All it took was some raisins, a box of saltines and a sheet of paper to teach a group of college students a lesson about culture.
The first day of the Milwaukee Urban Plunge began with a game in which students from a number of Wisconsin universities broke into four groups, each receiving a slip of paper describing our group's made-up “culture.” I was placed in group D, a refined culture that preferred keeping a comfortable distance and discussing current events rather than getting too personal. We were visited by group A, a thrifty and hardworking culture; group B, a talkative, food-and-family-oriented culture; and group C, an elder-led hierarchical and submissive culture.
After just 15 minutes of being in character, I found myself judging group B as they insisted I eat their food (raisins) and feeling uncomfortable when they engaged me in conversation about my family. I was surprised by my reaction to the exercise – we were only acting, after all. When we had finished visiting with other groups, I debriefed with my group over saltines (our culture's preferred food). We discussed how culture brings both valuable traditions and prejudices that can influence our interactions with people who are different from us. As we let that lesson sink in, God began laying the groundwork in our hearts and minds as we began our week-long plunge into the inner city.
Joy in Diversity
The next morning, I experienced my first “plunge” of the week as I headed off to an African American church. Eager for the full experience, I confidently led my group to the front and center pews, all the while feeling self-conscious and out of place. The service leader called us to worship as the hundred-person gospel choir began to sing. My row – made up of a dozen out-of-town college kids – fumbled as we tried to clap our hands on the beat and pretended we knew the words in response to the worship leader's extemporaneous call.
And yet, awkward as we were, we loved every minute of it. There was a tangible joy in the room and we couldn't help but smile, partly at ourselves, mostly at the recognition of God's presence in the room. I laughed to myself as I compared my experience with that congregation to a typical service at my liturgical Anglican church back home and my charismatic church at school. Clearly, the God we worship transcends ethnic backgrounds, worship preferences, and the differences in our Sunday morning services.
The next day we established a rhythm for the rest of our week: morning Bible study (all of which centered around topics of justice), service work during the day, and a variety of activities in the evening. Our schedule was consistent every day except for Wednesday when we were given a mid-week Sabbath to rest, reflect and enjoy exploring the city.
The Hope is the Gospel
Our daily Bible studies helped guide us as we went through the week. One morning, we learned about true worship from Isaiah 58, in which God calls his people to not just look pious, but to live justly through caring for the oppressed. Through our time in the Word, we left with a greater understanding of the issues that afflict Milwaukee from God's perspective. Rather than looking to the world's solutions to injustice, we found that God's Word teaches us something different: that hope for redemption, reconciliation, and justice in the midst of darkness, oppression, and injustice can only come from Jesus and his work on the cross.
As I continue to process my MUP experience since returning to campus, I've been reflecting on the simple, yet transformative, message of the cross. In our short time in Milwaukee, we witnessed and heard testimony of the power of the gospel in Milwaukee. We saw unity overcoming division in a diverse body of believers, healing from physical and emotional pain, recovery from drug addiction, and small stories of change in a city afflicted by racism, poverty and violence. And, ultimately, even in a city full of brokenness, that left us with hope.