What does cultural identity have to do with the faith formation of young people?
This is especially true for the youth and young adults of the United Ghanaian Community Church (UGCC) in Wyncote. Chartered in 2001 as the first African immigrant congregation in the PCUSA, their culture and heritage are inextricably linked to youth discipleship programs extending to members up to age 30. “Identity for us is extremely important because we believe that when you lose your culture [and] your language, then you have no identity anymore,” remarked founding pastor, Rev. Dr. Kobina Ofosu-Donkoh. “So our focus is [for our youth] to know Christ within the context of being Ghanaian.”
Aware of the pressure for each generation to assimilate to the dominant culture around them, UGCC fosters intentional conversations about life as immigrants in this country, coordinates worship experiences that incorporate Ghanaian traditions, and regularly studies the Scriptures in their native languages. UGCC also sends, with the support of a Great Ends Grant, over 65 young people to their national Ghanaian youth conference to celebrate their faith and shared cultural identity. Along the way, UGCC empowers youth and young adults to lean into what it means to be both distinctly Christian and uniquely Ghanaian in America. “We want them to grow up knowing that there is an extended family somewhere, that they belong,” added Rev. Dr. Ofosu-Donkoh. “If they do not know where they come from, they do not know where they are going either.”
As UGCC walks alongside the next generation in discovering both where they have come from and where they may be headed, they also convene the Young People’s Guild. A bridge ministry for those ages 18-30, the Guild hinges on capacity building among post-adolescent peers as they grow into a central value of church the Ghanaian way- belonging to an extended family as a religious and social support network that strives for the well-being of all people. In efforts to pass down their cultural emphasis of community, the Guild provides fellowship, mentoring, and a robust discipleship curriculum that underscores four areas of focus with corresponding questions: faith formation (whose am I?), identity discovery (who am I?), vocational discernment (why am I?), and leadership development (how am I?). “We tell our children that they are God’s,” added Rev. Dr. Ofosu-Donkoh. “They belong to the God of their parents, the God of their forefathers, the God of their grandparents.” This traditioning of the faith emphasizes a communal understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God, embrace the beauty of their Ghanaian heritage, discover their God-given gifts best able to serve others, and to grow as leaders who “engage in acts of service, justice, and peace in the world.” Since its conception in 2011, the Guild has empowered youth and young adults to become doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, accountants, pharmacists, and preachers, each from an understanding that in becoming such they contribute to the witness of the whole body of Christ and live into the gospel for the benefit of all people.
For younger members of UGCC, the crux of this cultural identity and faith formation program is the call to love and serve their neighbor. This has been especially important for a congregation that, although predominantly Ghanaian, consists of people from various West African tribes and ecumenical traditions they may not have encountered in proximity if they lived in Ghana. The Guild serves as a reminder to young people that their neighbor, while certainly their co-worker, university classmate, or the person who lives next door, comes to them just as much in the church member worshipping in the same pew. “[In Ghana] they may not have had the opportunity to come that close, but here we are,” affirmed Rev. Dr. Ofosu-Donkoh. “So we try to teach [our youth and young adults] that regardless of one’s [ethnic] background…[your] neighbor is the person next to you who may not necessarily be your blood relative, your tribesman, or kinsman.” The same holds true of those sharing a hymnal or seat on the bus to the next youth gathering who may not be Presbyterian, rather Methodist, Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal. As members of the Guild reflect on those four critical formation questions, the playing field is leveled. They remember their neighbor is contemplating the same questions with responses just as valued, each belonging to the God who followed their ancestors from Ghana to Wyncote.
One of the great challenges for the church is to embrace the abundant ways the image of God is reflected in diverse ethnicities, cultural traditions, and international heritages that make up the human family. As the Confession of Belhar affirms, “the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God” (10.3). The ministry of United Ghanaian Community Church embodies this confessional declaration and dares our congregations to incorporate in the faith formation of youth and younger adults the varied cultures and heritages of all people in our churches and neighborhoods. The witness of UGCC even invites us to ask bold questions of identity and belonging able to shape the vocational interests of the youngest among us. In the end, the next generation discovers not only where they have come from, but also where the Spirit may be leading them next- towards a unique expressions of neighborly love. This is the fruit of cultural identity as faith formation the Ghanaian Way. Thanks be to God.
Listen to the podcast of the United Ghanaian Community Church story: