Race, diversity and God’s glory: A conversation with Trillia Newbell

There are some issues that make total sense for there to be a great deal of discussion and controversy around, but I’m not sure how many of us would put ethnic diversity on the list. It’s not that we don’t think diversity is important, it’s just because we live in a pluralistic society and assume that it’s a given.

Except it’s not.

A while back, I had the opportunity to sit down with Trillia Newbell and talk about her new book, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, one of the most encouraging and thoughtful books I’ve read on the issue of racism and embracing ethnic diversity within the church. During our conversation, we discussed her reasons for writing United, the problems with the word “race,” and what reclaiming a sense of diversity really means for the church. I hope reading our conversation is as enjoyable for you as speaking with her was for me!


Why was this book so important for you to write?

I grew up in the South and experienced racism and it really didn’t occur to me that this could be something I could put on paper until my pastors asked me to read and review Dr. John Piper’s book Bloodlines. [After reviewing the book,] I wrote a blog post about being an African American female in a predominantly white congregation. The response was so incredible, and people from across the board were really affected by it. And I realized this wasn’t just something on my heart, but an issue the church really needs to be talking about.

[Thinking about] diversity in general, I grew up loving people and culture and wanting to know more about both… I grew up with that desire because my father taught me, but diversity had a different meaning for me—it was a little more political.

When I became a Christian, and I saw in the Bible how it talks about all tongues and all tribes, it became clear that this is really a biblical issue (if you want to call it an issue). It’s bigger than politics. It’s really God’s heart. He has a love for all nations. Jesus came to redeem all nations, all tribes. And then, Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations. It’s something so important that God thought to address it.

trillia-photo

One of the things I noticed in the book as you referenced your own experiences with racism was a problem with the term “race” itself in the context of people. Can you unpack that for me?

I often refer to people as different ethnicities or different cultures, but not different races. And the reason is, really, there’s only one race: the human race. We’re one people, all born from one man—Adam…. You don’t see the Bible talking about “races.” It talks about ethnicities, tribes, tongues, nations—but you don’t see “races.”

What difference, practically, does it make when we think about people in terms of “race” versus a more biblical view of “ethnicity”?

If we adopt this language and this mindset, we would still have the superiority issue—which is really pride—but it would eradicate some of the sillier ones. Interracial marriage wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would simply be two people of different cultures and ethnicities becoming one.

We would also be able to get to the heart of the issue of racism more easily, which is really pride… It would take a while, but [with racism gone] you wouldn’t have racial profiling…

And because we have a tendency to indulge our sin nature and think the worst of people all the time, we’d change our racial profiling to ethnicity profiling.

We would still have some of the same struggles, yeah, because we’re sinners.

But it might be easier for us to think of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. I think it might be easier for us to understand that we really are adopted into one family and it’s a new bloodline, and we can embrace that.

How we prevent good arguments for treating equally from being co-opted either to gain the approval of clearly sinful behavior or political aspirations?

I would say biblically, anything about the personhood of a human being is not sinful in so far as the color of my skin is not sinful. I was created in the image of God, exactly as God forethought this. He foreknew me, knit me in my mother’s womb and knew I’d be a brown girl. And He said that this is good. He created me in His image. So nothing about the color of my skin is sinful.

When we look at the Bible, we’re made equal, we’re redeemed equal—we’re also sinfully equal. So I think we can strive and encourage diversity in that sense because there is nothing inherently evil in this pursuit or about the people God has created in terms of our color. We are sinners, but in terms of what he created… we can pursue it because there’s nothing in the Bible that would discourage this pursuit.

So it’s really being careful to draw our distinctions based on what the Bible says about people, rather than trying to make a hard-and-fast statement about actions.

Yes! We can act out in sin as people, as people made in His image. But because we’re talking about pursuing people of different colors, tribes and tongues, that has nothing to do with the actions of those people. Jesus commands the disciples to make disciples of all nations, but he doesn’t delineate in terms of what those people are doing.

One of the things you wrote in the book is that, “Diversity doesn’t mean ‘more of the same.’ Maybe that’s obvious” (United, p 67). I’m really not sure it is that obvious. In our country, we tend to congregate with people who are like us. We’ve got a very large Middle Eastern population that tends to not talk to anyone who isn’t Middle Eastern. In our churches, we tend to stick within our denominations. We do age-and-stage ministry—with young people only learning from each other (which as we all know is a bad idea since we were all kind of stupid at that age), and seniors are all together feeling left out together… and even churches where there does tend to be more ethnic diversity, we often find churches doing separate services in specific languages, rather than fully integrating. Why do you think we do this and how would you encourage us to be more biblically diverse?

The “why” is we’re comfortable. People planning these ministries think, “This is going to serve [these people]… this is going to be comfortable.” But the reality is, you get seniors who think, “I can’t serve in this church, I’m not of any use,” and people who will never know the people in the other services because they only go to the service in their language, and youth who are not learning and growing from older members of their congregations…

[As for encouragement,] the Bible has a great chapter on this, Titus 2! [Laughs] And it tells us how to disciple one another. Older men and women discipling younger men and women. And it seems so clear to me that the Lord would want us to learn from one another and mix it up a bit so we can learn and grow. And then in 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the body needing all its parts. So you can’t have a bunch of eyeballs together… you need the arm, you need the leg, you need the eyeball, all working together. Paul’s talking about spiritual gifts, of course, but unless we’re integrating those gifts aren’t going to come together.

Last question: If there’s only one thing you want readers to take away from the book, what would that be?

The pursuit of diversity isn’t about diversity: it’s about love. If people can reach out to their neighbors, share the gospel, get to know other people and love other people as you love yourself, that would be amazing. What a transformation that would be in all our lives, to truly seek to love people and to know people. That’s why I stayed in that predominantly white church [mentioned previously] for so long—because I felt loved. We had our problems, but I felt loved.


 

United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity is on sale now. Trillia’s writings on issues of faith, family, and diversity have been published in the Knoxville News- Sentinel, Desiring God, True Woman, The Resurgence, The Gospel Coalition, and more. She currently is the consultant on Women’s Initiatives for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Newbelll is the Lead Editor of Karis, the women’s channel for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Her greatest love besides God is her family. She is married to her best friend and love, Thern. They reside with their two children near Nashville, TN.