Gumbo As an Illustration of Diversity and Inclusion

“You don’t have to be something you’re not, to try to fit in and belong,” said Dr. Jonathan “Jay” Augustine. “In a diverse America we want you to bring your full and authentic self to the table.” Augustine spoke at Mars Hill University’s Moore Auditorium Thursday evening, February 24, 2022. His talk was part of Mars Hill’s celebration of Black History Month and was sponsored by the MHU Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the Black Student Association; and the university’s Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

Augustine is on the faculty at North Carolina Central University and is a missional strategist with the Duke University Center for Reconciliation. He is senior pastor of St. Joseph AME Church in Durham, North Carolina, and is general chaplain of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Augustine is known as a national thought leader on diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially as they relate to religious and educational organizations that prepare people to address social problems.

In his talk at Mars Hill, Augustine referenced a favorite food from his Louisiana roots as a paradigm for diverse people coming together. Unlike the oft-used term “melting pot” to describe the population of the United States, he said gumbo provides a more appropriate illustration. “The melting pot of yesteryear inherently spoke to a narrative of assimilation,” Augustine said. “It inherently spoke to melting down the authenticity of who you are, in order to fit in or in order to belong.”

While there is nothing wrong with cultural identifiers—terms like African-American, Mexican-American, or Irish-American—Augustine said, “I’m suggesting that the concept of a melting pot does not speak to the type of individuality and authenticity we want to be part of the conversation about diversity here in 2022.”

The benefit of using gumbo as the metaphor for today’s America, he said, is the way the individual ingredients of gumbo come together to form the dish.

“When you look at a pot of gumbo, you can see the individuality of the shrimp, you can see the individuality of the sausage, and you can see the individuality of the okra,” he said. “They come together, not losing their individuality, but they come together, complementing one another and making something that is rich and diverse that’s a community.”

Augustine drew on his pastoral background to weave in the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan. The Gospel of Luke describes Jesus responding to a man who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” when trying to follow the religious teaching of, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells a story of three people who came upon a man who had been beaten and robbed. Two of those people were religious leaders of the time, and each of them passed by without stopping. The third, a Samaritan—a member of a group the Jewish people of the time considered enemies—is the only one who stops to help the injured man. Jesus asked, “‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:36-37 NRSV)

Augustine applied Jesus’s parable to the situation in 2022 America: “Your neighbor is the person—when you’re willing to look past your differences and find commonality, just like those diverse ingredients in a pot of gumbo—that person is your neighbor.”