The book of Revelation tells us that heaven will be comprised of the elect from all nations and races throughout the world, feasting together as one at the banquet of the lamb. It’s an incredible image of unity in God and each other, a time in which our differences can no longer keep us apart. That, I believe, is what we are striving for as we build the Kingdom of God on earth.
Heavy emphasis on the striving.
It might go without saying, but this image of heaven does not come easily. As ideal as diversity is—no doubt a goal for us as Christians—it cannot be overly romanticized. Diverse communities are difficult (and trust me, I know. My novitiate had representatives from six different nations in one house. Even simple issues like grocery shopping became catastrophic at times!) Besides the obvious differences in personality and opinion that even the most homogenous of communities experience, racially and culturally diverse communities find themselves at odds over some of the most essential building blocks of the communities: style of prayer, morality, food, sense of authority, and family systems, to name a few. “Common sense,” as it were, is not exactly common to all, and planning a common worship, common meal, or common project can present very uncommon problems.
That is, if everyone is even able to communicate with one another.
As if cultural differences weren’t enough, language is not uniform in so many of our churches throughout the United States. And unlike in years past when each new immigrant group brought their own priests and formed their own ethnic churches (sometimes resulting in a Polish, German, Irish, and Italian church all on the same street), most of today’s churches work toward integration and assimilation, trying to form one multi-cultural church rather than many small individual communities of faith.
When done well, it’s easy to see why. Imagine going to mass and seeing people from over 100 countries celebrating a mostly-organized mass containing four or more languages, songs from multiple cultures, and unfamiliar liturgical practices that snap you out of the “same old drab.” That was my experience at one of our parishes, and I have to say, it’s incredible. So enlivening! So inspiring! You look around and see every shade of every color, people from all corners of the earth, coming together as one Church for a common purpose with joy. When done well, diverse communities can be a taste of the heavenly banquet: unity, diversity, and cooperation.
This, unfortunately, is not norm though. In far more cases than the one above, a “multi-cultural” parish simply means that there are people from different countries and languages worshiping in the same building; it says nothing about doing so together or at the same time. There’s the English mass and the Spanish/French/Other mass, with no overlap or interaction. While sharing the same name, what could be one, diverse church ends up being two distinct churches that share a building. In some cases, the relationship may not even be perceived as “shared,” as in mutual relationship, but rather “lent,” as in one community owns the church and the other, second-class citizens, simply uses the space when allowed. When not done well, diverse communities can be just another taste of the earthly banquet: division, hierarchy, and competition.
And yet, as I live and work in a parish that falls somewhere in the middle of these two poles, I’m not sure what the goal should be. The “multi-cultural” mass of the first parish is not without its weaknesses. Thought very powerful at times, is it really something that would work if imposed on every parishioner? Sure, it’s beautiful when people come together for common worship, but when you don’t speak any language but your own and are constantly being presented with symbols and customs that mean nothing to you, there is going to be something lacking in one’s experience of the liturgy. On the other hand, if one is never forced outside of their comfort zone, never presented with new or different ways of experiencing and praising God, one is missing out on a whole world of ideas—and people—that build up the Kingdom of God. It’s great to say that “we’re all brothers and sisters,” many pieces of the same Body of Christ, but if we never actually interact with one another when we share the same building, doesn’t that become just nice Hallmark-y language we like to say but not live?
I don’t know. I think in the world of ideals and heavenly realms, it’s easy to come up with answers. But what about today? What about the limitations we face in this world? Maybe “separate but equal” is okay, each of worshipping with those who are like us in a way that we understand. It’s from the heart, is intellectually grasped, and authentic. But maybe it’s not about us and what we understand. Maybe it’s not enough to talk about communion and solidarity, it’s more important to live it, even if we can’t even ask the person next to us their name.
Ultimately, it comes down to one question: How, in a world of limitations, do we begin to strive for what we await, the heavenly banquet in which all are one? Honestly, I don’t know if I have the answer, and I don’t even know if the perfect answer is even out there. What I do know, though, is that it’s an important question to ask and try to answer, even if imperfectly done. If we believe that it is God’s intention to bring us all together in heaven, that for all eternity we will live without differences or separations, then it makes sense to me that we begin striving, in the best way we can, to make that happen in the here and now. The ideal, like all ideals, is not something we expect to grasp in our lifetime, but it offers us an image and inspiration for the direction we can start walking.