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Embracing Diversity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Therese Taylor-Stinson

At the annual gathering of NEXT Church in Chicago this year, Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman gave a keynote on diversity.  Its thesis caught me by surprise!

Diversity was not framed in the familiar words of inclusion and tolerance and “Kum-ba-ya,” but in relation to the shocking discovery that diversity is messy.  Using the research of social scientist Robert Putnam, we heard such statements as:

Diversity corrodes trust and organization.

Diversity without authentic inclusion can be harmful.

Robert Putnam’s research on “The Downside of Diversity” shows that, when diversity increases, trust levels decrease initially between groups and within groups.

In diverse communities, when people have the time and resources to make a difference, they do nothing.

According to Michael Jonas’ Boston Globe article of August 2007, even Robert Putnam was disturbed by his findings but could not deny their correlation to civic engagement. There is evidence, however, that though diversity corrodes community in civic matters, it increases creativity and productivity in the workplace, where differing views and perspectives, when included, result in greater innovation and adaptivity.

The positive findings in the workplace leads to another conclusion presented by Jana and Freeman:

People will only participate in that which they help to create.

Thus, I believe Putnam’s findings on diversity in civic life, combined with the findings on the effects of diversity in the workplace, are indeed an invitation. We are invited not to just embrace the truth of the initial mess of diversity in community but also to keep going!  It is indeed an invitation that is worth the mess.  Expecting the messiness should inspire us to keep going and not default to business as usual.

Putnam’s research was conducted in situations of ‘real’ diversity, when divergent ideas, cultures, lifestyles, ethnicities, values, and the like are authentically allowed to co-exist in the same place; not ‘token’ diversity, where everyone has either the same views, background, and or culture, or there is a set of rules to prohibit divergent or conflicting beliefs.  A Rwandan proverb states, “If you can’t hear a mouth chewing, you cannot hear a mouth crying.”  That means we must power through the mess in order to find empathy and compassion for the suffering of others.  The empathy and compassion then leads to authentic inclusion of differing values and ideas, and to the birth of a creative and innovative community.

Real diversity can initially blind us to the ways in which our differences can make us stronger. Thus, we must have the fortitude to push past the messiness of our tribal leanings.  This is where contemplation comes in—to raise our self-awareness and then our awareness of the other.

Brian McDermott, in his keynote presentation at the Spiritual Directors International Educational Event in Louisville, Kentucky, referred to “contemplation in action” [emphasis mine].  That small word “in” as opposed to the usual “and” makes a great difference because it speaks of contemplation indwelling the action taken, not separate from it.  Thus, I wrote in my notes:

We are both connected and separate.  We dwell in both, but we are not meant to stay in either. Separateness allows us to become aware and deepen; then, we are called to remain in that deepened place as we enter the connectedness of the universe.

The dilemma is to know when to remain separate and aware of oneself and when to integrate that more deepened self with the flow and connectedness of the universe. Contemplation calls us to awareness and connectedness, to use the deepening of our separate self to cultivate compassion for our differences in community.  When we acknowledge our experiences and the experiences of the other and come together with creativity to find where our differences merge to create something new and innovative, we overcome the initial messiness of diversity and become a productive human community committed to the rights, the needs, and concerns of all.  We become the human race rather than a socially constructed list of groups with whom we compete for superiority.

I have often contemplated the act of breathing because, as a child with asthma, I sometimes struggled to breathe.  As an adult who had acquired the habit of shallow breathing, I participated in a 6-week workshop to learn how to breathe deeply.  As I thought about the involuntariness of breathing and its power to regulate the body, I pondered on our dependence on the breath to live. Without the breath, we cannot live; without oxygen, the act of breathing is fatal.  This is not just true for humans but for all animal life:  We breathe in and out every minute of our lives, sharing the air as humans and with all other forms of animal life—without conflict.

Thomas Merton wrote, “We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another.”  Contemplation quiets the mind so that we can hear from a deeper place, and it is deeply healing of trauma—even generations of trauma.  From that place, there are four actions we must take to truly experience the life-giving aspects of diversity:

  • Healing the trauma that stems from the messiness of equal diversity not allowed.
  • Reconciling differences through love and confession.
  • Increasing the awareness of privilege and how it perpetuates the oppression of others.
  • Dismantling destructive systems that support privilege and deny equal rights to all.

