Alejandro Mandes Is Opening Our Eyes to Our Multiethnic Future

Book Talk

Alejandro Mandes Is Opening Our Eyes to Our Multiethnic Future

Dr. Alejandro Mandes’ book “Embracing the New Samaria: Opening Our Eyes to Our Multiethnic Future” has one ultimate goal: unity.

Dr. Alejandro Mandes is the executive director of All People Initiative for Evangelical Free Church of America. He has dedicated much of his life to bridging social and cultural gaps within the church. In his book Embracing the New Samaria: Opening Our Eyes to Our Multiethnic Future, Mandes has one ultimate goal: unity.

S&H: You encourage readers from majority cultures to ask themselves, “Who are we missing? Who is not represented?” and then to practice inclusion. What are the best ways for us to practice this on a small, everyday scale?

Alejandro Mandes: Small everyday things stem from our core beliefs, so it’s key to start from the fundamental truth that all humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). From there, I recommend listening, exploring, and acknowledging our blind spots. When we listen, rather than focusing on defending our point of view, we are more likely to get an idea of who is missing and what their needs are.

Second, it is vital to explore other cultures in order to see and love the other, just like Paul walked among the Athenians and found common ground in their poetry before he spoke to them. For example, my wife and I would encourage our daughters to bring international students to dinner and ask them to bring maps to help us visualize their walk. We did not invite them so we could evangelize them, but to broaden our own understanding.

Lastly, we must realize that we have blind spots and welcome experiences and challenges that point them out. Cultivating that openness and awareness is a daily task!

Despite your embrace of global demographic shifts and the colorful, multiethnic life on the ground, nowhere in your book do you mention any religions other than evangelical Christianity and the Catholicism of your youth. How do you think of building bridges with non-Christians?

It is there but not strongly emphasized, so you do make a good point. I was limited by space in the book. Part of what I mean when I talk about being a cultural adventurer is building bridges to non-Christians. My work with Immigrant Hope is unapologetically evangelical, but we are purposeful about being welcoming to all. In my travels and work, I have befriended and collaborated with Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and many others. My priority is always to learn from and about them—identification and understanding always precede sharing about my own faith. Knowing and loving those of other religions has shaped my point of view profoundly.

Your theory of where Christianity went astray with the homogenous unit principle is fascinating; suddenly, churches were closing ranks and focusing on spreading the gospel instead of social concerns and charitable works. How do you see that fitting with the larger social movements of the 1970s and 1980s?

First, it’s important to clarify that Christianity is very diverse. The protestant church is not a monolith, so these generalizations won’t be true of every church or Christian. Many churches did come to value efficiency and expediency over the command to love and disciple in the ways of God. Social concern and charitable works as a corporate interest never stopped, but some Christians began to value economies of scale over loving one’s neighbor on the ground, face-to-face. My antidote to this is to ask, “who is missing at the table?” or “who are we not seeing?”

There is some parallel between social movements and religious movements—my focus is on the religious. There are times when the church leads a social movement and there are times when it moves against social movements. In the 1970s and 1980s there were times when the church’s mission coincided with a social movement and times when it did not.

The church has a dual mandate from God—The Great Commandment (love our neighbor, social concern, seeking justice,) and The Great Commission (a personal relationship with God, spiritual disciplines, disciplining others in the faith). Following these mandates can look different at different points in history.

You try to steadily shift readers’ perspective from seeking to convert Christians abroad when a neighborhood in their city might be a more fruitful and deeply healing opportunity. This feels like a refreshing spin on other “local” movements (locavore, buying local, even extending to Black Lives Matter activism in countless cities). How can non-evangelicals best participate in this?

My mother has said, “No deberíamos ser luz en la calle sino oscuridad en casa.”—which means, “we should not be a light in the street but darkness at home.”

For Christians, we must first examine our local ministries and communities before assuming that what we have is worth exporting. The gospel is always worth sharing, but we must pay attention to criticism about our methods and blind spots. Many Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, assume that various aspects of American success and culture should be “exported” elsewhere, while not examining the problems we have at home.

The hurt displayed through Black Lives Matter is an undeniable signal that something is wrong—both in our nation and in our nation’s churches—so we would do well to “walk toward the noise” that is alerting us to the darkness at home.

You write about knowing the margins well yourself: Born in Laredo, Texas into a minority-majority Latino culture; raised Catholic until your evangelical conversion in late teens; marrying someone from a different background. What are some notable ways this deeply lived experience has influenced your ministry?

