I am the only black guy on our Church staff.
At one point, many years back on a particular Sunday morning, I looked around at our predominantly Caucasian congregation of over 750 people and observed I was the only African American in the room.
Add to that the fact that I’m not just African American, but I’m also Nigerian; which means my volume is permanently stuck on “loud” when I’m the slightest bit excited!
You would think my multicultural distinction would make me feel perpetually uncomfortable in this culture. To the contrary, Grace Church on the Mount has become home to me in every sense of the word;
- Firstly, because I’ve formed some deeply meaningful and strong friendships over the years.
- Secondly, because I’ve been privileged to work alongside some of the brightest, whitest, godliest and friendliest co-workers/congregation a Nigerian American could ask for.
- Thirdly, because in the years since I got married to my awesomely lovely wife, Grace Church has become an increasingly multicultural congregation.
- Fourthly and most importantly, because I’ve embraced the truth that my first identity is no longer rooted in my “blackness” or “African-ness” or “only-black-guy-among-white-folks-ness”, but in my adoption into God’s family as an heir of God and co-heir with Christ.
This basically means I see myself as a passport-holding citizen of heaven first, before I see myself as a Nigerian, African American, or even a New Jerseyan. It also means that I’m not as conscious of my “difference” in the room as I once was.
In my time on staff at Grace (10 years), I’ve learned a few important lessons about distinguishing yourself in an ethnically different culture than the one you may be used. Rather than paint the full picture of how to do this from my personal story, allow me to show you how another young multicultural dude in the Bible accomplished this in a culture radically different from the one he was raised in.
The young man I speak of is Daniel, and he’s not having a good day.
In the opening scenes of the Old Testament book of Daniel, we find Daniel’s world turned upside down. His city has been invaded and besieged by the mighty Babylonians. In the midst of the bloody and violent chaos, Daniel, along with several other Jewish young men, are hand-selected by the Babylonians to be a part of a Babylonian cultural indoctrination program.
This program entailed taking young Jewish men who were healthy and handsome, intelligent and well-educated, and converting them into perfect specimens for leadership positions in the Babylonian government. In other words, the Babylonians were about to do everything in their power to “unJew” Daniel and his friends.
So, though Daniel’s life has been spared, when we first meet him in chapter one, he is already 500 miles from home, working in the main offices of the “White House” of Babylon. Talk about a culture shock! The language was different. His values were different. The people were different. Heck, even his name was now different! Talk about trying to figure out how-to-fit-in-when-you-don’t-fit-in-but-sorta-kinda-have-to-fit-in! (Which was supposed to be the original title of this article).
Yet, Daniel would be later become known as one of the most influential and trusted leaders in all of Babylon.
There’s no question that God’s providential hand was guiding Daniel every step of the way, but there was one very practical step he took which resulted in him distinguishing himself among his peers.
It happened on the first week on the job.
Part of the indoctrination program required him to alter his diet plan because the king ordered that all the Jewish boys be “…served from the same menu as the royal table—the best food, the finest wine.”
Yes. I know. How excruciating, right?
There’s actually a lot more going on there than what we read. By making them drink and eat directly from his table, the king was essentially trying to assimilate Daniel and his friends into Babylonian culture by obliterating their religious and cultural identity and creating a dependence upon the Royal court. Along with that, Daniel was also aware that the meals from the king’s table had most likely been offered first to Babylonian deities. As a devout Jew, this presented a problem, not only because it was a sin to partake of it according to the law, but also because it could result in him being ensnared by the temptations of the Babylonian culture.
Daniel appears to have been prepared for this moment because we read in verse 8-10 that he determined that he would not defile himself by eating the king’s food or drinking his wine. Note what he does next; rather than complain about why he can’t eat their food, or why it goes against his convictions, he proposes an alternate workable game plan that gives his overseers an easy out if it fails.
First, he asks the head of the palace staff, and then later the overseeing steward to exempt him from the royal diet. Though God had providentially caused the Babylonians to be favorably predisposed towards Daniel, they give him a totally legit reason why they can’t oblige his request.
Daniel has a few options here.
- First, he could whine and complain, or even try to put up a fight based on his religious convictions. Unfortunately, that option wouldn’t get him very far and might infact have endangered his life.
