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Reconciliation in Riverside: Reaching People While Reflecting Diversity

6 months ago written by

Kimchichanga. It makes our mouths water even as we type it. It’s the name of one of the most delicious fusion restaurants in our beloved city of Riverside, California. Kimchi is the name of the unique spicy fermented cabbage that Koreans are known for making and eating with almost every meal. Changa derives from the word for chimichanga, a Mexican deep-fried burrito filled with meat or beans and topped with salsa, sour cream or guacamole.

We visited Riverside four years ago to check out the city and to pray about whether God was leading us there for our next appointment as co-pastors of a church. As we pulled our car into Kimchichanga for the first time, it felt like we were coming home. We felt our hearts strangely warmed as we ate at a restaurant that took the best of both of our cultures’ foods and paired them together to make one gigantic Korean deep-fried burrito. It was like a magical ingredient that we hadn’t even realized was missing in our lives had been introduced to us for the first time in the most remarkable combination to produce a new flavor. Riverside is one hour east of Los Angeles and over the years, the influences of both Asian and Mexican food and culture has seasoned the city with its many flavors and spices. When we have a craving for tacos, we get to decide between Korean tacos, Japanese tacos, fish tacos, Mexican street tacos, or just plain fast-food tacos. The multifariousness of food in our town is astonishing and points to only one example of the diversity of the people and cultures in Riverside.

When we toured the city, Joe was excited to see the low-rider cars in the driveways and the retro, old-school barber shops. Soo Ji was enamored with the sunny, warm climate and the vast amount of boba tea cafes. We fell in love with the neighborhood where our church is located and know that God planted our church in a community full of people of all colors, backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and socioeconomic class for a purpose: to make disciples of all people and nations through the ministry of reconciliation. We believe in reconciling people back to God as well as people back to each other.

We believe that local churches should reflect the diversity and ethnicities of their communities in order to reach all people with the whole gospel. In a world that is divided, torn and bleeding because of hateful rhetoric, hostile political views and the rise of hate crimes, we believe that the best way to demonstrate God’s heart for all people is for churches to become engaging places of worship, discipleship and transformation for all people. Barriers between people groups must be broken down in order for God’s people to be reconciled back to each other and ultimately back to God. Christianity has never been just a “God and me” relationship. Salvation has never been the egocentric, narcissistic, self-opinionated doctrine that we preach today. It’s always been about dying to self and reaching others who are very different from us!

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:14–18).

A Colorful Mosaic

The Apostle Paul reminds us in Ephesians that Jesus reconciled both Jew and Gentile and made them one body through the work of the cross. How much more is Jesus dying to do this for different people groups in our world today? We must continue to tear down the barriers that keep us from being the new humanity that God intends for us to be in Jesus Christ. Sin does not discriminate, but for some reason, we as followers of Christ do. We continue to discriminate against others based solely upon skin color, ethnicity, gender, disabilities or social class. We look down on people and have contempt for something about their language, culture or traditions that we don’t understand. If our churches are filled with bias and disunity around issues of race, how can we offer the hope of the gospel to a world that is trying to respect and celebrate each other’s cultural backgrounds and believes that people can do that without the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ? As Christ-followers, we must live out this gospel of peace, not just preaching about it or reading about it in a magazine article.

In the Bible, olive trees were used as symbols for the people of God who were split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 11:16). So can those who are a different race be part of the people of God? Paul writes to the Gentiles to let them know that the moment that they come to faith in Jesus, they become a part of the Jewish olive tree. Gentiles are grafted into the tree and take on the ancestry of Jesus Christ when they take on faith in Christ (Romans 11:24). No matter your background, we are truly one in Christ, one people group, one race, united together to more fully represent a God who died for all nations.

Could it be that Adam and Eve — as the first couple to be made in the image of God — were not the light-skinned, brown-haired couple that we grew up seeing in our children’s Bibles? Could it be that one of them was fair-skinned with light blond hair and the other dark-skinned with curly black hair? Could it be that the family of God and His spirit of sonship and adoption are more fully represented in the family that chooses to adopt children that are not of the same ethnic heritage as the parents?

