Dissertation Abstract

“‘One Bread, One Body,’ Beloved Community in Multicultural Contexts: The Lived Theology of Pastor Miguel Balderas

The findings of a recent study in the journal Sociology of Religion suggest “multiracial congregations (1) leave dominant White racial frames unchallenged, potentially influencing minority attendees to embrace such frames and/or (2) attract racial minorities who are more likely to embrace those frames in the first place.”[1]  We must ask, then, if multiracial congregations do not challenge societal structures of racial inequality, are they helping to maintain or shore up such structures even as demographics shift away from a White majority population in the United States?

This project uses the methodology I term “hermeneutical ethnography” to explore and articulate the lived theology of one Latino Elder in the United Methodist Church in Rockville, Maryland, who has extensive experience in moving congregations toward their vision to become multicultural. I use the word “multicultural” instead of the standard sociological term “multiracial” because, for Pastor Miguel, “multiracial” signals an assimilationist process (reflected in the sociological findings mentioned above), while the goal of a “multicultural” process is the cultivation of God’s form of social organization, best understood through the concept of Beloved Community. Beloved Community is a concept developed philosophically by Josiah Royce at the end of the 19th century that was then adapted and popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. It refers to an ideal community where God’s perfection is the organizing principle, and for King this signified a permanent end to segregation and the realization of complete racial reconciliation. In Pastor Miguel’s context, Beloved Community is realized when congregants are unified as disciples of Jesus Christ while their cultural identities are not erased. Instead of engaging in processes of integration or assimilation, mutual relationships between persons of diverse backgrounds and cultures are cultivated.

Hermeneutical ethnography is a method that combines ethnographic methods (such as participant observation and conducting interviews of informants) utilized in anthropology and increasingly in sociology with hermeneutical tools (such as James Kugel’s method of “reverse engineering” and Daniel Boyarin’s examination of “intertextuality”) traditionally used to analyze ancient scriptural commentary.[2] In Parts I-III of my dissertation I utilize this method to describe and analyze three modes of hermeneutical acts that Pastor Miguel consistently engages in: 1) preaching sermons in non-standard English; 2) subtly crafting liturgical structures in worship; and 3) modeling and empowering cross-cultural leadership. I will demonstrate that through these hermeneutical acts, Pastor Miguel is endeavoring to rewrite cultural habits using scripture through a process of “entextualization.”[3] The process of entextualizing Beloved Community has as its purpose the unification of a diverse set of people around a single faith in Jesus Christ where the richness of such diversity is engaged relationally through intimate cultural exchange found in shared meals, team leadership, and a collaborative approach to ministry.

In Pastor Miguel’s current congregation there are signs of transformation, but it is not yet multicultural. Many of the long-term members of the congregation are more comfortable with assimilationist tendencies. In his church and others like it, the tendency of most parishioners is to equate an “International Day” model of cross-cultural interaction with multiculturalism. Therefore this project also uncovers the slow, and at times seemingly fruitless, venture of re-training the ingrained cultural habits of parishioners uninterested in, or even opposed to, any structural change in their congregation. For Pastor Miguel’s part, he believes Beloved Community is possible here and now. First, he contends that the leaders of the church must represent the demographics of the church and surrounding community with power being shared through mutual exchanges within team-work based structures; second, “se come la comida de todos,” which may be translated as, one eats the food of all. But entering into Beloved Community is not compulsory, and for this congregation, my initial question remains open: can Beloved Community be cultivated where a majority of the congregants are comfortable within the dominant White culture that structures their church life? Will such slow and subtle attempts to re-knit their habits open them up to new structural reality where food and power are shared?

In 2010 Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, stated, “There is no future for the United Methodist witness in the United States unless we can demonstrate that we can reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.” He goes on:

…United Methodists are overrepresented in every age category of 50 and above and underrepresented in every age category under age 50, the age of the vast majority of the population. And our denomination is vastly overrepresented among white people compared to their presence in the population and underrepresented in every other racial group at a time when diversity in this country is growing at a greater rate than ever.[4]

This study of Pastor Miguel’s process of “entextualizing Beloved Community” will be of interest to faith communities that are facing the challenges of the rapidly changing demographic in the United States, and would like to develop multicultural habits and potentialities that are not governed by modes of assimilation. In the academy, this study contributes to the growing body of literature on multiracial congregations by offering an in depth examination of a non-multicultural congregation moving in the direction of becoming multicultural. Additionally, the approach of hermeneutical ethnography as it is applied in this study will offer a new method for Christian ethnographers and anthropologists interested in how scripture functions in religious communities. Finally, by focusing on these hermeneutical acts, this project adds to the new field of lived theology by focusing specifically on the role of scripture in Pastor Miguel’s faith as it is expressed in the world.

[1] Ryon J. Cobb, Samuel L. Perry, and Kevin D. Dougherty, “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality,” Sociology of Religion, January 28, 2015, 117.

[2] For hermeneutic textual analysis sources see: Steven D. Fraade, From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); James L Kugel, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990); and Daniel Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

[3] I have borrowed and adapted the term “entextualization” from Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban’s work: Natural Histories of Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Their work defines entextualization as a process of how texts are produced out of cultural exchange. These texts are created and re-contextualized as the members of the culture that produced them re-read them for their changing contexts. I am applying this process to capture how Christian scripture, central to the organization of Christian communities, is not only being re-read in a new context, but to get at how it is being harnessed to change that context and shape it in a particular way–in this case into a multicultural congregation centered on the theological concept of Beloved Community.

[4] Lovett H. Weems, Jr., “Three Key Questions for United Methodists Today,” Interpreter Online, Dec 5, 2010, http://web.archive.org/web/20101205203123/http://interpretermagazine.org/interior.asp?ptid=43&mid=13221; See also: Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Focus: The Real Challenges That Face The United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press, 2012).