Skip to site content

Playing Tune on Diversity’s Keyboard Takes Practice

The song “Ebony and Ivory” laments that, when played on the instrument of our lives, diversity is not easy.

“Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony / Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don’t we?” the song’s refrain asks.

We must work at it, and our first attempts often are fumbling.

I was a Baptist campus minster at a small college in southeastern Arkansas. We had more than 120 students involved in our ministry, but only 10 were people of color.

As I visited in the dorms, I found that nearly half of the residential students were African-American; residential students were our primary constituency.

I began to ask this underrepresented group what we could do to interest them in our ministry. They replied with almost a single voice: a gospel choir.

Few who joined the gospel choir were Baptist; most were Church of God in Christ (COGIC). They were Pentecostal-holiness believers who took their faith and music very seriously. The gospel choir met with great success.

I had the idea that both our traditional student ministry choir and our gospel choir could sing at our annual statewide student convention.

We interspersed gospel choir members with the members of our traditional choir up on the stage, about 60 students in all. It was a vision of ebony and ivory side by side.

They sang some traditional selections and then the pianist accelerated the tempo with the first gospel selection. In that moment, I realized the flaw in this tableau of racial harmony.

The COGIC students began to clap and step from side to side; they always clapped and stepped side to side when they sang.

The white students did not know what to do as they were caught up in this movement. Some of them smiled sheepishly as they made some room for the gospel choir.

There were some ripples of laughter throughout the auditorium.

After it was over, I pointed out the obvious: Being brothers and sisters in Christ involves making some room for one another. It was a marvelously teachable moment.

Diversity can feel awkward at first; it takes some new learnings to work smoothly. Thus, our first attempts can be fumbling.

“Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony” is an aspirational vision. We don’t begin there.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

This is an aspirational text. In Christ this is true; in our daily living, it is a journey.

One need only read the book of Galatians to see that the church in Galatia was not nearly there yet.

In the next chapter, Paul asks, “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?” (Galatians 4:9). Clearly, the people were having trouble carrying through on their new identity in Christ.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see that Jews and Gentiles were not seeing one another as equals in God’s family.

In 1 Corinthians, we read there were tensions between the rich and the poor during the communion meal and disruptions in worship along gender lines in the churches.

In Philemon, we see that accommodations had to be made for the continuing distinction of slave and free.

Paul’s letters are evidence that his churches had a way to go to fulfill the challenge of Galatians 3:28.

What is your experience of diversity?

If you have no such experience, maybe it is time you joined with some neighbors who do not look like or sing like you.

Our attempts at diversity and inclusion do not always go well the first time around, but we get better at it the more we practice.

The love of God compels us to start where we are, to take the risk of discomfort for the high goal of living into Paul’s aspirational vision of unity and equality.

Jim Kelsey is executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.