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« on: February 19, 2006, 02:36:29 PM »

Christians Lead NASCAR's Diversity Efforts

(AgapePress) - "Diversity" is a cultural buzzword that, quite honestly, many Christians don't like to hear. Maybe that's because we've let the wrong people define it.

Diversity is usually associated with affirmative action, racial quotas, forced integration and gender equity, and we most often see it pushed on schools, businesses and social clubs. It thus carries a negative connotation among Christians and political conservatives. But diversity is something we all should strive for, and NASCAR has given us a perfect example of how it should be pursued.

The country's second-most popular sport recently started a "Drive for Diversity" program that will provide minorities with opportunities to work their way through the ranks as drivers, crew members and owners. No handouts here. Spearheading this drive are team owner Joe Gibbs and former NFL superstar Reggie White, both devout Christians (White, for the record, is black).

Gibbs, who has won two Cup championships as owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, has the financial and moral support of White, an ordained Baptist minister and the NFL's all-time sacks leader until Bruce Smith passed him last season. Gibbs has employed two young drivers, 26-year old Chris Bristol, who's black, and 19-year-old Aric Almirola, a Hispanic. Both will drive Gibbs' late model cars at short tracks around North Carolina.

What Gibbs and White bring to the program is instant recognition -- Gibbs also won three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins and has now returned to D.C. to try and revive the glory days -- as well as legitimacy. More important, they bring a Christian perspective. "This sport needs to reach out to everybody," Gibbs said in a recent story in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

There is something to be said for having holy motives. Many who support diversity and even this program do so out of selfish ambition or jealousy (which James 3:14-16 warns against), or they do it merely for the sake of advancing a political agenda with little regard for the actual individuals they're supposed to be helping. Take Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH organization, which drew heavy criticism from White and others for taking money from NASCAR and then doing nothing productive with it.

While Gibbs and White's heavy involvement in NASCAR's diversity program has been widely publicized -- ESPN's SportsCenter ran a feature on their partnership earlier this month -- what has gone mostly unreported in the mainstream media is the significance of these men's Christian faith and how that faith is foundational to the passion they share for diversifying and growing the sport. Gibbs and White are incredible witnesses for how Christians should reach out to those less fortunate and give them a chance to succeed. I Thessalonians provides the perfect instruction for aiding the disadvantaged: "And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all."

It's no secret that NASCAR is deeply rooted in Southern tradition. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it's never been a sport that has opened its arms to change. While I believe Bill Shack, one of Jackson's cohorts, went a bit far in labeling NASCAR "the last bastion of white supremacy" in pro sports, it hasn't had its Jackie Robinson moment, either. Thankfully, though, whatever racist attitudes may linger in the sport are being overwhelmed by a broad support for diversity among drivers and officials.

Joe Henderson III, an 18-year-old black driver employed by former NASCAR regular Bobby Hamilton, races late model cars in Nashville. "It's not like, 'Oh, he's the only black guy out there,'" Henderson said in a USA Today story. "They treat me like a regular person."

The only thing that really threatens this program's existence is what has doomed many a driver -- lack of sponsorship. The current economy has even a few Nextel Cup drivers struggling to find sponsors, and the "Drive for Diversity" program isn't receiving the kind of corporate support it needs to stay afloat, much less thrive. Simply put, a few more people are going to have to take the lead of Gibbs and White by taking a chance and making a short-term sacrifice for the long-term betterment of the sport and the minorities trying to break into it.

Sacrifice is central to the Christian ethic. The only way to truly diversify, to really break down racial walls, is by heeding the example of Paul, a Jewish Christian who willingly dined with non-Jewish Christians (Gentiles). That was akin to a white man and black man sharing breakfast in downtown Birmingham during Bull Connor's day.

So there is really only one reason why this program should be supported. Not to satisfy a quota or some politically correct ideal. Rather, as Terrence Burns, NASCAR managing director of consumer communications, said in the St. Petersburg Times story: "This is the right thing to do, morally." Gibbs and White couldn't agree more.

Christians Lead NASCAR's Diversity Efforts

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