A Personal Dilemma: Diversity vs. Diversity

Photo from the UK Telegraph

Photo from the UK Telegraph

This is a story of due diligence, mutual deception, and dialogue. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

Pretty much my entire life has been dedicated to intercultural competence and diversity issues. It started when I was eleven: my family moved and I became the target of bullying for being “different.” I decided then that I needed to learn how to adapt (“fit in”) to new situations much more nimbly than I was then able to do. So, at twelve, I used my babysitting money to spend a summer abroad in Mexico. That was the first step on a lifelong path.

I am also quite Christian. Open to, respectful, and inclusive of other religions and spiritual practices, by all means—at least in my intentions and ongoing learning process—but in my own life I follow the beliefs rooted in my childhood. I am eternally grateful to my parents for instilling faith in me from a young age. So, I’m a Christian who’s committed to diversity, inclusion, and intercultural competence.

In 1999, when I moved to Kansas City, Kansas, USA, I interviewed various pastors and churches to find the right “fit” for me. I did not want to have any part of a parish culture that was exclusive or righteously judgmental. I was delighted when I found an Episcopal parish with a pastor who swore himself, and his parish, to embracing diversity.

I knew that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church had declared that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church” (1976-A069). I also knew that the Episcopal and Anglican Churches (the Episcopal Church is an offshoot of the Anglican Church and is part of the Anglican Communion) were having a heated internal debate about homosexuality, particularly about whether gays and lesbians should be able to be priests. I vehemently felt they should; this would be the inclusive practice. Thus, I interviewed my pastor about his feelings on this matter. When he told me he heartily agreed with the declaration, I could feel my worry ease.

The parish engaged in extensive domestic and international outreach, and not just the short-term, feel-good kind. We had long-term relationships with a medical center in Haiti and a Diocese in Ghana, with whom we partnered to alleviate hunger, improve health, and develop job skills. Ghana and Haiti were part of the Anglican Church, not the Episcopal Church, but that didn’t matter to me; we were all the same family. At least two Sundays a month our pastor’s sermon included talk about diversity, his desire to include more people of color and lower socio-economic strata in our parish that was located in an upscale, largely white neighborhood.

Things happened that I didn’t like. I remember attending a Bible study group in which the members ganged up on me. They all said that a Christian had to proclaim Jesus as THE ONE AND ONLY Lord and Savior. I said I proclaimed Jesus as MY Lord and Savior, but that I recognized many other paths to God, peace, or enlightenment, as well. I explained that I respected those paths as valid and appropriate for the people who followed them. Members of my study group fervently disagreed, showing me Bible passages to prove I was wrong. They told me I wasn’t a true Christian.

What?! I have been a Christian my entire life, in four countries on three continents, and no one has ever had the gall to tell me that before! How dare they define my spirituality for me!

I spoke to my pastor about it. He apologized. He explained to me that Kansas City was fairly “southern” in its outlook, and that our parish commitment to diversity included people who were more fundamental/literal as well as people who were more liberal in their outlook. He said we are all human, we are all on a developmental journey in this life, and that I should be compassionate.

Okay, I quit the Bible study group. For about three years I was delighted, becoming more and more involved and vested in parish life. I became an active Sunday school teacher, and co-led Vacation Bible School for the kids. I tithed 10% of my earnings, which I knew supported our outreach projects as well as parish upkeep. I attended women’s retreats and study sessions. We had a great time. I absolutely loved my community, and felt I was growing closer to God, becoming more the person He would like me to be on this earth.

Then comes 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop. I was so proud! We had married priests, women priests (I had grown up Catholic, so this was major), and now we could have priests who are variously sexually-oriented as well! I felt joy at such a major step forward for an organization that, like any other, is prone to human failings.

Thus, I was completely blindsided when, in church on Sunday, our pastor announced that we were leaving the Episcopal Church. Huh? Can he do that?! He told us that our parish would be joining the Anglican Church. The reason? He didn’t agree with having a gay bishop, and he said we shouldn’t, either. What???!!!

I obviously made an appointment to speak with the pastor right away on Monday. I was livid. How could he have pledged to me his commitment to diversity, told me he agreed with the Church’s 1976 declaration on LGBT matters, and then do this? How could he take the annual pledge I’d made and just move it without my permission to another Church?

He spoke calmly. He was obviously centered, had prayed on this, and was confident he was doing the right thing. He explained to me that pro-LGBT activities have a western bias. And not just a western bias, but a higher socio-economic class bias as well. He said that in most of Africa, most of Latin America, most of the rest of the world, the Anglican Communion does not want openly gay priests. He told me he still did support the Episcopal Church’s 1976 LGBT declaration. But, he went on to say that that declaration says gays are children of God. In his opinion, gay sex is a sin, so as long as our gay parishioners remain celibate, they remain in God’s good graces. What?! Nearly four years I’ve been learning from this man, and this is what he believes?! I was horrified. He explained to me that it was me, not him, that was failing to honor diversity and inclusion; I was being ethnocentric, with a western and upper-middle-class bias.

I, of course, disagreed. I told him that we, as a society, cannot pick and choose which differences are “acceptable” to us and which are not. I told him I’d be leaving the church. I demanded that my annual tithe be returned to me; my money would most definitely not be used by him to promote this kind of discrimination.

While this personal story is now dated, I decided to write it up after reading a recent article from Canada, “Indigenous bishops say they’ll resist imposition of ‘Western’ cultural values,” about the Anglican Church there. That article really caused me pause. I am devoted to indigenous causes. Back when I was 11 and being bullied, my only friends were Hopi and Diné. They welcomed me, and I will never forget that inclusiveness. So, indigenous people are saying LGBT inclusion is an imposition of western cultural values? That the Church is not heeding their voices? That’s not good. Everyone should be heard, listened to, respected.

Spirituality is a lifelong practice. Cultural competence is also. At this point in my development, I remain committed to the belief that we must be inclusive and respectful of all God’s creatures: human, plant, animal, and Mother Earth. Defending our lack of respect for another by attributing it to “culture” is just not acceptable. Change is difficult; my inability to adapt when my family moved is what got me into the intercultural field in the first place. Change takes time. We must engage in respectful processes, during which we honor and hear one another. Together, we can create a world in which all our unique gifts are honored and utilized.

I welcome your thoughts, insights, and experiences.

Prologue: We here at Cultural Detective are very much wanting to partner with authors on a Cultural Detective Christianity, as well as packages on other spiritual traditions, to accompany our CD Islam and CD Jewish Culture. I would also very much like to see Values Lenses on Fundamentalism/Literalism, and Liberalism/Interpretivism—as a non-expert in divinity studies, I obviously don’t have the correct vocabulary. If you share my passion and do have the vocabulary, please contact us: blog@culturaldetective.com.