I must have been about 10 when I first went to Disneyland in Southern California around 1968. Going to Disneyland was a dream come true for me. My parents scraped and saved to make this trip possible.
Like every other preadolescent child, I bought my mouse ears, but what I really wanted was a Mickey Mouse bike license plate with my name on it. How cool would that be? I could just imagine myself riding my bike through the streets of New York with an actual Disneyland license plate.
I looked for the object of my infatuation in every store on Disneyland’s Main Street. I would go straight to the display of license plates that were arranged in alphabetical order. Starting at the M’s, I would search for my name: Michael, Michelle, Mickey, Mike–but no Miguel. Oh well, maybe a Mickey Mouse cup with my name. Same thing: No Miguel. In fact, on all the souvenirs with names on them, there was no Miguel to be found, nor any other Hispanic name for that matter.
It soon became apparent to me that I simply did not belong, unless I was to renounce what my identity has thus far been and become “Mike.” At a young age I was reminded that what Euroamericans take for granted was beyond my reach, I would always be an outsider, a foreigner.
To a certain extent I think Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, felt the same way. For years he had worshipped the God of Israel, but there was no place for a person with a Gentile name. The nametags laid out on the table of the Jewish synagogue of his time probably had names like Caiaphas and Caleb, but no Cornelius.
Nevertheless Cornelius got saved. For the first time, a Gentile–a people considered unclean by the pure Jews–is accepted by God and now wants to join the early church of Acts.
I can only imagine what went on during that church business meeting to decide if Cornelius could become a member. I have no doubt that at least one person at that meeting must have thought to him or herself: “Well, there goes the neighborhood. Once we let one of those kind in, the floodgates will burst open and they all going to want to join us. Before long, they will change the ethos of our community. We may end up as a Gentile religious movement.”
Whenever you allow the undesirables to join your church, the church will change–not only will the individual be converted, but simultaneously, so will the church. Traditions and rules will be challenged. The sense of security that comes with a homogenous group will be threatened and undermined.
When we read the Book of Acts, all too often we misinterpret the book’s central thesis. Most of us have been taught that Acts is the story about how the church converted the world to Jesus Christ. In reality, the book of Acts is the story as to how the church constantly had to be converted in order to make the message of Jesus Christ relevant to a hurting and spiritually hungry world.
The church begins its conversion process at Pentecost when a crowd of 3,000 from diverse nations joins the church in Acts 2. The church is again forced to convert in Acts 6 when it fails to keep the Hellenized Jews, who are relegated to second-class citizens, from preaching God’s word. By Acts 9 it is again forced to convert when it welcomes former Christian-bashers like Saul as allies. We see the church in Acts 10 again needing conversion with the acceptance of Cornelius the Gentile into the faith community. And once again it is forced to convert in Acts 16 when the woman Lydia becomes the head of the church at Philippi.
The Book of Acts shows how God’s Holy Spirit taught the early church how to constantly welcome and accept those who were seen as having no claim to God’s promise of salvation.
All too often those at the centers of power and privilege look to the margins of society, asking people there to change, to conform and to assimilate to the way the dominant culture does religion. This is how the book of Acts has traditionally been read. We have the truth and if you want to get saved and be part of our faith community, then you must become like us and forsake everything that your inclusion can offer to enrich our entire community. If indeed truth resides in the center, then the margins are the ones that must be converted in order to obtain truth and enter into fellowship with God and God’s people.
Fortunately for us the account in Acts subverts the self-imposed religious superiority of the early church. As the first Christian church encountered the rest of the world, it was forced to change, to become multicultural so that others could come into a salvific relationship with the God of the universe, not just with the Jewish culture of that first church.
Since being a small boy I have returned to Disneyland and to Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla. I took my children several times, and no doubt I will one day bring my grandchildren. During one of the last times I attended, I walked into a store on Main Street and went straight to the bike license plates. There, under the M’s was Miguel.
The availability of a license plate with my name on it may be due to some type of consciousness-raising which occurred in corporate America. Frankly, I suspect that there are so many Hispanics visiting the theme park that some corporate marketing person had the brilliant idea that if they were to engrave Latino/as names on souvenirs, they would make more money.
Our presence forced the Magic Kingdom to convert. In the same way, the presence of marginalized people in our churches will force the spiritual kingdom to also convert. I went ahead a brought a license plate with my name on it–even though I no longer have a bike.
I bought it to remember the past and hope for the day of total inclusion. The work started in Acts continues still. And I am quite certain that the One who began this good work will see that it is finished. Amen.
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.