An Atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Japanese Man, and a Member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Walk into a Bar

Anyone who wants a place in heaven had better be prepared to live with mind-boggling diversity. God wants to gather all of his children into his kingdom, and that’s a lot of people from a lot of places.

During my last year of residency I attended an international neurology conference in New Orleans — my first trip to such an event and my first time to visit that city. The department chair treated us to a fantastic meal with astonishing biodiversity on a single table: mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, mollusks, amphibians, and arthropods. Only in New Orleans could you get a meal like that.

Seated around the table were members of my department who hailed from all over the world: North America, Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Europe, the Middle East. Neurologists from all of the world’s major religions, possessing the whole spectrum of skin hues, all sat around the table enjoying one another’s company.

After dinner a smaller number of us decided to walk over to the French Quarter and find some live jazz music. As we walked along one of us looked around at the others and said, “An atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Japanese man, and a [member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] walk into a bar…” It didn’t need a punchline to make us all laugh. A minute later we found a cozy place with a Louis Armstrong tribute band, where I experienced some of the best live jazz I’ve ever heard. The waitress gave us a smirk when our Muslim colleague ordered a Coke and I ordered a cranberry juice, but our friends understood. It was a wonderful evening, a memory I will always cherish.

~~~

A couple of years later I became the newest faculty member of that department. My hope, conceived over a decade earlier, was actually coming to pass: I was a fully licensed medical doctor, starting my first real job.

During that first year on staff I attended a department meeting where the College of Medicine’s diversity officer was the guest speaker. He showed us our department’s demographic stats and chided us for not being diverse enough. I looked around the room at my colleagues from nearly every continent on the planet. “Really?” I thought. “This isn’t diverse enough?”

At the time I was a young and insecure doctor striving to find my place, trying to prove that I was — or at least that I could become — a valuable member of the team. But did my employer even want me there? I was part of a problem, they seemed to be saying, and not because of a deficiency in my skill set or my character, or any other attribute that I might have some amount of control over. I was simply the wrong kind of person.

“We have too many white males.”

A lot of questions ran through my head that day, but I didn’t dare ask any of them for fear of being branded a sexist, bigot or racist. I didn’t want to lose this job I had just worked for so many years to get. But I wondered: Is diversity really that important? Should it be a primary goal of an organization, or a secondary goal? Is it worth sacrificing other priorities for?

I walked away from that meeting feeling excluded, and resentful. Diversity is divisive when done for its own sake, because people who are not sociopaths don’t appreciate being told that they are part of a social pathology.

~~~

By diversity I mean people of different backgrounds, life experiences, perspectives, values, talents, personality types, etc. These differences can include gender, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, or any other characteristic, but I don’t limit the concept of diversity to labels associated with identity politics.

By inclusiveness I mean a mutual feeling of belonging or welcomeness. An inclusive group is one which accepts and allows others to become full-fledged members. The group can be anything: a chess club, sports team, church congregation, study group, neighborhood, etc. Each group can define its own rules for membership, and these necessarily mandate some similarity between group members (“We all like to play chess,” or “We are all employed by this company,” etc.), but an inclusive group can tolerate differences in unrelated characteristics. For example, an inclusive church will accept people of all ethnicities and nationalities as members, so long as they share the core beliefs of the religion.

I once asked my kids, “Which do you think is more important: inclusion or diversity?”

“They’re both important,” my son said.

“That’s true,” I said, “but is one more important than the other?”

They considered the question.

“I mean, if you could have one but not the other, which one would you choose?” I said. “Would you rather be part of an inclusive group without diversity or a diverse group without inclusiveness?”

“Well, I guess I’d rather have inclusiveness,” he said.

I agree.

Diversity is a spice that enriches the meal, but nobody wants a meal of only spices. My experience in New Orleans became a happy memory because I felt included in the group. Take away the diversity and I still have a happy memory, but take away the inclusiveness and I probably wouldn’t have made the memory in the first place.

I want to live in a world where all human beings are respected as children of God with inherent dignity and value. Our differences should make us fascinating to one another.

~~~

I’ll cede the argument that some amount of “seed” diversity can promote inclusiveness. That is manifestly true in my own experience. Such diversity is the energy of activation required to move beyond comfort-zoneism. And everyone should be thrown out of their comfort zone from time to time.

One afternoon during my second year in medical school I returned to my cubicle in the study library after a bathroom break. As I turned the corner I found that the way was blocked by a few of my classmates who were kneeling on mats, facing east. I waited for them to finish their prayer and stand up before I stepped around them.

“I’m sorry,” one of them said as I passed by.

“Oh, it’s no problem,” I said. “I’m glad to see you praying.”

This was in the mid-2000’s, in the midst of the post-9/11 Islamophobia. But I was not afraid of my Muslim classmates because I knew that they were kind, honest, and God-fearing people. The diversity of medical training gave me a much greater comfort level with people who believe in Islam.

But did my medical school accept these students because they wanted to reach some diversity quota or achieve some sort of affirmative action for a minority group? Was it just so that the rest of us would learn through experience that Muslims are, on the whole, pretty decent people? Or were these young men highly qualified applicants, like the rest of us, who deserved an equal chance to prove that they could become medical doctors? I suspect and hope it was the latter.

~~~

A similar thing happens to missionaries who serve away from home, often among people who speak a different language, eat different foods, and have a different skin color from their own. The missionary who is immersed in that foreign culture learns to love the people as their own brothers and sisters. The redneck American, the African, the South American, Asian, European, or whatever — all are children of God.

Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach his gospel to all the world — “to every creature,” he said. Starting with the Jews in Jerusalem, the Church of Jesus Christ spread to all of the accessible world during New Testament times, incorporating many converts with diverse religious backgrounds from the Middle East, Asia Minor, and Europe. Ethnic diversity in the Church was a direct result of its inclusive commission.

The same is true of the restored Church of Jesus Christ today, which has congregations on every inhabited continent. Diversity is not a primary goal of the Church, but it is the natural consequence of its mission, to bring souls unto Christ. “There is no other cause in the world more inclusive,” declared Elder Marcos Aidukaitis. It is the greatest force for unity the world has ever known.

“Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family.” – Ezra Taft Benson


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

2 replies to “An Atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Japanese Man, and a Member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Walk into a Bar

  1. Well said. I remember your opening story and it was fun to remember it. Keep writing. You are good at it. Your ideas are interesting, probing, thoughtful, and spiritual. You are kind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you hit the right spot. Inclusion encourages all of us to participate and respect others. Enforcing diversity tells some for whatever reason that they’re excluded or not wanted because of something innate to them. Whether it’s against a previous favored majority or a despised minority, it’s still wrong. I’ve been favored to work at mostly inclusive places. I’m grateful the Gospel of Christ is inclusive.

    Liked by 1 person

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