Whether the couple is white and the children are black or the couple is biracial and the children are mixed, could it be that the very nature of our diverse God is more fully represented when the church of God is a colorful mosaic made up of all nations, tribes and tongues? But in order to pursue racial unity, we must learn to give up our old selves and embrace our new selves in Christ Jesus. We must be driven by the call to fulfill God’s mission together and fight against a common enemy because we are all on the same team. We let go of our cultural bias, language preference, theological differences, class or status and take a position of humility, gentleness, patience, understanding and hospitality in order to work toward unity through the Holy Spirit. We have the opportunity to do this in our church and our world by choosing to serve those who are different from us.

1 Peter 4:10 admonishes, “Each of us should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” The word various, poikilos in Greek, is actually many colored. It’s translated various, but it’s a word used to describe clothing, a colorful garment with a lot of colors that go together. Peter is writing to a group of all different ethnicities, and he calls God’s grace many colored. Could there be a better metaphor we could use for people of different cultures and races coming together for one purpose?

1 Peter is written to a bunch of very different people groups. It is not written for a group of Judeans, all the same race and religion who all believed that Jesus was the Christ. These people were not made up of the same class or ethnic group. It is written to people who are coming together because they love Jesus even though they have very little in common. They are not from the same family. They have different jobs. They have different traditions. They have different languages, and Peter is writing to them about how they can be a church despite having so little in common. Peter describes this church as coming from many nations, but now they are a new nation; they are united as one in Jesus Christ. He says that we are a new holy priesthood, coming from whatever background we had, but now with direct access to God through Jesus Christ.

United for the Kingdom

Whenever God is about to use His people in a mighty way, Satan tries to create chaos and division by dividing us in the physical. But when we are united, we are able to fight a common enemy and to fight in the spiritual. The enemy wants us divided along issues of race so we stay busy fighting each other and fail to see the true enemy within. When God unites us in the power of His Spirit, we are then able to fight our common enemy in order to advance His kingdom, not our own political agendas.

The Vietnam War took place in the ’60s when racial tension was at an all-time high in our country. Riots were taking place between whites and blacks in the U.S. but those same people were expected to fight together against their common enemy in Vietnam. It wasn’t easy, but those troops learned that if you allow race to divide you, then your true enemy will kill you. So they began to work together to see each other as brothers and sisters in arms and to have each other’s backs because they knew that was the only way that they were going to make it out alive. The same tactics that their enemy used then are the tactics that the enemy uses now. If we can unite under the blood of Christ, we will be able to fight on the battlefield and see the victory that God has already laid out for us, because in Christ we are one and are called to live lives worthy of the call.

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:1–6, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Racial unity is not a feel-good phrase to be tossed around. Racial unity has to be driven by a foundation in Jesus Christ and the gospel, but if all we want is racial unity, then we completely miss the gospel of Jesus Christ. We use words like social justice, racial reconciliation and diversity in our mission statement as if these words alone can create peace and unity. We can only experience true unity when we draw together around the cross to bring reconciliation to all people, stand against our common enemy and unite as one body — bold, beautiful, different and diverse.

As a Mexican-American and Korean-Canadian couple, we know our relationship did not start because of lack of interest in our own ethnicities or the desire to be a diverse couple. We know that God is the one who brought us together and united us because we were simply led by God to work together for the same purpose. We are united as Christ-followers who happen to be from two different cultures with a deep appreciation for where we come from, where our parents came from and for where we are going now as a Mexirean family. For us, Kimchichanga is a great example of racial unity that we find within our community. So what’s your Kimchichanga? What’s the missing ingredient in your community that would take what’s good and make it great? Who are the missing people groups in your church and in your circles that are desperately needed to complete the picture and fully demonstrate to the world what the kingdom of heaven looks like?

Our prayer for you is that you would find this magical ingredient that you may have not realized has been missing from your life.

Soo Ji and Joe Alvarez are a unique couple being used by God to reach people in the margins, bring reconciliation to the community and raise up passionate followers of Jesus Christ. Soo Ji is Korean-Canadian and Joe is Mexican-American, and they are blessed to have two “Mexirean” kids, Juaquin, their 12-year-old son and Nayara, their 10-year-old daughter. They have a wild time co-pastoring their church, California Avenue Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, where they love God and others in order to impact local and reach global.

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[Vital Signs] · Culture · God · L + L June 2020 · Magazine · US & World