On doing multi-ethnic worship: When Taco Night becomes Taco Worship

I recently read this short piece called “Taco Night” (see below) about the damage done by inauthentic multicultural education in schools and wondered if we often commit similar fallacies when it comes to multi-ethnic worship. So often, our well-intentioned efforts to do multiethnic church include singing songs from various ethnic traditions. However, these songs are often sung by people who do not claim the tradition as their own, are often presented as isolated pieces of cultural lore that have been extracted from the cultural context in which they are embedded and are often presented without an acknowledgement/understanding of the justice history of the culture.Is it more helpful or hurtful for a worship band devoid of African-Americans to lead a predominantly-white congregation in a rendition of a traditional Black Gospel song? Is it more helpful or hurtful for the same congregation to sing the song if it is not also accompanied by authentic interactions and mutual sharing with members of the African-American community? Is it more helpful or hurtful for the congregation to sing the song if its members are unaware of the cultural context (perhaps related to injustice) in which and for which the song was written? Similarly, I’ve often attended predominantly-white church services in which the congregation randomly sings one song in Spanish. I guess I’m wondering – what is the point? Is if loving to import only the aspects of culture with which we are comfortable? Is it loving to import only the aspects of culture that are feasibly presented in our 75-minute Sunday service? How can we be more loving and authentic as we attempt to do multiethnic church?

Taco Night by Paul Gorski

I remember the invitations: red text on a white background, the name of the event in curly bold face surrounded by a crudely drawn piñata, a floppy sombrero, and a dancing cucaracha. A fourth grader that year, I gushed with enthusiasm about these sorts of cultural festivals—the different, the alien, the other—dancing around me, a dash of spice for a child of white flighters. Ms. Manning distributed the invitations in mid--‐April, providing parents ample time to plan for the event, which occurred the first week of May, on or around Cinco de Mayo. A few weeks later my parents and I, along with a couple hundred other parents, teachers, students, and administrators, crowded into the cafeteria for Guilford Elementary School’s annual Taco Night. The occasion was festive. I stared at the colorful decorations, like the papier machet piñatas designed by each fifth--‐grade class, then watched my parents try to squeeze themselves into cafeteria style tables built for eight--‐year--‐olds. Sometimes the school hired a Mexican song and dance troupe from a neighboring town. They’d swing and sway and sing and smile and I’d watch, bouncing dutifully to the rhythm, hoping they’d play La Bamba or Oye Como Va so I could sing along, pretending to know the words. If it happened to be somebody’s birthday the music teacher would lead us in a lively performance of Cumpleaños Feliz and give the kid some Mexican treats. ¡Olé! Granted, not a single Mexican or Mexican--‐American student attended Guildford at the time. However, I do recall Ms. Manning asking Adolfo, a classmate whose family had immigrated from Guatemala, whether the Taco Night tacos were “authentic.” He answered with a shrug. Granted, too, there was little educational substance to the evening; I knew no more about Mexico or Mexican American people upon leaving Taco Night than I did upon arriving. And granted, we never discussed more important concerns like, say, the racism against Mexican Americans or the long history of U.S. imperialist intervention throughout Latin America. Still, hidden within Taco Night and the simultaneous absence of real curricular attention to Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and other Latinos, were three critical and clarifying lessons: (1) Mexican culture is synonymous with tacos; (2) “Mexican” and “Guatemalan” are synonymous, and by extension, all Latino people are the same, and by further extension, all Latino people are synonymous with tacos (as well as sombreros and dancing cucarachas); and (3) white people love tacos, especially in those hard, crunchy shells, which, I learned later, nobody in Mexico eats. Thus began my diversity education, my introduction to a clearly identifiable “other.” And I could hardly wait until Pizza Night.