Race Relations, The "Talk," and Ryan's New Normal

Ryan is a member of Soma Church, a network church in Indianapolis.

Ryan is a member of Soma Church, a network church in Indianapolis.

Over the last several years, I've had the privilege of getting to know Ryan and his family really well. Like many people who grow up in rural Indiana communities, Ryan's interactions with people from other cultures were extremely limited growing up. When Ryan first showed up to Soma, he immediately noticed our frank discussions about issues surrounding systemic racial injustices in our country. I remember him telling me, "I've never really been confronted with how my whiteness shapes the way I see the world. I want to learn more." In his case, this fact was even more pronounced because his hometown was located on the Southside of Indianapolis, a place historically linked to the operations of the Klu Klux Klan (at one time it was estimated that there were 400,000+ Klan members in Indianapolis). 

In the wake of the recent events in Charlottesville, I thought our pastors and friends might take heart with this story of an unlikely and growing cross-cultural friendship. Thanks Ryan!

Brandon Shields, Lead Pastor of Soma Church & Sojourn Network Board Member


In July of 2016, police killings of African American men in Louisiana and Minnesota made national news. Subsequently, a peaceful protest in Dallas became violent, leading to the deadliest single incident for law enforcement officers is the U.S. since 9/11.

Here at Soma, these events led our leadership to hit the pause button on a Sunday message to address these issues, lament the loss of life, and to consider our response as Christians in our community, our neighborhood, and our own church family.

I walked out that day feeling burdened, without a clear understanding of how I could become engaged and involved in these issues, or what an appropriate response looked like. I wanted to say something that day to my friend Mike, but I didn’t know what to say, how to say it, or if I was even allowed to say anything for fear of offending him, appearing trite, or disingenuously forced into it by the emotion of what we had just heard. So I couldn’t bring myself to say anything of substance and left.

A few days later, Mike sent an email.

***

Two guys from a Soma Missional Community having dinner at Twenty Tap doesn’t really seem like much of note, but I was definitely apprehensive. On the one hand, I was excited to have the opportunity for this type of conversation. But on the other, this was something brand new to me.

I think to fully understand this story, some context is appropriate. When we started the night, one of the first questions I asked Mike when we sat down was, “as an African American, when you were growing up, or even now, what areas around Indy were you taught to avoid?” The reason I asked this question was because I was confident that I already knew the answer. I knew my hometown, the place I was born and raised, was going to be on his list. In fact, it was one of the first places out of his mouth. I grew up in Morgan County, on the southwest side of the city. For those who lack education in historical Central Indiana race relations, I’ll simply say that Morgan County has a race reputation and history, and I mean that in the least positive way possible. To say the least, entering into this type of conversation wasn’t something I had done or felt like I had the opportunity to do before.

By the end of the night, I was so appreciative of Mike’s openness to my history, and to sharing his own personal experiences, concerns and fears. He basically gave me a green light to ask questions and to try to better understand a community that I had never really had to interact with in my life. On the other hand, he had the go ahead to challenge me when he thought I was off base on a topic or needed to see another perspective, which fortunately, he was willing and comfortable to do.

***

From our initial conversation until now, one of the biggest things I’ve gleaned from this relationship is the opportunity to view things from a new reference point, which has lead to the ability to see or hear things through a different perspective. Today, instead of taking news stories or clips and thinking about my own point of view and how it impacts me and my family directly, I think about Mike, his family and how the impact of that very same thing may look different in his life or the lives of others in the black community.

***

Within these expanded conversations, God has opened my eyes to experiences I never realized I didn’t have in my life. After a race conversation with Mike and some other guys from Soma a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about a couple months back when my family went to the Lockett’s home for dinner. It was so within the normal of our lives and friendship that it didn’t dawn on me until that later point, that in 38 years, I had never been invited to, or had dinner in, the home of an African-American family. That fact, as surprising as it was to me, made me think about the rest of our Soma family. I wondered how many others might be able to say the same or similar things and how this story could be used as a way for them to take a step into a new experience.

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