Monday, January 17, 2011
Racial Diversity in Heaven
Diversity in the church gives us a glimpse of what heaven will be like. –Enrichment magazine
I read the above quote some time back and I’ve been pondering on those words ever since. The quote reveals a declaration to a secret I’m almost embarrassed to admit: when it comes to heaven — aside from the imagery of streets of gold, the harp music playing and Jesus’ glory as our main source of light — I never pictured heaven to include racial diversity. “Racial diversity in heaven” … that concept took me years to accept and wrap my mind around. My journey started in Haiti, where I was born and spent my childhood. Haiti has a diverse history with the British, Hispanics and French. In fact, when you visit Haiti you do not simply see a black country, but rather a mix of all different shades representing the groups from Haiti’s rich history.
I grew up one of six siblings. My older sister Angie is the only “fair” skinned sibling along with my father and his side of the family. The fair-skinned phenomenon in Haiti is sometimes titled “mulatos,” which simply means someone with a biracial background usually white and black. I grew up knowing about different races, but I simply did not realize how many there were or how we were equally brothers and sisters in the kingdom. Our church in Haiti, from what I remember, never mentioned racial diversity. We were an exclusive group of Haitian believers so there was no reason to emphasize or teach about diversity in heaven. Heaven, for me, at that point was simply angels, beauty and, of course, the presence of Jesus.
We then moved to the States in the late 80s where being an exclusive Haitian community was no longer the norm. We moved into a neighborhood at a time where the town seemed to be becoming predominantly black. The community seemed to resist having us around and we resisted being a part of the community. I think this was the very first time we, as a family, experienced “racism.” I hated being Haitian and “different.” Church was the only place I was “fully” accepted and was able to share life with other Haitians. If it was not for that Haitian church, our transition into the U.S. would have been detrimental.
Within a couple of years our English improved and the community seemed to be more accepting of us. Church, however, was still an exclusive Haitian church and we were becoming more Americanized with needs the church was not addressing. It was no longer “us vs. them.” My views on life were changing, my concepts of the church were changing and my concept of people was also changing. I wanted to reach across the aisle to get to know these different people with different lifestyles and ways of life. The purpose of being a part of the Haitian church had run its course and it was time for a change.
My change came in college. I went to college about an hour away from home and, for the first time in my entire life, I was alone. I had my own room, my own bed and I made my own decisions (can you hear the Janet Jackson song “Control” playing in the background?). It was like I stepped into the United Nations; I must have made friends with someone from every country. It was great! Some of my best friends were from different countries; Ngozi from Nigeria, Afia from Ghana, Nancy from Egypt, Kimmany from Jamaica, Tinaya was biracial, Nancy from El Salvador, Simone from the U.S. and Anide and Ludy from Haiti.
For some reason college felt more like heaven than church ever did. These friends of mine from all different backgrounds and lifestyles taught me more about heaven than any Bible study ever did. They accepted me and loved me deeply. The great thing about these friendships was that everyone became more of themselves around each other. We loved each other so much that Ngozi would never want me to become Nigerian to continue our friendship nor would I want her to be Haitian for our friendship to flourish. In fact, we became more ethnocentric around each other. When they became more of themselves, I became more of myself. If that isn’t a picture of heaven, I don’t know what is.
As the old saying goes, every good thing must come to an end, and so did college. I graduated, got married, had children and moved back to my all exclusive Haitian church. Again, this community was no longer fulfilling the needs of my family. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with all exclusive churches; the immigrant communities need them as a way to find community and survive. But for me it had run its course. To help us with our little situation, God moved us out here to Dallas to experience a part of diversity I have never experienced before: worshipping for the first time with American believers in “American” run churches. I visited a predominantly black church and although our skins were the same color, there were vast differences and I hesitated and questioned the community. My family and I then visited predominantly white churches and in addition to the blue-jean-attire and coffee-in-the-worship-center was the visible difference of our race.
As a result, the past five years have been a struggle as we were handed only two options for church, the black church or the white church; and unfortunately we felt we belonged to neither. We often prayed for a multicultural church or for the Lord to bring us back home to New Jersey. God has not answered the latter prayer, but we’ve had glimpses of the former here at IBC. It all started with a “crazy” idea two members on staff envisioned: a Pentecost/cultural festival. The day of Pentecost is the day in our church history where the Holy Spirit was actualized and unleashed, and people from all different cultures and races were able to hear the gospel in their own native tongues. The IBC leaders for the Pentecost/cultural festival wanted to recreate that cultural essence, and I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
In my own naivety, I had no clue what I was signing up for. The first clue of the scope of this day came in our very first planning meeting, in that small room in West C. As we took our seats, I began to notice that everyone in that room was from a different race and culture; the only thing we had in common was Jesus. The climax of this five year journey occurred on the day of Pentecost on stage reading Acts chapter two with my brothers and sisters in our native tongues. It was as if Jesus had his arms around us saying, “These are my children of whom I am well pleased.”
Diversity in heaven is not our idea; it was and is Jesus’ ingenious plan from the beginning. I can’t wait until we get to heaven to experience true diversity where every last one of us feels completely at home to worship our Savior all day long, uninhibited. Until then we have the earth as our practice field as we get a daily glimpse of eternity.