Living cross-culturally: Experiencing a feast of delectable tastes, objects and sounds

Most of us live our lives within tightly controlled comfort zones, whether staying in our air conditioned or well heated homes, or avoiding “the other” in our midst. However, I have learned from and admire those hearty souls who travel to distant lands and interact with locals, whether as missionaries, pilgrims or simply life long learners.

Recently, my wife Chris and I have come to know an Iraqi couple, Zeid and Sundis who came to the U.S. seeking political asylum. They settled in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and were quickly granted asylum because of death threats they experienced in Baghdad. They are Sunni Muslims who formerly lived in a Shia controlled area of Badhdad. Zeid is a successful businessman but, because of religious intolerance and greed, according to Zeid, he was twice kidnapped and held for ransom.

Last spring they hosted us in their home for a sumptuous feast of goat and traditional Iraqi dishes. Sundis is a wonderful cook and baker. We reciprocated and had them over for dinner. Zeid remarked, “This is the first time I have been a guest in an American home.”

On Labor Day my wife and I hosted four other couples, including Zeid and Sundis, for a traditional American cookout. However, in respect of their Muslim customs, we used halal beef to make the hamburgers. We invited friends who had visited Arab countries, including the former Mennonite Central Committee Middle East regional director, to join in the cookout. Zeid enjoyed meeting our friends and had such a good time that he said, “I want to host another party, for everyone who is here, at my home.”

I facilitated that event and five couples gathered in Zeid and Sundis’ home for an Iraqi feast of several fresh fish roasted whole, with the head and tail intact. There were no utensils but rather, we were invited to eat with our hands. The fish was supplemented with Middle Eastern flat breads, served with za’atar and olive oil, as well as dates, and salad. It was obvious that much care, time and love went into preparation of the meal. Sundis, who always wears the hijab, was draped in a particularly colorful garment for this special occasion.

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When we had eaten our fill, the guests retired to the living room for a short time while the table was cleared and reset with an array of sumptuous sweets: baklava; Jordanian sweets made with walnuts, pistachios and dates; and fresh fruit skewered on a spit like shish kabob. Of course dessert was accompanied by Arabian coffee and a spiced tea served from decorated pitchers into small but elaborate cups.

After the meal, while still gathered at the table, Zeid asked us what we thought of the Muslim requirement for women to wear the hijab. Each of us answered in turn. Comparisons were made to Mennonite prayer coverings. One young woman, who grew up in China and experienced gender liberation under Chairman Mao and the Communist revolution, brought another distinct perspective to the dialogue. We spoke freely of our faith and love for Jesus even while we listened to the Muslim call to prayer emanating from Zeid’s smart phone. It was a rich time together.

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Mennonite are not new to such experiences. Mennonite volunteers, from those who served in a relief program, PAX, during WWII, and those working with Mennonite Central Committee doing development and peace work around the world, embrace love for neighbors from other countries.

I suspect there are Muslims living in your region. MennoMedia produces resources which help equip individuals and the church to interact with their Muslims neighbors. I think specifically of the DVD, Waging Peace, and David W. Shenk’s trilogy of books: Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, Teatime in Mogadishu, and A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. There is also a whole section of Third Way Cafe dedicated Waging Peace and helping people understand the Muslim faith and peaceful interactions.

I recommend these materials to you.

Steve C 2012

Steve Carpenter, Director of Development

Invigorating the adult Sunday school program at your church

WilliamsburgMCSSClassHow are your adult Sunday school classes doing?

One of my MennoMedia responsibilities at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix in July was to lead several workshops—one was on adult Sunday school. It was called “Sunday school or Starbucks?” I had no idea how many people would show up but knew that my own experiences with adult Sunday school have not always been ideal. As I watched the room fill with people, I realized that I was not alone in this.

As you look ahead to fall church school season and focus on getting ready for children’s Sunday school experiences, it’s also wise to pay attention to the adult Sunday school program. Are your adult Sunday school spaces welcoming and accommodating? Are the classes invigorating and challenging? (Coffee/tea helps.)

SSClassDiscussionI was pretty certain that the excellent panel members for our workshop at Phoenix would have good input. The three of them, Marlene Bogard, Barbara Ewey, and Shanna Peachey Boshart, did not disappoint. All are resource advocates for their conference or district. Resource advocates work or volunteer with the churches in their conference to let them know about the many helpful resources put out by the Mennonite Church USA agencies. Resource advocates also have their pulse on the types of resources and programing helpful to the churches in the conferences, and they pass that information along to the MC USA agencies. (In Canada, see Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre for resource help.)

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Some Mennonite Church USA resource advocates

In the seminar, Marlene challenged us to take a good look at our Sunday school spaces. Are they inviting? Are they spaces in which people want to spend time? Shanna mentioned that though gathering for Bible study and fellowship can happen at any time, people are already together Sunday mornings and therefore it is one of the best times to have Sunday school. Barbara shared several excellent study resources so that adults will want to gather and study (see partial list below).

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Mary Ann Weber talks with a convention goer at the Mennonite Church USA
gathering in Phoenix about ideas for church school classes.

Following the panel discussion, we divided into small groups to ponder two questions. Participants jotted down responses which I then collected, collated, and emailed to those who requested them.

Here are just a few ideas that came from the workshop participants that you can use in analyzing and improving your own program:

1. How do you support Sunday school leaders?

  • Make the teacher’s guides available
  • Have a half-day prayer retreat to re-energize leaders
  • Offer prayers and send cards
  • Good teachers need to mentor others
  • Early Sunday morning meetings for the purpose of training, discussing topic, etc.

2. What are Sunday school ideas that work at your church?

  • Teaching styles that invite conversation without judgment
  • Find teachers with passion about the subject
  • Coffee, doughnuts, and fellowship are important
  • Fall quarter includes elective and intergenerational classes based on the passion of the leaders
  • Sunday school class outings to build relationships outside of Sunday school
  • Support groups for real-life issues that may not be traditional Bible or Sunday school topics (ex.: parents struggling with parenting, divorce, addictions, women’s group, etc.)
  • Provide opportunities to share stories

Many people have observed a decline in Sunday school attendance in recent years, but the amount of people who showed up for this workshop tells me that there is value in having a Sunday school program, and that people recognize the distractions that pull us away from opportunities to engage in serious Christian education. There is always room for conversations regarding how to update it and make it relevant for daily lives. May the conversations challenge and inspire us.

What has worked well in your congregation or conference for adult classes? Comment, please!

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Here are just a few of the many resources available through MennoMedia for adult classes (click on each one to find out more):

Also, find out who the resource advocate is for your conference and make connections with him or her. Contact your local conference office if you do not know who your resource advocate is, or check this list. Or join the Facebook page group with occasional links from Resource Advocates.

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Mary Ann Weber
MennoMedia Managing editor