In the fall of 1985, I moved into seminary housing with my wife and two young children. The next day Joe, Carla, and their two young daughters moved in across the hall. Our families had so much in common. All four adults were in their early thirties. Joe and I were both pursuing a Master of Divinity degree so we could pastor. Both families had two young children. Joe and I commiserated about the rigors of systematic theology and New Testament Greek. Our wives talked about balancing their part-time jobs with two children in tow and husbands often stuck in class or the library.
Of course there was one obvious difference that we seldom mentioned—Joe is black and I’m white. I was proud to tell myself that race doesn’t matter. We’re all just one family in Christ, right? Besides, look at all the good things we share in common. Race is such a trivial thing.
Then one day, right after Thanksgiving vacation of 1986, my bubbly but naïve view of race relations shattered. My family had arrived back to the seminary apartments early on a Sunday afternoon. Joe and Carla carried two very tired girls into the apartment about 10 p.m. When I started making small talk with Joe, I noticed he was visibly shaking about something. Then the story came out: en route from Chicago to Minnesota, a police contingent had pulled him over, forced him out of his car, frisked him in front of his wife and girls, and then thoroughly searched the car. The police said they were searching for someone who fit his description. No apologies were given. Joe still felt outraged and humiliated.
Suddenly I knew that there were some things that Joe and I did not and never would share. I have never been pulled over and frisked. Actually, I can’t recall a single negative experience related to my race. That Sunday after Thanksgiving, something hit me: Joe is black, and I am white—and that is a huge thing. There are places in his mind, heart, and memory that are inaccessible and incomprehensible to me. When it comes to the black experience in America, I am an ignorant man.
But I would like to think that I am a learner—a slow learner, but also a man who has gained a few lessons about race over the past three decades.
Suddenly I knew that there were some things that Joe and I did not and never would share.
First, there’s the pain of the African-American experience. Joe’s experience on that Sunday night in November was not an anomaly. To be clear, I am not chastising police officers, most of whom do their job with courage and dignity. I’m thinking of larger trends, like a legacy of violence against black people in this country. For instance, I’m still reeling after reading a recent report that methodically documented 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in the United States from 1877 to 1950. Here’s a summary from one of those 3,959 stories: In 1904, Luther Holbert and a black woman believed to be his wife were lynched before hundreds of white spectators who snacked on deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey while enjoying a picnic-like atmosphere.
I do not believe that every white person was or is a secret racist. Along with most of my white friends, I am sickened by even one lynching story. But these things happened not to my forebears but to the fathers and mothers of my African-American friends. You don’t just shake this stuff off like a few flakes of dandruff on your collar. No, the legacy of racism in this land is more like a deep, unhealed wound: You come near it and it still oozes blood and pain.
But I’m also discovering the glories of the African-American contribution to this nation and to the church. There’s Frederick Douglass, America’s most famous and eloquent abolitionist, a Bible-saturated Christian man who taught himself to read and write gorgeous prose, delivered thousands of speeches, wrote three autobiographies, and consulted with President Lincoln. He challenged Christians to act like Christ with his theme sentence: "Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference."
We are one family in Christ, but there is much to do, much to change, and much to heal.
There’s George Liele, a former slave who became North America’s first missionary—a church planter and evangelist in Jamaica. In just one year, 1791, he reported 500 converts and 400 baptisms.
Of course there’s a name every American recognizes—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But until a few years ago, I had never actually read his brilliant “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The prose is gorgeous, but I choked up when I heard that he wrote it from his jail cell mostly in the margins of a used newspaper and scraps of paper.
I did not know that in January 1956, after a series of threats against his life, Dr. King made a late night cup of coffee and prayed at his kitchen table. He would later record what happened that morning: “[Jesus] promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone.” That encounter with Jesus strengthened him the rest of his short life.
When it comes to the glorious names and stories from my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, I feel like the writer of Hebrews—“And what more shall I say? Time will fail me if I tell of ...” (Heb. 11:32). I would tell of Harriet Tubman the slave rescuer, Phillis Wheatley the 18th century poet Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, John Perkins, or hundreds more. Oh, and I would tell of William Seymour, the leader of the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, a mighty move of the Holy Spirit that some said “washed the color lines away.”
Yes, we are one family in Christ, but there is much to do, much to change, and much to heal. Let us start with one small step: friend, tell me your story. Tell me of your people’s wounds and tell me of your people’s glory. I will remain a learner for the rest of this short earthly pilgrimage. So, please, sit down, let us look each other in the eye, and share your story.