Moving for God: The dilemma of diversity

There’s the classic clip-art picture of children representative of every race, nation and language joined together and singing songs of world peace. And then, many of us are familiar with rainbow buttons proclaiming cheery slogans like “Celebrate Diversity” and “Better Together.”

More importantly, there’s the vision that God’s reign of peace and justice will be known in every corner of humanity, an image that we really believe in, that we pray about and dedicate our lives to. We believe it is to come and is also right now:

God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.

- Revelations 21:3-4

We each have a role, a part to play, in the building up this reign of God. Like Paul says, we all are part of the Body of Christ, no matter who we are or what we do. Our differences shouldn’t matter because we know we need each other.

Really though, it is challenging to live the Gospel radically in response to the call that we experience. Although worthwhile and rewarding, it can be exhausting and tumultuous to live a life of prayer, service, advocacy and devotion to Christ. Religious life is a prophetic lifestyle that demands that we be comfortable with being a voice and offering a witness to the world about the Good News of Jesus Christ: The Way of non-violent alternatives and compassionate action. With the public dimension of our vocation, though, comes an exposure that makes us constantly available for criticism, judgment and misunderstandings.

It’s tough, and we don’t mind because we believe that this is how God’s reign is built. The structures of our lifestyle provide the strength and stability we need to steadily keep moving, to continue our labors of love and risk. In particular, prayer and our common life grounds and sustains us. For good reasons, a life of mission is a communal, prayerful life. Many of us are drawn to religious life by the desire to live in a community, for we know that we are better collaborating than trying to build God’s reign working alone.

Ideally, we all end up in a like-minded community, so that we never have to argue or disagree about the meaning of vision or mission, or the action plans. Ideally, we never experience tension or encounter human defensiveness because we are always on the same page. Ideally, we experience a strong connection and unity with our community mates at all times.

But then, our ideals are not realistic.

God’s designs demonstrate that diversity is a gift, a naturally essential part of community. To encounter “the other” — someone who is different from us in experience, perspectives and ideas — should stretch and grow us. We are compelled to work out the tough parts of our dynamics and dialogue about our differences.

One of the phrases I frequently hear said in community is, “We didn’t choose each other, but God chose to put us together for some mysterious reason.”

It’s true. We each felt called to join this particular congregation, and God lined us up to be together as sisters for the rest of our lives. Certainly there was something particular about the charism and mission of our community that attracted and compelled us to say “yes.” But, when the profiles of the different women who enter a congregation are considered, it can seem like a small miracle that God brought us together and joined us as sisters. For example, in my community there are two sisters who are very close in age. One protested nuclear weapons before she was 10 years old. The other sister is a daughter of a general who protected the base at Los Alamos. Today, they agree on more than you might expect.

Still, there are times when our diversity can cause us to feel so far apart that it’s hard to believe that we’re joined together, that we are united as one community. Sometimes the challenges of diversity bring up doubts and questions about the quality of community life. When this happens, though, I tend to think of a train—sometimes a really long train.

If the entire community is on a train, we can be spread out and involved in different things, yet we are moving together. Some people are at the front with binoculars, trying to remain aware of what could be around the corner. Others are gazing out the rear car, looking back at what was left behind. Most people, however, are somewhere in the middle between being on the cutting edge and having trouble letting go of the past. They can be enjoying the view as they ride along. They may be having the time of their lives, playing games and laughing with their peers. Many people are getting the rest they need, while others are the workers, who keep the train moving as they go from car to car to check on others and care for their needs. Some people might be alone in a car, but they are actually very connected and moving with the rest of the train. Essentially, as long as we’re all on the train together then we’ll remain united and moving in the same direction as a strong community.

The train image has helped me cope with the challenges related to being part of a diverse community. It is one of the greatest gifts that Sr. Charlotte Seubert, recently deceased, ever passed on to me. Sister Charlotte knew some things about being in a different place than most of the community. In a workshop on mission, I heard Sister Charlotte speak about how her experience as a missionary in El Salvador from 1962 to1981 changed and influenced her worldview. When she had to return to the United States because of the political unrest in El Salvador, she returned to people who didn’t understand what she had experienced, and readjusting was tough. I connected with what she described, and I wondered how she made sense of the range of experiences and perspectives in our congregation, as that was what I was struggling with when I heard her speak.

Diversity is an essential dynamic in a healthy community. Sometimes, though, we are so different from one another it can cause us to doubt that we belong. This has happened to me at different points in my community life. When Sister Charlotte gave me the train image, however, I gained the ability to see that I was part of something that was much bigger than me, and moving in a good direction.

The ideals of a diverse community usually are alluring. And appropriately so, as many parts coming together to build the reign of God is core to our Christian identity. Our hope and faith in the vision fuels the train of community life. It takes a lot of different types of people to make the machine of community function, and at times these differences are painful. Even so, we continue to journey together, united as one, moving for God.

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

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