Rasool Berry: Finding Jesus in Other Cultures

When Our Daily Bread was seeking a host for their globe-trotting documentary series In Pursuit of Jesus last May, Rasool Berry was a natural choice. Rasool’s name means “messenger” in Arabic, and he sees himself as a cultural translator, helping people from every walk of life better understand the gospel and its cultural implications.

Rasool is teaching pastor at The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York—a church where the average age is 26—and has been on staff with Cru for over 15 years as a part of their Embark team tasked with reaching millennials. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Africana Studies and Sociology, and is currently seeking his master’s at Reformed Theological Seminary.

We caught up with Rasool to talk about his conversations with people from six nations for In Pursuit of Jesus, what he’s learned about ministering to younger generations, and how learning other people’s stories helps us to be better Christians and better people.

Tell me a little bit about your journey and how you got to The Bridge Church in Brooklyn.

I knew the pastor. James (Roberson) and I have been friends since college. We both were involved in campus ministry with Cru. Then we roomed and served together our first year in ministry at Howard University. He went on and moved immediately into more of a church ministry route, and I stayed in more the campus ministry lane, still on staff with Cru.

Then James planted Bridge about five years ago. I was living in Indiana doing ministry among musicians and artists, but was sensing a call to something new. Part of it was wanting to be stretched to engage with culture, with a global perspective on ministry. So I saw the opportunity in New York at The Bridge Church as an opportunity to do that. In addition, it was a season in which Cru was also being much more assertive in partnering with the local church. I was able to make that transition and as an expression of my ministry with Cru, serve with The Bridge Church as a pastor.

I’ve been here for four and a half years. Our church is predominantly millennial and Gen Z. The branch of Cru that I’m serving with is called the Embark network, which basically focuses on non-college students in their 20s and 30s trying to make sense of life in the city. Just to give you a picture, my wife and I were in our late 30s and we were like the young, cool couple in Indiana. We moved to New York and immediately at our church we became the old heads. The average age is like mid-20s, 26, like 80% single. And so it was like a totally different experience.

Not only were we older, but we were exposed to a congregation that was much more international—folks from all over—and much more impacted and shaped in a secular context. That’s where I started to think and really be stretched in how to do ministry in this context, which is exactly what I wanted in moving to New York.

What do you think is really at the heart of what young people want from the church?

I think we all essentially want some of the same things, but not in the same order, right? And unfortunately because we don’t hold them in the same order of priority, we can somehow think that the previous generations, or the younger generations, don’t want those things at all. And that’s not true.

With the boomer generation, and to a lesser extent my generation, Gen X, there was a higher priority on expertise, and a lower priority on transparency or vulnerability as the basis by which I get credibility from my audience or from other people.

Now it’s completely flipped. It’s the sense that people could care less about your credentials, per say, but they really care about whether you are going to be open and vulnerable with who you are. There’s just a widespread sense of distrust: scandals in the church, scandals in entertainment … so there’s a strong desire for authenticity—Can I trust that you are who you say you are? Can we dispense with all the pleasantries and be real? So that’s one thing I’ve kind of baked into our philosophy as a church.

One of the misconceptions is, OK, I have to be trendy and look cool and wear skinny jeans and all that. But that’s not the essence. Gen Z and millennials desperately want mentorship, desperately want to interact in a multigenerational environment. But they also want to see ministry be responsive to the things that they care about and that they desire to know about and to talk about. So we go into the more controversial spaces that people want a biblical perspective on, but won’t ask about for fear of offending certain people in the church. We realized it’s better to stand flat-footed, say this is what we believe the Scriptures are teaching, and then go from there.

The other thing, and this is something that I’ve learned through sitting under people like Tim Keller and his City to City church planting incubator, is that one of the reasons why church planting is such an important approach and strategy is because there’s less likely to be a rigid sense of “this is how we ought to do things, because this is how we’ve always done it” when you’re starting from scratch. When you’re starting community from scratch, you’re much more able and willing to be flexible about the things that you’re doing, because there’s not a preset traditional structure that you have to uphold, and that people are fighting for. So, we’ve been able to make adjustments.

