“Now is the time to lift our nations from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King
Quicksand: that’s what writing about race and the church feels like. Where is the rock on which I can find my solid foundation? Where are the words that don’t come from a place of hurt about the church and race? Where will talking about it take me?
Let’s make a start, says my heart.
Let’s start here: I, a naïve young thing from Canada, married a black man from Detroit in 1994. Yes, Detroit. Motown. Murder City.
I wasn’t concerned whether or not we could go to certain restaurants, live in particular areas, or be ignored at church; I was worried about my husband’s messy toothpaste, banana peels on the counter, and ability to make it through life unencumbered by the knowledge of how to use a vacuum cleaner. Race. Why worry?
Suddenly, I was in an evangelical church in Metro Detroit. And I worried. I worried when my husband told me he expected people at his old church wouldn’t say hello to me because they refused to marry people of different races. I worried when a mission trip was “full” when the visiting preacher who was sponsoring that trip met my husband. I worried when a young mother at church looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t speak to black people.”
I could regale you with many other stories of what were quicksand for my heart. However, I could also regale you with stories of that solid foundation.
Looking into the eyes of a single black mother at the local food pantry and helping her apply for vouchers for her two kids whom she “loved like the dickens” was solid ground.
Hearing repentance prayers of white and black preachers at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Clairmount Streets, the site of the 1967 riots in Detroit, was solid ground.
Seeing the woman who wouldn’t speak to black people get to know another interracial couple was solid ground.
Things have changed since 1994. And so have I. However, a few truths remain for me. Here are some thoughts about what we can all do.
Respect the Past
God often told the Israelites to remember. Throughout our marriage I have often had to remember my husband grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s in one of the most racially polarized environments in the United States. Separate but equal wasn’t just an idea batted around civics class for him; it was a reality.
My husband remembers cherry bombs in the door, signs on the front lawn, and “go home nigger” voices in the street.
He remembers feeling like a prisoner in his own home during the Detroit riots of 1967 (coincidentally, the year interracial marriage became legal in all states).
I often wanted to stand up to people’s racism; he wanted to put up with it. That situation made me really angry and frustrated.
Remembering with him abated the anger and was a much firmer foundation than ranting full tilt. (Perhaps not as much fun, but….) Just as it’s hard for him to completely understand what it was like to grow up on the shore of Lake Superior in Canada, in a homogenous, white environment (there was ONE black kid in my high school!), it was hard for me to grasp the long-reaching tentacles of 1950’s America as a black person.
Remembering for me meant listening to stories, reading some books my husband recommended, and doing some research on my own. What is remembering the past for you?
Know That We Are His
“Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (2 Timothy 2:19, NIV).
He is my beloved, and I am His. We, as the body of believers, need to know that first and foremost. Out of our thoughts come our actions; out of our hearts come our words. If we are sure we belong to God, our attitudes and actions regarding race should reflect Him. I know deep in my heart God chose me from the foundation of the earth to be holy and blameless. My husband and I are chosen, part of a holy nation, a royal priesthood. Suddenly, race seems eclipsed by grace, power, and might. Sure, the fact is we are different races, and race is a troubling issue in this country. But the truth is we are His, no matter what.
Love and Pray
Oh, sure…bring up the love and pray thing in an online Christian magazine. That’s original. How many of us really attempt to love people who won’t seat us in restaurants or who talk about “those people?” I rarely do.
“When I say ‘love’ at this point, I’m not talking about an affectionate emotion. It’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper. I’m talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said in Detroit when he visited in 1963.
Jesus can move us to this kind of depth only through prayer.
Ask a Few Questions
Sometimes, when people see my husband and me together, they assume particular things about who we are. Some think we are rebellious, the-heck-with-convention people; some think we’re political liberals who love unions and hate school vouchers. People (based on their assumptions) then tell us what WE think, then look to us to buttress the argument. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are two people arguing about the banana peels and toothpaste while tilting towards orthodoxy.
Please, let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves a few questions first. Do I make assumptions about people’s ideas, activities, or beliefs because of the way they look? A small group member once thought my husband was a janitor because he said he “worked at a university.” In fact, he’s a tenured professor. Stereotypes…they’ll kill you.
Let’s ask questions in the church. Lots of them. Normal, people questions like, “What do you like to do in your spare time?” and “Do you like to cook?” To understand is to forgive. When people of other races we don’t even know do things we dislike, it’s easy to blame race. However, when people we actually know and love who are of other races do things we dislike, it’s people doing things we don’t like. That’s sin. We understand; we forgive.
Return to the Solid Rock
Let’s talk about that banana peel again. In my first year of marriage, I was outraged when my husband left his banana peels on the counter. What kind of barbarian had I married? That banana peel said so much, and I loved complaining about it. But all it took for my egregious torture to end was to say, “Can you please put your banana peels in the garbage?” The solid rock on which I had laid the premise of barbarianism was gone. Sand on the kitchen floor, and now I was stuck having to deal with a kind, intelligent, faithful-to-me man. The horror, the horror.
Perhaps we hold onto our banana peels of racism a little too tightly. That insensitive comment in a sermon, the racial incident at youth group, the remarks about “those people” at the prayer meeting that stung all linger and become a symbol of everything that’s wrong. We hold onto them, microcosms of the racial juggernaut in our land. Instead of hanging on, let’s respect the past, remember we belong to God, ask questions, and return to the solid rock of Jesus Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24, NIV).