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Diversity Matters

Why is diversity essential to both the church and the College? by Dr. Shawn E. Okpebholo, assistant professor of music theory and composition


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My twin sister recently asked me a simple question: “How did you end up at Wheaton College?” She works in the human resources department at another liberal arts college, and was asked by her colleague to research recruitment of faculty of color.

Challenges with effectively recruiting diverse faculty and students in higher education are not unique to Wheaton. Fortunately, among colleges and universities, Wheaton included, proactive commitments to address matters of diversity are becoming commonplace, as schools begin to understand the importance of ethnic diversity. So, why is diversity important in higher education, and what is Wheaton’s unique motivation?

A more diverse faculty provides students with a variety of perspectives and serves as an important step toward increased diversity among students. Diversity among faculty and students exposes the community to a range of life experiences, promoting awareness and understanding of important societal issues such as racism (systemic—both subtle and overt), socioeconomic disparities, micro-aggression, and more. Especially among students, this understanding is crucial as they must leave college ready to engage in an increasingly cross-cultural society and more globally connected workforce.

Like the church, the College has a theological mandate for increasing ethnic diversity in the Great Commission. A culturally and economically diverse body of believers casts a broader net in expanding the church. Furthermore, a diverse church is preparation for the kingdom of God, which is a diverse body (Rev. 7:9). I grew up in a relatively small church of around 150 people. The bilingual congregation was full of many races. Diversity transcended skin color, as every Sunday our body of Christ would include homeless people, physicians, families from the projects (including mine), a theologian and other academics, elderly, young, chronically disabled, Congolese, Dominicans, Koreans, and more.

Not segregated by pews or proximity to the pulpit, this was The Salvation Army Church in Lexington, Ky. Though the church was not perfect, this multiplicity of God’s creation had a common purpose: to expand the kingdom, and to worship Jesus Christ through our differences and experiences.

As a composer, I can’t help but reflect on the parallels between this picture of the church, and my profession. When writing music, working with timbre is common, as I explore distinctive sound qualities and colors. I embrace polyphony as I work to combine multiple independent and contrasting lines to produce harmony. I also incorporate differences and nuances among varying rhythmic or melodic ideas, while making the work more cohesive by seizing upon common elements. Much like the Kingdom of God, it is this synthesis of the diverse elements of musical composition that makes a rich and unique masterpiece.

I am convinced my most successful works occur when I do not solely depend on craft or hard work, but when I rely on the guidance of my Creator in concert with these gifts and disciplines. In the same way, we must all work hard to achieve Wheaton’s mission of “deepening ethnic diversity,” while praying and continually seeking guidance from He who created diversity—our Triune God.

A widely sought-after and award-winning composer, Dr. Shawn E. Okpebholo has received numerous commissions from noted artists and ensembles, and is a frequent guest lecturer. His music has been performed all across the United States and on five continents. In 2007, he earned his doctorate in composition and theory from the University of Cincinnati’s College- Conservatory of Music. He lives in Wheaton with his wife, Dorthy (a violist), and his daughters, Eva and Corinne.

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