For example, we rent space as most new churches in New York—real estate is ridiculous in this city, so imagine that on a commercial level. One time, the church that we rent space from told us they had an event that would cause them to go over what would normally be our service time. So we had to improvise, and as a result we created this thing called Soul Café. Instead of a church formula and experience, it was almost like a coffeehouse with music and a Ted Talk type style. It was an incredible success. We did it out of necessity, yet the line was out the door. So we started doing it annually as a result.

The last thing I’d say is emphasize community. Community groups—we call ours City Groups—are huge, because especially as people are delaying marriage longer and finding themselves being single, we have to have a deeper vision for community than seeing churches as a bunch of people who are trying to get married or being married and having kids and that’s it. So we have a higher theology that we’ve built about friendship, about community and trying to live that out. In general, younger people want to know that what is happening is relevant to their experience.

Your name means “messenger” and you are teaching pastor at a church called The Bridge. There seems to be a theme of making connections and building bridges here. You also grew up in a blended family. How have your experiences shaped the way you approach ministry?

On my website, I describe myself as a cultural translator. Growing up with the experiences I had: first in a broken home, then my father was murdered when I was 6, and so my mom raised my older brother and myself in an extended family without my dad. Then, in a lot of ways, I struggled with rejection as a kid, feeling like an outsider, because I was more intellectually curious, not athletic. I just was not cool in any of those ways.

People who find themselves as outsiders for any reason tend to study people. They tend to notice when other people also feel that sense of being on the outside, and they have a burden for it. They also tend to be curious about how human interaction works. That definitely was my story, and all those things were happening before I came to faith, which didn’t happen until I was 17 and had just graduated from high school, going into my freshman year at UPenn.

All of those things kind of came together. First of all, that God had made a connection with me. That first and foremost, there was this sense of him being the bridge, that Christ is the bridge that connects humanity to God through his death and his resurrection. And that was so appealing to me because I was aware of my sense of separation from God. But also, then, to see what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:19–20 where he says, “And we have received the ministry of reconciliation as if God is making his appeal through us. Be reconciled, oh man, to God.”

It really struck me that this mission of reconciliation that God accomplished through Christ on my behalf—to cover my sin, to break my shame, to make me whole—that that’s the same mission that he is on to reconcile us with each other in all of its implications as it relates to any of the walls that divide us: the socioeconomic walls, the cultural walls, the ethnic and racial walls, the financial, generational walls, all of those things. He’s looking for us to be ministers of reconciliation and to tear those walls down.

That immediately became a point of burden for me: Where can I help tear down the walls like God did for me? I have this tendency, this desire, this burden to try to help people understand the gospel better so that they can understand each other better. Because ultimately, when I read Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, God is on a mission of reconciliation. And that mission does not just go vertical, but it also goes horizontal to each other. We can only get there if we start to understand each other’s perspective, when we start to realize that we don’t have a corner on the truth.

God has other aspects, expressions, perspectives that like puzzle pieces fit together when I engage with people from other walks of life and other parts of the world, and [other generations] as well. That’s been a helpful paradigm and perspective for me as I try to reach people with the gospel.

Let’s talk about In Pursuit of Jesus. What inspired the project?

Our Daily Bread had already conceived of the project, and they asked me to be a part of it. I was immediately on board with this vision of being able to engage people all over the world to see how I would be changed by experiencing how other cultures, and people from all over the world, connect with Jesus. So I was super excited about that, obviously, in light of my background. Academically and personally that was something that was very valuable.

So, back in May, we started this process and this journey. And it is a visually stunning documentary series. It looks at Jesus’ influence across globe. The whole idea was to kind of demystify the central principles of who Jesus is. Looking at love and looking at how he changes things like injustice all through this lens of how Jesus impacts the stories all over the world.

