I don’t typically meet new friends randomly on walks but I was happy recently when I stumbled upon a young woman struggling to assemble a tent on the lawn of my apartment complex. I struck up a short conversation with her out of curiosity and discovered that she and her husband had lived in this complex for six years and were assembling a booth for their church’s new food festival. They’ve since become my closest friends in my apartment complex!
My friends, who I shall simply call L&A, are members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and they were in charge of operating the Puerto Rican booth at what would be the first annual local International Food Festival.
I have not had serious dealings with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church before. As I understand it, the tradition was started by a prophetess in the late 1800s and tends towards fundamentalism, while teaching some heterodox beliefs about the Sabbath and the Rapture.
What I’d also heard was that the Seventh-Day Adventist Tradition is one of the more racially diverse denominations in the United States. If nothing else my visit confirmed this fact.
I pulled into the parking lot of the festival on a murky Sunday afternoon. The entire event had technically been rained out but the participants decided to delay the starting time and forge ahead anyway. The front table gave away free tickets to the visitors simply to thank them for showing up in spite of the weather.
The festival was small, only comprised of about a dozen tables, barely filling the backlot of the decrepit old Presbyterian Chapel near the lakefront in Old Hickory, TN. The building itself was very old, built in the 1920s, and has survived at least one fire but is still in need of desperate repairs and work. Each table was unique. South Africa, South Korea, French, England, Hungary, and more… Each table represented a distinct culture in their fashion and culinary tradition, some of which even had spices and materials that the chefs had brought with them from traveling abroad.
I sorted through the tables one by one, consorting with the hosts about their backgrounds and discussing what brought them to Middle Tennessee. I tried Vegan vegetable noodles, egg pasta, cucumber sandwiches, African beef stew, and a dozen different desserts. My friends, L&A, hosted their Puerto Rican booth, handing out Coconut Flan and rice dishes. One woman introduced herself as a colonial South African refugee who found a much-needed life-rest by joining the church.
It was a fascinating experience overall, and less so because of the theological aspects of the SDA tradition. The stories and backgrounds of the dozens of people I spoke to showed something curious.
Despite our modern preoccupations with race, integration, and diversity, it remains obvious that our culture is more segregated and divided than ever. Most cultures, classes, and races tend to self-sort. This is equally true of all races, which is why it is so common to find pockets of individual racial groups in every major city—IE French quarters, Polish districts, Native reservations, and neighborhoods with large Asian or Indian populations.
Our leaders hold diversity to be one of our culture’s greatest virtues and yet, the more we are pushed together, the more we fall apart and resent each other.
That isn’t always the case though—notably with religious institutions.
I used to work at Calvary Church of Naperville, IL as a volunteer. The church is one of the larger megachurches in the state of Illinois and I would donate as much time as I could on Sundays and Wednesdays to help them with sound mixing. As I worked there though, I was always surprised by just how racially diverse the congregation was. Thousands of people attended the church weekly and there were enough White, Black, Latino, and Asian families that you could have started entire large congregations with just them. The church even hosted fully Spanish services.
My local Seventh Day Adventist Church is much the same. While I was told that the majority of families were White, almost everyone at the festival was Black, Asian, Latino, or were otherwise first-generation immigrants from around the world. The racial tension that has been a (supposedly) dominant feature of the past decade of American life was nowhere to be seen. Instead, these families from all over the world were totally unified in joy and purpose to forge ahead on the wet murky Sunday afternoon to serve their community and give away free food.
By complete accident, many churches have curiously become one of the few places in American life where authentic diversity has been achieved—and diversity of this sort is the only kind that matters.
One of the problems with our modern understanding of the concept of diversity is that it is incorrectly orientated. It is flattening. As it is employed, diversity is just considered a tool for encouraging the proliferation of multi-racial perspectives without care for the ways that diversity is worth proliferating.
The problem comes in how it is enforced. Instead of celebrating differences to find the common humanity between disparate groups, modern diversity emphasizes the differences of disparate groups while enforcing a singular vision of humanity. A political party will consider itself diverse when it has imported one person of every race, creed, religion, and gender but there will be no diversity of thought within them. They are monomaniacal in their forced compliance to a singular vision.
Perspective is irrelevant. Individuality is irrelevant. Dissent is actively discouraged. You are merely the sum of your identity and your power is tied to your ability and willingness to acknowledge that reality. Black people are BLACK. White people are WHITE. You are defined by these realities and rewarded by your willingness to affirm or defame them. You are little more than a representative of your monolithic identity group.
The perversity of this comes in the way society is expected to “listen to diverse perspectives”, or as one recent Black activist put it, “Shut your white mouth when Black folks are talking”. Such a principle just serves as an authoritarian boot, a means of shutting down heterodox discussions or perspectives outside of the realm of acceptable discussion—namely racialist, socialist, or progressive discourse.
In this world, diversity becomes skin deep. Diversity is representation in a movie. Diversity is Black Panther and The Little Mermaid. Diversity is taking older European stories and making them superficially diverse while ignoring the actual rich histories, perspectives, and cultures that inform different groups of people around the world.
Thus is why “cultural appropriation” is such a sin. You are literally stealing an entire culture by wearing it as a prom dress.
Listening to “diverse perspective” amounts to receiving the same lecture and sentiment from a parade of people that look nothing alike but walk in lockstep.
In doing so, it says that ALL Black people, Asians, Latinos, Europeans, and peoples must get in line and agree with the same narrative and share the same worldview. The only reason this worldview isn’t called white supremacy, given its capacity to enforce archaic authoritarian European politics like Marxism onto these groups, is because the people that propagate it have the monopoly on abusing that accusation.
The beauty of human diversity is that people are different. Our great distance over the Earth has created people with unique belief systems, customs, worldviews, and cultures that are adapted to THEIR time and place. Being able to sample and explore those customs and hear people’s stories is what actually draws out human empathy and connection.
The food festival was a great place to see this—as I was able to learn the stories of numerous immigrants and families, their backgrounds, values, and food traditions, and how significant it was to share them with people who wanted to appreciate them. I was given a small window into other people’s worlds.
The beauty of a place like my local Seventh Day Adventist Church is that the people there are truly unified in their diversity. These worshippers, who easily could’ve self-segregated into Black Churches and White Churches, were here together. They are all worshippers of Christ and they freely approach the altar of worship to share in the unity that this offers. Individually though, they are still Black, Asian, Mexican, French, or otherwise unique people. They carry their cultures and beliefs into the sanctuary to share in eternal love. Their love and identities are all unique and glorify God equally.
It was a far cry from a modern culture that considers Marvel movies the height of diversity.
Paradoxically, all diversity is required to maintain a level of unity but the difference is that the diversity of Hollywood is artificial and cynical. The SDA Church’s diversity is authentic and meaningful. Given how otherwise segregated our post-racial society is, it just shows what it actually takes to find diversity. The only true diversity in our society that matters is found in true unity.