Preaching as ‘An Act of Welcome’

snapshot-20110115Sofia Betancourt teaches “Preaching in a Multicultural Context”,
a one-week intensive course at Starr King.

What is a preacher’s most important asset? Knowledge of various scripture? A compelling physical presence in the pulpit? Poetic writing? A speaking voice that resounds?

According to the Rev. Sofia Betancourt, none of this matters as much as the preacher’s skill at listening. “Preaching well is knowing who is in your community and building relationships with them,” says Betancourt. “We need to start [our ministries] by spending two years in a parish listening to the voices in our community.”

Since graduating from Starr King in 2003, Betancourt, 35, has been a parish minister and director of Racial and Ethnic Concerns for the UUA. She is now seeking a doctorate at Yale University in religious ethics and African-American studies. She was back in Berkeley this month leading a week-long intensive course entitled, “Preaching in a Multicultural Context.”

Her class objective was clear: To show her students – which included members of the AME and Catholic churches as well as UUs — that they preach most effectively when they understand the culture of their congregants. “Preaching is an act of welcome,” Betancourt says. “The words and images we use, even our nonverbal communication, mean different things to different groups of people.”

In some communities, for example, congregants expect ministers to preach without notes, their sermons arising from a combination of careful preparation and in-the-moment inspiration. In other communities, congregants value cogent intellectual argument over spontaneity. Understanding such values, Betancourt says, results in the foundation of good preaching: an authentic relationship between minister and congregation. Her course culminated with each student delivering a full sermon and receiving honest feedback from the instructor and other students.

Betancourt, a native New Yorker with roots in Panama and Chile, says she believes Starr King is a leading positive force in UU multiculturalism. “Starr King is trying to shape a conversation that has long historic roots in Unitarian Universalism,” she said. “We have a lot more work to do to get it right, to really arrive at the place that we dream and hope and pray about. I am committed to that vision. That’s why I’m here and why I will be back again.”

In addition to offering Betancourt’s class during the current January intersession, SKSM is offering intensive courses in UU history; women’s spirituality and social change; African goddesses; and media skills for ministers. For more information on Starr King’s course offerings, visit our website:
SKSM Course Schedule.