reflections on Breaking Calabashes

On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.
This month I am reflecting on Breaking Calabashes: Becoming an intercultural community by Rosemary Dewerse.


Breaking Calabashes is written for those in Christian communities (churches or teams) who wish their community to become more diverse and to do it well. Dewerse describes the book as reflective, formational and practical, and it is a good mix of all of those. The research and interviews on which the book is based were conducted for her PhD in Theology. Throughout the book Dewerse includes thought provoking and challenging questions, that are relevant on both a personal and a community level. These questions take the book from being just a good source of information to a book that includes opportunities for reflection on your own life, experiences and actions that can lead to change and transformation.

The book opens with a re-telling of the story from Maori tradition of Hinemoa breaking the calabash that Tutanekai’s servant is carrying to fetch water. She does this to get the attention of Tutanekai, who the tribe considers of too low status to court her. Her actions break the expectations of the tribe and create greater harmony between the two different groups. The story of Hinemoa breaking the calabash serves as a metaphor throughout the book for people who question the status-quo, who challenge the norms and expectations of their group in order to engage with others who are not like them. Dewerse uses the metaphor to expand on four ways of breaking ‘calabashes’ that are helpful as we form connections with people unlike ourselves. The first way of breaking calabashes is by caring for identity, in this chapter she encourages us to challenge stereotypes, to see people as individuals and value their many identities. One way she suggests we do this is to ask “who are you?”, and of course to actually listen to the response. She also points out that to be able to interact well with difference we need to be secure in knowing who we are. It is often the insecurity of not knowing who we are that creates resistance to difference as it can be seen as threatening. She quotes Law who says “if a person or community does not have a strong sense of their identity, or who they are, they will place priority on feeling safe. In order to achieve this they will grow a very strong exclusion boundary that keep out those who are different from them, and particularly those who fit negative stereotypes.” (p. 27)

The second way of breaking calabashes is by listening to silenced voices. There are so many ways that we can silence the voices of those that are different to us, the words we use, what we say, even how we do things can exclude others. In this chapter there is also a challenge for those who want to advocate for those who don’t have a voice, does our own speaking out for them, silence them even further? The third way of breaking calabashes is by nurturing epistemic ruptures. This is like a revelation or conversion experience that changes peoples ideas, thoughts and or beliefs. People often think that what they think, feel and experience is the norm, this type of change leads them to realise that there are other ways of thinking and being. Much like I said in my blog last week these ruptures can be small or large, one offs or small and continuous. The final way of breaking calabashes is by dealing in justice. It is necessary to stop thinking in terms of us and them and to stop thinking that we are better than others. Dewerse concludes the book with a reminder that we are all made in the image of God and that includes our diversity

Although Dewerse wrote this with cultural differences as the primary focus, the ideas, principles and questions are equally applicable to other differences. In our current environment of increasing polarisation between different groups in the church and in politics there are things to learn and put into action in any situations of difference (not just cultural).
The first time I read this book I was working in a mission agency and so was looking for information that would help people as they work on cross-cultural teams. This time I read the book with a more personal focus and I found it quite challenging, I was challenged to consider how diverse my friendship group is (not very!), and how that may have come about. I was challenged to think about my identities and my own sense of privilege, about my own faith community and how it is engaging with difference and how I can be more open to hearing from others.

I have had more than one occasion lately to consider my own privilege, and reading Breaking Calabashes has continued that processing for me.

I am finding that I am reluctant to acknowledge my own privilege.

I started my career researching discrimination and intergroup relations so an awareness of power structures has always been strong. Except I have always identified with the ‘not’ privileged. As a young feminist woman going into Christian ministry only reinforced that position. Of course our privilege fluctuates between different contexts, but what I am experiencing is that if I am feeling marginal in one situation it makes it harder for me to acknowledge the privilege I have in other situations. For example there has been a lot of discussion lately about the importance (especially for children) of seeing people like yourself represented positively in movies and on tv. However I don’t feel privileged in this sense at all, it wasn’t until I was 14 and Ann of Green Gables was released that I saw an intelligent red haired girl on screen. As for infertile women, it is very rare indeed that they are portrayed positively in the media, and multi-ethnic families are in very short supply. So it is easy for me to overlook the fact that as a white (but ginger) middle class, cis, heterosexual, educated women I am still in a position of privilege even though often it doesn’t feel like it.

There was also a challenge for me in the section about dealing in justice and how we can tend to think of ourselves as better than the other. I was challenged to reflect on how I think about those who uphold the traditions and institutions that I am so keen on disrupting, and are so reluctant to change. I need to admit that I do tend to think that it is better to have questioned, processed, wandered and thought deeply. I have a tendency to consider those who just go along with the status quo as immature. I am thinking about how that attitude influences my interactions with them.

Here are some questions to think about that are inspired by the book:

1) Do you think your identity can become overly tied up in ‘not fitting in’? How does this prevent you from acknowledging where you do fit in?

2) What are the calabashes of norms, and status quo that you are currently trying to break?

4) Who are the voices that you might not be hearing? How can you find ways to listen to these silenced voices?

5)As people who are not sitting easily in the church how do we interact well but safely with those who are different from us, especially when they are sitting easily in the church?

6) As leaders and mentors what are three things that we can do to nurture, support and assist those around us that we can see will be calabash breakers?