I was raised in Pittsburgh, and cruised the halls of high school in the 70’s, early in the desegregation era. My high school fused two racial and economic communities — a white middle-class and a poorer Black community — under one roof. The results were pretty explosive. I have dreadful memories of race riots at football games, in the cafeteria, and detonating beneath the stairwells at school. There were months where the racial tension felt so thick it was palpable the moment you arrived at your locker each morning to dial the combination. As a white, middle-class jock, I was neither an activist nor a sympathist. My friends and I just assumed this was high school and managed around the charged climate with a detached ambivalence that we mistook for “cool.”
But not for long. I vividly remember standing at my brother’s bedside one Friday evening. He had been attacked by a group of older black students after a football game. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now he was collapsed across his bed, barely conscious, except for the moans that would escape his bloody lips. His face was bruised and swollen, and the way he draped his arms so tightly across his chest told me something nasty had happened to his ribs. Most childhood memories are dynamic, not linear. They lock in on peculiar details — the black strobe light flashing across my brother’s Hendrix poster; broken spectacles on the nightstand; the soft whispering of my parents as they huddled in the other room discussing whether they could move him to the hospital.
Before that incident, I had associated with black friends at school. But that night something ugly broke loose in my heart. A seed was watered and the roots of racism began to choke out any voice of love and reason. As a teenager, I was pretty clueless over the way black people had been oppressed in our country. But a brothers blood shrinks one’s world, creating a jihad within the soul. For me there was no context for this event; no awareness of misery, history, injustice, or oppression. It was just a random act of violence setting off a chain reaction of reflexive contempt, visceral hostility, and instinctive fear within my soul.
The Dividing Lines
Today African Americans represent a much broader cross-section of the economic landscape. But back at my alma mater, the black kids who attended our school were largely from impoverished neighborhoods. The dividing lines between us blended color with class and privilege. But I didn’t care about any of that. After my brother’s beating, my racial theory simplified into a couple of anger-laced beliefs — “blacks are violent” and “blacks are ignorant.” Ugly racial stereotypes loaded with bitterness sank pylons deep into my mind. It’s really hard to admit this, but I began to see black people as cruel, brutish, and thuggish — the kind of folks who found answers only through malice and violence.
Curiously, one of the unexpected places where the ground leveled a bit for me was playing side-by-side on the gridiron. Swapping blood, blocks, and blitzes at football camp had a way of humanizing all of us. But my heart remained fundamentally unchanged. So when I arrived at my conversion several years later at college, I was still brimming with ignorance, malice, racial hostility, and...well, sin. Lots and lots of foul sin!
As I look back, I see that narrow stereotypes and false judgments governed my thinking even after my conversion. As I look around, I know I’m not alone in this. Still today — long after the heroic advances of the civil right movement — God’s church remains divided culturally and racially, socially and systemically. Some have suggested that Dr. King’s original observation about Sunday morning being the most segregated hour of the week is now deeply entrenched within our cultural constitution. It has been shown that 93 percent of churches in our country are made up by 80 percent or more of one race. Anthony Carter argues—in his exceptional book, On Being Black and Reformed—that churches today remain segregated because whites failed to welcome and acknowledge the full humanity of their black brothers and sisters in ages past. Segregated churches, for African-Americans, became a sort of refuge; a time and space that served as a refuge from the hypocrisy of their white church leaders. Katongole and Rice observe:
“The trajectories of America’s racial history have become so embedded in the DNA of the American church that we think of a segregated Sabbath as a kind of biological fact.”
The Present Puzzle
We don’t know where the journey will go or even the best path to take. But we do possess a map in Scripture that gives us some guidance and direction. We’re not reducing the answers to Bible study, though we believe that to be essential. We recognize there is much to be learned from African American men and women that will help clarify our path. We don’t want to journey alone, but long for a growing group of friends-of-a-different-color who can love us enough to bear with our clumsy steps. Still, it somehow seems we must return to God’s Word to find the warrant for this glorious expedition.
Over a series of three posts, I plan to trace the theme of racial reconciliation through the scriptures. My prayer is that together we will find a theological frame that will help us both to speak (Acts 15:7-11) and, by God’s grace, also to live (Gal. 3:11-16) as ambassadors of reconciliation (Eph.2: 13-19). In the final post, I want to share some observations that raise, I believe, some compelling questions. The primary audience in these posts will be other white pastors, beginning with the ones I serve in Sojourn Network.
I’m inviting you to begin a listening journey, a repentance journey, and a journey toward doing justice. My hope is that as we learn cross-centered, sacrificial humility. Affixed to that hope is a prayer that black and brown pastors will experience us listening to and standing with them. Maybe some will even possess a vision to help us down the path. The result, I pray, will be that Sojourn Network, and churches beyond our little family, will become more diverse — an earthly reflection of God’s eternal purposes for his church.