My early experiences led me to develop a “double consciousness.” Often, I was in Christian fellowship but also on the outside looking in—I did see a lot of love, I just didn’t know how to connect. A double consciousness gave me the choice to see both sides and to confront but with an open hand.

The love of Jesus continues to lead me to love and forgive others when I experience hurt because I’m flawed too. The more I have entered new spaces and met people different from me, the more I’m awed by God as the author of diversity—since we are all made in His image, the other expands my understanding of God.

You write about “spiritual sleepwalking”—going through learned motions of your faith without examining their effects—as a cautionary tale. Do you think we are more at risk of spiritual sleepwalking now than in earlier periods of time?

Yes. While there are plenty of examples of healthy spirituality in America, many people seem to compartmentalize God to Sundays and go about their lives the rest of the week—this is spiritual sleepwalking for sure. Many missiologists will tell you that the force and power of the Gospel witness has moved from North America to the global South. In North America, church is not the community of reference and support it once was—it’s viewed as optional. In my view, the more homogenous the church is, the more prone we are to sleepwalk.

We are never more spiritually healthy and alive than when people know our God and faith by the way we love the marginalized.

Diversity calls us out of this complacency and gives fresh perspectives. In our day, I think we could use a repentance revival as described in Isaiah 58. This passage is a wake-up call to match our care for the marginalized to our commitment to any other spiritual discipline. We are never more spiritually healthy and alive than when people know our God and faith by the way we love the marginalized.

It is hard to get the political climate of recent years out of mind when reading your take on American Christian monoculture. No demographic seems to be safe from finding itself in a “silo.” Can you say more about getting out of our cultural silos for self-preservation? How do you advise people who are stuck in cultural silos?

Max DePree once said that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Leaders especially must clearly articulate what is not being seen—this means speaking through the silos and systemic self-preservation. Prophetic critique has been essential in keeping the church on mission throughout its history.

Today, I think we need to choose individual responsibility over corporate safety. People must own their own beliefs rather than accepting whatever political platform or doctrinal statement that feels comfortable. We each have a responsibility to love others and seek justice, so before we start calling out the “evil in our society,” we must examine ourselves and our own actions to see if we’re part of the problem.

Your “missional matrix,” four quadrants representing world population in relation to the self is incredibly fascinating.

One quadrantnear and differentis the focus of this book, and what you call the “new Samaria,” those we must learn best to live and thrive with because they are literally our neighbors. But how can we distill the entirety of human diversity into these basic qualities without losing all the brilliance and texture that contributes to cultural understanding? Doesn’t the missional matrix omit a lot?

The missional matrix does omit much. It’s a tool for seeing general gaps. It is not a summary of how to see all communities, but it can be a helpful reality check for leaders to assess who isn’t at the table or who isn’t being served. I wanted to provide a simple way of understanding the problem, and the missional matrix points out that most people will help everybody except neighbors near but different to us. From there, we’re better equipped to explore the unique communities in each quadrant and work to love and serve them better.

Readers with different religious leanings could find many thoughtful analogs to the culture at large in your book. Most notably, to embrace globalism we must, ironically, love our neighbor and learn to greet and see the “other” as we wish to be seen. What is the most challenging barrier to this sort of cultural humility?

I think there are three key barriers. The first is simply the failure to see the inherent value in all humans. For Christians, this is the call to see the image of God in all people. When we let other identities get in the way of seeing others clearly, cultural humility becomes nearly impossible.

Second, lack of adaptivity in leadership is a barrier to cultural humility. If leaders are to define reality, they must see the changing demography of our nation and invite those diverse voices to the table.

Third, seeking what is comfortable is a barrier to cultural humility. Confronting the pain of the marginalized and our possible role in their pain is not comfortable, but it is necessary.

What are you most optimistic about for the next, say, five years?

I’m excited about our changing demographics and growing diversity! I’m optimistic about the young leaders that will adapt and take us forward. Younger generations are tuned into these changes and embrace diversity. They are dissatisfied with older generations’ inability to adapt, and I’m confident that young leaders will face the coming challenges bravely. Most of all, I’m optimistic because God is at work, as he always has been.

Read our review of Alejandro Mandes’ Embracing the New Samaria: Opening Our Eyes to Our Multiethnic Future in our July/August 2021 issue.

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