Regarding ruling elders: a monthly series for spiritual leaders

Cultural Humility

November 16, 2017

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A well-meaning worshipper says to the visiting Asian American pastor, “Your English is very good!” even though English is the pastor’s first language. It grieves her. 

A white pastor fakes a Spanish accent and another colleague laughs—while I stand stunned, and grateful that none of our Hispanic or Latino/a colleagues are present. 

I made my own gaffe recently when I assumed that a Korean pastor I met had a green card while serving in this country. Instead, he is an American citizen and has pastored his Presbyterian church here for almost a decade. I apologized as soon as I realized my error, but still …. 

As an Asian American who lives and moves in a multiracial, multicultural context, one would think that I would “get” diversity on an enlightened level. But, not really. I struggle, make mistakes, and worry about what I’ve said or done. I’m still learning. We all are. 

We used to employ the phrase “cultural competency” to describe the ability to effectively and respectfully interact with people of different cultures and races. But more widespread and helpful now is the phrase “cultural humility.” Rather than assessing a skill, and labeling one competent or not, it describes a stance—a rich and freeing one. It is a stance rooted in the servant-hearted way of Jesus Christ. 

Adopting a stance of “cultural humility” with someone of a different race, class, or culture means that I choose to be “other oriented.” I seek to be teachable, because I know that I have something to learn from this person. I acknowledge that there are unjust, systemic power imbalances in this world—and in relationships because of them—and I try to be sensitive to the impact that they can have on any interaction. 

How do we foster growth in this critical area of loving and living in diverse contexts? Here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Cultivate friendship across differences. An African American seminary chaplain and professor literally changed my life by sharing about his own personal experiences. As much as is possible for a Japanese American woman, I was able to get profound, inside glimpses of the life of my colleague—and develop a wider awareness. 

    I remember taking my customary walk by myself one morning and thinking that if I were my colleague at that time, there was a good chance that a police car would come up alongside and check on me. I began seeing things from his perspective—which was helpful, even when it grieved me. 
  1. Read from authors from a diversity of contexts. When I am tired or overly busy, the last thing I want to read is a social analysis. But I love good stories—and also have a passion for well-written children’s literature. From juvenile fiction, I have learned about all of these and more: the struggles faced by an Afghani family who fled their Soviet-controlled country; the brutal journey impoverished teenagers make in riding atop trains from Central America; and the challenges faced by young Native Americans trying to find themselves amidst the hardships of reservation life. Read to broaden your heart’s understanding.
  1. Attend an antiracism training event. My husband and I went to one a few years ago, and then to an introductory session of another one, held by our presbytery, more recently. Both times, I felt as if my eyes were opened in new ways.

    Antiracism training is not about holding hands, talking about rainbows, and singing about love. It’s hard, prophetic truth-telling for a world that’s drowning in the abuse of power, hardheartedness, and entrenched policies that benefit some and not others. I have never felt very cozy after one of these, but rather both cleansed and convicted by the truth-telling, and heartened, too, with a renewed commitment to justice and real peace. 

We are the people God has called to this present moment at this present time. Believe that you have what you need, in Christ, to be a bridge, a comfort, a reminder of goodness to someone different from yourself today. God needs every single one of us to help show the way to a world where everyone is beloved, and everyone belongs.


The Reverend Dr. Diana Nishita Cheifetz is a spiritual director, serving lay leaders and clergy in the San Francisco Bay area, the U.S.A., and internationally. Her website is www.spiritualdirectionforpastors.com.

For more about the information provided here, please contact Martha Miller at martha.miller@pcusa.org and browse the Ruling Elders website.

Read this post in 한국어 and Espaňol.

  1. While our small Kansas town doesn't have the cultural diversity of a coastal city (which I greatly miss, by the way) - we do have an African-American community here, whose ancestors have been in the town since its beginning. Our very white PC(USA) church and the New Hope Baptist Church have a joint worship twice a year, followed by dinner and great fellowship. It has enabled some of us to nurture new and growing friendships, and we regularly have each other's people on our prayer lists. This has greatly enriched my life, and I think it has for others as well. I am grateful for all opportunities to engage and know people with different stories. I just discovered this site today. As a ruling elder, I am excited and will look for it in the future! Thank you.

    by Carla White

    November 17, 2017

  2. Eloquent, personal, and compelling! Thank you Rev. Dr. Diana Chiefetz.

    by Rev. Holly Hallman

    November 16, 2017

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