(RNS) — In the past few months, a debate has broken out among economists, politicians and even faith leaders about the value of pursuing diversity in corporate America, with some commentators calling corporate diversity, equity and inclusion efforts “ungodly” or based on “unbiblical theology.”
The headlines are likely to accelerate a trend I’ve been sensing for some time, one that Fortune magazine spotted in a September 2022 article titled “Your chief diversity officer might soon be planning their exit — and it’ll be a costly loss”: Chief diversity officers are quitting. They are leaving because their resources are being cut or eliminated. They are leaving because they are burned out. They are leaving because their senior leadership doesn’t support them.
They are leaving — despite the views cited above — because their institutions’ commitment to DEI has more to do with the current culture wars than with the biblical command to love thy neighbor.
The phenomenon has spilled over into my world, higher education, where DEI professionals are often — maybe subconsciously — considered disposable and unessential. Many Christians trying to lead and coordinate diversity in education often find themselves isolated and alienated. As a result, even Christian universities whose mission statements stand for unity and respect may be missing the purpose and potential benefits of fostering diversity.
For nearly 39 years, I have taught about and advocated for diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism and social justice in Christian contexts. I have been sustained by the knowledge that diversity is a part of God’s good creation and is celebrated in the Bible.
And not just diversity, but love for our neighbors, care for the immigrant, and justice for the marginalized and oppressed. In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words for justice appear in Scripture more than 1,000 times.
Two other factors have motivated my advocacy for diversity in education. First, I personally benefited from teachers and professors who modeled the importance of diversity, including diverse readings by diverse authors in their classes. I am who I am because of those teachers. Because they lifted up voices from people who looked like me, I began to believe my story mattered and my voice was important.
Second, I have children and grandchildren. I love them deeply and want their lives to be free from racism and sexism. I know the world will not be free from these sins until Jesus returns. While waiting for his return I, with so many others, have been working to educate as many people as possible on the inherent worth of every person. Advocating for diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism has been my way of making the world a little bit safer for my children and grandchildren — and the children of my neighbors, too.
But there are so many more reasons to support DEI. Multiple studies have confirmed that educating students about diversity helps them to become more empathetic toward others; critical thinking improves. I believe all students — not just marginalized ones — experience higher overall achievement. Students are more comfortable with diversity later in life, more interested in helping others, and are better prepared for a diverse workforce.
When diversity is present in the curriculum, when inclusion and equity are treasured values and when employees reflect the diversity found in the body of Christ, these benefits are realized.
Supportive environments take more than good intentions; they require intentional effort. During my career at Calvin University, with the support of the board, the president and others on the senior leadership team, I was able to frame our diversity efforts as “inclusive excellence.” I implemented mandatory anti-bias training for all search committees, provided monthly professional development workshops designed to increase cultural intelligence and competency and launched a leadership development program for underrepresented faculty and staff.
Support came in various forms. Leaders protected diversity programming budgets and encouraged team members to participate, affirmed the importance of diversity hires and adopted specific diversity goals.
Sadly, advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion is often fraught with tension. Some of my deepest wounds have come from those claiming to be Christ-followers.
The wounds began when I took my first breath in 1958 as a Black child to Black parents in the United States. Even before I knew I was Black and what being Black meant, my life was impacted by the racism and sexism all around me.
Though born to loving parents, they could not protect me from microaggressions, discrimination and alienation. All they could do was remind me that I was a person of worth, no matter the prevailing stereotypes. All they could do was share their coping tools. All they could do, and did, was to provide a strong foundation for me to pursue graduate-level education. All they could do, and did, was to pass on their commitment to diversity, anti-oppression and justice.
My parents started me on the path as a person who embraces diversity, but it was my faith in God that drew me to a career as a diversity professional. The New Testament’s First Letter of John reminds us, “Whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did.” This clearly calls followers of Christ to be imitators of Christ. I firmly believe that embracing and advocating for diversity and justice is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ because I find examples of Christ doing all of these things.
In the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus command his followers to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus shares a story to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer was not focused on the “who” of the other person, but rather on how we interact and care for others. Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It could be argued that Jesus’ ministry on earth exemplified the value of diversity, the importance of inclusion and the obligation of justice and restoration. Our ministry — in schools, churches, business, wherever we find ourselves — should reflect the same.
Christians can and should be leaders in this area, seeking out these roles. Leadership looks like advocating within one’s sphere of influence. Leadership looks like engaging in your own development of cultural competence before you ask those you lead to do so. Leadership looks like speaking up when others are harmed by microaggressions, bias and discrimination — even if it is not something that you have personally experienced. Christian voices in support of diversity and inclusion especially should be the loudest voices in the room.
We need more, not fewer, diversity professionals and must do a better job of coming alongside those doing this important work with love, support and gratitude. Though I am retiring from Christian higher education, I will continue to mentor rising Christian diversity professionals, helping them to become all that God has called them to be. I invite others to do the same.
(Michelle Loyd-Paige served as the executive associate to the president for diversity and inclusion (emeritus) at Calvin University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)