Revelation 7:9: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”
I grew up in the suburbs of the American heartland in the WASP-iest of WASP-y neighbourhoods. I knew I was in the majority, but I didn’t think much about race. The public schools I attended in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Shawnee, Kansas were surprisingly diverse. My closest friends had last names like Lai and Kim and Choi, which seemed as normal as anything. I remember watching the 1995 O.J. Simpson verdict live in my Grade 7 math class. When O.J. was found not guilty, almost everyone in the class cheered. I was silent. It was the first time I remember feeling anger and confusion about race issues.
As (relatively) diverse as my public schools were, the evangelical churches I attended were extremely homogenous. Aside from my Sunday school friends Javier and Marisol, and the Filipina wife of a deacon who brought amazing food to potlucks, the Baptist church of my youth was blindingly white. Some of the churches I’ve gone to since have been a bit more diverse, but none of them has ever contained an ethnic diversity that came close to reflecting the community outside their doors. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” That has certainly been my experience.
Of all places, shouldn’t churches be sites where the diversity of human culture and ethnicity is manifested and celebrated? The power of the Christian gospel, after all, is that it offers grace unconditionally to all people, no matter where they come from, what they look like, or how they talk. In God’s family there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female. We are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
Why don’t our churches reflect this?
Some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a Christian have come while I’ve worshipped God in churches and settings far outside my comfort zone. Last November I attended a service at Iglesia de la Puerta Abierta, an evangelical congregation in Buenos Aires. As I stood singing familiar hymns in Spanish, I was brought to tears by the breadth and diversity of God’s people, and by my feeling of connection with these brothers and sisters who I’d likely not see again this side of eternity.
Similar cross-cultural experiences in churches in Japan, France, Northern Ireland, Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood, or even at churches in my own city have shown me powerful glimpses of the “every tribe and tongue and nation” vision of Revelation 7:9. So why is it so hard to bring more of that vision — of unity in diversity before the throne of God — into the here and now?
The default answer is that we are fallen. Since the biblical story of Babel, divergent languages and cultures have frustrated our attempts at connection. But by the grace of God and through the work of the Spirit, we can work to repair the divides in our communities and in our hearts, pursuing shalom even as injustices persist. I long for the day when all that divides us from one another — fear, prejudice, jealousy, geography, language, socio-economics, O.J. Simpson or Trayvon Martin verdicts — will give way to a unity unseen in human history since the Garden of Eden. That “great multitude” will be jaw-dropping and breathtaking.
But it’s not just a thing to pine after and daydream about. It’s a future we can and must practice now.
Originally published in Issue 16 of Converge Magazine.
Photo by (Flickr CC): Shawn Harquail