“The Dog Said Meow: Growing Intercultural Competency”

“The Dog Said Meow: Growing Intercultural Competency”

A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on October 20, 2013
At the First Parish in Bedford, MA

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“We cannot see what is ‘out there’ merely by looking around. Everything depends on the lenses through which we view the world. By putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise be invisible.”

–Parker Palmer

Opening Words:

from Rev. David Blanchard

A Call to Worship

Welcome to this place, this community of spirit,
of love, of care, of justice.
If you stay among us, I promise this:
You will be cared for here, but at some time
you will be called upon to care for others.
You will find much to learn here, but at some time
you will be called upon to teach what life has taught you.
You will be given much without asking for it or deserving it,
but at some time you will be called upon
to give in a way you never have.
You will be loved here, and at some time, ready or not,
you will be called upon to give your love to another.
And last, you will be accepted here just as you are –
and in that process, you will be changed. How, I cannot say.

That is the cliff-hanger that keeps us all coming back week after week.
As we arrive, we open ourselves to that moment of grace and mystery,
that moment when the holy spirit does her best work,
that moment we have been waiting our whole lives for.
This I promise.
Welcome to this place.


“Red Brocade,” by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,

When a stranger appears at your door,

feed him for three days

before asking who he is,

where he’s come from,

where he’s headed.

That way, he’ll have strength

enough to answer.

Or, by then you’ll be

such good friends

you don’t care.


Let’s go back to that.

Rice? Pine Nuts?

Here, take the red brocade pillow.

My child will serve water

to your horse.


No, I was not busy when you came!

I was not preparing to be busy.

That’s the armor everyone put on

to pretend they had a purpose

in the world.


I refuse to be claimed.

Your plate is waiting.

We will snip fresh mint

into your tea.




Last week Megan and I participated in a two-day workshop sponsored by the UU Ministers Association and titled “Who Are Our Neighbors?”  As part of a commitment to excellence in ministry and for our skills to stay relevant in a changing world, our professional association strives to be anti-racist, anti-oppression and multicultural.


This, of course, is a daunting task and there are a variety of approaches, but Megan and I found this workshop on growing intercultural competency to be especially energizing, challenging, enlightening and even rather fun.  I actually learned some things which – at my age or any age – is reassuring once in a while; and while my knowledge may be little and thus a dangerous thing, today and next Sunday I want to share some of what we learned.


I think now is a propitious time for us to grow our intercultural competency.  Our world, of course, is changed and changing.  You may recall the story I heard from a former civil rights activist in the south who recently revisited a barbecue restaurant that had once been rigidly segregated by race only to discover that almost all of the patrons today are racially mixed couples!  What was even more surprising, however, was that the menu also has changed: no longer is the featured item barbecue but today it is instead…sushi!


Everywhere old familiarities are changing, not least in Bedford (where both barbecue and sushi are widely available).  The flavors of Bedford and all our communities are increasingly complex, spicy and sometimes intense.  In our schools, English is not the first language for many many of our students.  Ethnic, economic, racial, sexual, religious and other diversities – and disparities – are increasing.


Particular circumstances like that at the Bedford Plaza Hotel complicate things and evoke a wide range of best, worst, muddled and evolving responses.  Suffice to say that in our lifetimes and those of our children, cultural challenges will only grow in complexity and challenge, and thus I believe it is in all our best interests to grow our intercultural competency.


Intercultural competency is not just a slogan or a bumper sticker.  It can be defined, measured and taught; and this involves knowledge, skills and abilities needed to perform tasks and interact across cultural differences.


Our workshop was based on a theory called the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) and it utilizes an assessment tool called the IDI, the Intercultural Development Inventory – the DMIS and the IDI having been developed by two researchers, Milton Bennett and Mitchell Hammer.


I’ll review some of the key points about this approach, but I’ll say right now that I think we as individuals, we as a congregation, and we as a community (beyond the walls of this church) would be well-served by going deeper.


My intent this and next Sunday is to whet our appetite for further training – for me personally, for our leadership, for all of us, and for our larger community.  Ministers and churches are big talkers when it comes to ideals like love and compassion, generosity, inclusivity and intercultural competency.  Once in a while, I think we should do more than say what fine ideals these are but actually teach and learn the necessary skills.


And, should you think that this is just the latest flavor of diversity awareness, I’d urge you to think again because some of the biggest proponents of intercultural competency are not churches or bleeding-heart liberals but hard-headed multinational corporations who know that business success depends on such competency.  I argue that those of us who promote the beloved community and love-of-neighbor as models of human interaction need to be just as interculturally competent as those who promote it as a business model.


Before saying more about intercultural competency, I’ll first contrast it with four traditional approaches to diversity work:  The first is legal (especially learning what not to do and not so much what to do, learning what the law mandates).  This is a baseline/minimum approach.


Another approach emphasizes assimilation, helping outsiders to fit in, adopt, learn the ropes and conform to their new culture.


