“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” -- Acts 2:3-4
Serving at General Conference has made me long for a return to Pentecost, when the power of the Holy Spirit allowed the early disciples to understand each other, regardless of which languages they spoke. This year 41 percent of the delegates are from other countries (up from 25 percent in 2008), and most of them do not speak English as their first language. As you walk through the convention center, you can hear a beautiful mix of Swahili, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Korean, just to name a few. Yesterday’s opening worship featured a plethora of languages, and we were always encouraged to respond in our native tongue. What a gift to be surrounded by Christians from around the world!
Unfortunately, most of the time our interactions feel more like the tower of Babel. Having spent time in other countries, I know how challenging it is to follow what’s happening around you, let alone when communication gaps occur. Aside from the Daily Christian Advocate, much of the conference literature is not reproduced in these other languages. Today a verbal announcement was made about a change in the schedule, but some of the international delegates followed the printed schedule, meaning they ended up in the wrong rooms for the afternoon session.
Even when our international colleagues can understand the words, the cultural context is often so dramatically different that it’s hard to explain. Yesterday I sat in on an orientation for female delegates and helped to translate for two women, one from the Ivory Coast, the other from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had to describe some nuances in the definition of “pornography” in our Book of Discipline. Let’s just say I was using words I don’t often use in English, let alone French. At the end of our session, the leader of our small group announced she was a lesbian and encouraged us to vote in the way of inclusion. The women with me had never met someone who was openly homosexual, let alone a woman who was a federal judge and a faithful member of the Church.
At one point during a legislative session today, the delegates were arguing procedural points and trying to take a vote. Everyone was getting frustrated. A man from Korea in the back of the room started singing, “God is so good,” and everyone joined in, each in his or her native tongue.
And I thought there just might be hope for us yet.