The social and ethnic diversity in the metro DC area is strikingly different from the rural Pennsylvania community, where I grew up. We were all white. There was only one black family in our high school and the only Hispanics we met were occasional seasonal workers who came to pick tomatoes on a nearby farm. We were all from different Protestant denominations. The biggest religious differences were Catholics and a small Jewish community in a nearby city.
There was a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” We hardly knew these other people but had lots of stereotypes. I still remember the prejudiced things we said about them. A significant part of my life story and my faith journey is my transition from that world to being the pastor of our church in one of the most diverse regions of our world.
Our diversity in metro DC is similar to the diversity in the first-century Mediterranean cities and churches to which the Apostle Paul wrote his letters. Especially instructive is his teaching about how we bridge such differences to create an inclusive community. Like those churches we need to figure out what it means to confess that there’s no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, that we’re all part of one body (Galatians 3:28).
Asian feminist theologian Yong Ting Jin writes “Each person has a unique and creative role to play as inspired and sustained by the Spirit. Everyone is charismatic, no one is useless. As such, each member has a decisive place in the community, but all serving one another, all having and enjoying equal dignity” (In Boyung Lee, Transforming Congregations through Community, 38).
Different cultures can rub each other the wrong way. Laid on top of this is the cruel history of how our country treated Native Americans and African slaves. This is our original sin and those hurts still run deep. A different but related matter has been our recent church fight over sexual orientation and same-sex relationships that has consumed so much of our energy in the past several decades. This has been our test of finding unity in diversity and to discern together what it means to be a fellowship where all who proclaim faith in Jesus are welcomed and nurtured.
My alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, recently announced that it will not “discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status.” Their hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. It’s a change I welcome. This should not be a church dividing issue and I look forward to the day when it no longer absorbs so much of our energy. It’s one among other issues of inclusion and there are many other things that cry out for our attention.
One verse in the song of our heart is to be a diverse church that welcomes everybody no matter who you are or what your background may be. I want our neighbors to know that about us. Perhaps we now have a unique opportunity to be welcoming in this broader sense. As the apostle Paul insisted, there is no distinction between people on any basis in the church. All are valued, all are gifted, and all are needed.