Diversity Has Made All the Difference

By Natalie Rivera

While growing up, my holiday home had halls decked with holly, a menorah in the window, and a “Chanamus” tree. I come from a multiracial, religiously diverse family. My mom’s family is Jewish and my dad’s family is Christian.

I am English, Scottish, German, Romanian, Polish, Welch, and Russian. I am a cultural, ethnic, and religious mutt.

Both my Jewish and Christian roots were very non-orthodox. My Jewish grandparents attended synagogue (sometimes), and my mom remembers going to see a yogi with her mother. This side of my family also has a history of political activism. My Jewish grandmother once told me a story of going on a house call with her uncle, who was a medical doctor in the 1940s. Unlike most MDs at the time, he felt passionately that everyone, regardless of race or creed, deserved medical care. The day my grandmother accompanied him he made a house call to an African American family, accepting a sack of potatoes as payment for his services. He was ostracized by the medical community for his equal-opportunity healing. His choices impacted my grandmother greatly and, in turn, led her to display decisions in her life that passed a passion for equality and human rights onto me.

When my mom was young, my grandparents were active in the Civil Rights Movement. They participated in the March on Washington. They were one of the first families to move into a progressive town called Columbia, MD. Large homes were built next to lower-income apartment buildings. There was an Interfaith Center, in which all religious groups held their services under one roof. The community was openly tolerant of both homosexual and interracial couples. Columbia, where my mom spent her childhood, was a Mecca for celebrated diversity. My grandparents took their actions one step further, and in the 1970s they adopted two multiracial children.

How blessed I am to have been exposed to such a powerful example of people who stood up for what they believed in.

Because of my grandparents, I hold myself to a higher standard. I was raised in Columbia until I was six. I lived there long enough for the values of equality, unity, and acceptance to etch deep within my soul. I grew up in a town where my interreligious family was viewed as normal and my interracial extended family was respected and admired. I was “colorblind” and ignorant to the fact that the rest of the world was not like Columbia. I was in for quite a culture shock when my family relocated to New Hampshire, where my dad was raised.

My dad spent part of his childhood living on a farm. While he was growing up, his dad was a Congregationalist Minister and his mother was a teacher. Interestingly, the belief system of the Christian church in which they participated echoes the underlying beliefs of my Jewish background—that a connection to God exists directly within each person. The Congregationalists believe that all people can connect with God directly, and they do not have a hierarchical church structure. My grandparents instilled in me a deep love of nature, the value of family traditions, and the importance of having respect for all people.

Though diverse, my familial influences and beliefs blended peacefully and cohesively. As a result, I developed an unconscious understanding that no person, no deed, no object, and no place stands in between myself and my Creator.

I also became incredibly open minded, accepting, and compassionate, as well as passionate about equality and unity. Unfortunately, my unique perspective has, at times, put me at odds with the rest of the world. As I grew up and was exposed to life beyond the walls of my bubble, I became increasingly cynical and bitter. I could not understand why the rest of the world did not think the way I do.

I remember my first day of second grade, just after I moved to New Hampshire. I came home that afternoon and asked my mom, “Where did all the black kids go?” That year around Christmas, my grade celebrated “Christmas Around the World.” We had different stations in which we did crafts and learned about different holidays during the season, such as Kawanza. When we got to the “Israel” station and talked about Chanukah, my life changed.

The teacher told the class that, “Jewish people live in Israel,” to which I piped up and said, “No they don’t; I live here.” The class just stared at me in confusion. Apparently, I was the only Jewish child in my school of 400. The children started asking me questions, the only one I remember being: “Do Jewish people go to Hell?” At the time, I didn’t even know what Hell was. From that day forward, I was seen as different.

I attended Christian churches and Sunday school with many of my friends, and I enjoyed most of it. However, one particular incident traumatized me and planted within me a seed of bitterness that it took many years to get over. The Sunday school class was asked to close our eyes, during which time we were instructed to ask Jesus into our heart. With eyes still closed, the teachers asked us to raise our hands if we had not asked Jesus into our heart. I raised mine, of course—really, really high. (I was always a nonconformist.) I had grown suspect of this character due to observations I’d made interacting with adults at the churches, and I was enthusiastic about standing up against it. What happened next was totally inappropriate, from my adult perspective.

The teachers brought me out into the hall and began berating me. I was overwhelmed, confused, and frightened. I was only 8 or 9 years old. I do not remember what they said to me, nor do I think I could have understood it at the time, but I do know that I went home feeling rejected, unworthy, resentful, and with anger in my heart. That day I learned the harsh reality that I did not belong in this world of competition and separatism. These misguided teachers did not succeed at breaking my spirit. Instead, they fueled the fire deep within me that, today, burns and aches to stop suppression, discrimination, and religious holy wars.

Those who found out I was Jewish and responded by stating they would “pray for me” offended me, yes, but they added another log to my fire. I once saw a girl, about 10, walking down the street with her mother, and when they passed a black woman, she asked “Mommy, what happened to that lady’s skin?” I was disgusted by her ignorance, but it stoked the embers of my passions.

For years I would not use the word “God” or state that I believed in God, even though I did. If someone asked me if I believed in God, I feared that saying “yes” would imply that I believed in God the way they did, which at the time I felt was a hateful, judgmental, discriminatory God. My parents had attended a Unitarian Universalist church with my sister and myself, and so as an adult I became a member as well. I felt comfortable there, as they were “spiritual” but they did not use the word “God.” After years of independent spiritual study I made peace with the religious beliefs of those who had not yet made peace with me. I left the Unitarian church, ironically, because they would not acknowledge “God.”

I have since attended “church” in nature and within the holy temple of my own Being.

Both my little sister and I have selected husbands who are Puerto Rican, keeping with my family’s multicultural trend. I have dedicated time to activities that promote diversity awareness and equality. In high school, I ran a hip-hop dance group for at-risk, mostly minority students, and as an adult I have volunteered for Challenge Day, a diversity awareness and bullying prevention program for middle and high schools. I created a magazine, with the goal in mind of connecting seekers of personal growth from every religious, ethnic, and geographic background by focusing on topics that emphasize empowerment, inspiration, and the commonalities within all belief systems.

Only through cooperation and celebration of our diversity can we live and experience the Oneness that we are.

This article is an excerpt from the book Through Different Eyes: The Grand Social Experiment That Is Columbia, Maryland, by Nancy Selig Amsden. The book tells the author’s story of growing up in Columbia, Maryland—a planned community developed by James Rouse in the late-1960’s that was designed to promote diversity and inclusion. Her book explores how this “utopian” environment impacted her life, as well as provides testimonials from others who have called Columbia home. She highlights what worked in this “grand social experiment,” what we can learn from Columbia, and how people of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles truly can live together in peace and harmony. Columbia was ranked the #1 Place to Live in 2016 by Money Magazine.

Natalie Rivera is a firestarter, speaker and entrepreneur. She is passionate about empowering others to GET REAL and live authentically. After a decade of living a life that wasn’t hers and developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Natalie let go of everything and completely transformed. Through her journey to healing she rediscovered her true self and greater purpose—to inspire others to transform their lives. Natalie “retired” from the rat race at 24, put herself through school as a freelance designer, created a non-profit teen center, and later created Transformation Services, Inc., which offers motivational speaking, curriculum development, life coaching, event management, and publishing. She is also the Publisher of Transformation Magazine. Visit www.ignitelife.me.

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