Imago Dei: Why Diversity Matters
Writing and/or speaking about diversity is never easy. In some ways, I feel as though I will never satisfy everyone who reads or hears what I have to say. However, to remain silent about such issues, especially as the head of school at a good-sized Christian independent school would be wrong. It would be cowardly. Now, I know I do not have all the answers. I may not even have a lot of the answers, but I am always seeking them. Likewise, I am hopeful that you will come to this blog desiring to learn, to understand others’ perspectives, and to better exemplify the kindness of God here on earth.
I grew up in a white, suburban, middle class home. My father was a preacher, and my mother was the head of school at the private school I attended from grades 3-12. My parents were not perfect, but they were pretty great. They grew up in the white, Scandinavian/German world that Minnesota was in the 1940s-1970s. Diversity in their world had everything to do with socioeconomics and European ethnicity (Were you Swedish, Norwegian, or German?). Very little racial diversity existed in Minnesota during their early lives or mine. Christmas at my Scandinavian grandparents’ house—my grandmother was Swedish, and my grandfather was Norwegian—consisted of Swedish sausage, Swedish meatballs, Lutefisk, rice pudding, Lingonberries, Lefsa, and mashed potatoes. When gravy was introduced in 1988, it was quite scandalous. This tradition continues to this day, though my grandparents have been gone for years.
As I grew, the one thing that stood out to me about my parents was that no person was lesser than another. No man or woman deserved to be treated in any manner other than what they were created as—image bearers of our God, the Creator and Sustainer of all people. My parents could not have been clearer than they were: All people are God’s creation and deserve to be treated as such.
Every holiday in our home, we had the people that no one else wanted. We had people who had just gotten out of jail, people my father had been counseling for drug and alcohol abuse, and women and children who had been abused by their husbands. I remember one Thanksgiving when I was in high school asking my mother if we could simply have one holiday with just our family? Her answer was resolute: “No. As long as there are people that are in need, they will be in our home.” I wasn’t very mature, and her answer was not what I wanted to hear. However, that lesson has lived within me from that day on.
GROWING IN UNDERSTANDING
In 2003, Katie and I got married and very shortly thereafter moved to urban Boston, where I took on my first headship at Boston Trinity Academy, a small middle and high school in the heart of Boston. I knew very little about urban education, about educating the poor, or about being in the minority. I learned quickly. I had to. What I did know at the outset, however, was that every child at my school was made in the image of God and that the families with whom I was doing community were different one from another and different from me. Every family we served was made up of image-bearers. Every family member and every student had been put into that school for a distinct reason.
I may never know all the reasons Katie and I landed in Boston, but those seven years were the most formative and potentially the most important years of my life. They set the stage for me as an adult and as a leader. I grew to know God in ways I would not have if not for this move. I grew as a husband as a result of this move. I grew to know people of many cultures and backgrounds in new ways as a result of this move. I grew to understand poverty, race, and culture in ways I would have never, if not for this move. I made some huge cultural mistakes. I displayed ignorance. I didn’t always understand. Fortunately for me, my community walked alongside of me, they forgave me when I needed forgiveness, and they helped me to better understand them, while I grew in a better understanding of myself. In turn, they grew to know and understand me better as well.
LIFE LESSONS LEARNED
Now, some seventeen years later, I pray I am still growing in my knowledge and understanding of others—no matter who they are or from where they come. All that to say, here are some of the lessons I have learned about diversity along the way:
1. We are all image-bearers (Genesis 1, 2, 5, & 9; I Corinthians 11; Colossians 3; Romans 8).
I knew this one going into my new role in Boston, but it is still the most important thing to understand about diversity, in my opinion. It does not matter where we come from, what our race is, what color our skin is, or how much money we have. You and I bear the image of our Creator.
2. When we believe, when we ask for forgiveness, when we find Jesus (or when he calls us…), we are all adopted into ONE FAMILY (Ephesians 1:5; Ephesians 5:1)—the family of God.
We get to wear our father’s robes of righteousness and live freely with him and others. We all, therefore, share the same lineage; we are a part of an everlasting family that takes care of one another, watches out for one another, loves one another. We are also a part of a family that continually seeks to bring in more family members, to adopt more children, to gain more brothers and sisters, and to share in the good life that comes through this family and through this beautiful, unified diversity that exists within the family of God.
3. The same Gospel (the good news of Jesus Christ) that saves me, also saves you, saves your neighbors, and saves anyone anywhere who believes.
Jesus called us to go into all the world and PREACH THE GOSPEL, to tell our friends, to tell our families. The Gospel does not discriminate (I Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:15). It saves all those who believe. It becomes clear to those who seek. It transforms those who ask.
4. Every one of us has cultural distinctives—we all come from different backgrounds.
I live in the Overlook in Kennesaw, Georgia. The families that live on either side of me are both white and middle-class. Culturally, they are different than my family. They share different traditions and possibly different beliefs. The Asian family that lives across the street is culturally different than my family. The African American family that lives down the street is culturally different than my family. We are different. All of us. I need to love them all, serve them all, and seek to understand them all. We were made for community, one with each other. We are different, but we are neighbors. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ (Galatians 3). This must have great meaning for all we do.
