Multiethnicity Is Worth the Effort


Nikki Toyama-Szeto is Urbana Program Director in InterVarsity’s Missions Department. She oversees the development of programming for InterVarsity’s triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference. Prior to joining the Urbana team, Nikki was involved in InterVarsity’s campus ministry at the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of San Francisco.

Nikki Toyama-Szeto is Urbana Program Director in InterVarsity’s Missions Department. She oversees the development of programming for InterVarsity’s triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference. Prior to joining the Urbana team, Nikki was involved in InterVarsity’s campus ministry at the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of San Francisco. She is also co-editor of the InterVarsity Press book, More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith.

On Monday, January 17, 2011, Nikki marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by speaking at Calvin College. Her talk was part of Calvin’s January Series, a highly regarded schedule of annual lectures that this year includes talks from Krista Tippett, Andy Crouch, and Cal Ripken Jr. Nikki’s topic was Beyond Multi-Culturalism to True Community.

Why did Calvin College ask an Asian American woman to speak about multiethnicity for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday?

As an Asian American, I think we owe a great debt to the work that Martin Luther King Jr. and many different folks did during the Civil Rights era. We stand on the ground that they made smooth. I feel a great debt to the Black community and Martin Luther King Jr. They invited me to speak on this day, and together we chose a topic that would honor Dr. King’s legacy.

You've written about multiethnicity and engaged in conversations about it. You've said that it's all too easy to manage diversity rather than be transformed by dealing with it. How does a church, or a Christian organization like InterVarsity, go beyond the superficial and create space for true transformation.

When I think of the word managing, I think of someone who is trying to minimize risks and discomfort, and maximize productivity. When you're trying to do that, one of the things you do is drop to the lowest common denominator. You try to keep the peace, keep everyone focused on the same thing, and keep everyone producing something.  

When you're managing people, they generally want to do well. They don't want to admit mistakes and you want to minimize mistakes. In a transformative culture you need to create a new standard of measurement where there is a space for people to make mistakes, where there is a space for people to say the wrong thing. Because when they say the wrong thing, and there's honest dialogue about it, that's where transformation comes from.

One of my favorite images comes from Rich Lamb, a former InterVarsity staff worker. He talked about how a community is like a rock polisher. You throw a bunch of dirty, uninteresting rocks in. Then the rock polisher bounces the rocks around in the grit and they rub against each other. When you open up the rock polisher, you see smooth stones with amazing colors revealed. That's what the transformative community looks like.

You don't get that by just managing diversity; you get a whole bunch of rocks in a row. I hope we would have more of a posture of a rock polisher so that we are transformed in the midst of doing the thing that God calls us to do.

If you’re leading an organization there are a lot of pitfalls, in the area of communication for example. Is it a matter of taking the extra time and making sure that they get addressed when conflicts come up?

I'm not sure that I would use the word pitfalls. That sounds like something you're trying to avoid, without making mistakes and offending someone. It's in the pitfalls where transformation comes. The question is, can we fall gracefully? Do we have the time and the space to not just fall, but to learn from it.

We don't have the language to make mistakes and to have conflict with each other in a transformative way. We tend to make mistakes and have conflicts with each other in hurtful ways that we then have to recover from.

As an organization, what are the ways that we can create categories for extending grace or ways to talk about hard situations? The thing that comes with multiethnicity when you feel called to it – and I believe that InterVarsity holds it not just as a value, but as a calling to a multiethnic journey as we often talk about it – is that it messes in your areas of communication, and it messes with leadership styles, and it messes with where money is spent.

It takes having a kingdom picture, to go into some of those conversations without feeling that the people in power are going to lose something. Is the kingdom of God a zero sum kingdom? No, it's a kingdom of abundant resources. But we often think of it as a closed system, if one person wins the other loses. But I think the multiethnic journey is really about when one person wins the other person wins. Because we're on this journey together.

The Philippines have this great proverb that talks about lifting as you climb. As someone achieves something in this world, they also are supposed to lift their family and members of their community with them. How can we be people who lift as we climb, instead of just climbing really fast, stepping on others in order to get there faster?

God wants a multiethnic community of believers. He's made it very clear. Isaiah 56:7 prophesies about "a house of prayer for all nations" and John describes every nation, tribe and language, before the throne of God in Revelation 7:9. We don't hear those scriptures preached in the church very often.

I think those passages are really challenging. In our churches we've shifted away from the hard passages. Our approach to God and to scripture has become an approach of convenience and how scripture helps my life, rather than obedience to the authority of the Word of God. These scriptures cause us to look at our context and make different and uncomfortable choices. And that's not a very popular thing to do.

You also say that we don't need advocates, we need partners .

I was driving one day and listening on the radio to an interesting conversation about the need for advocates. Before that conversation I would have been in favor of having people in power advocate for Asian Americans, and for women, and for basically anyone who doesn't have a seat at the table. But after listening and hearing the dialogue, I began to realize that's true in the secular environment but in the Christian community we are called to something different. We are called to love one another.

Being in the Christian community is being part of the body of Christ. Jesus used that image: the hand doesn't say to the eye, "I do not need you." That should inform our picture of partnership, we're all part of the same body. We all do different things and we are all different. We are of different cultures. All of those things help fill out the broader picture of who God is.  Not one culture, not one person, not one race, can hold all of who God is. We all see different aspects of God.

I want people on my journey who look at me and don't feel that they have to put up with me or have to learn from me so that they can advocate for me. But I want people who journey with me and who say, “Nikki, you see something about God that I don't see, because you are a fourth generation Japanese American, because of your family’s experience here in America. Because of these different things, you see something different about God that I don't get to see. And I need you as a partner in this spiritual journey, so that I can have a fuller picture of God.” And vice versa. I think that kind of interdependence resonates more with what Jesus intended in scripture.

In saying that, you’ve described something that I’ve felt about InterVarsity and the diversity that I’ve experienced as I’ve worked with you and other people from different backgrounds. I can trust where you’re coming from, because we share the same relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the unity in our diversity.

Yes, absolutely. For people like me, we need folks who have the option to get out of those conversations, to stay in them. I wish I had the option. I wish I could not think about what it means to be an Asian, or a woman. But I don't have that luxury. I bring that with me to everyone I'm meeting.

I'm looking for folks who see their welfare tied up in mine and are willing to stick in those hard conversations, even when it becomes uncomfortable.


InterVarsity's Greek Ministry hosts a panel on Multiethnicity at the University of Georgia.