I think it was Brian McDermott who said, “God doesn’t change the condition of a people until they change the condition of their hearts.”  We are called to move from noticing something to letting it affect us and the world around us.  That is contemplation in action.

Wendell Berry expresses it well:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, 

and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our real journey. 

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. 

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Let it be so!


Theres Taylor-StinsonTherese Taylor-Stinson is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church and is currently serving as Vice Moderator of the National Capital Presbytery.  She is a member of the Shalem Society for Contemplative Leadership, and she has served on Shalem’s Board of Directors, and Marketing and Communications Committee.  Therese is the Managing Member of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd., and maintains a private spiritual direction practice.  She is also a co-editor and contributing author of the groundbreaking anthology Embodied Spirits:  Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color, released in March 2014.

Transforming our Tradition

By Emily Powers

Over the past two months I’ve done a lot of reflecting over my experience at NEXT. I have come to some conclusions.

  • First, there is nothing better than celebrating the church with a bunch of Presbyterians.
  • Second, we all are looking for some kind of change and renewal.
  • Third, setting the scene is just as important as the content at the conference.

As I prepared to leave DC for a week, I found myself getting more excited, it helped that my housemate is the NEXT YAV (Young Adult Volunteer). I was extremely excited to get to hear Brian Ellison, my pastor of 13 years, preach and to get to see friends from all over the Presbyterian world. I also found myself excited to see a conference that was going to focus on not just creative preachers and speakers, but also focus on a creative and artistic approach to liturgy. Worship is always something special when art is valued as an important part of the experience.

Throughout the conference the audience became a part of the artistic experience. It started by taking pieces of Presbyterian works (the hymnal, the confessions) cut into pieces. First, we wrote on these pieces of our tradition what was holding us back. I wrote of my fears at putting my life into the church. Then we turned them in and they were linked into a chain wall that divided Fourth’s sanctuary. In the next service, we got up and wrote what was holding us together, as Joy Douglas Strome preached, our third spaces. I wrote about my YAV community and the amazing women I’ve been sharing this year with. In the next worship, we broke down the wall and everything that was holding us back. It was a moving experience to tear down the physical barrier that we built up around us and between us, and to see our power in community to move beyond those walls.

This was an amazing experience but what was truly remarkable was witnessing what these broken chains became. The next morning, the final day of the conference, we walked into the sanctuary to see a phoenix hanging above us. Its feathers and flames were created from our fears, our safe spaces, and our love for one another. A truly wonderful sight to see. Not only was it beautiful, but it showed the transformation that can come from all the fear and pain in the world. This collaborative art gives us hope–

  • that together we can transform the parts of our tradition that have hurt and excluded beloved children of God
  • that together, we can reconfigure the parts of our tradition that are beautiful and meaningful to fit our evolving context
  • that we can truly rise from the ashes and become something whole, created by us all.

 

2015Bird

 

That is what I took away from the National Gathering. That we all have different stories and different opinions, but when we work together to break down those barriers, we can become something new. The church has a long way to go to be the best it can be, but like the phoenix, we have the opportunity to be new again. I learned a lot about starting again and remembering where you came from, but also that we are better together. We learn more when we listen to all the voices, especially the voices who are often ignored. I think if we can learn all of this from something so simple as scraps of paper, then we’re off to a pretty good start.

Editor’s note: For another perspective on liturgical art at the National Gathering, check out “Scraps of Paper” by Christopher Edmonston. 


Emily Powers Emily Powers is a Young Adult Volunteer at the Washington, D.C. site where she serves with Capitol Hill Group Ministries and the Washington Seminar Center by doing street outreach and advocacy with D.C. residents experiencing homelessness. Emily is a connoisseur of hotdogs, macaroni and cheese, and–according to Netflix–‘Emotional Dramas Featuring a Female Lead.’

Blog Reflections on NEXT Church 2015

2015 communion

Photo Credit: Fourth Presbyterian Church

Just as the energy and learning that happened in Chicago carry us back into ministry, participants in the NEXT Church national gathering reflect on different pieces of the gathering — what they mean for our life together as the church, how we are being challenged, and where NEXT might be headed.

Jessica Tate offers some reflections on the places of tension at NEXT Church 2015.

Leslie King reflects on the difficulty of bridging thin places as we seek to be the diverse community of the church.

Jodi Craiglow writes about the experience of being in the minority when the results of the vote of 14-F were announced at NEXT 2015.

