Diversity in Religious Institutions

Diversity in Religious Institutions

Led by Matthew Boulton — Christian Theological Seminary and Imam Michael Saahir — Nur-Allah Islamic Center

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Is this really a problem? Why? And what can be done about it?

Participants in the conversation shared reasons why people might self-segregate, to choose to worship with those people who share their beliefs and backgrounds. For one thing, it’s natural to choose to be in a congregation with those who believe the same, it might seem unnatural to worship differently.

Add to this that we think of places of worship and congregations as “safe spaces,” places where we can step outside the mundane world and where we might have difficult conversations. If there are too many different perspectives and opinions in the congregation, we might lose this safe space. Safe spaces can be fragile.

So why would it be important to seek more diversity in religious institutions? In general, diversity is thought to bring many benefits:

  • By exposing a person to many different beliefs and faiths, it can inspire greater humility
  • Learning more and having your ideas challenged can strengthen the quality of ideas
  • Explaining your religious views to someone who does not share them can help strengthen your faith
  • It helps one deal with the pluralism that exists outside the congregation, in society

Religious institutions have even more of a reason to seek greater diversity. They ought to be respectful and supportive of the neighborhoods in which they are located, and that might mean inviting in neighbors who don’t share the faith.

Diversity can shape internal processes for a congregation as well: unless members are encouraged to be themselves and to express views that might differ from those of other members, they might not develop fully as believers. A members of a congregation ought to feel comfortable opening her mouth and saying “This is who I am.”

Some participants in the conversations expressed concern about who defines diversity for congregations. Who is to say that an apparent lack of diversity is artificial and should be changed? The courts might define diversity needed for public institutions, but for places of worship?

Participants discussed how their own congregations are addressing diversity. The types of diversity mentioned included gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Imam Saahir says mosques are working to be more women-friendly—after all, without women doing projects, nothing would be done. Another participants reports that Baptists are becoming more supportive of women in the ministry. On the other hand, a young African-American woman says that for Seventh Day Adventists both race and age diversity are still problematic and a source of tension.

Most discussants agree that diversity is great: as one said, heaven is not going to be divided, so we need to get along with each other here. But there will still be a challenge of embracing diversity without losing one’s identity.

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