As a school administrator, I occasionally receive emails that are marked “urgent.” And with every email I write, I have the option to flag it as “urgent.” Now, whether or not a recipient (including myself) considers a given email message to be urgent is a different matter, and one that depends largely upon perception. However, through my work with many Christian schools and educators in the area of promoting unity within diversity, I believe this is a topic that requires thoughtful, considerate, and yes, urgent attention.
I recently listened to a talk by , president of the Reformed African-American Network, in Charleston, South Carolina. He was reflecting on the Charleston church shooting that took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015. He began his talk using a clip from a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made during the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,” highlighting the need to make justice a reality for all of God’s children, and specifically African-Americans. Over 50 years later we are having similar conversations—with observable growth, to be sure, but not yet enough. The last three years have exposed how the topics of ethnicity, race, and culture can either bring us together or cause a further divide. If we are lovers of truth, we will realize that our Christian schools are not impervious to this reality.
Throughout my work within Christian schools that have a multiethnic student body, I have benefitted from hearing the narratives of their administrators, teachers, students, and parents. The word that continues to summarize many of their experiences when addressing ethnicity within their schools is “disappointed.” This is a powerful word, because it embodies a hope unmet. However, when a school community communicates this sentiment, it is actually a good sign. It lets us know there is still hope. As Dr. King said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” He also said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
As Christian school leaders and educators, our mission is to provide a high quality education and equip our staff to impact the lives of students for God’s glory. Within that mission statement (which many Christian schools share in one form or another), I would argue Christian schools are also called to provide hope for all our students. At times, this high calling requires us to go beyond being “nice.” Rather, we must be brave enough to engage in conversations around race, ethnicity, and culture with urgent action.
I believe a deep understanding of “who” we are is essential to the urgency of now. C.S. Lewis (2001) wrote: “There are no ordinary people…. We have never met mere mortals. Every person we have ever looked upon, smiled at, frowned at, greeted, encouraged, insulted, slandered, touched, is a person bearing the marks of divine likeness and the Imago Dei.” We (humankind) are set apart as the only image-bearers of God in all His creation, and this is why we put emphasis on the urgent action of addressing diversity at our schools. Honoring and loving others above ourselves is a mandate of Scripture, because others bear the image of God. Engaging students in this truth is an eternal weight that comes with our lives and work as educators.
Through my work with schools, I have come to identify three broad action steps that can initiate urgent action in a school community:
1. Develop your team’s cultural intelligence.
Each school is in a different place on the spectrum of “cultural intelligence,” which we define at our school as a person’s ability to work efficiently and effectively in a cross-cultural context. It is important to develop a cultural vocabulary word bank that is used within your school community to talk about diversity, and starting the conversation with cultural intelligence is important because it draws attention to the fact that we all have culture—every person, family, and school. As leaders, we need to give language to the common ways our students and families speak, learn, and live. The reality is we have a lot in common—while at the same time we are also diverse by God’s design. This is a both/and proposition, not an either/or. We are image-bearers (Genesis 1:26–27) with differences (Acts 17:26). The Trinity reflects this unity within diversity and is the basis for a biblical understanding in this area.
2. Establish non-negotiables.
A necessary step to taking action in this area is to start with non-negotiables. I suggest a few non-negotiables that we have used:
- All stakeholders must stay engaged in the work and conversation. There will be times when things get uncomfortable and difficult. It is important everyone is charitable in their judgment and speech with one another.
- Expect and accept non-closure. Every problem will not be solved in one conversation. Follow-up coffee talks or intentional lunch dates maybe required.
- Require all stakeholders to have an enduring commitment to one another. Urgent action is a process of learning, loving and listening to one another.
Once these norms are established, you can seek out the diverse voices within your school community and engage in meaningful dialogue.
3. Seek unity within diversity.
When a school identifies those who are different or “other” in their school community, there is an opportunity to invite diverse perspectives to the table. This unity within diversity will better inform the decisions, programs, pedagogy, and culture of the school. Creating opportunities for individuals with different perspectives and experiences to contribute to the community promotes mutual growth and learning. These spaces can be assembled in various ways. Our school has a student alliance made up of different ethnicities within the student body, as well as a diversity committee comprising teachers, parents, and administrators. Another way to create dialogue is to utilize professional development time to address cultural concerns within the pedagogy or school culture (what we call Courageous Conversations).
The fact that we are made in the image of God should impact the way we teach, equip, counsel, encourage, and ultimately lead. God created each person in your school community in His image and with purpose. As Christian school leaders, we have an opportunity to press into the uncomfortable, being motivated by the love Christ to love others as He has loved us. I pray your school would actively seek opportunities to walk in boldness (Ephesians 2:10) and play your part in the fierce urgency of now.
How can you respond to this post?
- With your leadership team, identify one or two books on diversity, culture, or race relations that are of interest. Commit to a biweekly book study for the coming year.
- Conduct an informal audit of diversity within unity on your campus. Consider data like: student, staff, and community demographics; opportunities for students to engage in supported dialogue around diversity; and whether and how the curriculum and cocurricular offerings address and support unity within diversity.
- Review the results of this audit and plan for ways to enact the three broad action steps suggested in this post.
Lewis, C.S. 2001. The Weight of Glory. HarperOne: New York.
About the Author
Joel R. Gaines serves as the assistant head of the Upper School at Delaware County Christian School. He is married to Tia and has one son, Josiah, and three daughters: Hosanna, Elaina, and Adoniah. He graduated from Philadelphia Biblical University (Cairn University) with a BS in education and biblical studies and earned his MEd in education from Cabrini University. Joel has served in multiple roles over the past 10 years in both Christian and public education, and in both urban and suburban settings. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.