There are many different varieties of trees on our 120-acre homestead, along with crops and brush, a bit of pasture and a spring-fed creek that flows year round from a pond that never freezes over. And don’t get me talking about the diversity of wildlife that thrives in our woods and around the pond. From coyotes in the far hilly field to deer in the woods to the family of ducks that shows up every spring, there’s a lot going on in our corner of the world.
I keep close tabs on my surroundings, especially in spring and fall. This autumn, the sugar maple tree that stands at the side of our driveway failed to display its gorgeous golden glow. I’ve watched this tree celebrate the changing seasons every year for over 25 years. It had something to do with the weather, according to my husband, a lumberman who used to harvest hardwoods for a local mill. I don’t need the science, just the assurance that next fall our beautiful maple tree will again stand tall in all its glory.
If I tended toward cynicism, I might say that I wish my local faith community was as diverse as our little patch of real estate.
The church my husband and I attend has thrived for over 90 years. As the “big church” in our community, it is populated by many active and proactive attendees (we do not claim memberships). From county sheriff’s deputies and teachers, nurses and doctors to business owners and farmers, accountants, and lawyers—there’s a lot of good work being done by these souls in our corner of the world.
There are a few Hispanics in our midst and a handful of black kids adopted by white families, but line us up next to one another, and you’ll see we’re mostly cut from the same cloth: white, middle class, conservative. Aside from those few variations in skin color and ethnic heritage, diverse is probably not a word you would use to describe this congregation.
Contrary to current vernacular, the word diversity doesn’t refer only to ethnicity, sexual preference, politics, or even faith traditions.
Diversity: the condition of having or being composed of differing elements; variety, especially the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization; an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities (Merriam Webster Dictionary).
Looking around my church on a Sunday morning, I spot the former drug addict sitting in the front pew, tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of a biker T-shirt. This man proudly participates in a Wednesday night group to Celebrate Recovery.
And there’s the fellow who denounced his alcoholism and accepted a role in our worship service giving a warm hug to the seasoned lay leader who came alongside him the week he fell off the wagon, helping him forgive himself and get back on track.
There are the broken families, the pregnant single mom, the survivors of abuse, the lesbian couple, and the adults with special needs who call our fellowship “family.”
Other faith backgrounds are represented, too, in the young woman with roots in Catholicism, the couple who recently left the Mennonite church, and a pew full of former Amish who cast off a lifestyle and mode of dress when they learned they could claim freedom in Christianity. I’m sure there are more I’ve yet to discover.
They’re all sitting right there next to more traditional families and elderly couples who grew up in this church. All of us are learning to slide over to make room for these new believers and newcomers who lend variety, color, and, yes, diversity to our faith family.
What I don’t see when I look around my church is my Hispanic friend, the woman whose children homeschooled and attended youth conventions with my kids, the friend who knelt with me at the altar of our church on more than one occasion. Lately, she’s been absent on Sunday mornings, and I miss her and her family. I miss catching her eye as she slipped into the third pew from the front, usually late and trailed by an assortment of children and grandchildren. I loved watching my friend worship. Her exuberant, off-beat clapping and spontaneous “Amen!” have been part of the fabric of our Sunday worship service for as long as I can remember.
“What happened?” I asked when we finally met up for lunch. “Where did you go?”
Over the next hour, my friend laid out her disappointment, confusion, frustration, and loss. Discomfort and heartache over words, actions, and attitudes of some in our church family have made her uncomfortable and have undermined the peace and harmony that are important to her in a body of believers. For her, a perceived lack of reverence and even respect for her Holy Father made our church an uncomfortable place to be.
In a way, I understood.
I grew up in the Holy Catholic Church. That’s what we called it in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today, I understand “catholic” to mean “universal,” but my catechism called it “the one true church.” For me, the word church conjures up a jumble of smells and images: polished wooden pews, smoky incense, stained-glass windows, golden altar vessels, men in priestly vestments, statues of Jesus and Mary. Add the predictable hush of prayers sung in Latin, the ringing of bells and reverential silence—all of this was church. It’s still the safe, insulated, isolated worship posture and style that resonate most deeply with me. If there were diverse thoughts, views, backgrounds, expectations among the congregants in the little Catholic chapel of my upbringing, I was blissfully unaware.
Tradition! That is the foundation my faith was built upon. I’ve now left behind the traditions of my childhood, but not the expectation that church should be holy, reverent, familiar, and comfortable.
So I listened to my friend while she talked about her discomfort, not in agreement but in empathy. I offered no answers, no counsel that might override her choice to step away from our church. Her decision rests between her and God, and I know he will lead her. But as I processed her frustration and disappointment, I couldn’t help but wonder:
What brand of “diversity” is acceptable in a faith community? Which definition feels comfortable and safe within church walls?
“Variety, especially the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization” or “an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities.”
My friend is considered an ethnic minority in our community. Her family contributes to the diversity of this small Midwestern town. But, ultimately, the growing “diversity” of worship and Christian practices and the impact it has had on the atmosphere in church became a problem for her.
She’s not alone. Don’t all of us want to be able to manage and categorize the variances in our surroundings, in season and on schedule?
Like my expectations for our beloved sugar maple tree.
You can give me variety, Lord, but make it predictable and dependable. Don’t let it clash against that which makes me feel safe and secure.
Is the flavor of diversity—differing elements or qualities—palatable where we do life? And just as importantly, where we worship God? Because that is why all of us gather in our churches on Sunday mornings—to worship God, the creator of diversity in all its meanings. We are different but the same, each of us sitting here, craving the only bread that will sate our hunger.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Israelites living in exile in Babylon alongside a people that made them uncomfortable while they awaited deliverance. In the words of the biblical paraphrase The Message, Jeremiah said this:
“The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to live with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love…The only place you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment.”
To live deeply and thoroughly by faith in “holy diversity” is both challenging and life-giving.
Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, explores the life of Jeremiah in his excellent book Run with the Horses. He says:
“Exile (being with people we don’t want to be with) forces a decision: Will I focus my attention on what is wrong with the world and feel sorry for myself? Or will I focus my energies on how I can live at my best in this place I find myself? It is always easier to complain about problems than to engage in careers of virtue.”
We throw open the doors of our churches and say, “All are welcome.” The virtuous concept of diversity, when it enters in carrying with it the weight of all its meanings, is a potent motivator to find a way to live in harmony with those who don’t do life (or church) in a manner or tradition we value. We’re not called to compromise, but rather to adjust our expectations, even to set aside long-held preferences. The shift could mean the difference between celebrating the holiness of our differences and allowing them to divide us. Even in church.