(Thankful Notes #330)
A few years ago, a young couple from the church sent an e-mail asking to meet with me. They explained that, while they love the church’s consistent presence in the community meeting needs and doing outreach, they were baffled by much of the teaching they were hearing—which they called “social/political” in nature.
I’ll be honest: I have yet to figure out how to be thankful for these kinds of e-mails.
They seem to lack a certain tender openness or humble curiosity, and, in my experience, are merely a set-up for a moral high ground rebuke of a pastor who doesn’t share enough of their world view. But maybe someday I will learn to be thankful when I receive an invitation to be scolded and rejected.
Perhaps I don’t actually have to be thankful for those e-mails. Paul wrote a letter (not an e-mail) to the Thessalonians and said, “In all things, give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.” We give thanks IN all things, not necessarily FOR all things. Phew! That takes some pressure off.
So, that fateful meeting commenced, and I asked what had been troubling them. They gave two specific examples… 1) a video of a black woman in our church who shared the painful story of her brother being shot by police and her decision to forgive, and 2) the emphasizing of diversity in church communications and sermons.
I shared with them that the woman on the video is my friend—and I know her story and wanted it to be shared with the church because forgiveness is central to the Christian faith. They argued that telling the story fits in with a narrative that blacks are being killed by police.
I think I said, “OK,” with sadness in my voice and moved on to their next point.
I shared my experience of growing up in Skyway in the 70’s and 80’s with lots and lots of diversity. My best friends at the time were Danny Brooks who is black and Carlos Dominguez who is Hispanic. We did everything together – went to school together, had sleepovers, went to Chuck-E-Cheese birthday parties together… but there was one thing we didn’t do together: church. Danny went to a black church and Carlos went to a Hispanic church and I went to a white church.
Even as a kid, something about this just seemed off to me.
So, I explained how my own experience has animated my ministry. I was a prodigal son who did bad things, so I long to be part of a church that prodigals will feel safe coming home to. I experienced diversity everywhere except in the church, so I long be part of a church that looks like Revelation’s description of heaven… every tongue, tribe, nation—worshiping the Lamb together. God made diversity and loves it, so I think we should too.
They said, “Diversity is just a talking point of liberals. You need to stick with themes that are not social issues, but eternal. You should be preaching about salvation and eternal life.”
I think I said, “OK,” with more sadness in my voice and moved on to the next topic.
They asked me if I knew that one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement had murdered a police officer. I was completely thrown by this and shook my head no. “I’ve never heard a thing about this and I pay close attention. Are you sure?” Dismissively they said, “All you have to do is Google. It’s everywhere, if you care to look.”
I think I said, “OK,” with even greater sadness in my voice and moved on to the conclusion.
I said, “I’m not sure what else to say. Can we pray together?” They agreed and I led us in prayer. They thanked me for my time and quickly left. I sat for a few moments in my office and felt sick.
Then I Googled and found nothing.
Feeling confused, I wondered what I was missing. After multiple attempts to find what they were talking about and failing, I considered the possibility that maybe they were missing something. Maybe they had been confusing two different movements. I Googled “Black Panther Party founder killed police” and sure enough, I found a plethora of articles about a 1967 shootout with Huey Percy Newton in which a police officer had been killed.
My impulse was to immediately send an e-mail and correct their misinformation, but I knew it would not be helpful. Instead, I sent an e-mail thanking them for their time in our church, for their service and generosity, and I blessed them in their search for a new church home.
This story came to my mind today as I was reading Parker Palmer’s book On the Brink of Everything. The section I read is called “In Praise of Diversity,” and I’m very thankful for these words. Here are some of them:
Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” I wonder what J-P was doing just before he wrote those words. Enduring a business lunch where the main course was braggadocio? Or an employer-mandated pep talk by a “motivational speaker”? Or any cocktail party, anytime, anywhere? If so, I feel his pain.
But as a generalization, Sartre’s definition of hell is a reach too far for me. My hell is much more specific. It’s a place populated exclusively by straight white males over fifty who have college degrees and financial security—which is to say, people like me.
For me, variety is more, much more, than the spice of life. It’s a basic ingredient of life lived fully and well.
At a time when so much of American life is driven by fear of “otherness”—by a false and toxic nostalgia for “the good old days” when “we were all alike”—let’s ask where we would be without diversity. What price would we pay if all our companions came from backgrounds akin to our own and looked at life more or less the way we do?
Mother Nature can help us answer that question, as I learned when I visited a friend who lives in rural Minnesota. We took a drive on the back roads, passing acre after acre of corn lined up in orderly, homogeneous, and mind-numbing rows. As we crested a hill, my friend broke the silence: “Check it out.”
There, afloat in the sea of uniformity called agribusiness, was an island of wind-blown grasses and wildflowers, a riot of colors and textures to delight the eye. We walked silently through this patch of prairie my friend had helped restore, dotted with the kinds of plants whose names make a “found poem:” wild four o’clock, bastard toadflax, prairie smoke, amethyst shooting star. After a while, my friend spoke again, saying something like this:
“There are more than 150 species of plants on this prairie—to say nothing of the insects, birds, and mammals they attract—just as there were before the pioneers broke the sod and began farming. It’s beautiful, of course, but that’s not the whole story. Biodiversity makes an ecosystem more creative, productive, adaptive to change, and resilient in the face of stress. The agribusiness land around us provides us with food and fuel. But we pay a very steep price for that kind of monoculture. It saps the earth’s vitality and puts the quality and sustainability of our food supply at risk. The prairie as it once was has a lot to teach us about how we need to live.”
