The choice of Lennie Henry to guest edit the flagship BBC radio programme Today inevitably brought the question of diversity into the public mind.
He is a much loved figure, amiable, “just like us”, and an excellent ambassador for “the Black Country” in both senses of the word.
You can’t not like Lennie.
If you looked for an example of an integrated person, in some ways different but in most ways not, it is hard to think of anyone better to choose.
Nevertheless, given a full , open choice of issues to explore, this very English man of colour felt it appropriate to go back to issues of diversity and exclusion. That was his right and his choice, but it is interesting that he felt obliged to look primarily in that direction rather than others; he identified with exclusion even though he has been as well embraced as anyone you might care to name.
Brother Ivo has lived long enough to have seen much change in this regard.
His own mother spoke of her fear of seeing the first black man in herstreet in the North of England, the children fleeing, lest he take them back to wherever he might have come from.
She was not initially comfortable around such strangers. She was troubled when the teenage Brother Ivo and a friend brought home a very pretty girl of Indian origin, yet to her credit she later learnt her own similarity with people of difference by badinage, whilst buying dress making materials from an Indian young man in the local market. Shared interests bridged cultural gaps
When she saw the fervour of dislike amongst some parts of the community with the early rise of the National Front, she confronted her own discomfort and by an act of will put it aside, for which Brother Ivo always admired her.
If you have never felt difficulty with difference, you have no claim to virtue in espousing tolerance.
Listening to Lennie Henry exploring issues such as the numerical disparity of BME managers in professional football, the problems of securing more ethnic minority MPs and black authors breaking out of their traditionally niche subject areas, Brother Ivo began thinking about another side of the diversity coin.
We regard ourselves as tolerant towards a diverse society because most of our major towns and cities have a variety of cultures in situ and readily visible, with Dreadlocks, Turbans, and Hijabs abounding, but does that really tell us much?
Happily we have relatively little racial tension and no “rivers of blood” yet if we drill down looking for hard data, how is the mutuality of acceptance really playing out?
Brother Ivo would have found it very interesting to hear not from those who have been motivated to integrate but rather to hear from those who have not yet done so.
Diane Abbott, Sajid Javid, Amjad Basir MEP and Chris Hughton had important and interesting stories to tell, and yet they are all people who have moved towards the values of the “indigenous community”: the story of those communities which are more inward looking is less explored. and it is a shame that Lennie did not go there.
That surely is the story that truly needs to be explored.
Brother Ivo was moved to explore this thought when he recalled a discussion he recently had with a colleague from another Church who sought his help in locating somebody willing and able to facilitate conversations within his own Church which had a number of people from a specific African region.
The colleague had made a mistake and did not want to compound it. He also had a problem, which he explained.
When he found people from the same country gravitating to his church he thought it was a good idea to promptly introduce the newcomers to each other and expected that alone to be a successful strategy.
He had not appreciated the tribal dimension.
He soon learnt that there were plainly issues that he did not know and yet they were issues which his congregation did not feel comfortable discussing with him. They feared he might disapprove of their reservations and so, he was effectively excluded from a dimension of his own ministry. He may have been all for diversity and yet found that he needed needed informed specialist help to penetrate the cultural issues that were holding back fellowship. Brother Ivo was able to suggest a source of such assistance.
There was another problem.
His new congregation members were very supportive of the Church. If he wanted simple things done his requests were met with enthusiasm yet those tasks embraced tended to be of a more menial capacity. Recruiting people to join the PCC, to become Treasurers or Church Wardens had never been successful. He was concerned by this.
He did not want outsiders to speculate about racial glass ceilings. He was genuinely bothered that he was unable to extend his opportunities with this new generation of worshipers. There may be to be a very prosaic answer. The new immigrants may be young, have working long hours, have family commitments in other towns; in that they may be no different from other young people with too much to do, yet he cannot be sure.
It is these conversations that need to be had. It does take two to tango.
Brother Ivo shall be seeing him again in a couple of months and will be interested to see see how he is getting on with the support suggested.
The story from this local Church is the kind that does not reach the media.
There are many new cultures and communities now in the UK. Some are still not wholly comfortable with the language and the culture. With 4 million newcomers in the last decade, it would be highly unlikely that all the potential issues of integration will have even yet been identified, let alone solved.
We should, as a larger community be keen to ensure that ours in not an exclusionary culture; In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free male or female. Yet the British have tended to be a pragmatic people relying on evolutionary practice rather than grand schemes of intellectual design. THis is both a blessing and a curse.
Seeing diversity on the street it may look ordinary enough, yet until we know and understand the various communities – and not least how they inter-react one with another – any declaration of diversity having been easily achieved is premature.
It may be too early to “celebrate diversity” not because we should not aspire to it, but simply because our success is greeted prematurely. Integrating two communities is of a different order of magnitude than integrating forty or a hundred. in many ways we have not yet begun.
Lennie Henry did a good job, but he skimmed the real depth of the problem
It will take time for so much diversity to bed down: the problems are exponentially complex and not exclusively caused by the “indigenous majority” – howsoever one defines it.
We can, however take a degree of comfort that the vast majority of folk do want to see this happen peacefully and naturally.
We in the Churches have an important role in facilitating acceptance on all sides, but we will help nobody if we allow the problem to be defined in the one dimension of indigenous intolerance only.