The Best of Intentions
Last Saturday, we held an engaging event organized by our Family, Children, and Youth (FamChY) Ministry: celebrating el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. People of all ages gathered to enjoy Mexican crafts, pan de muertos (a sweet Mexican bread), Mexican hot chocolate, and other snacks, and to participate in a ceremony honoring loved ones who have died. We read aloud passages that illuminated the history of this holiday and the meanings of various symbols, and people shared heartfelt reflections about their departed friends and family members. A beautiful altar was adorned with Mexican fabrics and folk art, marigolds, and photos of loved ones. What a wonderful way to honor this Mexican tradition!
Or was it?
Over the past several years, like many progressive individuals, I’ve become more attuned to instances of cultural appropriation. Until recently, I had understood this concept in a more limited sense — as portrayals of other cultures in ways that disrespect or ridicule them, like dressing up as a particular ethnicity for Halloween. Surely our spirit-filled, thoughtfully and lovingly prepared Dia de los Muertos celebration wasn’t like that! After all, the church member who initiated the event years ago, Becky Wright, spends lots of time in Mexico, and she brings the motivation and materials for the event from a place of deep love and respect for Mexican culture and traditions.
However, Becky and the other FamChY members leading the event are not of Mexican heritage. By definition, cultural appropriation occurs when members of one culture adopt something from another culture, and it is particularly problematic when the traditions of a disadvantaged minority are presented by members of the dominant culture. Becky and I have taken time this past month to talk with people and read about cultural appropriation in its many forms, and we were saddened to realize that our beloved church event can be construed in this category.
We addressed the matter at our FamChY meeting on Sunday, and we decided to stop holding the Dia de los Muertos event at our church, perhaps encouraging people to attend local events led by Mexican Americans instead. We deeply regret any offense we may have caused to people of Mexican heritage in having held this event over the past few years. Recognizing the comfort that many of us have taken from honoring our loved ones with our church family, we’re looking toward other ways of doing that in the future — examples abound in our own Christian tradition!
God loves us even in our imperfections and mistakes, and helps us to grow in understanding and inclusiveness. May we continue to be enlightened throughout our lives.