Thursday, April 17, 2008

On the Gallup Church and Diversity

I wrote yesterday about the need for Christians to be colorblind when it comes to accepting and embracing people of different cultures, ethnicities, and races. This is especially true as our society becomes less and less monochrome. America is a melting pot and becoming more diverse as each day passes.

I have found the Gallup Church of Christ to be a special fellowship of God's people. We are certainly a diverse group. About half of us are Anglo, and about half of us are Navajo. It is a wonderful blending of races and cultures. The color of our skin may be of different shades. Certain aspects of our upbringing and experiences are different. Our heritages and the histories of our ancestors are often divergent. But, we are all New Mexicans. We are all Americans. And, most importantly, we are all Christians, children of the same Father.

I believe that one of the sad aspects of the history of Churches of Christ (and also of other divisions of Christianity) is the segregation that persisted, and in some places still persists in our congregations. Sadly, when I was growing up in Lubbock, Texas, there was the tacit understanding that there were certain congregations known as "Black churches," and there were "Hispanic churches," and although the moniker was never directly used, there was the implication of "white churches." I always thought that such thinking was sad if not completely out of Christian character.

Diversity doesn't just happen, it is the end result of purposeful intent and action. It is the result of our placing ourselves in the midst of settings and among people that are different than ourselves. It involves presenting ourselves in ways that are not offensive and off-putting to those we strive to meet and grow to know. It means going to great lengths to know those who are different from ourselves, to know their standards and sensibilities, to strive to relate to them in ways that are inviting. It means seeing another as an equal (we are all made in the image of God) and as one with whom we can share the bond of brotherhood or sisterhood.

Let me illustrate the point by relating a story from early in my preaching career. I had moved to Childress, Texas to preach for the Fairview congregation. It was a small church made up of rural folk (some of the best people I have ever known!). I had been taught that preachers dressed the part . . . coat and tie, everyday! It wasn't long before a wise old man took me aside and gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. He said, "Son, you can't pick cotton in a three-piece suit." It took a moment for those words to sink in, but basically he was telling me that I was out of place; if I was going to be comfortable around these people, and have them be comfortable around me, I would need to dress the part . . . in other words, be casual.

I am mindful of a large church whose building is now in the heart of the inner-city (the location was once at the heart of the city's business district), but whose membership is almost entirely white, upper-middle class. Most of the members live in the outlying areas of the city, in the affluent neighborhoods, while those in the immediate surroundings of the church building do not attend. A walk into the building may indicate why that is: the building is ornate, part cathedral, part high-class conference center. The members are all immaculately dressed. The cars in the parking lot are a mixture of SUV's and luxury brands. Now, perhaps I'm over analyzing, but think about the dichotomy for a minute: a church in the inner-city looking like it belongs in the suburbs.

I'm not suggesting that we tear down our ornate buildings and all grunge-out for our assemblies, but I am suggesting that we need some balance. We need to make an effort to be welcoming and inviting to peoples from all backgrounds. I do not know all of the particulars of how this is done, but I know that it begins with the heart . . . a heart that is open . . . an eagerness to see all men come to know the great love we enjoy in Christ.

The photo was taken at the Hogback Church of Christ on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico (April 2006).