It had been about four years since I had seen my friend Magdalena. We met for breakfast while I was passing through Chicago. Magdalena and I worked together after seminary at a church she now serves as pastor. Her church is, by any definition, multicultural. In the late 1960s, the English-speaking component, then a separate church, considered merging with one of two local congregations. One was predominately Cuban; the other Appalachian. After prayerful consideration, the church chose Desi Arnaz over Jed Clampett. Culturally and socially, the Anglos were closer to the Cubans.
The resulting congregation has survived forty years. Like any decades-long marriage, there have been times of celebration and struggle. Twenty years ago, when I was hired with the help of a Presbytery grant to assist the pastor, I was selected over other applicants because I did not speak Spanish. The Anglos had found that they often hired bright, young, idealistic people who were attracted to this congregation. Repeatedly, the vitality of the Spanish-speaking part of the congregation pulled new staffers in and left the Anglos bereft. “Never again,” they said, “This one’s ours.”
For almost a year, I helped the pastor by leading worship and Bible study and visiting folks in the hospital. Well, I led English worship and Bible study and visited English-speaking folks in the hospital. Magdalena was in charge of Christian education which was entirely in Spanish. The Bible studies I led were for an aging, shrinking group. “Old,” “White,” and “English-speaking” were synonyms at this church.
In spite of the plan that I would only serve the English speakers, I took part in the life of the whole congregation. This congregation had a fabulous tradition of annual International Nights. These were potlucks like a young Peorian had never seen! Every family brought its specialty from the old country. They served their dishes with great pride. I asked the matriarchs what they called their entrées. Their children translated my question and their mothers’ answers. “Pollo. Chicken,” the second generation would inform me.
It’s the same bird, but prepared differently in Cuba, Peru, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Hungary. I got Magdalena’s recipe and dubbed it “Pollo á la Magdalena.” It’s really just the way her mother made chicken when she was a child, a recipe that had never been committed to paper until I asked for it.
Several times a year, the church holds a bilingual service in which every single word is translated. Once when serving as English liturgist, I began the service by ad libbing, “Buenos días,” causing Guillermo, the Spanish liturgist, to scramble to the microphone and say, “Good morning!” At that moment, we exhausted our mutual bilinguality.
For more than thirty years the English hymnals resided in the pew racks in the sanctuary, while the Spanish speakers carried theirs into and out of each worship service from a table in the narthex. Every August the English-speaking ladies held an all-day kitchen clean up. Originally this was their covert way to take inventory of their utensils. So there were tensions but also celebrations in this congregation. As I sit waiting for Magdalena to arrive I wonder how things are going there now.
I am delighted that Augusto, Magdalena’s husband, comes along. He reminds me that I am a caballero. Once when visiting Mexico I was very proud that I had learned how to say, “¿Dónde está el baño?” Our guide answered me in English, then added, “You’re a caballero!” I strutted through the restaurant, proud of this new identity. Then I reached two doors, one marked “damas,” the other “caballeros.”
I am eager to hear about her congregation, but first Magdalena pulls out my family’s Christmas letter. She finds the second paragraph. “What does it mean, ‘Peter noshed his first knish at Yankee Stadium’?” she asks.
Can it be that my Cuban born friend and her Ecuadoran husband do not understand Yiddish? I am stunned! Could I be exposing them to another culture? Surely, they are the multicultural ones here, not I!
“OK,” I begin, “‘Nosh’ is Yiddish for ‘mouthful’ or ‘snack.’ It can be a noun or a verb. ‘Knish’—you pronounce the ‘k’—is... ” I make a bowl with my hands, “sort of a pocket of dough that’s deep fried and filled with seasoned mashed potatoes. They’re really filling.”
The light bulbs go on over their heads, “Empanada,” Augusto says.
We are enjoying a multicultural moment at IHOP. Our waitress, Ebony, takes our order and asks Magdalena and Augusto if they want hot sauce. She looks at me and offers ketchup for our omelets.
We show photos of our sons and talk about their interests and achievements. We marvel at how they all are growing. At one point, Augusto pays me a lavish compliment.
“This egg needs salt,” I reply. Years ago, Magdalena taught me how to say this in Spanish. It’s a Cuban idiom that, roughly translated, means, “I know you’re flattering me shamelessly. Keep talking.”
Magdalena is in demand in our denomination. She is bright, talented, fun, creative, clergy, female, foreign-born, and bilingual. Every committee wants someone like her to represent her gender and ethnicity. And she’s an “easy fit,” because she has lived in the States since she was twelve. All of her education was in the United States. She could make a career of being “ethnic” in our nearly racially uniform denomination.
I am reminded of when I was asked at the last minute to take part in a worship service in Baltimore Presbytery. The planners had enlisted lay people and clergy from predominately African-American congregations, the Taiwanese church, the Korean new church plant… but they had forgotten to get a white clergyman to take part. I got a frantic phone call.
“Tom, could you lead the prayer of confession and declaration of pardon tomorrow? We’re putting the bulletin together right now!!”
“Sure, no problem, should I wear a robe and stole?”
“Great! [He’ll do it!] Yes! Thanks, we had one of everything except a white guy! Now we’re good!”
“Here comes the neighborhood,” I thought. As a majority male, I never think of myself as having a cultural identity. And with this majority worldview comes a certain blindness. Since I am surrounded by people just like me and positions of leadership are held by people just like me, it’s easy, natural even, for me to think that everyone experiences the world as I do. It’s a tiny step from believing this to dismissing and ignoring occasions when someone with a different worldview and history says, “That’s not my experience at all.”
Altogether Magdalena, Augusto, and I spent almost three hours catching up and giggling together. I may never be wealthy, but I am rich in friends. And with this friendship is a deep trust and honesty, a safe place where I can confess my blindness and can feel their exclusion and the hurt of being misunderstood by majority guys like me.
We exchange hugs when it’s time to go. Magdalena hands me some bread pudding she made for the Festival of the Three Kings. “Thank you! Muchas gracias!” I say, because we have given each other so much—knishes, salt, pollo/chicken, empanadas, bread pudding—food for thought for my return to the Great White North.
Tom Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.