Eight days into my first ministry job out of seminary I jumped on a bus with 54 people and headed to inner city Jacksonville, Florda for a mission trip. I was interning with a high school ministry and what nobody knew at the time was that this was my first mission trip.
Especially into the inner city.
I’m from a small redneck town in North Carolina. Seeing the Confederate Flag fly from a truck bed wasn’t strange. It was normal.
Imagine my culture shock when, on the first day we’re there, we see a woman in the street tripping on whatever drug she had taken that day. I was in a position where I had to calm down the freaked out 15-year-old girls when secretly I was freaking out inside.
This world was so foreign to me.
Later in the week our entire group had a sit down with the woman leading the organization we were working with. She was a white woman a few years older than me. She spent 30 minutes or so telling us about white privilege, how the kids in these neighborhoods don’t have the same chances our all-white group had, and how we should feel bad for them because our lives were easy and theirs were hard.
I was mad.
In fact, at one point, I started pushing back and asking questions, arguing with the points she made. Eventually I realized I was supposed to be one of the mature ones in the group and stopped mouthing off. That didn’t stop me from sneaking some shots under my breath though.
That was six years ago this week.
When the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases happened, I responded in a way that was normal to me.
They shouldn’t have been in that situation.
They should’ve known better.
Why are black people rioting?
We don’t have a race problem.
Black people are more racist than white people.
When news of Freddie Gray being killed started coming out, I felt the same feelings begin to fester in me. Again I wondered why there were people rioting. I wanted to blame the black community.
That night I stayed up way too late watching coverage of the rioting in Baltimore.
And then I reached out to a friend of mine who is a pastor in Baltimore. He’s a white guy who leads a multi-cultural multi-site church throughout the inner city. He began to shed some light on the situation many of the people in the black community were in. As we talked and I got to hear from someone on the ground in the middle of what was ground zero for the race discussion, I began to realize how ignorant I was to so many things.
I now look back at how I acted during that conversation in Jacksonville and I’m ashamed. I’m not ashamed by the immaturity or rudeness (although that wasn’t right either). Instead, I’m ashamed at the amount of inherent racism I was harboring inside me during that time. I never realized how much of it I grew up around. This wasn’t the fault of any one person. It was just something built into life in a white town in the south.
All that leads us to this past week. Last Sunday (July 3), my church did a sermon on racism in the church. If you have 30 minutes, I suggest listening to it. Zach Barnhart showed us how there has been overt racism within Christians towards other races and religions. It was one of the most refreshing and challenging talks I’ve heard in church in a long time.
Whether we like to admit it or not (and we really don’t), the Church is one of the most overtly racist places in America. I looked around this morning and in my church of almost 200, I don’t think I saw more than five people who weren’t white.
Again, this isn’t by design. It’s happened over time and has become normal across the board.
The problem is that it’s led to a place that I’m not proud of. Frankly I’m embarrassed by it and it’s the reason I’m writing this blog post. This is from research from The Barna Group:
Our research confirms the fear that the church (or the people in it) may be part of the problem in the hard work of racial reconciliation,” says Brooke Hempell, vice president of research at Barna Group. “If you’re a white, evangelical, Republican, you are less likely to think race is a problem, but more likely to think you are a victim of reverse racism. You are also less convinced that people of color are socially disadvantaged. Yet these same groups believe the church plays an important role in reconciliation. This dilemma demonstrates that those supposedly most equipped for reconciliation do not see the need for it.
“More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters.”
We (I say we because I’m part of the problem) have always been part of the majority so we’ve never felt the need to classify ourselves as “white people.” That’s why, when we see people in the black community say black lives matter, we feel the need to respond that all lives matter. We don’t realize we’re slapping that entire community in the face by not acknowledging or comprehending what they’re really trying to say. Yes, all lives matter, but black lives matter too.
We (again, I’m part of the problem) jump to defend police officers whenever an issue arises. We say we don’t know all the facts and police officers have hard jobs. While both of those things are true, we unknowingly end up telling the black community that their pain, anger, and fear doesn’t matter because we focus more on defending the white police officer than acknowledging that a black man just lost his life.
We (again, you get the idea) look into the backgrounds and criminal records of the black victim. We say if he wasn’t a criminal or if he would’ve acted a different way then he wouldn’t have been shot. Again, while both of these may be true, we end up giving off the impression that the man deserved to be shot because of his criminal record.
We point out statistics that say police violence hasn’t risen in twenty years. Or we say that more white people are killed by police every year than minorities. Or we blame the media for over sensationalizing everything. Or we point to Chicago and ask why nobody cares about black on black crime.
Without saying it out loud, we end up saying the killing of black men is justified and/or not a big deal.
We don’t mean to say that, but it’s the way it comes across to people who look a little different than us.
The good news is it won’t take much to change this.
It just takes shutting our mouths.
Instead of arguing about the cause, defending the officers, or bringing up the victim’s past, what if we humbled ourselves enough to simply grieve with those who lost a friend? We can talk about the reasons it happened later, but in the moment, why don’t we say, “Yeah. This sucks. I’m here with you.”
What would happen if the White Church of America put aside its pride for a little bit and just acknowledged how much it hurts when someone dies?
How much progress could we make if we stopped trying to figure out who was to blame and just gave someone a hug?
The Gospel makes us equals, and it’s through the Gospel we’re able to have the grace and humility to love those who look and live differently than us.
To Ruth: I’m sorry I didn’t recognize that six years ago.
Say your prayers and take your vitamins.
Have a nice day.