Monday, November 06, 2006

Diversity: an essay from April 2000

"Red and yellow, black and white / They are precious in his sight..."

Many of us sang this song as children, and many of us believe that, as Jesus accepts everyone regardless of race or socio-economic status, so should we. Why, then, is our church family at <our_church_name> not more diverse? Why is it that our efforts to incorporate different kinds of people - as distinct from our mission and service projects - don't seem to get very far? There are two fundamental reasons for this: first, a cultural gap that makes some of our visitors feel that "I don't really belong here"; and second, a lack of commitment among our church family to overcoming this gap.

Living in Japan for several years has given us a sense of what it means to feel like aliens and strangers; we literally were aliens and strangers over there. But the experience also gave us new eyes; coming back to the United States, and coming back to <our_church_name>, we had a little taste of what it might be like for someone from another race or social class - from another culture - to come for the first time. The big thing that struck us was...

Language. By this I mean the way we speak to each other and also the vocabulary, metaphors, and stories that we hear from our speakers. Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady" may have slightly overstated its case, but our language does give away our social class. Conversations in the hallways and breezeways and classrooms are generally (and obviously) among highly-educated, well-to-do folks. We use big words and talk about taking our mothers to Europe or rebuilding our houses. And there is nothing wrong with that -- that's what's really happening in our lives and that's just the way we talk. But people with less money and especially with less education tend to feel intimidated and out of place there.

Speakers in our adult classes, our fellowship groups, sometimes send out the assumption that we all have a lot of money or education. One speaker urged the husbands in our fellowship group to take our wives to Monterey for a weekend several times a year. Another, giving an example of how his wife could be assertive without attacking, quoted her as saying, "When you spend $5,000 on a new computer, I feel scared." It was a great example, and certainly didn't send out the assumption that everybody else had that kind of money to spend on gadgets, but someone who's never had even $1,000 to spend on a computer might feel out of place.

So our language can be a barrier to visitors from other social classes. And our attitudes can, too.

James tells us not to show partiality to the rich and powerful - and why does he tell us that? Because it's natural to defer to them! It's just as natural to want to be with people with similar lifestyles and similar temperaments and similar houses. We all have blind spots; naturally I don't see my own, but I have seen a few others. When I was buying my house, one dear friend commented that I was moving into an "integrated" neighborhood. True enough -- but since I'm of Korean descent, wherever I move around here automatically becomes integrated. Someone I used to know (who no longer lives in the area) saw "there are hardly any black people" as a nice thing about our church.

I live in the affordable section of Redwood City (Fair Oaks is the "default" for our kids). We're starting a small group Bible study in our home, and a couple who live not five minutes from here, in Atherton, refuse to even consider our group; instead, they're looking for one in Atherton or Menlo Park.

Should diversity be a non-objective for us at <our_church_name>? The cultural barriers will never go away, so should we just say "well, that's something we're not really very good at"? Although diversity need perhaps not be the #1 priority, I believe that the scripture tells us that it must be a priority.

Jesus's new commandment, to love one another as he loved us, is not qualified; "by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another of the same social class" is not what he said. He told us that when giving a banquet, not to invite only those who could afford to invite us back in return. There are many more scriptures on this, but I'd like to close with a comment from our pastor in Kobe.

In Japan, the stereotype goes, everyone thinks alike. Ask someone a question about, say, their eating habits, and the answer may begin "We Japanese..." Something that many Japanese people find shocking, even scandalous, is that Kobe Bible Fellowship has people from Japan, and several foreign countries (at least Indonesia, Burma, Switzerland, England, Australia, USA), and they all get along. "How can this be?" they ask. It's because we follow Jesus. He is our peace.

And if the church of Jesus Christ in the US can bring together a socially, economically, racially diverse group of people, if we can be a force for reconciliation, then that miracle will be a testimony to the power of God, and glory will accrue to the name of Jesus Christ.

Disclaimer: I'm not generally a proponent of diversity or "economic democracy." Some years ago, someone from an Asian country took over a Swensen's, and my guess is that business went downhill. Because they were Asian? No, because there was a strong odor in the place (they burned incense or something) and their posture and gestures didn't convey an attitude of helpfulness or service -- they acted like they didn't care if you got ice cream or not. And although I have sympathy for kids who don't have English as their first language, neither do I believe in "bilingual education" or "separate but equal" classes taught in some non-English language for years on end :^<

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