25 May 2021
A few years ago I was looking for a text from the Scriptures to mark the beginning of my mission among the Italians of West London. I prayed and reflected, and was inspired by the only text I felt could be a Manifesto for this little Italian community in Chiswick: the event of Pentecost as told in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact Pentecost is the Christian Manifesto of inclusivity and hospitality. We are all equal in Christ Jesus, so it means a welcome to different cultures, languages, traditions and customs as encouragement, rather than obstacles, toward communion.
So Pentecost is a powerful symbol of unity within diversity.
The image of people of all languages hearing their very own language from the mouths of the apostles is emblematic of what Pentecost really means, and is absolutely marvellous.
Languages are no longer obstacles between people, but transmit faith through the Holy Spirit. Everyone hears the same message and understands it without needing a translation. If this is not the spirit of Pentecost, then what is!
The message of faith carried by the Holy Spirit is universal. It speaks a language that anyone can understand. It is the language of love and freedom, and also a powerful acknowledgement of our human condition: that we all belong to the same humanity. We all love and suffer, laugh and cry, fight for justice and search for happiness.
However, Pentecost could also be seen as an idyllic and unique experience.
As expats we all have gone through the sometimes painful experience of having to learn a new language, of deciphering cultural codes and adapting to different customs and traditions, of feeling stupid when we could barely follow a conversation or when people could barely understand us. Sometimes that meant being victims of misunderstandings, large and small.
I still remember that when someone used to say to me: “What I would suggest you do is…” I’d usually take it as a suggestion, while in fact it was more a gentle way of saying: “This is what you have to do.” And I can’t tell you how many other gaffes I made while learning Spanish in Argentina: I have a fine collection of them in my memory! For those of us who have lived for a short or long period of time abroad, this is not a novelty.
We might say the same about some very peculiar Italian expressions or words. John Peter Sloan, a well-known English writer and stand-up comedian, who was fluent in Italian because he was in love with Italy and Italian culture, recalled in one of his comedy shows, how Italians use words that mean a lot in Italian, but need a lot of explanation to an English audience. I’ll give you an example: Bo… , which translated into English would probably need a long sentence like: “I don’t really know what to say.” (But it still doesn’t really convey the meaning, does it!)
Similarly the concept of rudeness varies from culture to culture . The same gesture might mean two very different things in two different cultures. For instance, Albanians shake their heads right to left to say “Yes” and nod to say “No”, while in the English and Italian cultures we do the opposite, and get completely lost in a conversation with Albanians.
Sometimes they are either funny or embarrassing and can provoke serious misunderstandings.
How can we live Pentecost nowadays? I mean in a way that it is meaningful. It is indeed challenging! Faith intended as unity within diversity may need empathy, reciprocal listening and good sense of humour in order to be real and not just an idealistic image of Christianity.
Quino, the creator of Mafalda, the Argentinian comic character that became famous all over the world, also drew a series of comic characters to express very diverse topics: from justice to education to love. One was about cultural and ethnic diversity. In his vignette you see a man of clearly western European origin who comments upon different ethnic groups: an Indian, African, Chinese and Arab family, and says:
“Globalization made us aware of one thing. People from other cultures and ethnicities fall in love like us, they make love like us, and have children whom they love like we do; they need music to express themselves, dance and have fun just like us, and cry for their sorrows with tears like ours and laugh with laughter very much like us, they watch films like we do. And this proves that these people -apparently so different from us- are actually like us!” Then he pauses for a moment, looks at them and says: “Well, it sounds simple to say ‘they are like us’! How long is it going to take us to say ‘We are like them!’
Pentecost is a powerful reminder to us that faith should be always grounded in respect and acceptance of other cultures without trying to absorb or change them.. Pentecost is less about adapting others to us, to our cultures, customs and traditions, and more about acknowledging their diversity, and respecting it without the need to change it. This is certainly a challenge for any culture, the Christian community and society as a whole: to make our churches and our communities spaces where people can truly be listened to, and where we feel both equal and diversely blessed in Christ. This is what it means to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, listening and understanding.
Pentecost means walking side by side, not one in front of the other, or even worse one on top of the other. It is a human, Christian and spiritual dynamic that we are called to proclaim enthusiastically to the world, and to live it out in our daily lives. This is crucial if we wish to build a society grounded in inclusivity.
At Pentecost we face an important choice in our lives: to be men and women who long for a listening heart, and walk side by side with others to build a church where understanding and peace are the fundamentals of our way of living. It is an invitation to counterbalance the destructive forces of Babel, the symbol of disunity and misunderstanding, which can turn into hate and violence, and raise walls instead of building bridges. Therefore, in the light of Pentecost, we understand that this is the evangelical logic behind all our actions, but we need to be convinced and become active witnesses of it.
Let’s embrace Paul’s words to the Ephesians :
For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:14)
If Christ has broken down the wall that divides people from one another, who are we to build new ones? The logic of the Gospel strongly opposes this perverse logic and offers an alternative that we can all follow.