And that was the desired outcome: How would my perspective change? How could the viewers’ perspectives of who Jesus is be in some ways stretched or challenged by being able to get up close and personal with people from six different countries?

Which countries did you visit and why did you choose the countries you did?

We shot in New York City, then we went to Sweden, Singapore, Argentina, South Africa and Israel.

Sweden is, along with Japan, one of the most secular nations in the world. And Sweden is not only the most secular, but also the most individualistic. Yet, Jesus still has what you would say a high approval rating in Sweden. Why do people still resonate with who Jesus is even in a space where they largely consider themselves secular? What does it mean to follow Jesus in a place like that?

We chose Singapore because it is considered the most religiously diverse place in the world, home to a significant amount of Buddhists (33%), Christians (18%), nonbeliever or secular is another 17%, Islam, Hinduism … all of it right there. I mean on the same block! I went down a block where I went past a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, a church, a synagogue, all on the same street. Why would people still choose Jesus in a place like that? What does it mean for Jesus to be a spiritual guide in a place like that?

In Argentina there’s this idea of liberation and Jesus as a liberator. Part of the story of Argentina is it was colonized by the Spanish, who basically had made a deal with the Catholic church to collaborate in their colonization. When Argentinians liberated themselves from Spain, many had this value and perspective that Jesus is a liberator. And they have this concept they call solidaridad (solidarity), which looks at taking care of the least of these. It’s something that permeates the culture there—as well as the best steak I’ve had in my life … you gotta add that!

South Africa was a place I felt like we needed to go because it’s fascinating in light of the history there. One, it’s such a diverse place—11 different official languages. Eleven! Of course the history of apartheid—a country that in many ways is only 26 years old. How do they think about Jesus in the context of the African value of having space for one more at the table and inclusion in a place like that, even as they try to figure out who they are as a nation?

And then Israel and Palestine. Obviously, that’s where the whole journey of Jesus started in his hometown, and where he died and resurrected, and where millions of pilgrims go. And yet, most of the people there do not identify him as Lord, but they still have some perspective of who he is. What does it look like to pursue Jesus in a place like that, and in Palestine, with all the tensions that exist geopolitically?

So we got a chance to dive in to those things and those issues and those stories. It was something that was life changing for me to be able to have these conversations with such amazing people, to taste the food, to hear the story of the nation, and to experience the culture.

What are one or two examples of big aha moments that you had on your journeys abroad?

In regard to Sweden, there’s a professor, Charles Taylor, who wrote the book A Secular Age, where he asked how did we go from being a culture in the West where it was unthinkable not to believe in God to one in which it’s unthinkable to believe in him in 500 years? One of the things he talked about is that we’re still haunted, despite the claims of this being a primitive superstition that we’ve moved beyond and evolved from because of science and education. In spite of all those claims, our world, the West, is very much still haunted by the transcendent of spirituality. You see it in art. You see it in themes of the culture. And one of the things you see that’s undeniable is nature.

You go to a culture like Sweden where, because of the harsh winter there, they appreciate the beauty of nature so much. There’s this sense of almost a divine, almost a sacred aspect to it. And I know for me, seeing that rubbed off on me. Nature’s really beautiful. God’s creation is amazing. It’s something in the concrete jungle of New York I don’t get to see. So it made me appreciate their appreciation more.

In Singapore, I remember there was a conversation I had with a pastor and I asked him his testimony. And this guy goes into this 10-minute description of how his dad came to faith from a Confucian background. And then at the end, he just said that when his dad came home and said he was a Christian, he went to school and told them to change his religion to Christianity.

There’s this concept called filial piety that exists in Asian cultures where the authority, the sense of the elders, matters significantly in the community. What that gave me a glimpse of was when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one, and I do whatever the father commands.” I was looking at that from more of a Western standpoint of OK, well he’s just being the obedient Son of God. But then you realize, no, there’s a sense of an intertwined destiny, that the Father’s will has to be expressed in what I do. And I saw that in the conversation in a way that I hadn’t seen that before.

