When Diversity gets Awkward
I spent this past weekend at FirstPres Hayward’s women’s retreat.
In many ways, it was the most diverse women’s retreat I’ve ever been a part of.
We had women of all ages at the retreat. My small group leader was 23 years old, and she led a group that included two moms with toddlers and two women in their 60s and 70s. Conversations in our group covered everything from hearing aids to college credits. Bedtimes ranged from 9pm to well beyond midnight.
We also had women of all different ethnicities and backgrounds at the retreat. Our snack tables included everything from carrot cake, to truffle oil goat cheese, to Takis, to pastelitos, to Pocky. Late night activities ranged from singing sessions,to jewelry making, to nerdy games, to wine and charcuterie.
We had women with different heart languages at the retreat. We sang songs in English and Spanish. We had speakers from upfront who led in both English and Spanish. There were conversations with fumbling tongues and different forms of translation throughout. There were debates about which forms of translation were best.
We had women of different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds at the retreat- from women attending on scholarships, to folks who could pay $450 for their own room. From women who are currently living in cars, to those who renting out their houses on AirBnb. Women with PhDs and women who had never graduated from college.
We had women of different physical abilities at the retreat. Some participants were able to walk around the campgrounds easily, even going on 3 hour hikes. Others had a harder time getting around, due to various physical limitations, age, health conditions, and accessibility issues. At times, considerations had to be made for participants with hearing aids or bad knees.
We had women from different faith traditions and expressions of faith at the retreat. Some women were dancing and raising their hands during worship, while others stood still and observed. Some women woke up early in the morning (between 6–7am) for loud, one-voice prayer gatherings, while others spent their mornings in silent journaling, morning hikes, or by sleeping in. Some of our speakers started off their sermons in exuberant songs and moved around while speaking. Others went through their sermons standing still, with outlined power point presentations that involved maps, charts, and laser pointers.
All of this diversity was amazingly beautiful.
It was a gift to be part of a community where God moved in such different ways through different people. And it was a privilege to learn from and alongside people who had such a diversity of life experiences, different faith expressions and testimonies, while all worshipping the same God.
It was powerful to hear story after story about how God was speaking to and calling different women- into greater healing, liberation, risk-taking, and obedience. It was encouraging to see glimpses of faithfulness across different cultures, backgrounds, and stages of life. And it was beautiful to see the ways that God’s Spirit united us and built us into a community of women who truly loved and supported one another.
But sometimes, being in diverse community is awkward.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that you don’t know how to clap during worship because some of the audience is clapping on one and three, others are clapping on two and four, and a good portion aren’t really clapping at all.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that you forget to translate key documents and unintentionally end up excluding some people and feel pretty bad.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that in the middle of serving communion, you forget how to say “body” in Spanish and just sheepishly mumble “el body de christo” to a Native Spanish speaker while hoping nobody heard you.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that it takes a while before you recognize that the way you pronounce certain names from the Bible (like Rahab) might not be the same as somebody with a different native tongue.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that you have to jump on the piano spontaneously to provide backup, because your 18-year old, Latina worship leader is trying to lead a hymn alongside an older white woman, and they are playing/singing in two completely different keys.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that when those with more Pentecostal leanings are manifesting, the longstanding Presbyterians (and Methodists, and Catholics, and many others) are don’t know what’s happeing and are unsure whether to stare, to look away, or to pray.
Sometimes, being in diverse community means that during unorganized time blocks, you look up to see that all the white women are socializing together in one corner while all the women of color are socializing together, in another corner. Or that at meals, when you try to intentionally sit with somebody very different from you, there are some awkward silences and cultural fumbles.
The reality is, the gifts and blessings of diverse community don’t always come easily.
There are moments of tension. Confusion. Discomfort. Misunderstanding. There are decisions that are made to honor one group of people that ends up hurting another group of people. There are disagreements about how things should be done. There are judgments made about one another because of both perceived and experienced differences. There are silent power dynamics that are hard to neutralize. And to varying degrees, there’s sacrifices that are required from all members of the community.
But for all of the awkward (and sometimes funny) moments that I experienced at this past weekend’s women’s retreat, I am truly thankful.
I am thankful for the learning experiences that I received because of the diversity of our group.
I am thankful for new relationships that I made with unlikely people.
I am thankful for opportunities to be stretched and uncomfortable, and to be reminded that how I see or do things might not be the only (or best) way.
I am thankful for the ways that different women reflected different aspects of God to me, and for the imago dei in each person.
I am thankful for the challenge of not just welcoming people to the table, but of actually recognizing how much we need one another.
I am even thankful for the times we potentially hurt or misunderstand one another, as they help us grow in self-awareness, grace, and reconciliation.
And like the high school choir that serenaded us on the last night, I am thankful for the many different voices- all singing different parts and in different timbres, languages, and tones- to raise up one song to our one God.
Ultimately, being part of the FirstPres community — a spiritual family of unlikely people- continues to be a stretching experience. It raises questions for me about how to lead and influence and do multiethnic Church. It challenges me- as a young Asian American woman- in knowing how to lead, to catalyze change, and build community with people from very different backgrounds than myself.
It is not always easy. And it is certainly awkward at times.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.