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My wife and I were taking the long way to an errand the other day. The long way to an errand is, in the language of frustrated wives, a husband who is lost. In the language of navigator husbands it simply means “I missed my turn” or “Your directions weren’t clear.” Or it could mean, “DC streets make no sense at all. You can see where you want to go but there’s literally no road that gets you there.” You see, husbands are never lost.

At any rate, on the way back from the errand we talked a little bit about how the kids were adjusting to the move. We’re both overwhelmed at God’s rich grace to us in the move back to the States. Aside from a lost passport and a shipping container that seems to be powered by men with oars, we’ve seen nothing but blessing from God and His people. And we’re having a great time seeing the country through the eyes of our children.

The girls commented the other day that “everybody sounds alike.” We hadn’t noticed, so Kristie asked what they meant. They meant everybody sounds alike. To them, everyone has the same accent.

The last eight years in Cayman has meant interacting with people from all over the world. The Cayman Islands is easily the most diverse, multi-ethnic community we’ve ever lived in. At 22 x 7 miles and 55,000 residents, this island nation is home to over 110 nationalities! And because it’s a small island, it refuses to allow its residents to balkanize into ethnic conclaves. People freely interact and intermarry all the time everywhere. The result is a delicious blend of melodious speech. Grand Caymanians report different accents from each of its districts, not to mention the different sounds between “Brackers” and Grand Cayman. It’s the kind of place where you can develop an ear for accents.

Honestly, I didn’t develop as fine an ear as I wanted. Irish accents still sounded British to me. Neither my Irish or British friends really appreciated the confusion, though they politely corrected me. And then there were those folks who “looked” European but were South American, or who looked to be of Spanish descent but were Eastern European, given away only by the cadence and lilt of their speech. The diversity was dizzying and the accents delightful.

 

Apparently my girls think everyone in America sounds alike. I wonder if they all sound like their mother, who was recently told she had a “rich southern accent.” We just call it “country.” Or does everyone sound like they’re from New Joisey or Baaston? Or perhaps everyone sounds plain, non-descript, as if they all had the same monotone diction coach.

But perhaps the issue isn’t accents as much as it is access. Compared to the Cayman Islands, my girls have come back to a largely segregated community. Of course DC is about as diverse an American city as you’ll find. There are people here from everywhere. But, comparatively speaking, there seems to be less interaction across ethnic lines. There are entire ethnic areas or communities here instead of the swirling mix of peoples in Cayman. There’s a consciousness of space and place here that simply wasn’t the case in Cayman. So I wonder if everyone sounds alike because, well, everyone is largely alike, because the diverse peoples in the States still by-and-large “stick to their kind” in social settings.

Or maybe everybody sounds alike because there’s significant cultural pressure to acquire English and to lose accents? Perhaps people have internalized the hegemonic notion that “This is America; speak English!” And speak it without an accent.

What a loss. Linguistic diversity doesn’t necessarily lead to the babbling of Babel. It can, as Revelation reminds us, issue forth in a great chorus of praise to God.

Which brings me to the church. By God’s grace, one place the girls can hear a few different accents is at our local church. I don’t know how many nationalities are currently represented here. In Cayman there were about 30. I’d guess there’s at least that many here nowadays. In Cayman many of those 30 nationalities were first generation immigrants to the country. In the U.S., many–though not all–tend to be second or third generation. I suspect some of these persons have lost their accents as a matter of generational integration. Nevertheless, the church is a place where people should sound differently. The local church ought to be an assembly where sounding different is prized. It’s a community of people that should, in fact, develop ears for hearing every tongue–not just in praise to God but in conversation afterwards. The church should be the most multi-ethnic place on earth because the God of all nations is putting together for himself a people of all nations–in the local church.

It’s interesting to come back to some of the multi-ethnic church conversation in the States. To get right to the point, it doesn’t sound very multi-ethnic to me. Accents are missing. Definitions are weak. Someone has decided that to be a multi-ethnic church is to have at least 20 percent of the membership be ethnically different from the majority. Now, that’s a whole heck of a lot better than 90/10 or 100 percent one ethnicity in a community that hosts many people groups. But why 20 percent? Why not 30 percent or 50 percent?

And can we legitimately be called “multi-ethnic” if there are only two groups to speak of–White and Black, or White and Hispanic, or Black and Hispanic? Isn’t that more accurately “bi-ethnic”? Are we “multi-ethnic” if the majority still sees the church as “their church” and see themselves as “welcoming others to their church”? Shouldn’t the goal of “multi-ethnic churches” be to be so diverse that no super-majority exists, that there’s a kind of  parity in the numbers of groups and persons in the groups such that “predominantly” no longer adjectivizes (I made that word up) the noun “church”?

And what are the politics and problems of dividing the entire congregation into “the majority” (up to 80%) and “the rest of them”? Isn’t the “20 percent” sometimes a way of simply saying “other” rather than actually seeing, knowing, and embracing the ethnic?

By the way, who decides such things? Who gets the right to choose the percentage or set the bar? I suppose some really thoughtful people had to arrive at some criteria because, well, they thought we needed a criteria. But who rethinks what the thinkers think when they tell us how we should count or include people? Seems a bit too important to simply imbibe without reflection and debate.

Which brings me back to accents (not really, but I need to close this post). I want my children to continue to hear different lilts and melodies when others speak. I want them to know the sounds of the world, to pick up on and enjoy the variegated patterns of speech God has gifted to humanity (for even the curse of Babel gets turned into a gift through Christ’s redemption and the church). I want them to enjoy the click languages of southern Africa, the patois of the Caribbean, the nasally consonants of New England, the song of Welsh speakers, and the romance of Latin accents and everything else. For that to happen, there’s got to be the genuine mixing of people in loving community–both the community outside the church, but especially inside the body of Christ. I’ll be listening for accents come Sunday.


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3 thoughts on “Coming (Back) to America: Accents”

  1. Brandon M. says:

    Hi Dr. Anyabwile,

    I agree with you, that most churches can benefit by becoming more ethnically diverse. The church I attend is predominantly white, but it’s located in a small suburb which is a bit of a melting pot.

    That brings me to my point/question: Shouldn’t the local church we attend look like the community it’s located in?

    For instance, if a particular church is located in a predominantly Latino region, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for that church to be composed of mainly Latinos. Yes, I think the Great Commission calls us to reach out to all ethnic groups. But in the example given above, I don’t think the church, located in a highly Latino region, should feel “guilty” if their attendance on Sunday morning reflects the makeup of the community: mainly Latino. So in this case wouldn’t a ratio of 90/10 be appropriate?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I love to read your blog. It’s always thought provoking and encouraging. No worries if you can’t reply; God bless, brother.

    P.S.: I apologize in advance for any hardship the D.C. community faces after the Eagles beat the Skins in week three of the NFL season, lol !

  2. Susana Bowerman says:

    Pastor Thabiti,

    Thank you for this post! I suddenly find my self appreciating the diversity in Cayman Islands even more!

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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