a portion of the kingdom—multigenerational, ethnically diverse, and crossing socioeconomic boundaries. We sit and listen to the Holy Spirit speak through scripture as well as through each other.
We engage culture in a practical way, asking questions with our Bibles open. Everything we bring up is washed by the word. Today’s question: “Is the American Dream biblical?” It rings out like a shot across everything we hold dear. How do we pair those two? The person asking the question is of European-American descent (white), in his 60s and has recently retired.
The question makes many of us squirm in our seats under the uncomfortable weight of political stances, ideologies born through years of preconceived notions and social positioning. It goes to the core of who we are. But as friends—having gone through multiple books in the Bible together—we each cautiously come out from our corners. We weigh into the fray because this is a safe place to be heard. What would shock an outsider is totally normal for us. We each approach the conversation with humility.
This humility is the same that we hear about in Philippians, Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Having that attitude, we listen with the intent to hear, from a “white” man’s perspective, talking to a “black” single mother of two boys, what it means to dream in America. What does it mean to invest, to plan for retirement, to chase happiness, and at what expense?
We realize that we haven’t started at the top, so we ask another question: “What is the American Dream?” Webster’s Dictionary defines it as a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful. We quickly realize that those who live in close proximity to each other, but are from different cultures, have a different view of what that might look like for themselves.
As we talk about positions of privilege, it becomes apparent that we are hearing each other, and for the first time, many people understand how the American Dream is more than just part of our culture—it is a defining feature of it. We make room for listening to each other, offering dignity to the speaker, asking clarifying questions, and affirming when we understand. We then look at scripture to see if there are any instances that shed light on the initial question.
The passage we look at is Philippians 2. This is the attitude that Christ has: Although He is Lord, He humbled himself, gave up His privilege to bring others up. This causes both the 91-year-old and the retired 66-year-old to let out a quiet sigh.
Another friend, the single mother of African descent, also sighs. Chasing a dream of prosperity should not supersede our call to be available to others, she realizes. And then the most important part of the conversation happens. The original presenter of the question has his own denouement: This American dream is only a few years old, and Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is His.” With that, the questioner inhales sharply, and says, “My entire life belongs to God.”
- What does cultural engagement look like in your context?
- Are you willing to challenge beloved cultural ideologies for the sake of mission?
- How can you foster groups that reflect the inclusivity of the kingdom?
The Rev. Capt. Herb Bailey is the executive ministry director of Uncommon Grounds Café, a ministry of Church Army USA. CAUSA walks with people from isolation to community, reminding folks of the dignity that comes with being a part of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ.
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