(Note: This article was published on the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University blog.)
Two years ago, I saw a movie that moved me deeply. Hidden Figures tells the story of a team of black female mathematicians in the early 1960’s who worked brilliantly and diligently behind the scenes at NASA, amidst a hostile environment towards both females and blacks. In spite of these challenges, their work contributed significantly to the success of the first manned space flight. This film demonstrated how God puts the right people with the right skill sets at the right time and place to do a good work that had an enduring impact on society for the common good.
Since February is Black History month, this may be a good time to explore this topic from a Christian perspective. I invite you to consider how you can embrace racial diversity in your workplace and be agents of reconciliation, showing God’s love to a world divided by race. (See a book review I wrote on Benjamin Watson’s book, Under our Skin that was published by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.)
I have a unique viewpoint due to my military experience. Based on over three decades of experience as an active duty Soldier and as a Department of the Army civilian, I can say with all seriousness that diversity works in the Army.
Why does it work? Equal Opportunity is embedded our Army Values. All personnel are trained and expected to treat others with dignity and respect. They are held accountable if they do not. Discrimination of any kind is not tolerated. Everyone seems to get along no matter where you serve. The unity we have amidst our diversity makes us stronger – an unstoppable force.
Looking back, I appreciate the many benefits to myself and my family of being able to work, live, and worship within a racially diverse military community. It made all of us more compassionate and understanding. We came to respect, acknowledge, and embrace others’ differences, knowing that we were unified in one common goal – the defense of this great nation.
Unity amidst diversity
Even though we have come a long way since the 1960’s, and even if there may be racial harmony in the military and other workplaces where diversity is appreciated, we must look to God’s word to see if there is any wisdom to help us work with those of another race.
Jesus, knowing that He would be the one to bring God’s blessing to the nations that was promised to Abraham, prayed specifically for unity among His followers in John 17:20-23. The result of this unity in the church would be that the world would take notice of God’s love.
There was much racial tension between Christ-followers of Jewish and Gentile descent in the first century church. Paul directly addressed this conflict in Gal. 3:26 and 28. He states that all Christians, no matter what their ethnic background, are part of the same spiritual family. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . . There is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul also addressed unity between Jews and Gentiles in his letter to the church in Ephesus. He reminds both groups that Jesus himself is their peace, since He has “made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14). That sounds like something we need to be reminded of ourselves in our churches and our workplaces today.
I must also mention that our conviction that all humans are worthy of dignity and respect is based on the doctrine that God created men and women in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).
Ultimately, we read that there will be a vast number of men and women “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
What can we do?
In closing, let me offer “a way” to get personally involved in racial reconciliation at work.
Four years ago, I had the opportunity to engage an African-American senior NCO that worked in my office. Our dialogues began shortly after the Ferguson incident, which happened near St. Louis, two hours from Fort Leonard Wood. I boldly asked him to help me understand what I had never experienced myself, specifically focused on the tensions between blacks and police.
Our conversations were a bit awkward at first. Once he knew I was genuinely interested in understanding what it was like to be a black man in America, he opened up and shared freely. He opened up my eyes and heart to the injustices faced by black men and women in this country. Our discussions often moved me to tears. He became a dear and respected friend.
I ask you to prayerfully consider doing the same if you can. It may be life-changing. It may break down barriers in your workplace. It may earn you the right to speak about your Savior and Lord, who died that we might find true peace in His presence and find unity amidst diversity.
Perhaps God has put you right where you are at the right time and place to do a good work that can have an enduring impact on society for the common good.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.