Cross-cultural, cross-racial appointments: Part 3

April 04, 2017

“I was like, wow, you know we’re the same. We may speak different languages and our experiences may be different, but we love God and we are loved by God, so we want to extend the Kingdom.”  – Pastor Wanda Santos-Perez

We talked with four pastors who are currently serving in cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments about their experiences. Over four weeks, beginning March 21, 2017, the pastors shared some of the joys and challenges of working across cultures as well as some advice for pastors and the congregations that seek to welcome them.This week, meet Pastor Wanda Santos-Perez.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, Pastor Wanda Santos-Perez lived in Pennsylvania for 20 years before coming to New England – where she’s been “pushed out of my comfort zone.”

And that push is something she’s grateful for, she said.

In Philadelphia, then Lancaster, PA, Pastor Santos-Perez served for 15 years as a local pastor to congregations whose members were mostly second- and third-generation Latino-Americans.

Now a provisional elder, Pastor Santos-Perez serves predominantly white congregations at Oxford (MA) UMC and Quinsigamond UMC in Worcester.

“Over here,” Pastor Santos-Perez said of New England, “it was just a different experience, and I just praise God that I got to see a broader picture of God’s Kingdom. I like a challenge, that’s just me, not every pastor really wants something like that.”

Moving from Latino to Anglo congregations, means Pastor Santos-Perez has had to make her sermons a bit shorter – 15 minutes instead of 40, and take a little longer with her delivery; “when I get excited, I speak fast,” she said.

“I move around; I don’t stay behind in the pulpit – and that took some getting used to for some people who said it was distracting,” said Pastor Santos-Perez, 47.

Though she’s had to “tone a lot of myself down,” her congregation is meeting her halfway.

“The members said ‘you do speak faster than other pastors we’ve had, but it also taught us to tune in,’” she said.

“We kind of danced around each other, but in a respectful way,” Pastor Santos-Perez said. “It wasn’t walking on eggshells; I never felt that.” 

The key, Pastor Santos-Perez said, is keeping the lines of communication open.

“Allowing them to ask those questions without having a chip on my shoulder was very important in achieving the relationship we have now,” she said.

As a pastor that means being willing to be vulnerable, Pastor Santos-Perez said.

“It is putting yourself out there, but it was worth it, because then they saw I want to meet you where you’re at and I want to work with you,” she said. “Just like you hold me accountable and you hold things up, I need to go ahead and ask you to make some compromises so this relationship will work.”

Building a relationship with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC) and the churches’ lay leaders is critical, Pastor Santos-Perez said. Dealing with the committee as a whole can be a little intimidating, she admits; having open dialog with the members as individuals is also vitally important.

“Communication – the one-on-one, not just as a committee,” she said, makes a big difference. “When I checked in with several people on the side, and explained my intentions and how I wanted to work our relationship, they felt comfortable too. And they felt like they can come to me (with questions or concerns).”

That openness extends to the people in the pews, as well.

“So the people, not just the committees, saw that I was open to that and it’s been great,” Pastor Santos-Perez said. “They’ve been very affirming, and it’s been helpful not to have people leave or say ‘I’m not going to be bothered with this pastor.’ They gave me the opportunity; they gave me a chance, and I appreciated that.”

Pastor Santos-Perez sees a lot of advantages to serving in a cross-cultural appointment, a lot of reasons to be grateful for the push out of her comfort zone.

“It challenged me to just put myself out there; where before there were certain biases, to be honest, as I got to know people and live with them and walk through certain experiences, I was like, wow, you know we’re the same. We may speak different languages and our experiences may be different, but we love God and we are loved by God so we want to extend the Kingdom.”

“In so in many ways, I think, it enriched me,” she said. “It enriched me as a person, as a pastor to have that experience.”

It’s a long way from New York City to Lancaster; having lived in some of this country’s very different cultures, Pastor Santos-Perez said learning to appreciate our tremendous diversity is the work of all churches.

In any group, she said, there’s a lot of diversity not only in where people come from but in their experiences as well. Growing up an inner-city kid, as she did, was a lot different from coming of age in Lancaster or Worcester.

“Churches need to be aware of that,” she said. “We need to be hospitable and welcoming to our pastors and be prepared. Us pastors, too, we can’t put it all on the church. We have to come in aware and sure of our gifts and take authority in the calling God has given us and the appointment the bishop has made.”

Though she moved to New York when she was 3, people still pick up on her accent, Pastor Santos-Perez said. She often simply points out “You have an accent, too.” Still, she knows that focusing on her accent can be an expression of bias.

“Absolutely, that’s the first thing you hear,” she said. “Any complaints or issues that come up – it’s always that.”

Again, Pastor Santos-Perez said, it comes down to being willing to bring it out into the open and discuss it. 

“There were times I even visited people at home so we were able to talk more about that in a comfortable way and for them to see that I really wanted to understand and help them understand,” she said. “In the knowing is where love grows. The biggest step was to have them give me a chance.”

Once she has that chance, she just has to be authentic.

“I know myself as a spiritual person and a person of strong prayer life, so whether as a pastor or a Latina these were things they were able to appreciate once they got over certain things such as the accent, the fast way I do things,” Pastor Santos-Perez said.

“Yes, I speak fast because I’m excited. I love ministry. I love working with people,” she said. “I have too much energy – you need that – especially if you’re serving two congregations.” 

Next week, meet the Rev. Shandirai Mawokomatanda, serving Wesley UMC in Worcester.  

Read the other profiles in this series