Plays Well With Others: A Guest Post (of Sorts) by Dr. Jeff Cook

I’m not sure if it qualifies as a “guest post” if I read it on someone’s Facebook status, loved it, and then asked for permish to post it on my blog. But here it is! One of Dr. Cook’s famous Facebook statuses posted, of course, with permish.

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“Drum line” by A. Holcomb Photo

In my high school band there were, like, 100 kids.

Because of some grievous sin apparently in our new band director’s previous life there were – count them – 25 drummers. I was one of them.

It could not have been a worse assignment for a new teacher. Probably not the dream job he envisioned as he stood at the threshold of his career and looked down the road.

His daily task throughout that school year was attempting to reign in a thundering percussion section. Just through sheer numbers we dominated. Everything. Regardless of what we played, no matter how he tried to instill in us the distinctions between pianissimo and fortissimo, everything sounded like Alabama’s Crimson Tide drum line at halftime. Of course we loved to play, and loved to hear ourselves play. It was all us, all the time. Loud and proud.

Fun, if you were a drummer. If you were in the brass or woodwind section, however, it was a nightmare. Discouraging. Exasperating. Kids practiced hard, played well and all had important parts to contribute to the music but were simply overpowered by 25 energetic freshmen simply doing what they loved to do.

It wasn’t mean spirited. This was no power play. We weren’t intentionally trying to dominate and alienate everyone else in that rehearsal room. The result was the same though. It was just us being us, a dominant group of kids in a percussion section that had not learned the skill set or value of listening to others around them in a group. Neither had we learned to adjust our own volume to those whose contributions were softer and harder to hear in the presence of such overpowering numbers. The importance of blending our unique contributions with others to produce something greater and more beautiful than any of us individually was simply invisible.

So we played. Encouraged each other with how good we sounded. Didn’t understand why others were frustrated and unhappy. Didn’t they appreciate band? Maybe they should just join the chess club or something if they didn’t like to play.

I marvel now that I never wrestled at the time with how our dominance affected others in the band. What did those kids think at the time, kids who wanted to play and contribute to something good as much as we but yet had to tolerate daily our loud, overbearing presence? What did those two timid young girls who played oboe think about us, for example, or those mellow-sounding French horns? How angry was that row of clarinet players constantly glaring at us, so tense and upright on the edge of their straight-back chairs? Were they all not only disappointed but actually exasperated every single day with us? How discouraging was it not only to have to work hard to learn your instrument and music like everyone else, but also to simply try to be heard and valued as part of the band?

We were oblivious.

This issue of power is one of the most important aspects to address when working in a multi-ethnic context. Any church, for example, that is multi-ethnic with a dominant group faces the same challenges. Ultimately the question is, how does the dominant group keep from dominating?

It is a constant challenge for everyone to bring what they have to offer to the table, but yet to do it in a way that neither minimizes one’s own perspective nor overpowers the voice and presence of others. Everyone has something to offer, and the sum is greater than the parts. That is a goal worth intentionally pursuing, but hard to balance.

We can fall in a ditch on either side of the road. One extreme is for minority voices to capitulate to dominant groups and refuse to bring their unique contribution to the mix. Either through passivity or simply assimilation, the value of diversity evaporates. On the other hand, majority groups must be alert to how much their domination and control, intentional or unintentional, feels like a heavy blanket that covers and stifles everything.

Unless this default dynamic of dominant group control is acknowledged and skillfully addressed, ministries will always tend to default to the control and influence of the dominant group. This stance need not be hostile. Indeed, it may be quite benevolent, subtle, and couched in spiritual terms. The bottom line, however, is that if the use of power is not addressed, some groups will be marginalized while others will dominate by default. Everyone will suffer, and God’s agenda will be hindered.

Questions we must ask ourselves to move forward together in a diverse context:

  1. Do all ethnic groups and both genders sense that their views are heard in the larger group? Would they feel it is a ‘safe’ place to speak honestly? Is space made to intentionally invite other voices to the conversation? Do they feel their contributions are valued? Seriously considered? Or do people sense that if they are ‘not a drummer,’ they will be marginalized anyway and it won’t matter? Are concerns raised by minority members dismissed out-of-hand, or worse, subtly challenged as being ‘divisive’?
  2. How are decisions made? Is there a willingness to make strategic decisions based on standards other than majority vote? Are dominant culture folks willing to stretch in pursuit of an agenda that not only embraces but proactively pursues diversity? Are they willing to sacrifice to make room for leaders from outside of dominant culture in order to fulfill God’s bigger agenda?
  3. Are people willing to embrace and champion this emphasis on diversity, or do they simply passively consent to it, or even subtly resist it?
  4. Are there structures in place whereby concerns can be voiced without being ostracized?

A crucial role in that symphonic band was the leadership role of the band director. As the leader, he held a significant place of influence. Timidly at first, then with growing confidence, he stepped into his role as change agent. Explaining, challenging, coaching, correcting, and sometimes even confronting that drum section daily, he guided us over time into becoming a team of drummers that contributed to the success and purpose of the whole band.

Easy? Hardly. But the results over time were profound.

On the other hand, he had to learn how to coach the rest of the band, a demoralized group that had become settled in their frustration, apathetic and defensive. Those who had been consistently dominated, marginalized and overpowered were, as is often the case, slow to respond. Those on that end of the continuum had to be coached through some hard, character-forming lessons as well, such as learning to give people room to grow as well as room to fail. Patience with the process of change. Forgiving people when the growth trajectory of others doesn’t reflect a consistently upward arrow, but a rather jagged, struggling one that only creeps upward. Not harboring bitterness over the past.

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying “Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. Working together is success.”

That doesn’t happen by accident. It takes work. Forgiveness. Patience. Commitment to a common purpose. A lot of leadership. A lot of humility and submission to the Spirit.

In the end, though, the results are priceless. There is no substitute for the sweeping, magnificent orchestral impact of such unity in diversity.

“No part of the body has the right to say, I have no need of you.” I Cor 12:13

ImageDr. Jeff Cook is an educator, a missionary, an Ironman completer, a collaborator, and a lover and promoter of multi-ethnic collaboration. While teaching at Cedarville University (hey! that’s where I went!), Dr. Cook developed a “Poverty Weekend” for his Urban Ministry class (weekend long poverty immersion simulation experience learning stretching time) and a “Refugee Weekend” for his Contemporary World Missions Class (weekend long refugee simulation experience learning stretching freezing crying time – hey! I did that!).

Dr. Cook is all about his family, his students marrying each other, and the phrase, “Help me to understand.” After teaching at Cedarville for quite some time, Dr. Cook and his wife, Inge, moved to Denver, Colorado to do kingdom teaching and learning things with these guys – The Providence Center for Urban Leadership Development. He is a darn good teacher/leader, a passionate and funny guy, and a man who understands better than most that heaven is both now and not yet. 

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