Diversity. It is something we talk a lot about. It is something we in Canada often claim to prize highly (though sometimes our actions make me wonder how highly). But what does it mean? How do we nourish it?
I am writing this as I reflect on the first day of a conference here in Grande Prairie. The name of the event is Fostering Diverse Communities Conference 2015 (Twitter hashtag #FDCC2015). All day long (and continuing tomorrow) we have been talking about how to be a welcoming community, how to integrate newcomers/immigrants, how to embrace being a diverse community.
After all diversity is sometimes scary. Sometimes we find it difficult to admit that we don't all have to be the same. Sometimes we expect that newcomers will quickly become “just like us”. And we certainly don't like to admit the reality that whenever somebody new joins our community the community is no longer the same. It is now a new community.
We don't like to admit that. We would prefer to claim that we welcome everyone. But the stories we heard today show that our perception (or our preferred reality) is not always the case. In every part of Canada there are times when newcomers are made to feel second-class, to feel unacceptable, to feel that they don't quite belong or fit in.
And here is the most uncomfortable piece. The church is no different. Most churches, if you asked point blank, would say “certainly all are welcome here”. But many people have told stories about how it is hard to break in to a church community. Churches have a reputation of wanting new people – as long as they don't make us change how we are who we are, or as long as they are willing to become like us. Churches tend to be pretty uniform places.
How diverse are we as a church community? When Tymmarah Zehr was working on her Masters thesis around issues of being a welcoming community she called to ask if we had a population of newcomers who might be interested in being a part of her research I had to tell her we were not the best congregation to look at. Because (for a variety of reasons – a big one being that immigrants tend to look for a faith community that they know from home and of course the United Church is very much a Canadian institution) the United Church is not often a place where new Canadians look for a faith community. And so we are not as diverse as perhaps we could, or maybe should, be.
Next time you walk around town take a look at the people you see. Grande Prairie is a very diverse community now. Something like 120 countries are represented in our population (up from 81 in 2006). Now take a look around our sanctuary. Do you see a difference?
Now I am realistic. We will never be as diverse as the community as a whole. But maybe we could ask ourselves how to make connections with those immigrant and newcomer communities. Maybe we could find some way to help people integrate into Canadian society. Not necessarily by having them join us (unless they want to of course) but by supporting them, learning their stories while we share our stories.
Learning those stories, inviting newcomers (either immigrants/new Canadians or multi-generational Canadians) to become part of our circles, will change us. New people in a group, be it a family, a business, a social club, a church – any group – change that group. And until we have experienced it we don't really know how we will be changed. This could be scary. It could also be a blessing.
In Scripture we meet the God who gave Peter a dream telling him to eat animals he was taught to believe were unclean. We meet the God who called Paul to spread the Gospel beyond the walls of the Jewish world. We meet the God who challenges our assumptions about what it means to be a part of the community. It is my belief that this God wants us to welcome diversity, to celebrate it. We are not all the same. And that, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing.
How will we celebrate the diversity that is Grande Prairie?