Diversity makes our lives more vital.
Regular experiences of “otherness’ not only bring blessed relief from the tedium of endlessly recycling the same ideas with the same people, they also dial down the fear of “the other” that keeps us from feeling at home on earth, sapping our vitality.
People who wall themselves off from diversity in gated communities and lifestyle enclaves become increasingly paranoid that encountering the other will put them in harm’s way. But folks who have daily experience in “the company of strangers” learn that it just isn’t so. Up close, it becomes clear that people who don’t look and sound like us don’t have horns, and some have haloes.
In my late twenties, on vacation in a distant state, I took a hike in the woods while my young family enjoyed the beach at a state park. An hour later, I was hopelessly lost and in a panic, worried about the setting sun and my family’s well-being.
I stumbled into a small neighborhood at the edge of the forest and began knocking on doors. Four times I was turned away by people who were clearly afraid of me and my breathless plea for help. At the fifth door, the gentlemen said, “Hop in my truck. I’ll have you at the beach in five minutes.” My Good Samaritan was black; the others were white.
One story does not good sociology make, but I’ve seen that pattern play out time and time again, driven not by genetics but by social experience. The white folks who turned me away had never been lost and scared, or were afraid of someone who was. But in America—with its history of slavery, Jim Crow (old and new), and “sundown towns”—people of color learn early in life what lost and scared feels like, and the result can be compassion.
Diversity makes us smarter and more creative.
People from different backgrounds know different things and have different ways of interpreting what they know. As we come together in a “dialog of differences,” the collective becomes smarter than any individual in it. That principle applies to everything from practical problem solving, to scientific inquiry, to speculating on the eternal mysteries: all of us together are smarter than any one of us alone. Ask any high-tech company CEO whose creative teams look like a good day at the United Nations.
Homogeneity dumbs us down and gets us into trouble. I mean the kind of dumb that comes, for example, from knowing so few Mexicans, or so little about them, that we’re more likely to fall for the lie… that many of them are drug dealers, rapists, and assorted “bad hombres.”
Diversity gives us a chance to increase our personal resilience, and God knows some of us need it these days.
I began to recover my resilience as I talked with friends who—along with generations of their ancestors—have been targets of such assaults since the day they were born, yet have refused to be intimidated.
My Muslim, Mexican, and African American brothers and sisters have developed a form of spiritual alchemy that all of us can practice. It transforms the dross of political evil into the gold of political activism, revitalizing us to be the engaged citizens we should have been all along. Resilience comes from seeing people that I care about take the next assault on their souls not as a reason to give up but as reason to redouble their efforts.
Diversity ups the odds that we will enjoy the benefits of the human comedy.
Cross-cultural misunderstandings are not always train wrecks. Some of them generate healing and life-giving humor.
I once spoke at a Jewish Community Center built around a beautiful garden dedicated to the memory of Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. After sitting quietly there for half an hour, I met with the Center’s director and told him how moved I was by this powerful witness to the suffering and the resilience of the Jewish people.
He told me that the center also tried to witness the importance of interfaith relationships—which meant, among other things, hiring a religiously diverse staff. Then he said: “Occasionally this leads to some laughable and loveable moments. We recently hired a Gentile as our front-office receptionist. We told her that when we answer the phone, we say, ‘Jewish Community Center—Shalom.’ I happened to be in the office when she took her first phone call and said, ‘Jewish Community Center—Shazam!’”
The goodwill laced through stories like that help fortify my hope that we can emerge from these dangerous days on the diversity front with our humanity intact.
I recently heard an interview with Pat Buchanan, a once-major political figure who has always longed to return America to the days when white, European, Christian culture dominated.
When the interviewer asked him, in effect, “Why is diversity a problem for this nation?” this three-time presidential aspirant said, “Well, maybe it’s a preference. I feel more comfortable. I’m a homeboy, and I feel more comfortable with the folks I grew up with.”
So there you have it, the personal truth behind much of the… rhetoric. Pat Buchanan and his pals want this nation to provide them with a homogeneous—read “racist and xenophobic”—comfort zone, from sea to shining sea.
Mr. Buchanan is my age, and I know enough sclerotic and scared old white guys like him to feel a subatomic particle of pity.
But guys, you need to get with the program: by midcentury, the number of Americans who are of white European descent will be less than 50 percent.
I urge those of you who cling to your dream of the “good old days”—good for you, anyway—to take a nice long nap and dream on, dream on. The rest of us will stay awake and help midwife the rebirth of America, hoping that our national nausea in this moment is just another symptom that our country is pregnant with change.
Given careful tending, America can be like that restored prairie my friend showed me, with its rich diversity of life, vitality, creativity, resilience, and soul-satisfying array of textures and colors. Every time I touch in with that memory—or step into that social reality—my mind is renewed, my heart expanded, my spirit refreshed, and I feel at home again on the face of this good earth.