The Challenge of Diversity

As I have written before, I grew up in a tiny United Methodist Church in a suburb of New York City. We had a lot of pastors in my short time there: every two or three years, a student of some kind would live in our parsonage and attend Drew Theological Seminary, where I would eventually receive my Master of Divinity degree. We had a young pastor during the time I was considering the ministry as a vocation (I was 15), and when he left abruptly, we were all disappointed, but not surprised. I learned a lot about the church during those two years, but the next two years taught me even more. 

For the first time ever, we had a non-white pastor. Young Ho was working on a Ph.D. at Drew, so he was a little older than some of his predecessors. He was obviously brilliant, and went on to teach at the seminary level. For me, having never spent much time with someone who had an Asian accent, it was challenging to get to the point that I could understand him. My favorite misunderstanding was the time he talked about how all of us should consider what it might be like “living in perverty”. I remember the look on his face as he saw our shocked expressions – I think he realized that we had no idea what he was talking about (he meant “poverty”, of course). Once we figured it out, we all laughed about it – except for the racists among us. They just scowled and muttered under their breaths. 

Years later, a Korean colleague of mine found out that I had been in a church that Young Ho had pastored, and he commented that I must have learned a lot of really deep theology during his stint. I probably did, but I don’t really remember – he was with us during my junior and senior years in high school, and I wasn’t very aware of theology. I did learn that diversity is challenging. Learning to listen carefully to those who speak differently from us takes work, and many of us don’t have the patience or the inclination to do that work. Like the Philadelphia cheesesteak vendor who had a signup years ago that read “Talk American”, we expect that everyone should figure out how we should understand them, rather than the other way around. 

Having a new pastor every two or three years has its drawbacks, but growing up with that kind of change taught me a lot of important lessons, the most important one being this: diversity is necessary for a well-rounded education. If we were to look back on our lives, most of us would probably recognize how little diversity, at least, on the surface, we encounter as we grow up. We tend to end up in neighborhoods with people who live and look like us; we go to school with them and often have similar values. High school may bring greater diversity, but not like the real world. If we go to school beyond that, we are often confronted by a lot of different people and ideas, and this can broaden us – or it can turn us inward. 

Maybe this is why I ended up the way I did. When I speak somewhere, I will often introduce myself by telling the group about the diverse influences that shaped and challenged and changed me. I ask them to think about their own lives, and most will realize just how multi-faceted their influences have been. The key, of course, is whether we embrace those influences and allow them to form us, or choose to reject them as inferior or meaningless. The first allows us to grow beyond ourselves; the second can turn us inward. Diversity makes us better people, and it makes our communities and our nation stronger. God’s creation is resilient because it is diverse. We could learn from that. 

Prayer – Help us to see the amazingly diverse world around us as a gift from you, Holy God, and help us to grow more into Your likeness. Amen. 

Today’s art is called “The Diversity of Nature” by a Slovenian artist named Renny.