Teaching Editorial – Obstacles to intercultural relations

Art Turner

Art Turner

This set of teaching editorials focuses on the importance of our understanding of cultural diversity as we seek to carry out the Church’s mission of evangelization.

The fourth module of “Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers” (BICM) presents the challenge of recognizing the “obstacles that impede effective intercultural relations.” Primarily this module reflects on the challenge of racism.

It deals with how we as a church can move from camps of ethnocentrism, which is the perspective of seeing our own group as the norm for everyone else, to a more open and positive connection between ethnically and culturally diverse groups.

Racism is a prejudice or uninformed judgment about people based on skin color or some other physical characteristic. My first encounter with racism occurred in the mid-1970s as an 11-year-old boy in Columbia, Ky., after my family had been living there for little over a year.

My home was close to the town square so I made many trips to the local “five and dime” stores on the square.

One Saturday afternoon as I came out of the Ben Franklin, I was surprised to see the square suddenly emptied, and as I looked around, I could see why.

The Ku Klux Klan had come to town to recruit. Stationed around the square were Klansmen wearing the traditional robes, but with their faces exposed, and passing out leaflets. I was old enough to know that the Klan didn’t care for people of color — my mother is Latino — and I also knew they didn’t care for Catholics.

I ran home avoiding contact even as these men were trying to hand me a flyer. Looking back, I know I wasn’t in danger but the sight of real live Klansmen was intimidating to a kid who knew that these men would never accept him because of his mixed heritage and religious beliefs.

Readers will be pleased to know that the Klan stopped recruiting shortly after my experience because the people of Columbia would no longer welcome them.

Why does racial prejudice continue to exist and why still within the church? Jesus clearly states that we must love our neighbor, even if that neighbor is our enemy. This seems like a daunting challenge because we struggle with how we see the “other.” We fail to see the “others as ourselves.”

According to the BICM, instead of love and acceptance, we choose alternative options for how we see others.

For example, we may choose to generalize a particular group: “All those people are exactly the same,” a comment that is usually followed by a negative stereotype or an unsubstantiated idea about the personal characteristics of a particular group based on inaccurate generalizations.

A second way of dealing with the “other” is to demonize them. Our current political atmosphere is filled with toxic rhetoric about immigrants, foreigners and people of color. We see the “other” as dangerous: “They’re out to get us; they’ve come to destroy our way of life.” Therefore, we must exclude them from our towns, our neighborhoods, and yes, even our churches.

Sometimes when dealing with the “other” we may find ourselves trivializing our differences. Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I’m color-blind and treat everyone the same; there are no differences for me.” Yet people with that attitude are hurtful, because of the lack of self-awareness regarding their own prejudices.

Trivializing refuses to recognize the painful reality of the “other” and prevents us from taking a hard look at our own prejudices.

Finally, we can refuse to even acknowledge that the “other” is even there. We treat them as though they were invisible. We’re afraid to look. We don’t want to commit. We don’t want to feel guilty because of our own inaction or our willingness to embrace a happy ignorance about the “other’s” plight.

These are just some of the obstacles that hurt intercultural relations.

Racism is the foundation on which the obstacles are built. In 1979, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued the pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” The bishops reflect on the painful reality of racism, which was described as a human and sinful institution in need of conversion. Catholic leaders then were called upon to find their “voice” or the appropriate words to describe the challenge of racism in our culture and our church.

Unfortunately, the challenge remains today. The church, meaning all of us, is being called to find that voice that proclaims the life-giving good news of Jesus Christ that calls us to a conversion of seeing the “others” no longer as “others” but seeing the “others as ourselves.”


Art Turner is the director of faith formation for the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Lifelong Formation and Education.

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