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“Who is My Neighbor?”: A Conversation on Church and the Beloved Community

By January 16, 2023 2 Comments

Today, as we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream of a nation freed from racism and injustice, I’d like to feature a recent interview I did with Martha Draayer. Martha was born in Coahuila, Mexico and immigrated to Iowa at age 3 with her parents and younger sister. She graduated from Boyden-Hull and went on to receive her Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern College (Orange City, IA). Martha currently serves at Northwestern College as the Director of Intercultural Development, and she is also the co-pastor of Maria Magdalena Reformed Church in Sioux Center, a multicultural and multilingual congregation that meets in a coffee shop. Martha is also a friend and someone who is teaching me so much about the urgent gospel work of justice, healing and reconciliation.

This is Part 1 of two posts that will be featured here in the Reformed Journal Blog. Part 2 will be shared next month. This interview has been edited and condensed to fit this format.

Martha, as we honor Dr. King today, I’d be curious to hear: What does Dr. King’s dream mean to you personally, as a 1.5 generation immigrant and a leader in our region?

Dr. King was all about beloved community. And I’d love to see that dream live on and be inspired in other people. I see my community as one that continues to be ever-changing. Thirty-plus years ago, when my family first moved into our community from Mexico, there wasn’t a lot of racial and ethnic diversity. I imagine it must have felt very lonely for my parents. Being a generation 1.5 immigrant landing in Northwest Iowa, so much of who I am in my ethnic identity was clouded or ignored and not valued. For a long time I internalized that unconsciously. Dr. King embraced this idea of how beautiful the diverse kingdom is and can be, when it’s lived out. And what does it look like for a community to thrive together—not just in one way but in the multiple ways it embraces? For me personally, that’s what I reflect on with Dr. King: “Where is there room for growth in my community and what is my little piece that I can do to help inspire or propel?” One of the big things I think about is this question, “How can we be good neighbors?’”

And why do you feel like that question is so critical?

If more of the community could see that there are people within their same town who are having a different experience than their own, that would impact the way they evaluate how they are or aren’t being a good neighbor to the people around them. Sometimes I think we get siloed with only the people in our vicinity. You just have to cross the railroad tracks to see that there are pretty significant differences with the experiences of our community members, even within a small town. So the challenge is to start thinking more broadly about “Who is my neighbor?”—not just in physical proximity to me but in my larger community. And are my neighbors getting to access the same things I am? If not, then I need to be asking questions like, “Is my community only what I immediately see around me or is it bigger than that? Why do I not know more about those around me?”

This past August, you and Jason Lief (fellow blogger for RJ) launched a new church start in Sioux Center that is multicultural and multilingual. Tell us about where that vision came from, and how it has unfolded.

The vision has many layers to it. It started years ago when I was going to a predominantly English-speaking church but my parents were more comfortable in a predominantly Spanish-speaking church, and I felt uncomfortable in both spaces. I longed to bring my whole self, not just parts of me, into my faith community. And now I have kids, and I want them to experience what the Hispanic-Latino-Evangelical Church has to offer—what it brings to the table in white spaces and having its own space to embrace its unique identity.

I’d always thought, “This is just too hard to bring together two separate languages and cultures.” And then Jason and I went to Kansas City for a conference, and we got to see this multicultural, bilingual vision played out with a small church in the city! They made it feel so welcoming toward a variety of perspectives, cultures and races. And they were all striving for this worship service that honored God. While it was very imperfect, it was beautiful to see. That was the impetus behind imagining how we could do something like this in our own community. To see Revelation 7 lived out—“Every tribe, tongue and nation”—was the driving force behind it. I don’t want to minimize how difficult and challenging it is. But how beautiful to see and feel and experience multiple languages in a worship service! We have all kinds of Christians coming together and when you hear not just Spanish and English being spoken but Mandarin and other languages mixed in too, my spirit listens differently. My heart aligns differently. And I feel like more senses are being invited to participate in worship.

Martha leading worship at Maria Magdalena in the Fruited Plain Cafe, Sioux Center, IA.

I love the name of the church — “Maria Magdalena Reformed Church.” Why did you decide on that name?

It was actually Jason who put it forth, and I wasn’t so sure about it at first! We had been talking about women of the Bible, and we had talked about lots of different names. We were drawn to Mary Magdalene because she was an outsider who was marginalized, but she was also the first to share the gospel as a disciple. We changed it to Spanish to reflect a Spanish-speaking RCA church, but its so easily transferrable—you can understand it in multiple languages. And I think it’s just a beautiful story of how this woman believed and followed Christ and was discipled. That’s a big part of the mission of our church: How do we be disciples and then make disciples?

MLK famously said that the most segregated hour in the U.S. is Sunday morning–referring to how homogenous most of our churches are. MMRC has a radically different vision for what it means to be Christ’s body. Tell us about that vision and why it’s so important.

I think Dr. King was absolutely right! You look at our churches now, and I’d say that statement still rings true. On Sunday mornings we all disperse to our separate spaces. I do truly believe in a church home. But whatever church we’re a part of, it doesn’t have all the answers. And we can’t have the full vision of who Christ is, and who God is, because he’s so much more complex than that. We each have a different puzzle piece of who God is and how he’s reflected in different people, styles of worship, sets of beliefs, and so forth. And we have the opportunity to learn from one another.

But instead of seeing this as an opportunity to learn, it often becomes about who’s “wrong” and who’s “right.” That’s one of the challenges I would name. This idol of certainty, that we have it all figured out. But what if we could say to each other, “This is how I see God. Can I learn more about how God has revealed himself to you?” Ultimately, this is the vision of living into a multilingual, multicultural worship space. I get to see how different people from different languages and ethnicities experience God and draw near to each other.

More than a necessity, I think it’s a gift. It’s a gift that God has given us each other to get to learn more about his heart. His heart for the nations. His heart for a diverse, multi-colored kingdom. Someday heaven will come down to earth. How cool to start that process now—living out this vision right here and now of a God who will make all things new!

Eating together is an important part of worship and fellowship at MMRC. Tell us about that.

Yes! One of the ways that culture is reflected is through food. As a Latina, we gather around food a lot! That was something that I really wanted to incorporate when we were dreaming about MMRC. I wanted a space and opportunity for communion with one another all the time. So it’s this fellowship of gathering around the table and centering our conversations on our community and getting to know one another on a deeper level.

When we enter churches sometimes, at least for me, it’s just “going in” and “going out.” But am I leaving changed? Am I leaving transformed? Part of the vision around the table is, “Are we communing with God and one another and learning to live together as a different people?” And eating together not just on Sunday but during the week. It’s about being the familia of God—and stretching our hospitality to include those outside our typical “familia.” It’s really about radically embracing all our neighbors!

It’s pretty cool to be living this dream out. And I’m just so grateful to God.

Part 2 of this interview with Martha will be posted next month.

The Draayer Family: Dan, Martha, Jaylee, Emmet, and Ellie.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


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