A third approach is “valuing diversity,” celebrating heroes, holidays, food, art… and just trying to be more inclusive. At our Elm Street entrance there’s a decal that says, “Bedford Welcomes Diversity” and something similar is hung on the wall of our Common Room.  We do like this approach.


Still another is the “isms” approach…anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-ageism, anti-ableism.  Some of us have experience with this too.


There are pluses and minuses to each of these approaches, but the intercultural approach is different.


First of all, please look at the illustration on the cover, the “Iceberg Model of Culture.”  Culture is a way of describing “the way we do things around here;” culture is about shared patterns that help us make meaning of our environment and determine appropriate behavior.


And culture is like an iceberg.  Above the surface, you can see differences in food, music, language, flags, dress.  I’ll say more later, but there are some who think they’re being culturally sensitive if they only pay attention to these visible attributes.  Hang a rainbow flag and – voila! – we’re a welcoming congregation!  Look at the natives in their colorful costumes!  I just love that ethnic food!


But, you see, beneath the surface there are vast aspects of culture that are invisible but hugely significant and, like the iceberg, pose much greater threats to those who are unaware.  The danger, moreover, is not just in being unaware of the visible and invisible aspects of other peoples’ culture, but being unaware of the invisible aspects of our own culture.


While there is some visible diversity in this room, I’ll wager there are even greater differences within this room with regard to the invisible aspects of culture.  I’ll wager that even among close friends, among married couples, there are those who may easily navigate the visible differences but inadvertently risk calamity when bumping up against invisible cultural differences.


(This is one of the great things about this intercultural approach: it’s relevant not only to those of differing nationalities or races or orientations or abilities, but it’s relevant to all sorts of relationships among those you live and work with, those you sit next to in a pew or those with whom you may share a bed.  Particularly with regard to the invisible aspects of culture, we are in far more intercultural relationships that we commonly imagine!)


Last week’s workshop was facilitated by two UU ministers, one of whom was Parisa Parsa, our minister in Milton, Massachusetts.  I’ll repeat a couple of Parisa’s stories to illustrate.


Parisa’s mother is an American from the midwest.  Her father was born in Iran, as was Parisa.  Her family came to the US in 1979 just prior to the Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages in Tehran.  Parisa, by the way, is the Americanized pronunciation of her Persian name and often her name is mis-heard as Teresa…”Your name is Teresa?” and then, on the school playground, Parisa was mystified and hurt when other children would run away from her – because she was stereotyped as “a terrorist.”  Parisa experienced these cultural slights as slaps and bruises to which she ultimately became callused.  For Parisa, part of growing intercultural competency was to bring to consciousness those aspects of her own experience to which she had become callused and unaware.  So too for all of us.


Parisa opened the workshop with a story from her childhood.  In elementary school, she became close friends with another girl who later moved to California.  When Parisa’s family made plans to visit California on vacation, Parisa asked if they could visit her childhood friend.  On the phone, the friend was delighted that Parisa would visit and insisted that she spend the night at her house.  So when Parisa was traveling with her parents and siblings, they made their way to the friend’s house in California. In the driveway, Parisa’s friend warmly welcomed her with a hug, but when Parisa’s family started to get out of their car, Parisa’s friend wondered what was happening.  “You invited us to spend the night,” Parisa reminded her.  Her friend said, “I invited you to spend the night – not your entire family!” Of course, an awkward scene ensued. Parisa’s parents offered to sleep on the couch or on the floor, but that did not feel comfortable to their hosts; and ultimately Parisa stayed at her friend’s house but her family went to a hotel where Parisa’s father fumed over the unanticipated expense and he was angry: “How rude and inhospitable those Americans were!”


It took her years to realize it, but the incident was a cultural conflict:  Unlike the girl in California, Parisa had assumed the invitation was for her and her family because that was the culture of Parisa’s family.  In Iranian culture, all would have been welcomed.  In American culture, not so.  Parisa and her friend were never again the same, and the experience was an embarrassing sore spot for years.


This is not to say the friend should or should not have welcomed Parisa’s family and Parisa was quick to say, for one thing, that her siblings were delighted to stay in the hotel because there was a pool and, for another, that today she herself would be unprepared and reluctant to take in an unanticipated family of guests.  It remains a story of significant cultural differences below-the-surface of the iceberg.


Parisa also told stories of family holidays. If the Iranian side were to host a holiday meal starting at, say, 3pm, and if people were actually to show up at 3pm they’d find the hosts half-dressed and nothing ready.  It would, in fact, be rude to show up at 3pm.  But when the 3pm meal would be at Parisa’s Ohio grandparents, one had to arrive at exactly 3pm because, if you were to arrive at 3:30 the dinner would have been finished and anything after 3:00 sharp would have been, indeed, rude.