Therese Taylor Stinson argues for contemplation as a path for the church to engage on the way to racial justice.

Christopher Edmonston and Emily Powers share reactions to the art we engaged in worship.

Rebecca Messman reflects on George Srour’s challenge to the church.

Tony Sundermeier, pastor of First Presbyterian in Atlanta (host church for the 2016 National Gathering) raises questions that linger with him from Chicago.

2015 National Gathering: Linda Valentine

Linda Valentine provides testimony on the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

2015 National Gathering: Tom Taylor

Tom Taylor speaks at the 2015 National Gathering in Chicago on behalf of the Presbyterian Foundation.

2015 National Gathering Ignite: Erin Thomas & Paul Knopf

Erin Thomas and Paul Knopf share their Ignite presentation on the Tapestry Youth Collective at the 2015 National Gathering in Chicago.

2015 National Gathering Ignite: Tara Spuhler McCabe

Tara Spuhler McCabe’s Ignite presentation on concierge ministry at the 2015 National Gathering in Chicago.

2015 National Gathering Testimony: George Srour

George Srour provides testimony at the 2015 National Gathering about his organization, Building Tomorrow.

We’d also encourage you to read this response to George’s testimony from Becca Messman.

A Challenge to the Church

We continue to reap the harvest of the 2015 National Gathering and hope you continue to be inspired by creative ministry, challenging ideas, and deepened relationships. NEXT leaders are continuing to process places of tension in the gathering so that we may learn and grow from them. Today, Rebecca Messman’s blog piece offers some reflection on the last presentation of the gathering, offered by George Srour, a ruling elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. There were strong feelings expressed at the time of the presentation and some difficult conversations in the wake of the conversation. What Becca does in this piece is take a step back from the intensity of the moment and respond to various constituencies with thoughtfulness and grace.

 

The church is getting lapped by secular organizations doing the work church started. And they’re doing it better.”

In that one statement, George Srour, one of the Forbes Top 30 under 30 for Social Entrepreneurship, said what most of us know to be true though we don’t know what to do about it. When Srour was in college, he learned that 900,000 children in Uganda had no school at all to attend. In response, over the last ten years, he has started a non-profit, Building Tomorrow, and built schools for 6,700 children, with more schools under construction. Those are impressive numbers. Srour grew up at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, the host church for the very first NEXT church conference. I felt certain that Srour would get a good hearing, even generate some pride, from those of us at this year’s NEXT conference.

The intense response he received, however, focused more on his appearance as potentially someone with a “white savior complex,” despite the fact that he is Lebanese-American, or conceivably someone dealing in “toxic charity,” despite his emphasis on local leadership, long-term partnership, and the use of donated land.

Srour was gracious in responding to our questions without a whiff of defensiveness, but I wonder if we have genuinely considered his challenge to the church, the Presbyterian Church that he, and we, love.

  • Make it real, he said. Non-profit organizations do a better job in communicating concrete goals. He made it real. $1.81 is what it would cost to build a school in Uganda, if all 5,500 students at William and Mary contributed. The ALS ice bucket challenge made it real, and we poured ice water on our heads and donated $100. Heifer international makes it real, and we buy a goat for a hungry family for Christmas. Churches know this! Last Thanksgiving, when I asked the congregation for $18 to purchase a turkey for the community banquet, saying that we needed 20 turkeys total to feed 300 people, we received 20 checks. And what blew me away, 15 of those checks were from individuals purchasing all 20 turkeys at once. Whether it’s the shoe drive or the angel tree, ministries that make it real work in most any setting. Why, then, are our congregational goals come October so tepid, so fuzzy, by comparison?
  • Be bold, he said. “Would you be you without a school?” Srour posed that agitating question to college kids, and set an enormous, but real, goal. 900,000 students in Uganda do not have a school. He didn’t say, “Millions worldwide.” That would have been true, but demoralizing. He didn’t say, “these 28 children.” That would have been manageable and impressive for a college student, but less inspiring. Churches know this! We have demographic data and statistics at our fingertips, but we don’t necessarily use it to set our goals. We may set goals that are catchy and even aggressive, but we don’t always stick with those goals long enough to realize them, which makes our big goals less trustworthy the next time around. Sometimes our goals are so small they are not goals at all, they are more about survival and status quo, less about our faith and more an expression of our fear. They start to sound like my marathon goal: “Start off slow, and ease up.” “Not dead, not dead last.”
  • God sends many teachers and many teammates. We should learn from non-profits. Jesus drafted fishermen to be his disciples, because they knew how to move where the fish were, without being tied to the land like farmers, or proud of the product like carpenters. Jesus pulled in tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and blind people, perhaps because they weren’t too concerned with popularity or perfection in the hard work of discipleship. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but the workers… they’re few! I am starting to think that there are more laborers in the field with the church than ever before—caring for the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked—non-profits, government organizations, community groups, school groups, other churches—and we have much to learn from each other.

