Diversity as Christian Practice-Not Just a Church Program

By Diana Butler Bass 11-27-2007

A week before Thanksgiving, I spoke in Lake Tahoe for the clergy convocation of the California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church, a sprawling geography that comprises a wide array of congregations in big cities and small rural towns. The wide variety of clergy reflected that of the churches-the group included many women, persons of color, younger pastors, folks with a spectrum of theological views, and ordained and non-ordained leaders. It was obvious that this group of Methodists was working hard on issues of diversity.

But the most stunning diversity was in the presence of people from around the world, not as mission guests or visiting Methodist dignitaries. Rather, the group included local congregational leaders who hailed from the all the "souths": the South Pacific, South Africa, South Asia, South Korea, South America, and even south Jersey, South Carolina, and southern California. There, on the shores of an alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, gathered the Global South and the emerging community of world Christianity in the form of Methodist clergy.

We spent the day talking about postmodern Christianity and cultural change as related to mainline churches. Early in the conversation, an Indian pastor graciously raised the relevance of postmodern analysis in relation to his community and worldview asking, "Isn't this a western phenomenon?" His questions and their implicit challenges to a western worldview drew the group into a new conversational space. We began to think about cultural change globally-looking at postmodernism and its effects through a prism of worldviews. We did not argue about issues of sexuality; we did not get into a theological fight; we never resorted to ignoring others. We ruminated on God's work in history. We talked about something important-about how the world is changing and why. We listened to and affirmed each other, hospitably opening ourselves to understand and integrate perspectives different from our own. What resulted was, for me, one of the most stimulating intellectual and spiritual days I have experienced in a long time.

I grew up United Methodist in Baltimore in the 1960s. In those years, my childhood church was nearly ripped in two by the Civil Rights Movement. Even the thought of sharing "our" church with African-American Methodists frightened much of my neighborhood to the point of fleeing both the congregation and the city. It would have been impossible to imagine that, some 40 years hence, I would participate in a Methodist community encompassing such a rainbow of ethnicities.

I am sure that good Methodists of the California-Nevada Conference will demur, saying how far they have to go and how imperfectly they practice diversity. But 40 years is a pretty short time to go from a fractured community fearful of race toward the room I experienced at Lake Tahoe. And it demonstrated to me the power of diversity as a Christian practice. If their diversity was merely a "program" of the denomination, it would breed resentment and suspicion. But the level of trust in the room (we even talked about trust) indicated that their diversity went far beyond program-that it is a genuine attempt to enact Christian community in bringing together humankind through Jesus Christ. Their diversity was a practice of faith, an action that Christian people do for the sake of God in the world.

Frankly, the world has never needed the Christian practice of diversity more than it does today. By creating global community in a room on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the Methodists of the California-Nevada Conference provided a hopeful example of what may be possible for the rest of us on a larger scale. It may not be perfect, but I can testify that for one day, we did it. We really acted like Christians-Christians of every imaginable stripe-in the same room, doing important work together. We proved-or maybe discovered-that the only limit to diversity is the love of God.

Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of six books including Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper One, 2006), just released in paperback. She says she lives in Alexandria, Virginia. But, from her speaking engagement schedule, we think she lives on United Airlines.

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