I am unsure about writing this post. I usually don’t write posts where I try to put forth a view, argue a point, because I think for those kinds of things to be effective, you ought to be able to back up things with statistics and studies. I am good at neither. But here’s what I know.
For the past 15 years Bryan and I have been a part of the same church. A white church, mostly. There were a couple of African-American families, and a few black kids in the youth group. We are inter-denominational, and pretty laid back about things, and none of us would have ever said that we didn’t want our church to be mixed racially. I mean, why wouldn’t we have?
If you had pushed us on it, I think that most of us would have said something along these lines: Well, sure – we welcome all races here. But, I mean, you can’t force that. How are you supposed to make something like that happen, anyway? I think most people are simply more comfortable worshiping in a culture that they are used to. Black people like to do church a different way than we do, right?
I remember places along the way – snapshots in my mind of a change taking place. Our white pastor, Craig, telling us of a friendship he had formed with an African-American pastor across town. How he had become convinced that there were still strong racial barriers within the church, and that it was simply wrong. How he was determined to stay in this relationship. How difficult that was at times.
I specifically remember him telling us about a time both men showed up for something. Craig was dressed rather casually, and his pastor friend was in a suit – and this apparently wasn’t the first time it had happened. Craig made a joke about it, and his friend turned to him and said: If I went to the mall dressed the way you were, none of the salespeople would give me the time of day. Or if they did pay attention to me, they would watch me to see if I was stealing something.
In the fall of 2006, our white church hired a black pastor. His name is Harold Nash, and the story of how he came to be with us, against all odds, is an amazing one on it’s own. He was deeply committed to a wonderful mentoring ministry and had no desire to leave – but then God conspired with a local prophet named Ray and there was no turning back. If there is one thing that marks the life of Harold Nash, it’s that he listens to God when He speaks, and he acts on it, even when everything in him doesn’t want to.
And that’s how he ended up with us.
I really thought at that point that we had crossed a line. And we had, but it wasn’t the one I thought it was. I thought that we had basically done it – overcome the racial barriers right there in our very own church. We had a black pastor and a white pastor, on equal footing. Both teaching, both leading, both respected by all of us. You could see the unity right there in front of us.
I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
I didn’t know how hard it would be, at times, to see someone else’s side of things. To learn new songs, new ways of doing things. I didn’t know how easily I could be defensive about why I liked or didn’t like certain things. Or even about just being white.
I didn’t know that the thing I thought was the finish was really just the beginning.
In January of 2008, after a year of prayer and planning, the leadership of our church brought out our new vision statement:
to mobilize a racially-unified family of God,
called out as the presence of Jesus in our world,
to pursue His mission: all people reconciled to God.
The main differences were the distinct mention of racial unity, and the greater emphasis on turning outward toward our community. But because we are normally not a church that spends a whole lot of time defining things, and because these changes were important to us, we decided to spend several weeks talking about this statement in church. Seeing where it came from in the Bible, and what it means for our particular place and time. A friend of mine suggested that during this time we might want to have some groups available where people could come and talk, ask questions, be heard. And out of that, grew a thing that we now call Talk It Out.
Talk It Out is simple idea: 4 weeks of a small group where people of different races can come and talk. Where we can look at the idea that “black churches” and “white churches” are not anything that Jesus ever intended. Where someone might have a chance to hear what life is like when you wear skin of another color. Great idea, right? I thought so – just not for me. I didn’t need to go through it – I had no problems with what we were trying to do at church. I had no problems with other races. I was not a racist. I didn’t need to try to fit one more thing into my week.
Our leaders must have anticipated this response, because they required the staff to go through it. And here’s what’s crazy; I needed it more than I could have imagined.
I needed to know that just by being born white in Arkansas, I have an advantage in nearly every single life situation I find myself.
I needed to hear someone say that my thought that things are equal now between races, that the injustices are all in the past, is like sitting down to play a game of Monopoly with a black friend. This particular Monopoly game has been played for generations now; our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers played together too. Only some of those previous white players took all the hotels and controlled the bank and maybe punched their opponents in the face. And now I come to the game, with the wealth of accumulated resources behind me, and my opponent comes from a very different place – and even with the best of intentions, the game is not equal.
I needed to know, as someone who claims to follow Christ, that all these little fences we build in our lives and relationships and churches – well, they’re just wrong. And not wrong as in a social activist viewpoint-type way, but wrong in a Bible kind of way.
And I needed to know that I don’t have to feel bad about being white. That no one was trying to blame or manipulate me. I am sure there are things that the African-Americans in my group learned about white people – about thoughts, attitudes, misunderstandings that needed to change – but this is my story.
Most of all, I needed to see.
And I do now, more than I ever used to. I see the assumptions that we make and the systems that keep us in those places. I see the unwillingness to listen, the attitudes, the ignorance. The scars that we bear simply for living in Little Rock. All over the place, I see the mess we’ve made of it all and the great amount of grace it takes for me and you to come together.
I’m not sure why I’m bringing all this up today. Maybe because a statistic I saw on Twitter this weekend brought shock and sadness to those in my local community. Maybe it was so that I could go looking for this post I wrote about Central High last year and realize that it’s not on my blog, just the one I work with for church (I’m going to fix that, by the way). Maybe I just need to remind myself, every so often, that this thing we work toward is difficult, but good.