Perceptions of time, you see, are among the invisible things below the surface.  North Americans and northern Europeans have a sequential clock-oriented sense of time but in almost all of the rest of the world time is synchronous: things are ready when they’re ready and not because of some arbitrary number on a clock.


I’ve had certain weddings that were supposed to happen at x-o’clock and they happened long past x-o’clock – not due to rudeness but due to cultural difference.


If you look at the things below the water line on the Iceberg Model, I imagine you have experiences of similar disconnects regarding time, beauty, age, modesty, child-rearing, cleanliness, gender roles, and all the rest.


It’s all a mater of perspective as the inserted cartoon suggests.  “Boat!” exclaims the one stranded on the island.  “Land!” exclaims the one stranded at sea.


But look now at the DMIS chart.  Growing intercultural competency, remember, is a developmental approach, meaning that all of us are somewhere on the chart and there’s no praise or blame. There is, however, a goal and that is to grow our capacity to experience both commonalities and differences with increasing complexity.  And there is a progression, from monocultural to intercultural and from denial to adaptation.


Most of us start at the monocultural end, really in a kind of denial because we likely assume that “my culture is the only reality.”  We do things this way because “it is tradition!”  At this stage, the primary learning emphasis (in the top left box) is simply to begin to notice cultural differences.


This, however, can progress to the next phase, being defensive about one’s own culture, polarizing “us” versus “them,” digging in one’s heels and asserting that one’s own attitude is the “right” attitude.  This also can be accompanied by fear – that one’s own culture is being threatened – and anger toward others.


Again, there’s really no right or wrong, no praise or blame.  Human beings tend to be a defensive bunch and, when experiencing difference, it’s rather normal to at least try to fend off the challenge by claiming that our way is, after all, the right way…even when it’s not.


The point of this – like the point of a lot of religion – is to become more self-aware, more mindful and to notice where we and where others may be on the spectrum.


I think this is helpful in understanding issues as diverse as immigration, our responses to homelessness, or what it means if your in-laws say the holiday meal is at 3:00.  If, for example, intercultural conflict is accompanied by fear and anger, this model also gives us some clues as to what may help us to progress and move forward.


In the bottom left box, for example, a learning emphasis may be to find commonalities and shared activities.  This, in turn, can progress to the minimization of differences, “deep down we’re all the same,” let’s be nice to one another, avoid stereotypes, avoid conflict, be tolerant.  It can progress to slapping a “Bedford Welcomes Diversity” decal on our window.


The minimization of difference is where the vast majority of us are much of the time and this tends to be the mainstream approach to “celebrating” diversity – primarily in reference to the visible above-the-waterline parts to the iceberg.  There is, in fact, a bell curve to this spectrum with far fewer people at either the monocultural or intercultural ends of the spectrum but with most in the middle, dampening down conflict, maintaining the dominant culture, and being as nice as humanly possible.


Being nice is an admirable thing and the minimization of difference is a healthy step beyond the denial of difference.  But minimization does, well, minimize some significant differences that make a difference.


And so, developmentally, you see, one can progress beyond minimization to a greater acceptance of difference and a willingness to explore not only the visible but also the invisible differences.


Acceptance of difference, you see, also leads to a relativism of behaviors and values, the realization that behaviors and values can only be understood in the context of culture.  There are, for example, cultural differences regarding the perception of time and one may not be better than the other.


Look at all the things below the waterline on the iceberg: perhaps there are differing valid notions of beauty, or gender roles, or cleanliness, or ways to raise children, or all the rest. Your way is altogether unlikely to be the only way.  Neither is it likely to be the one and only right way.


The attitude that most nourishes intercultural acceptance is an attitude of curiosity.  This, I think, is one of the greatest of religious values.  When we as Unitarian Universalists are at our best we do curiosity so very well.  Our kids are curious kids and we too, I assure you, are a curious lot, curiouser and curiouser.  We inspire curiosity about ourselves and one another and the world; and that is so very good.


Acknowledging relativism and keeping curious has, however, its challenges.  How do we maintain integrity and ethical commitments? Does just anything go?  How do we authentically encounter difference without losing or changing our selves, or how do we decide what parts of ourselves are we open to losing or changing?


To grow intercultural competency ultimately requires skill at adaptation and the ability to shift perspectives, to be multilingual, multi-behavioral, and – to turn a phrase – the ability to accept the things that cannot change, the courage to change the things that can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I’ll say more about this next week.


As my title today suggests, old dogs can learn new tricks and, when necessary, say meow.  And, likewise, as I’ll explore next week, the cat may need the competence to sometimes say woof.


Ultimately, growing intercultural competency is, I believe, religious work, work we’re well-suited to, work we’ve already begun, and work we should continue.


Somebody say meow.  Somebody say woof.  There’s a song called All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir, but that’s not the one I’ve chosen for us to sing now.


Let’s sing “We’ll Build a Land,” it’s number 121.


Closing Words:  by Parker Palmer (same as thought to ponder)