Walking through South Dekalb Mall in Atlanta is a revealing experience for a white girl from Kentucky.
As soon as you enter, you feel like the lights suddenly dim and the lonely spotlight snaps on, aimed right at you. You try to act normal, like it’s no big deal, but this is a strange situation. You’re not used to being the only Caucasian around. It feels like everyone’s looking at you—because many are. It’s uncomfortable, even with a diverse group of friends at your side.
For someone who has always been part of the racial majority, suddenly being the minority became eye-opening. There is a level of comfort and security in being the majority that I never recognized until I stepped away from it for a moment. But what happens when you become the minority most of the time?
A new perspective
Last August, I moved in with a group of girls that is about as racially diverse as you can get. I also started an internship at a church in Atlanta where the majority of members and attendees are African American. While there are still many other races represented, it’s quite a change from my home church—where I’d be excited to see just a handful of non-white faces on a given Sunday.
One awesome benefit of worshipping, serving, and learning about God in the midst of such diversity and being led by a different cultural framework is that you get a new perspective. When you consider the ways and teachings to which you’re accustomed and the new ones to which you’re being exposed, you start to check them with Scripture and distinguish between things that are really of Christ and things that are merely cultural. Your view of the kingdom of God is stretched further every day.
The beauty of diversity
Something amazing happens when your view of God’s kingdom expands—your heart expands, too. You learn to embrace the unique ways the image of God shines through different races and cultures. You start to look at the world differently. Your values expand from the self-absorbed, this-is-how-I-was-raised scale of importance to, “Huh. Maybe there are different ways to look at this.” You learn to fight for justice effectively—not just in the ways that seem right (or easiest) to white, middle-class America.
But coming to understand all these things isn’t easy. I’m not even close to being there yet. Tension and misunderstanding are natural byproducts of diversity in a broken world. You can’t assume everyone shares your opinions. You have to put in the work, be open to change, and learn the backgrounds behind the worldviews, attitudes, and customs.
Diversity in the body
For my church, diversity didn’t just happen—it’s a value in and of itself. To be effective in the diversity of the city, especially the city of Atlanta, we believe the Church itself must be diverse. The fact that my church embraces and encourages diversity makes it easier to be in the minority than it probably is elsewhere. While I sometimes feel out of the loop on certain pop culture references or aspects of urban living, I’ve never felt any less a part of the church because of my skin color or heritage. I almost always feel loved, accepted for who I am, wanted, and needed (any time I don’t, it’s usually just personal insecurities). And when I look around at the people who make up this church, my heart is warmed at the wonder of how God can bring people of all races, classes, and backgrounds together, and my mind is set toward eternity, of which the diversity I see is just a glimpse.
Because that’s what Jesus does—he brings people together, no matter who they are or where they previously found their identity. Despite their differences, Jesus becomes their common ground. That’s basically what the Church is: anyone and everyone who finds their life and identity in Christ.
At my church, we have small groups called missional communities that meet, study God’s word, do service projects, and experience life together. Last fall, some of the missional communities came together for a cookout. It was a melting pot of people—different races, classes, ages, and backgrounds. Afterward, a guest who attended the cookout told one of my friends that they’d never seen such a diverse group of people who loved and accepted each other so much. The people of my church aren’t perfect, by any means, but that’s a picture of the Church at its best.
The gift of diversity
When you’re exposed to diversity and have a chance to live as the minority, you start noticing the lack of diversity where you never would before. When I peruse through old Facebook albums now, I start to realize how many white people are in my pictures. When I go somewhere out of my current urban context, it’s odd to be back in the majority. It’s not that uniformity is always intentional or bad—it’s often just in the cultural makeup of a place. But it feels off because normality has changed. The beauty of diversity has left a mark on your mind. It’s like seeing a sunset for the first time. Blue skies are nice, too, but you don’t take as many pictures of them.