In Argentina, I kept hearing this concept of solidaridad, and there was this story of los desaparecidos (the disappeared) that happened in the ’70s when the brutal dictator’s government was kidnapping thousands of people, and many of them have never been found. So there was this concern for the poor and what was happening in their social environments. So I remember asking the guide who was my translator, Alejandro, how many churches do this kind of work: food drives, clothing drives, things like that. He said probably over 80% of churches. And I was like, you know, it’s probably the opposite in America. So, how self-evident it was to them was really different for me.

In each place the amazing thing was I learned as much from non-Christians who just had been around—especially in Israel. There was this great scene in Episode 6 in Galilee, when I talk to a secular Jewish musician. I asked him, “Who is Jesus to you?” He began to explain how Moses is someone the Jewish people admire and look to and see as this law giver, but that’s kind of different from the way you guys see Jesus. You talk about him being with you. Like he’s with you and you could talk to him … and it was this amazing moment when he’s explaining the incarnation in this way that’s like, Yeah, I kind of envy that, because we don’t have that. And it gave me a deeper appreciation for it.

And then in South Africa, seeing the story, the perseverance and the sense of hope in the midst of oftentimes not having much, but they’ll give you whatever they have. It’s reminiscent of the widow throwing two mites into the offering and Jesus saying she gave more than anybody.

Those are just windows and glimpses of the things that I saw in each place.

Do you feel like learning and speaking on race has helped you to have conversations with people from other religions?

Yes. So I went to a predominantly black school from fourth grade to high school. I only had one black teacher the whole time, but I loved my teachers. They were great. They were there because they cared about us as students. But when I got to college and I took African American studies classes for the first time, I was shocked and dismayed about how much I didn’t know about my history. And I continued to take classes because I just wanted to know more about my own context.

What I discovered was the more I learned my own history, the more I was able to engage thoughtfully with people from other stories. The solution to our racial and ethnic strife often in Christian circles is to say, “Well, let’s just not talk about those things. Let’s talk about Jesus and that will fix it.” And it’s like, no, it’s only when we get the story of the past and we can embrace that.

I was just studying John 4 and I had a new insight—because I’m in seminary now and we’re in the prophets and just happened to be studying about the Assyrian invasion and conquest in that first exile of the northern kingdom. Now, I had conceptually understood [the history of Samaria] before, but I had never really placed it in such close proximity to the reality of Samaria being the capital of the north, and really the epicenter of their fall. And the Samaritans were this mixed race because the Assyrians brought all these people there and dispersed the Jews all over the place.

So Jesus was dealing with literally hundreds of years of distance and baggage between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom (Samaria and Jerusalem) and this woman on top of all those things. My understanding of that history and that perspective of what was at stake, it helped me understand the story better—the racial dynamics as well as the social dynamics.

In Singapore, I talked to a Malay guy—it’s in the episode. I got a different perspective on how he felt as a minority. The main population is of Han Chinese descent, and most of the Christians are from a Chinese background. The minority are the Malay people from Malaysia who are the indigenous group there. They are mistreated in a lot of ways.

I had heard from all the Chinese Christians, “Yeah, we don’t have any racial issues. In fact, we have a Malaysian president.” And then I talked to the Malay guy, and he was like “That don’t mean nothing—the fact our president is Malaysian—they still treat us like trash.” And I was like, “Yo, this sounds like the same conversation we were having in the United States when we had Obama as our president. Like, we’ve got a black president, so of course we don’t have any problems.

In almost every country I went to, there was this story of how ethnicity or power played a part in oppression, and people trying to work through that everywhere—even in Sweden, which was surprising to me. Those insights helped me to see that this is a global issue.

The more we grasp the stories of those around the world, the better we are.

Learn more about In Pursuit of Jesus and watch the documentary series at InPursuitOfJesus.net.

Listen to Rasool Berry’s podcast Where Ya From here.