- Secondly, he could have simply gone along with the plan. After all, he was far from home and hundreds of miles away from the Temple (which represented God’s presence). For all we know, his parents had been slaughtered in the invasion and the temple was destroyed; hence he’s far removed from anyone who might “call” out his sin! Besides all that, we’re talking about the finest of wines and food here! This boy could LIVE IT UP and no one would blink an eye. In so doing however, he would have violated his own conscience, not to mention breaking a law he had been raised to obey.
In place of those two questionable options, Daniel chose a third option. He proposed an alternate plan that he had most certainly formulated in his mind long before he made his request. Here’s what he proposed, “Try us out for ten days on a simple diet of vegetables and water. Then compare us with the young men who eat from the royal menu. Make your decision on the basis of what you see.”
This plan is brilliant and S.M.A.R.T!
The steward and head of palace staff were genuinely fearful for their lives if any of the boys ended up looking emaciated. Daniel understood this, hence he offered them a plan that was Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Results-focused, and Timely.
It was SPECIFIC in that Daniel stated clearly exactly what food items he wanted to be tested with (vegetables and water). It was MEASURABLE in that his overseers could compare his physical stature to that of the other young men feeding on the royal menu. It was ACHIEVABLE because vegetables and water, though not as exotic as other items on the royal menu, could sustain him for those 10 days so he didn’t look like he’d been starving. It was REALISTIC and TIMELY because Daniel requested that they only try it out for 10 days, at the end of which his overseers could judge the results for themselves.
Think about how this plan benefited all parties involved. Daniel ended up sticking by his convictions. His oversees still had a job and would be spared from death. Most importantly, the king would get his well-fed, fit, handsome looking boys! It’s no wonder then that the story concludes this way: “The steward agreed to do it and fed them vegetables and water for ten days. At the end of the ten days they looked better and more robust than all the others who had been eating from the royal menu. So the steward continued to exempt them from the royal menu of food and drink and served them only vegetables.”
True story bro.
Okay. Back to you, my multicultural friend in a culture radically different from the one to which you're accustomed.
Everything about your new location will feel different and it will very quickly wear on you. In fact, in no time, you’ll find yourself coming up with a list of issues that bother you about your new environment and another list detailing why you want to go back to where you started (a safe and familiar culture more attuned to your rhythm).
Rather than run away, would you consider taking a lesson in multicultural leadership from Daniel? Impress those overseeing you not by complaining about what you think is wrong (or is being executed in an inefficient manner), but by proposing a well thought-out S.M.A.R.T solution that gives your overseers an easy out if it fails.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve been on staff at Grace Church for 10 years. What I didn’t mention is that I’d been a volunteer in various ministries in the Church in the 9 years prior. During those earlier years, I was in college and had taken some BASIC programming language and HTML courses. My final project was to build a website. At the time, Grace Church didn’t have a website, much less an online presence, so I approached some leaders in the Church and proposed that they allow me build the Church its official website.
I forget the details of the conversation now, but I believe there was some hesitation; either because they didn’t really understand what was involved in running a website or because there was someone else more professional who could build something better. Whatever the case, I eased their minds by suggesting they allow me build a website for the youth ministry. I made a case about the “wave of the future” and how Churches needed to be visible on the internet (which, as it turns out, I was right!), and gave them a timeline. If it didn’t work out like I envisioned, we could all step away without “shaking things up” too much. My plan was enthusiastically accepted. They liked the youth website and I was later commissioned to build the Church’s first website (a task which has coincidentally come onto my plate again).
I don’t share that story to brag, but simply to point out that pretty early in this culture I very quickly distinguished myself by identifying a problem/need and providing a solution that my overseers could wholeheartedly embrace.
Back to you again. What new culture have you recently stepped into?
When you’re the only one of your kind in a new culture, there’s often an unspoken expectation that you are there because you have something uniquely incredible to offer…. Otherwise, why would you be there? It can feel like a lot of pressure. But rather than complaining (or running), why not show them the great multicultural stuff you’re really made of?
Help them identify a problem no one has observed (or that they’ve observed but don’t know how to fix) then propose a S.M.A.R.T solution for how you’re uniquely positioned to make it right.
Let them experience the real strength of your multicultural identity!