‘Diversity’ carries different meanings
Using the word "diversity" in the United States can bring to mind many differences among people – physical, attitudinal, behavioral, geographical and more. In focusing on "Living Together Well" in this issue of Interpreter, we chose to focus primarily on the ways congregations in their churches and communities are addressing racial/ethnic differences that can be divisive. We also wanted to learn some of what "diversity" means to United Methodists in other parts of the world.
Central and Southern Europe
The United Methodist Church in the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area is "incredibly diverse," says Bishop Patrick Streiff, "and (United) Methodists experience it as soon as they meet with others" from 12 countries in Europe and two in northern Africa.
Within local churches, he says, diversity of ages, educational levels and socioeconomic backgrounds is common and "other diversity is well recognized, e.g. the presence of foreigners, refugees and persons from different mother tongues.
"Local churches mostly welcome ‘strangers' and are open to such diversity. But, living and worshipping together over a longer period reveals also where the challenges of such diversity are" in congregations of 30 to 80 worshippers.
"People know each other and have strong ties," Streiff says "The theological and spiritual diversity is more limited within a single local church of such a size, but may be obvious in comparing two local churches, which gather close to each other."
Democratic Republic of Congo
Socioeconomic, generational and ethnic diversity characterize communities in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and challenge the church, says the Rev. Betty K. Musau, secretary of the Central Congo Conference.
In some parts of the DRC and some conferences, she continues, "We have brothers and sisters who do not put up with each other because of diverse ethnic groups. The church wants indigenous people (Pygmies) and Bantu to live together because they share the image of God." Church leaders and United Methodist women have been part of efforts to bring reconciliation and peace among the warring tribes.
"Children come to church for spiritual growth," Musau says, "and sometimes their voices are silenced. ... Children need to be given space for speaking out for their unmet needs so that they feel incorporated in the body of Christ."
"The socioeconomic situation brings disparity in the community and villages," she continues. "Those who live a standard life think they are worth living, commanding and superior. Rethinking about empowering people for self-development will bring hope in the context where the government is still weak to respond to the needs of people."
"Mostly ‘diverse' would be understood as multigenerational or different theological opinions and more and more in native-born/immigrant," says the Rev. Klaus Rüof, director of communications for the Germany Area. "Most of our churches want to be multigenerational. (When) having different theological opinions, it is harder to have diverse churches. The number of native-born/immigrant churches is growing, but it is not an easy way."
"A growing number of refugees (are being) baptized in our congregations," says Volker Kiemle, editor for the Germany Area. "This will change the ethnic diversity, and it will change the nature of our church in Germany. In his first message to an annual conference, Bishop Harald Rückert encouraged the UMC people to ‘embrace diversity.'"
"There are also people with different sexual orientations," says Kiemle. Two years ago, he continues, now retired Bishop Rosemarie Wenner organized two public discussions in Frankfurt and Berlin, "where people could talk frankly in a trusting atmosphere" about their experiences and attitudes.
Most of the United Methodists in Germany are middle-class/academic, Kiemle says, and "many congregations offer help and support for people who struggle with social, financial or other problems. Although this has not yet changed the diversity in most of our congregations, it has changed the way United Methodists see their environment."
In Liberia, says Julu Swen, educational levels are "what any speaker will be referring to when he/she indicates that there are ‘diverse' people in the audience, especially at conferences, workshops and other church gatherings."
"Native-born/immigrant does not get the kind of attention that the use of these words receive in other parts of the world," says the Liberian communicator. "Similarly, sexual orientation is the least considered issue when you are discussing ‘diverse' people in Liberia."
English-speaking immigrants from the United States established the Methodist Church in Liberia. Other congregations formed as "people started to migrate to Monrovia (and) were seeking to attend the churches of their tribes," Swen explains. That has diminished with increased use of English throughout the country.
At least four United Methodist congregations in Monrovia, the capital city, were originally built around languages – English, Bassa and Kru. Immmigrants from Ghana, where English is the official language but 250 other languages and dialects are used, established the fourth. "Now, all have changed," Swen says, "because of intermarriages, movement of people across the city of Monrovia and the need to associate and affiliate as one wishes."
"A ‘diverse' congregation here in Norway would focus on racial and immigrant inclusiveness," says Johanna Lundereng, director of ministries for the Norway Conference. She tells of attending a service that included the confirmation of a young man with parents from Congo.
"It was a very diverse group," Lundereng says. The young people spoke fluent Norwegian and had their iPhones at the table, while their parents wore the traditional colorful dresses and headwear from their country and spoke slightly broken Norwegian."
The congregation included the family's friends from the host church and another United Methodist congregation and Zambians and Ghanaians from a Seventh Day Adventist Church.
"About half of the guests were Norwegians, many of them wearing the traditional national outfits (called) bunad," she says, "so the room was a wonderful combination of many cultures, clothes, music and food. And, they had written songs in Norwegian for the confirmand while a young man from Congo was taking care of the music from a mixing board.
"Many of our congregations have members from other parts of the world," Lundereng adds. A woman from the Philippines serves an international congregation and a new pastor from Ghana who has done all his theological studies in Norway will be ordained at annual conference."
April Mercado, a United Methodist communications specialist in the Philippines, attends Taytay United Methodist Church. Marked by socioeconomic diversity, it is "known in the Philippines Central Conference as a mission church," she says. As a child, her parents took her on mission trips to "share the love of Christ. I grew up playing with kids who live below the poverty line (and) still stay in touch with them. Most of them are professionals and their once mission church is now a thriving local congregation." Taytay Church now has five mission congregations meeting throughout the city. Those congregants worship with parishioners in the main church at 5:30 a.m. every Sunday.
"In Sierra Leone, a diverse congregation has less of a racial dimension," says Phileas Jusu. "Most of the time nearly everybody worshipping together is black. We talk more of diversity when we consider the many ethnic groups that come together in worship." The West Africa country of seven million has at least 16 ethnic groups.
Bishop John K. Yambasu encourages "indigenization of worship," continues Jusu, director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, "which requires local congregations to sing and worship in their national languages. In the cities, where several tribes congregate to worship, we sing in as many local languages as we can, and everybody sees the value in praising God in a language different from theirs.
"We celebrate our diversity, and diversity has continued to be our source of strength over a long period of political and social division in the country."
The Rev. Kathy Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter Online.