Equality in diversity

By The Rev. Douglas Avilesbernal

Photo by Danny Ellison
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
 — 1 Corinthians 12:27, (niv)

My wife and I recently had our first child. Because we both work, we had to find childcare for him at least twice a week. Conveniently, the church that I serve has an infant room in its daycare. As soon as our son was enrolled, I started to have to maneuver between two roles and two perspectives. On the one hand, as pastor of the church, I have been uneasy about our entire staff at the daycare and preschool being female. I have often wondered how we could help our school toward gender diversity in its staff. The answer came when a position opened up and one of our best applicants was a man, so we hired him. Then recently we had to let someone go, and again one of the better candidates was a man. We now have two men on staff. As pastor, I was glad that the kids would get to see male teachers as well as female.

On the other hand, I am the father of one of the babies in our daycare. One day I was dropping off our baby at the infant room and was shocked to have a guy — a guy! — take my baby from me for the day. I had pushed for the very thing as a pastor that I was now concerned about as a parent. On that day, when I dropped my son off with a man at daycare for the first time, “we are all equal yet different” took on its full meaning and power. I realized then how my sense of equality had been profoundly skewed by prejudices that I didn’t even know I had.

When was the last time you explored how broad your sense of equality really is? How broad or narrow is that sense in the congregation or group that you are leading? Let us assume that we as individuals and as congregations are comfortable with keeping equality in diversity separate in our lives. We can assume that we are happy with diversity as a public issue that matters most when we are in public places or at gatherings with people we do not know. As a result, we have been happy to support acceptance of diversity when it is seen as a matter of justice in civic and public life. At the same time, we have kept our understanding of community as a private sphere where our feelings of belonging are more exposed and, therefore, more at risk. But now we find ourselves at a loss, because a choice that we support in principle from a distance has come to be solidly attached to our church community — a place near us and based on deep connections and exclusivity.

We have to broaden our sense of belonging so that it is no longer limited by our private understanding but instead will help us live with differences in our midst. In other words, we belong to something greater than ourselves. That something — God-given community — is never something that belongs to us. Becoming free of the need to control a belonging that is ours, we will open a vast space for the other to become community with us. Belonging, then, is no longer separated into a meaningful, private, “we are family” sense and a diluted, public, “we’re all human” sense.

For example, how is it that someone whose family has been in Southern California since before the Mayflower remains Mexican American, while the daughter of a first-generation German immigrant living in San Diego is an all-American California girl? In this example, someone whose roots in California go deep is still considered a foreigner by name because her skin, eye and hair colors are not of the narrow type needed to belong to the dominant community.

Such a narrow and shallow understanding of community — one that depends on appearances or ethnic background — blocks diversity in our churches. This limited understanding of belonging helps us understand why congregations have so much trouble dealing with diversity that is culturally “foreign.”

The problem for our churches is not necessarily diversity in and of itself. After all, we have extensive experience dealing with diversity within our congregations. Every church with more than one individual has to deal with diversity in terms of age, gender, worship tastes and much more. The difference is that for the majority of our church life, we have dealt with diversity as something to be corrected rather than as a desired way of living.

Our job in the church often has been to teach others how to be Christian in the way our particular tradition or congregation has understood that. Diversity in terms of worship styles, doctrinal beliefs and liturgical practices has been addressed through new-member classes or other strategies to enforce homogeneity for the sake of becoming community. Historically, escaping cultural diversity in Christian community was not difficult because separation (i.e., segregation) was the agreed way to deal with multiculturalism within society at large. To this day most churches still reflect this history of ethnocultural separation. People remember how each ethnicity had its own place because this was an easy way to be a church. Even our understanding of diversity seems to have been under the yoke of the division between private and public practice. We know how to deal with diversity (by avoiding it or assimilating it) but not how to live with it equally.

The apostle Paul took the gospel to the Gentile world, and many of the churches to which he was writing in his epistles were in culturally and ethnically diverse cosmopolitan places. His letters illustrate how something can be greater than the sum of its parts: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21, nrsv). In this metaphor of the human body, we find disparate body parts saying that they do not need each other. We may miss the power of this analogy because, although we all have bodies, we rarely have the opportunity to see the incredible complexity involved in getting all the parts to work together in a useful way. The power of the imagery of the body can only be as strong, fulfilling and supportive as we are willing to embrace. Paul intended the body metaphor to explain life in Christian community. Mutual need arising from valuing diversity helps us move on the path toward equality. An understanding of living together in solidarity is a fundamental aspect of traveling to diversity in community.

The Rev. Douglas Avilesbernal is senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, Norristown, Pa. This piece was excerpted and adapted from his book Welcoming Community: Diversity That Works” (Judson Press, 2016).