The music of diversity

The guitarist quickly slips into his place next to the piano just as the big band finishes its tune-up. The food line is backing up with hungry worshipers arriving from the sanctuary where they had participated in the co-senior pastors’ final service at United Church of Chapel Hill. They have served this congregation and the surrounding community for 38 years, so emotions are high in this crowded fellowship hall.

Suddenly, The Ambassadors Big Band launches into its first piece, a crisp arrangement of April Showers, and the guitarist, the Rev. David Mateo, is ready. The versatile David (pronounced dah-veed) is United Church’s Associate Pastor of Outreach and Language Ministries, and has been a beloved, hard-working member of the church’s active staff for several years. His recent book, “Jesus Deported: The Illegal Gospel of the Undocumented Son of God,” seeks to put modern Christianity in perspective by conveying narratives in which Jesus is not the main character, but rather those in migratory suffering are.

His ministry, advanced education, and his writing provide us a context as we consider what happened to Rev. Mateo at a local shopping mall the other day. Here is his account as he posted it on social media:

“…while speaking on the phone with a member of our church in Spanish, a gentleman approached me demanding that I ‘must’ speak English, because we are in America, and here, people speak English only. He asked me if I’ve ever read Shakespeare in my life, arguing that he got a masters in European English. When I quoted from Hamlet, ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go,’ he walked away, calling me a f&$@n’ immigrant. Never imagined this could happen in Chapel Hill.”

Chapel Hill is a university town, home of the main campus of the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest public university. The town defines diversity. The faculty, staff and student body of this institution and its enormous medical center bring to the community a widely varied multicultural, multilingual population of professionals many of whom live, shop and worship in Chapel Hill. That’s just for starters. It would be hard to find a more diverse population for a Southern U.S. town of 50,000 or so. On a smaller scale, one would find it a challenge to identify a congregation more diverse than the one that worships at Rev. Mateo’s 900-plus-member church.

Makes one wonder how Rev. Mateo’s critic arrives at his belief that people here “speak English only.” The sounds of different languages rings musically in our ears here, and we all are richer for it. Count me grateful for the enrichment it provides us.

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