My new workplace is astonishingly diverse.
I work with colleagues from the Middle East, from Russia, from Africa, and from the UK and Europe. One of my subordinates is from India; the woman who works a door down from me and with whom I have worked on several projects moved here from China a decade ago and still travels back twice a year. It’s not unusual to find Vietnamese coffee or Middle Eastern delicacies set out for everyone’s enjoyment in the office kitchen.
I enjoy this enormously. I like working in global education and learning about the traditions and cultures of other countries. But my current situation is quite a far cry from my previous workplace: although “diversity” was a buzzword there, the actual makeup of the workforce was quite homogeneous in every aspect.
For ten years, I worked in a community where atheism and secular humanism was the norm. This was a view shared and valued by most everyone I worked with. Religion—any religion—simply wasn’t discussed. On the rare occasions that it did come up, my colleagues responded either with scathing invective against the negative influences of religion on society and/or the sort of quaint bemusement that one might express when talking to an herbalist who believes tinctures will cure cancer.
Bringing up religion or one’s own spiritual beliefs was treated as an act of bad manners at worst, and at best, as a charming quirk to be tolerated by the highly educated and aware. That didn’t slow me down, but it left me with the understanding that I was very much alone among my colleagues. I might as well have been a shaman out talking to trees for all that my faith was regarded with any seriousness, understanding, or curiosity.
Because of the diversity at my new workplace, however, I find that the situation is quite different. Religions vary widely here: some of my coworkers are Christians, of course, but others are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist. And because of the multiplicity of faiths and cultures here, the subject of religion – astonishingly, to me – is no longer verboten.
When an Islamic coworker asked me recently why I wasn’t going to be drinking at a company happy hour, my response that it was a part of how I chose to practice Christianity was met with delight: “Oh! That’s so nice! I don’t drink either!”
When I mention Easter or Christmas events, I hear from my coworkers, “Have a good time at your church!”
Even my atheist coworkers are relatively respectful of my choices, or at least mindful that they ought to try to be. A And although a dear friend of mine here will announce to anyone that she is “totally spiritual, but not very religious at all and I don’t, like, believe Jesus Christ came to save me,” she is also curious about the ins and outs of my faith: what do I believe about free will? What do I think of human nature? Those conversations simply aren’t out of the norm here.
The truth is, this diversity benefits me. I am blessed by the presence of my other coworkers who believe in other religions. We share commonalities that I never shared with my previous coworkers. We don’t find religion absurd. We know that it matters. We care. And because we know what it is like to be around people who don’t, we try hard to reach out to each other and function as a little protective community.
Tish Harrison Warren, in a piece published some time ago in Christianity Today, shared her experience when the administration at Vanderbilt threatened the authority of religious groups on campus to make their own rules regarding qualifications for leadership positions. As Christian groups protested, she found that they had allies she hadn’t expected: Muslim and Jewish groups on campus banded together with the Christian groups, all of them united in their desire to protect the expression of their faith. The relationships she built at that time, she shared, were deeply meaningful.
I think it is easy for Christians, who acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, to slip into seeing members of other faith communities as hostile to us, as enemies, as just another group of people who need to be converted. But the truth is, we have allies in people of other faiths. We share commonalities. And in those commonalities and ally-ships, in the mutual understanding of what it is like to be people who believe in something, relationships and love can grow, develop, and mature. God can and will work.
There is strength in numbers, and diversity can benefit the believer. It’s wonderful not to feel alone.