July 20, 2016

The Conversation Is Open, But Will You Have It?

I grew up in a town stamped and molded by racial issues that were never discussed. On a few occasions, perspectives on race were danced around, touched on with incendiary language that, as a child, made me turn hot and fidgety, or visited with short and fiery bursts of opinion by people I loved and respected. In high school, a student's confederate flag shirt set off a race riot, complete with classroom walk-outs and news media stationed around the boundaries of campus, but I couldn't tell you the details, because I didn't pay much attention. I didn't have to.

In our little town, racial divide was everywhere around but stubbornly ignored at the same time. It seems we believed that if we didn't talk about it, racial division and discrimination wouldn't actually exist. I certainly never acknowledged to my diverse friends in marching band what was happening around us, nor did they to me, and somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that to talk about race was too shameful, too fraught with danger.

My senior year in college, I took a class called Civil Rights Rhetoric. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I sat with my mouth agape, intently listening to the details of the Freedom Summer, the integration of Little Rock High School, voter registration, and nonviolent protests. We watched grainy footage of  speeches and read Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I couldn't believe all of this had happened just 30 years prior and that no one had ever told me about it. I was a 21-year-old adult learning for the first time that there had even been a Civil Rights push in the 1960's.
Photo: Ernest Withers
We were assigned a paper on the subject of our choice. I chose my hometown; I'd heard that my very own high school had been forced to integrate in the 70's after long resisting it. I wanted to know about it, so I began interviewing my neighbors and even the very judge who ruled for forced integration. As I prepared to interview him, my parents pointed out his house as we drove by. It was a house I'd passed thousands of times on the way to church, one that had always appeared shadowy, as if it wanted to hide, closed in by the self-protective bars on its windows. I wondered what had caused the judge to put those bars on his windows, but I didn't have the courage to ask him when we sat for the interview.

When I spoke with adults that I'd known all my life and heard them talk about integration, it was strange. I'd never heard anyone talk so openly about it, but all along a question pounded in my head: How has this not been important to talk about? Why have I not heard these stories before?

I knew the answer. Because in their minds it was "done," done like something we're embarrassed of and want to shove deep in the closet, done like a closed book that we never intend to open again, done like it never happened or is buried so deeply in history that it seemingly has little bearing on the present.

After that class, I quit talking about race again, because my finished coursework seemed to take away my permission to speak and ask freely. Instead, I've quietly read up on it, my interest insatiably piqued by what I learned in college.

However, in the past few years, I've begun having conversations again. They started when a black family visited our church, whom we invited over for dinner. After we finished our meal, the conversation turned toward their church decision. The wife asked, "Is it OK if we join your church?" She wasn't asking for permission. She was referring to the color of their skin. In other words, "Will we be accepted? Will our children be valued and loved?" I was literally speechless, immediately racking my brain for something done or said that would have given them the impression they were unwelcome. And so began a conversation on race, church, and the experiences they've had in their professions, in churches, and with their children. Their openness and honesty gave us permission to ask anything, but even more so, their answers challenged my perspectives and perceptions about race in America.

They joined our church and have since become friends. Conversations with them over the years have taught me how much I still don't know, and they've taught me to forever be a learner.

But primarily they've taught me that race is not only okay to talk about, but that we need to talk about it.

It only took me decades, but it struck me for the first time recently that, as much as we (rightly) love our country, it was founded--FOUNDED--upon institutional sin. The basis of our country's economic success was slavery. We (we, meaning white folks) don't like to think about that. We don't like to look at our country's sin so directly. We don't like to think there could be generational consequences for it.

As a Christian, however, I believe that we can and should take a good look at our sin, because Christ has made a way to cleanse us from sin. We don't have to be afraid to acknowledge slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the existence of racial injustice. To do so isn't to denigrate law enforcement officers--people doing a tireless, thankless job who deserve our respect--or to choose sides according to skin color. As a human race, we are a people who mistrust others different from ourselves, and we must acknowledge at the very least our apathy and indifference to the experience of others. If we desire unity and harmony in our nation, the way it starts is not to wait for the "other side" to agree with our perspectives and ideas but through our own confession and repentance before Jesus. We must acknowledge our nation's sin, weep over it, grieve over what it has done, and confess it before God and one another. Jesus' gospel teaches us that confession and repentance lead to forgiveness and reconciliation first between God and man and then between men.

What is happening in our country isn't about police officers vs. the black community, as if we have to choose sides. What is happening is what happened for me during that Civil Rights class and the dinner with our friends: these events are opening a conversation that we too often resist or don't know we need to have. There is an opportunity springing out of the blood and tears of our neighbors. The question for each of us, especially for Christians who have been given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Himself, is simply this: will we have them? Are we willing to engage the conversations with people who are different than us? Are we willing to ask questions of real people and listen to them? Are we willing to love our neighbor by first seeking to understand them? Are we willing to love our neighbor by reaching out first?

It seems the wound we hoped had healed never actually did. The black community has been trying to say this for a very long time. Perhaps everyone is now ready to listen. So now what? We must do what the wounded do: examine it, clean out the impurities, and address it in a way that brings true healing. The only way toward the unity we desire is through the powerful love of Jesus, made tangible as we seek to serve one another, not kill and blame one another.

If you want to read more to gain understanding about the racial divide in our nation, I suggest these resources: