Practicing Cosmopolitanism

“Everybody blames the Lutherans.” This is Walt Kowalski’s response when a young Hmong neighbor explains to him that Lutherans helped her people relocate from Southeast Asia to the United States. Obviously, Walt (played by Clint Eastwood in his 2008 film Gran Torino) is not very happy that the Hmong have moved into—in fact have largely taken over—the suburban Detroit neighborhood where he raised his family. Walt is a lonely holdout. His wife recently died, and his children now have their own families who don’t care to visit their grumpy old grandfather. He is retired from the Ford plant and disenchanted from his Catholic faith. Almost all that he has left is his house, his yard, and his 1972 Gran Torino, and he plans to protect those until the day he dies. “Get off my lawn!” is all he wants to say to his new neighbors.

Of course, no matter how rudely Walt treats them or how many ethnic slurs he directs at them, the Hmong are not leaving. He does his best to ignore them, pretend they aren’t there, but they become part of his life whether he likes it or not. He begins to work with them to repair houses on their block and to protect their homes from criminal gangs, and he even shares a few meals with their families. Walt joins with his new neighbors in the practices of everyday life, and as he does so, he gets to know them, he learns from them, and—eventually—he begins to reconnect with his own family and his own faith.

Enough has been said about our new “global society.” It is a change that already has happened, that we already can see around us. Like Walt, I am from Michigan, but from a much smaller town in a remote part of the state, the tiny city of Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula, hundreds of miles from a major city and buried in snow half the year. Hardly cosmopolitan. But this isolated small town now hosts a community—apparently a thriving and growing one—of refugee Karen, a minority ethnic group from Burma.

So we already know that we live in an age of cosmopolitanism. The challenge we now face is that we must learn the practices that will help us navigate our inevitable experiences with difference. We must learn the skills necessary to being good neighbors, cultivating friendships, or simply going about the business of daily life with people who are unlike us.

The theme of the 2010 National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts was “Practicing Cosmopolitanism.” Representatives of the Lilly Network’s member schools gathered on the campus of Calvin College on 2–4 October 2009 to discuss how church-related institutions of higher education can help our students develop these skills. Some young people are so comfortable with their own lives that they resist experiences that might challenge their outlook on life. Others embrace such experiences wholeheartedly, but sometimes do so without first becoming informed and articulate about the particularities of their own culture and identity. It is now more important than ever for young people to develop skills and habits that will help them balance their commitments to their own culture—and their own faith—while continuing to learn from those with whom they have real and honest differences. The plenary lectures from this conference are collected here as our three lead essays.

From the Parable of the Good Samaritan we learn to seek out the face of Christ even in strangers whom we meet far from home. In this age, we are likely to encounter these strangers closer to home, living in our own communities, attending our churches and schools. In these encounters, we must follow the Samaritan’s example and cross the road to meet the other. We must be prepared to offer what we know and believe and to listen to what others have to offer as we practice cosmopolitanism together.


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