Making diversity a priority

July 12th, 2016

It's clear that racism is a problem in our country, as tragedy has recently reminded us that just having a certain color skin can get you shot in America today. It's overwhelming. It's too much. But I still have hope. Why? Because of Jesus, because of my church.

Twenty five years ago we were a typical white suburban church in decline. Unexpectedly, a struggling African-American church united with the congregation. I understand it was messy and difficult and painful at times, as one would expect when racism is so deep in our social fabric. We made it together, but God wasn't done yet.

Four years ago, we didn't have our own Spanish-language worship service. Today, it’s not uncommon for us to have more people worshiping in Spanish than English on any given weekend. This, even though attendance in English is up over last year, mostly due to Liberians and other African immigrants new to our church. The Holy Spirit has surprised us! We have on our church staff leaders who were born in Mexico, Cuba, Rwanda, and as of this month, Myanmar. Who would have guessed that we would have a Cherokee man praying in two languages over a new children’s minister from Asia?

We are starting to look more like how heaven is described in Revelation. God is renewing our church, God is bringing diverse people together, bridging these gaps of race that have torn us apart for so long. God is answering our prayers for spiritual renewal, surprising us. And we have a long, long way yet to go as a church, I know. The more progress we make, the more I realize how far off we are from the heavenly vision.

Church can and should be a leader in bringing people together across these lines that divide us. If this is going to happen, it will mean that churches will have to admit that their systems, their resources, their way of doing things are too often rigged to serve themselves and people like themselves. We will need to admit that this means others have been left out, had their road into our church made me difficult. We will have to realign our resources, invite diverse people into leadership, notice our neighbors, and be willing to worship in different ways if we want to reach new, diverse people for Jesus Christ and model to society an alternative to what we have now. Our society desperately needs this model, to see the possibilities of racial reconciliation and systemic change that Christ makes possible in the church.  

This repentance and re-alignment of resources is possible for every church, and it is possible in society. I learned this growing up in rural Kentucky, in a nearly all-white community, from my home church. Our "rich church" (I didn't realize it was, one of my high school teachers told me) that decided to realign its resources to reach poor children, and experienced incredible renewal from the Holy Spirit. They, I suspect, learned it from Jesus, who up-ended tables in the Temple when religion had arranged things to benefit one group and leave out another.

It is time for us to join with Jesus in this rearranging of resources in our temples. One church may need to decide to hire an immigrant pastor to help them reach the refugee communities in their neighborhood, instead of yet another youth pastor. Another church may need to rethink their worship times to create doorways for the working poor to join them in prayer. The possibilities are as endless as God’s grace. Jesus can, still today, up end the tables of a system rigged to benefit one group over another, so that we can truly say with Jesus, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." (Mark 11:17)

After we let Jesus rearrange our tables, our resources and our priorities, churches can honestly become houses of prayer for all people. When we are praying together, living in community together, white, black, Asian, Latino/a, and Native American, then we can be a powerful force of hope that transforms our broken world.  

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