Takeaway: If Christians want to reflect the diversity of the kingdom, then organizations have to acknowledge the reality of the minority experience and make changes.
Books on race or history around race or even race within the Christian world are not new, but there are few books within the Christian community that are particularly focused on minorities within the predominately White parachurch world. The only other book that is somewhat similar to Adrian Pei’s The Minority Experience that I have read is the book edited by Anthony Bradley, Aliens in the Promised Land. However, these are two very different types of books.
Aliens in the Promised Land was an account by a number of Christians working in predominately White church or church based organizations, many of them educational institutions. That first person account from a number of different people, of different racial or ethnic backgrounds and working in different types of organizations, lays the groundwork for why White Christians need to be listening to minorities within predominately White church. But by its nature, the book is more focused on personal description than larger systemic issues. Adrian Pei’s The Minority Experience includes personal examples and memoir, but the focus is organizational development..
I have entirely too many highlights and notes to adequately trace all of the themes that Pei develops through the book, but I want to note four that were particularly striking to me.
First, Pei is focusing on systems because he is focused on organizational development. It is not that personal ignorance or animus are unimportant when talking about the minority experience within organizations, but “Systematic power is often hardest for people to accept or understand, because it is largely invisible. Also, it is far easier to blame an individual than a system because a system doesn’t have as clear a culprit and solution.” (Kindle Location 550)
Pei also clearly outlines the difference between segregation and separation. “Segregation is an act of power imposed upon a minority group against their will, not a voluntary attempt to form a community of support.” (Kindle Location 520) One of the trends in discussion around racial and ethnic issues is that many Whites point to separation as a form of racism without understand the difference between preventing minorities from participation and the gathering together of minorities for support.
The third major thread that I think is really important to the book is why diversity matters, both within culture and within organizations.
“The inherent message that has settled into the group—is that it can succeed and be secure with its current demographic. That is why so many minorities believe that diversity is treated as optional. It the most blunt and pragmatic sense, diversity is optional to many white organizations, because their historical success has not relied on it.” (Kindle Location 1060)
Many Christian organizations have come to understand that diversity really is an important feature of the kingdom. But too many seem to value ‘Cosmetic diversity’, valuing visual diversity by promoting the voices of minorities that are most able or willing to reflect White cultural values. Viewing minorities as primarily transactional (what we can learn or gain by having minorities in our organization) is different from valuing people that are created in the image of God and whom are part of the diverse reality of the kingdom.
Finally there is a long section on the importance of pain, power, and the past, not just for minorities, but for leaders.
“…as I thought about the themes of pain, power, and the past, I realized this: Leaders who are in touch with pain…can see and serve people with compassion. Leaders who are in touch with power…can be incredible advocates for the most vulnerable in society. Leaders who are in touch with the past…can teach and guide others with great humility and wisdom. In another way of putting it: Pain builds compassion. Power builds advocacy. The past builds wisdom.” (Kindle Location 1077)
As I touched on with my thoughts on Flannery O’Connor, but worked out in more detail in a discussion on Facebook, how we look at heroes and history matters to how we think about Christian development today. It wasn’t until I started looking at my notes that on The Minority experience that I realized I had internalized this piece of advice without attributing it. Pei quotes Soong-Rah Chan as saying, “American culture tends to hide the stories of guilt and shame and seeks to elevate stories of success. American culture gravitates toward narratives of exceptionalism and triumphalism, which results in amnesia about a tainted history.” (Kindle location 1091)
Part of what is important in The Minority Experience is a focus on rightly grappling with history and experience so that we can rightly understand what it means to be a Christian. If we think of Christianity through the lens of hagiography of the saints, we will have a distorted understanding of what faithfulness looks like as a Christian. This is true for both Christians as individuals and systems that Christians work and worship in. It may be particularly important today, as we are facing organizational crises brought on by abusive power and sexual abuse and cover-up, that we rightly tell ourselves truthful stories of our past.
If our organizational stories and mythology is only about greatness, and not about mistakes, then we will not learn about the history of overcoming that is part of the natural reality of an organic system. People and systems are both corrupted by sin, and inherently limited by their creation. We as individuals were not created with unlimited potential, we were created with limited potential (although in God’s image so with inherent value and dignity.) Organizations are similarly limited because they are made up of humans. The best intentioned organizations will make mistakes and will harm people, even if only unintentionally. Without learning to see that pain and accurate history organizationally, the system cannot adequately deal with it and heal.
Richard Beck on his blog posted about the helpfulness of thinking about sin, not just as ‘missing the mark’ but also through the metaphor of sickness or disease. Sin impacts relationships. The pithy wisdom, ‘hurt people, hurt people’, means that we cannot just cut people off organizationally to become more healthy. We also have to work at healing ruptured relationships to produce stronger bonds.
I have already ordered three copies of this to give to friends. There are no silver bullets in the world, but books like The Minority Experience can be helpful to give a lens to areas of growth.
(A digital copy of the book was provided free by the publisher for review.)