 

I’ll never forget when I was in the car with my dad as a teenager, and I heard a song on the radio, maybe by Belinda Carlisle or Sinead O’Connor, and I quipped, “Uggh… This song is so cheesy, I could write one better than this.” And he quipped back, “Yes, but have you?”

It’s easy to pose a fiery question at a conference and muse on how we’d do it better or differently. But we need to be prepared for the question, “Yes, but have you?”

 


Rebecca Messman is a pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. In a previous life she was in the corporate leadership track of Home Depot.

 

Lingering Questions from Chicago

Plans are already underway for our 2016 National Gathering! We are thrilled and honored that First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta GA will be our host congregation March 7-9. (In fact, stop what you’re doing right now and do two quick things:

  1. Put the gathering on your calendar.
  2.  Put on your to-do list to invite one friend, colleague or ruling elder from your congregation to join you.)

Tony Sundermeier is pastor of First Presbyterian and a member of our advisory team. As part of our series of posts reflecting on our time in Chicago, we asked Tony to share his experiences, and what’s on his mind as his congregation prepares to host next year.

What Tony offers is more than a reflection or article; it’s much deeper than a recap. It is a meditation. It is best read slowly, letting the questions address you. Consider it an exercise in lectio divina. Which phrases resonate with you? How would you respond to them? Which remain unanswered?

Lingering Questions

By Tony Sundermeier (with Introduction by MaryAnn Mckibben Dana)

What do we observe when we observe what is trending in the church? In other words, what is being presented by us or to us as the avant-garde? What is the core-content that defines the kind of innovation, imagination, emerging leadership (and so on) that we assume to be correctly identified as that which is next?

Were not our hearts burning within us when we heard about social entrepreneurship; positive deviance; new monasticism; non-traditional worshipping communities; global mission partnerships; networks and cohorts; technique-driven innovation; living missionally; edgy liturgies; theology in a bar; etc. etc.? Were not our hearts burning with rage when we were told this thing or that thing is next, when we plainly see it as a recapitulation of exclusive and marginalizing, tired and irrelevant ideas/practices/systems of the yesterday church?

Who decides what is next? Do you? Do I? Does a strategic planning team? Does an advisory board? Might your next church be my never church? Might my never church be the church you have been praying for your whole life? Who decides?

Is this the great challenge the NEXT Church movement now faces? Or is this no challenge at all but a “coming of age” for the movement? Are we surprised by the multifaceted and complex responses to NEXT; what it has done and what it has left undone? Have we been caught off guard by some of the dissonance and dissatisfaction birthed in Chicago, and expressed via social media, or might this be a healthy byproduct of a network of leaders that prefers dissent to silence or resignation? Is this not simply a healthy consequence of a network of leaders that prefers to hear both “Yes” and “No” because it prefers plurality to particularity?

Is it not true that one of the great strengths of the NEXT Church movement is its commitment to both the dissenting voice as well as the obliging voice? Is this NEXT Church’s unique contribution and challenge to cultures that often want to wear jerseys and choose sides instead of choosing each other?

Will NEXT Church compromise because dissent is hard to hear? Will NEXT compromise because particularity is so much easier to manage? Or will the only prevailing particularity, next to our commitment to a Christo-centric existence, be a nuanced desire to foster plurality and diversity of all kinds? Will NEXT widen the circle to include more voices even if those voices present a contest to our prevailing perceptions about what next truly means?

Who decides what’s next? Might it be those that are willing to let their yes be yes and their no be no? Might it be those that dissent or affirm and still leave chairs open for one another at the table? Might it be you and me and the other and those that have yet to make their voices heard? Might it be us…all of us?


TonySundermeier

Tony Sundermeier is on the NEXT Church Advisory Team and serves as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, host of the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering.