As a child growing up in the rural Midwest, I did not encounter a lot of difference. Lots of same-ness or very-similar-ness. Our nearby towns were small, my school was small, my world was small. Our community valued conformity and uniformity. We were always a bit suspicious of folks who did things their own way. And we were – almost -- all white. I knew one person in my entire high school who was not Caucasian. Her name was Tina.
You need to know this about me: I was raised in a homogenous community. I didn’t grow up with much diversity.
As a young person, I knew that my world didn’t look like the one I saw on TV. It didn’t look like the world I read about in books. It didn’t sound like all the music I heard on the radio.
As a young Christian, I knew that my experience of church and people in church didn’t look like the world of the Bible. I knew this, though I couldn’t always put it into words, and I longed to encounter the wide variety of all that God made and who the Spirit has called together.
When I left home for college, I set out on a quest to encounter a bigger world. It hasn’t happened fast; but in the 25 years of my adult life I can say that it has happened. And, I cherish the web of difference and diversity that has become woven into my existence.
The first thing I noticed about Grace during discernment of a call to be with you in ministry was the ethnic diversity of this congregation. At the beginning, my eyes were drawn to the beautiful array of color among us. (I later learned that no fewer than a dozen different nations are represented among the people who call Grace their spiritual home. I LOVE THIS!)
As we have begun to walk together, I realize that beyond race or nationality, there is more, very profound diversity among us. There is generational variety, and it is increasing by the week. There is a vast array of religious experiences that many of us bring forward into our hopes and dreams for Grace. There is a beautiful range of sexual orientation and gender identity found among our growing community.
It’s much easier to be with people who are pretty much the same.
It can be a lot of work to stay in community with difference. I’ve learned this because I share in this life together with you. I hear some express frustrations borne out of saying the “wrong thing” or simply having to throw up one’s hands exasperatedly in not knowing what to say. I see how uncomfortable it is to encounter words and signs in a 60-year-old building that seem to exclude some who don’t live in the established categories of the world. I sense the irritation of learning that words and pronouns we’ve used since we started talking are no longer universal and can be used to exclude people we are growing to love.
We have to be intentional about embracing all unique persons. We must purpose to listen to every voice, to seek to understand alternate perspectives. We are invited to be open to the Spirit, who will lead us to embrace new arrivals and expand our circles of love. Our own power inevitably becomes diluted when others are lifted up. Some can experience all this as exhausting—even as an existential threat. (How can we guarantee our own survival if we don’t maintain control on things?!)
God’s vision is for a beloved community in which the walls that divide us are broken down. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul shared this vision when writing that there are no longer simple binary categories of insider-outsider in the community that God is building—no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female.
And after painting this beautiful vision, he went on to address the difficulty people were having in trying to live it out: “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” Exasperation!
Dr. King expressed God’s vision when he said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” God will give us grace to adapt to our changing experience of community.
My Siblings in Christ, we must press forward into God’s vision for the church in which all dividing walls are destroyed. God will give us grace to lay down our agendas, our idols, our individual dreams, our frail distinctions, so that we may receive the gift of a beloved community that is a witness to God’s reconciling work in the world.
Please stay with me in this life, in this work; and press forward together toward the light of this call.
The Rev. Scott Painter
I serve as the Vicar of Grace. A word from our English heritage in the Episcopal Church, "Vicar" means that I serve as the priest and pastor of this congregation.