Becoming Like Creoles (Curtiss Paul DeYoung) -- A Review

BECOMING LIKE CREOLES: Living and Leading at theIntersections of Injustice, Culture, and Religion. By Curtiss Paul DeYoung. Minneapolis Fortress Press, 2019. Xii + 144 pages.

To be Creole is to be a person who exists as an intercultural and even multi-ethnic person. Creole is a term that emerged out of the French West Indies, and it’s a term that might have important implications for the contemporary church as it addresses living in an increasingly complex world. As the lead author of Becoming Like Creoles, Curtiss Paul DeYoung, writes: "Using biblical exposition in conversation with present-day Creole metaphors, cultural competency research, whiteness studies, interreligious peacemaking practices, and real-life narratives, Becoming Like Creoles seeks to awaken and prepare people of faith to live and lead in a world where injustice is real and cultural diversity is rapidly increasing" (p. xi). While there are attempts to resist this reality, it is here. The question is, how might we live in this new reality as the church and as people of faith? That is the question that this book explores.

The lead author of Becoming Like Creoles is Curtiss DeYoung, who currently serves as the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Council of Churches. He has spent much of his life as a community activist focusing on racial reconciliation and interreligious dialog, which is the focus of this book. Although DeYoung is white, he has lived much of his life in multi-racial/multi-ethnic contexts. He has served African American congregations and earned his M.Div. at Howard University School of Theology, which is a predominantly black seminary.  In addition, his spouse is African American. This background forms the foundation for his own journey toward becoming like Creoles. While he is the lead author of the book, he draws on several contributing authors, including Jacqueline Lewis, Micky ScottBey Jones, Robyn Afrik, Sarah Thompson Nahar, Sindy Morales Garcia, and ‘Iwalani Ka’ai.  

DeYoung uses the first chapter to introduce us to the concept of Creolization as first experienced in the French West Indies. He then ties this reality to cultural experiences present in the biblical story, especially the Book of Acts. He notes that Creolization is a response to oppression and colonization. Therefore, as cultures are crushed, the oppressed and colonized begin to create a new culture. He points out that “there are three primary identity dimensions of Creole culture in the Caribbean: the indigenous, the restored blackness from the African diaspora, and the remaining elements of the decolonized European. All three must be claimed and integrated into identity” (p. 9). The remainder of the book helps us understand what this involves.

Chapter two was written by Jacqueline Lewis, pastor of the multi-cultural/multi-ethnic Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. She uses the chapter to describe the congregation she leads, which is clearly one of the most diverse in the country. Her chapter serves as an example of what such a community might look like. The point here is the possibilities of radical inclusion, something few of our congregations have been able to achieve. Through worship and the arts and activism, the congregation serves as a response to racism and white supremacy.

Chapter three makes use of the story the church at Antioch as described in the Book of Acts to provide a biblical metaphor for building diverse leadership platforms. In this case, the point is that the church in Antioch brought together Jews and Greeks into one community. This gives DeYoung the opportunity to discuss the importance of critical cultural competency so that one can communicate effectively across cultural lines. In this chapter, he borrows from Milton Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, which offers six developmental stages running from denial of cultural deference to integration. The last stage is a difficult one to achieve, but adaptation, the penultimate stage is quite possible. Adaptation is about awareness, while integration speaks to one’s ability to move between cultures without effort. None of this is easy but it is an important move if one is to participate in multicultural leadership. This chapter is followed by one in which DeYoung engages with five women, who represent different cultural contexts who have experienced an integrated hybrid identity. All are persons of color who have tried to find ways of navigating a white majority American context while finding empowerment along the way. It’s important to note that what they’ve experienced is not assimilation. They have simply taken on the white majority culture.

One of the challenges presented by these conversations involves the role that those of us who are white will play. How do we understand ourselves in an increasingly diverse context, which historically has been dominated by whites through colonization and oppression? DeYoung begins by noting Jesus' engagement with Samaritans, persons who were understood to be of mixed ancestry and confused religious beliefs. Jews sought to distance themselves from Samaritans, but Jesus engaged them, and in the process he experienced transformation.  Might this be true for those of us who are white and privileged? Might we become creoles ourselves? In answer to that question, DeYoung notes that it’s not an easy process, but it’s possible. In the book, DeYoung helps us understand its possibilities and benefits for those of us who are white. To get there we who are white must experience immersion in other cultural contexts so that we might be transformed. That requires humility and a willingness to learn.

The chapter on the creolization of whites leads DeYoung to tell his own story. He tells us how he was transformed by his experiences with a black church in Harlem, where he would eventually serve as an associate pastor, as well as through his experiences as a student at the predominantly black Howard University. These experiences gave him the opportunity to become immersed in the stories and lives of others who were different from himself but who shared his faith. Through this, he was able to experience a healed white identity.

The final chapter uses the burial of Abraham by Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 25) as an entry point into the possibilities of Creolization at points of religious intersection. He asks how we might step into the identities of others who do not share our religious beliefs. These are different questions from the ones related to race and ethnicity, but they’re necessary ones as our context becomes increasingly diverse along religious lines. As one who is engaged in interfaith work, I found this to be a very helpful chapter. He helps us consider the question of how we might experience religious empathy without abandoning our core beliefs. If we can do so, then we might see the revolutionizing of our world, where healing of religious divides might take place without everyone assimilating into one religious faith tradition.

In recent years I have been reading more widely in areas dealing with diversity, racial justice, and interfaith relationships. Finding ways in which we can come together and build relationships of trust and healing, something that isn't easy to accomplish, is desirable. Books like Becoming Like Creoles give us hope as well as guidance as we move along toward Creolization. We may never get there in full, but it’s a journey worth taking. Thus, this is a book that is worth giving close attention to, that is, if we’re concerned about the future of our world.


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