Multiethnic Conference: Diversity Doesn’t Come Easily

This year’s Multiethnic Conference participants met with the theme “Embracing the Discomfort of Diversity,” and attendees experienced both the joys of being a multicultural church and the disappointments that can come when some feel excluded from it.

This marked the 10th Multiethnic Conference, held mostly biennially since 1988, and always in conjunction with the meeting of synod.

Its purpose is to bring together people from all the cultures present in the Christian Reformed Church and provide them with an opportunity to network. It also gives them an opportunity to learn firsthand how synod operates.

This year’s 104 conferees represented 14 different ethnic backgrounds.

Rev. Harry Lew, a campus minister from Grand Rapids, Mich., said he loved interacting with people from different parts of the church. He wished he’d had more time just to mingle, but the conference agenda was packed.

Indeed, from Friday night to Saturday dinnertime, there were four plenary sessions and two opportunities to attend workshops that included topics such as ministering in an Islamic culture, the Belhar Confession, and understanding Navajo culture.

Sandra Williams came from Mississauga, Ontario, for the conference. It was her first time. “I’m really excited by the diversity of people, the speakers, the messages of unity,” she said. “I’m much more conscious of the biblical meaning of diversity.”

Rev. Dan Roels, from Holland, Mich., was attending for the second time. “Diversity is in my blood. I can’t live without it,” he said. “[The conference] feels like coming home.”

Rev. Michael Wagenman, from London, Ontario, was another first-timer. “It was a refreshing opportunity to experience the ethnic diversity that is part of the CRC already,” he said.

Faye Dundas, also from Mississauga, was at the conference for the third time. “I was so excited to see so many Caucasians and such a spread of gender and age,” she said.

Rev. Esteban Lugo, the CRC’s director of Race Relations, confirmed that 30-35 percent of attendees were from an Anglo background. “We intentionally targeted all ethnicities—including whites,” he said. “We wanted to be as inclusive as possible to enable participants to experience unity in the midst of diversity—to embrace the discomfort of diversity.”

There was strong reaction on Saturday evening when the CRC’s executive director, Rev. Jerry Dykstra, addressed the conference. He had been invited to share his vision for increasing diversity in senior denominational leadership after an administrative restructuring last fall meant that no longer did any person of color have a voice or vote in senior advisory settings. (See “Minority Voice Lost,” June 2009, p. 13.)

Conferees hoped to hear him lay out a plan to bring ethnic diversity into the senior leadership of the denomination.

“I did not hear a plan,” said Wagenman. “I wanted to hear the plan and how it would take institutional shape.”

“I appreciated that Rev. Dykstra was vulnerable in sharing one of his first experiences with diversity,” said Dundas. “When he said that old structures have to change, even if people consider it going back 15 years, I thought, ‘Oh, my, not again. Did he consider the repercussions of that?’”

Conference attendees met after the worship service on Sunday morning and approved sending a letter to Synod 2009, expressing lament about the administrative restructuring decision, and expressing sadness for those experiencing exclusion, alienation, and marginalization (see “Synod Requests Steps to Increase Diversity in CRC Leadership,” p. 34).

However, many attendees still left with hope. As Delia Caderno writes in her conference diary (see “Dear Diary . . .” ), “No matter what, God is still seated on his throne and is sovereign over his creation.”

Sandra Williams echoed that sentiment: “I know there is hope. God is going to work things out. By God’s grace we will come to the place of unity.”


Dear Diary . . .

So I finally went to the Multiethnic Conference.

Funny, I’ve been involved in the CRC for about 10 years, but this was my first time at the conference. I’m not sure why I hadn’t gone before, but I’m glad to have finally made it.

Although not every tribe and every nation was represented, it came pretty close. There were even representatives from “the tribe of the wooden shoe people.”I’m so appreciative of the hard work put forth by Rev. Esteban Lugo and the CRC’s Office of Race Relations to bring about this conference. The diversity of the presenters and workshop topics made it a good learning experience.  In many instances the lessons were not new, but seeing them affirmed by many within the CRC structure was wonderfully refreshing. . . .

The conference started with dinner on Friday evening.   During dinner a few of us started to talk about this year’s theme, “Embracing the Discomfort of Diversity.” We started listing the reasons why we sometimes experience discomfort. Fear and lack of knowledge about other cultures topped the list.

During that same dinner I learned that the word Asian is too small of a brush with which to paint a multitude of folks. I already knew that to be true about the words Latino and Hispanic but hadn’t thought about how other cultures feel when people try to describe them with a one-word-fits-all description.

During the keynote address I learned that a phrase like “God is changing the color of the Church” brings joy to some and confusion to others. I confess that I was on the side of the confused ones, since in my opinion the problem with the church is not the color of the people but the condition of their hearts. . . .

On Saturday morning we heard about the importance of learning how other cultures understand what is sacred to them. If we do this, then we will be able to turn barriers into bridges for relationship.

We engaged in many conversations about diversity throughout the conference, but mostly we agreed that our diversity is the physical evidence of God’s amazing creative power. We were encouraged to look at diversity as parts of a whole and to embrace the differences in those parts—after all what would the body look like if every part were a nose. It is in our diversity that we can fully experience God’s love and acceptance. . . .

The conference had its high and low moments. Within the span of a few hours we experienced extreme joy (when the number-two spot in synod’s leadership was filled by a woman of color) and extreme heartbreak (when many of us felt that the new leadership structure within the CRC will lack people of color, making years of struggle for equal representation by people of color seem for naught). . . .

All in all, it was a great experience. As my husband says often, “No matter what, God is still seated on his throne and is sovereign over his creation.” So, as God’s children of many colors (and yes, white is a color too), we would do well to find out and do God’s will—and not just in the confines of our churches or ethnic backgrounds, but in our neighborhoods and broader communities.

So for me, coming back home to Miami—one of the most diverse cities in the United States—the question isn’t how do I love my Haitian, Jamaican, African American, or Nicaraguan neighbors, but simply how do I love my neighbors, and, more importantly, how do my neighbors see my love in action?

Delia Caderno was born in Guantanamo, Cuba, and migrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 9. She moved from Chicago to Miami four years ago to create an intermediary organization to do Christian community development as a ministry partner of CRWRC.

She is currently director of Partnership for Community Development.

About the Author

Gayla Postma is news editor for The Banner.

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