5. We are different, but we can live in unity (Psalm 133; John 17; Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 10; Colossians 3).
I am not naïve enough to believe that our unity in Christ does not mean there will be disagreements and differences that sometimes separate us from one another. Our differences are real and exist because we live in a broken world, and we are broken people. So, how do we deal with them? When he votes for Trump and she votes for Bernie, how can they get along? When she goes home to her million-dollar house and he goes to his apartment where he can hardly afford this month’s rent, how can they be brothers and sisters? When we do not understand each other’s perspective, how do we come together? These are all legitimate questions, and they are driving our nation apart. In some cases, they are driving our close-knit community apart. We can and should be different. It takes work — hard work, and a willingness to work — which naturally starts with a willingness to listen.
6. My old boss, Dr. Chace Anderson, used to say to me, “Tim, you need to listen twice and talk once. God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Yep, we must listen more and speak less.
Let’s try and better understand one another. Politics, theology, backgrounds, opinions—these things can divide us, or we can choose to not allow them to. We can choose to walk in the shoes of those with whom we differ. We can choose to understand the perspectives of those with whom we disagree. We don’t have to agree. It is OK to have diverse opinions. We simply need to respect one another despite those differences, because we are all a part of one family, united together through, in, and with Christ.
7. We should break bread together.
As we look at the New Testament, we see many examples of Jesus sharing a meal— breaking bread—with his followers, with his disciples, with his family and friends. (The book of Luke appears to be centered around Jesus' ministry and meals—chapters 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 14, 19, 22, and 24 are all stories about Jesus ministering during meals.) Often, the Gospel was spread around a table, eating a meal. As such, it seems fair to assume that we can cook for one another. We can sit across the dinner table from one another. We can share our traditions and our recipes with one another. When I took the time to get into the homes of people in Boston that I did not know well, or when I went out to eat with them and simply got to know them, walls came tumbling down. I have taken that tradition with me through every step of my journey since then, which isn’t always easy for this introvert. Let’s get outside of our comfortable relationships (we still can have our long-lasting relationships) and start building new, maybe unexpected relationships. An easy place to do that is over a meal.
8. We must let down our guard.
I sat in my office in Boston my second year as head of school and listened as two volunteer parents talked outside of my office and got to know one another. One was a lawyer who lived in wealthy Wellesley, the other an unemployed single-mother who had one son in jail and another who was developmentally disabled because she was on crack when she was pregnant. They both found Jesus. Then they found the only protestant Christian high school in the city of Boston. Then they started sharing recipes with one another and talked about their boys who were in class together. Then they started praying together. Every week, they volunteered at school at the same time so that they could spend time together. I never heard them talk about politics. I never heard them argue about differences of opinion. They found commonality. They found respect. They found love. They found each other. It was beautiful and happened when they let down their guards and let someone new into their lives.
9. As a community of diverse individuals, we must be humble (Proverbs 11; Ephesians 4; Philippians 2; Romans 12; James 3).
Our pride is what gets us into trouble. When we recognize we do not have all the answers and start to seek them from one another, and more importantly from our Savior and through his word, we better understand our differences, and they become smaller. I have so much to learn about people who are not me. I have so much to learn about perspectives that are not mine. Most importantly, I have so much to learn about God and his grace toward me and all people. As I seek to do this, it is my prayer that I will love everyone better and acknowledge our diversity is what makes up the family of God.
10. Grace is the answer to all of the questions behind diversity (Esther 2; John 1; Romans 3; 2 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 2).
God’s grace is what will help bring us together. When I realize that I am undeserving, but have gained God’s grace and mercy, how can I not want to share that with everyone—no matter the color of their skin, the neighborhood in which they live, their country of origin, or their annual income? God loves us and made us in his image. If his grace is sufficient for the salvation of all people who call on his name, then it has to be sufficient to unite us in our differences, doesn’t it?
MORE ALIKE THAN DIFFERENT
Mount Paran Christian School family, I love diversity. I revel in our differences, because they are how God made us. We are the Imago Dei—those made in his image. He created us to love one another, not just people who are like us. He created us to be different for a reason. We all have special gifts that he intends us to use for his glory and for his purposes. We should look more closely and find these differences in one another and then celebrate them. We should seek to listen and understand one another more fully. We should spend more time with one another, breaking bread, sharing traditions, laughing, and crying. We should also understand that we are more alike than we are different. We are a family, and the greatest uniting factor took place on the cross when a Jew died for the sins of all nations, races, ethnicities, and people.
Diversity makes us better. It makes us stronger. It is what God intended for his people, for his church, and for our community. Let’s do it better tomorrow than we do it today and be a shining example to our community of how people with many differences "do" diversity and love one another. This will make us truly stand apart. It may not always be easy, but it is so important.
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