Cross-cultural/cross-racial appointments: Part four

April 10, 2017

“The joy of learning from other people and realizing that there is a lot of space within my own spiritual life to expand my understanding of who God is and how God works in people’s lives. That’s been the joy. Just being able to see that.” – Rev. Shandirai “Shandi” Mawokomatanda  

We talked with four New England Conference 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 the Rev. Shandirai “Shandi” Mawokomatanda​. Read all the profiles.

The Rev. Shandirai “Shandi” Mawokomatanda is serving in a cross-cultural/cross-racial appointment at Wesley UMC in Worcester, MA, but it’s a little more complex than an African pastor serving an American church.

Rev. Mawokomatanda came to the U.S. from Zimbabwe when he was 13. Now 38, he’s been in this country “for over 20 years, so I’ve pretty much been culturally formed by the American culture,” he said.

And Wesley’s is a diverse congregation.

“We have a significant population from Ghana, and a few other people from parts of Africa: Nigeria, Liberia, Zimbabwe, and the Congo, I think; so, it’s interesting, because even though I’m African, I’m also in a cross-cultural appointment with my brothers and sisters from Ghana,” Rev. Mawokomatanda said.

There are 54 countries on the African continent; and while they have some similarities, the idea that there is one “African culture” is false. That’s something Rev. Mawokomatanda sees clearly in his congregation.

“The assumption is that because I’m African I understand all things African,” he said. “It’s not true. I’m also having to learn what it means to be in ministry with people from Ghana. I’m trying to understand their traditions and their cultural practices.”

One of the ways Rev. Mawokomatanda is leading the congregation to that understanding is by being intentional about incorporating cultural practices from Ghana into worship.

“We’ve done a few things. We’ve tried to introduce Ghanaian praise music into our worshiping life, and that has been an enriching experience,” Rev. Mawokomatanda said. “At first there was some resistance from some folks, but now that we are having people share what it means to worship with this music, I’m seeing people being transformed and experiencing the joy of being in worship like they have never experienced it before.”

“And that’s an exciting thing for me to see – that God has ways to surprise us and expand our experiences with life and faith,” he said.

Helping the congregation grow in understanding each other’s cultures means leading by example, Rev. Mawokomatanda said.

“I’m trying to help the congregation realize that I’m doing it as a pastor, I’m having to go outside of my comfort zone trying to learn new things,” he said. “I’m trying to lead from a different cultural perspective, and I’m feeling enriched by that experience; they can do the same, if they are willing to open themselves up and immerse themselves into a new experience.”

His first appointment as a pastor, serving a small congregation in Maine, was, perhaps, a more typical cross-cultural, cross-racial appointment; and though it went very well, Rev. Mawokomatanda said, it highlighted one of the significant challenges pastors face: a sense of isolation in the community.

“I was new to the ministry, and that congregation saw it as their calling to try to nurture me into my pastoral identity,” he said. “I felt welcome, embraced. What made it challenging, was that I was young, single, and away from any family connection. It was isolating. I felt very isolated and away from other relationships that meant something to me.”

And while it was his first appointment, it was not his first experience with a cross-cultural appointment in a small community. His father, a retired United Methodist pastor, served churches in Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

“The one challenge in Maine – and my father’s ministry settings – we were the only family of color,” he said. “Pastors already live in a fishbowl, even more so if you’re a person of color.”

But the small rural communities of the U.S. also have something important in common with the culture of Zimbabwe.

“What I appreciated about the ministry my father had was they were small churches with a strong sense of community,” he said. “I appreciated that, because I was coming from a culture in Zimbabwe where community was very important.”

Building on that sense of community and relationship is the heart of the advice that Rev. Mawokomatanda would give to pastors coming into a cross-cultural/cross-racial appointment.

 “My advice is basic: Get to know your people. Build relationships. Let them get to know you. You can go further in ministry when you have built relationships of trust and mutual respect,” he said.

Even when a congregation is open and has built ties that are strong, it’s important to remember that we can never fully understand another culture, Rev. Mawokomatanda said.

He described a conversation he had with a friend about the nature of cross-cultural relationships:

“We were saying that having a culture is like having a foreign language. I can be speaking one language and you might be able to interpret what I’m saying, but you’re not really going to understand the fullness and the depth of what that language is unless it’s your first language. If it’s your second language, there is a second level of translation that’s going on in your mind to try to make sense of what’s being said.

“I think understanding that in a cross-cultural experience is important. Because I’m never going to fully understand people’s cultures. There may be some things that I can observe and I can interpret. But I’m always going to have the bias of interpreting things from my own perspective.

“Having that sense of humility and understanding that’s the reality will be important,” Rev. Mawokomatanda said.

Read the other profiles in this series