What follows is just what the title suggests, my personal journey with race relations as an American-born United States citizen.
I was born just after the “end” of what history has come to call the Civil Rights Movement. Greenville, South Carolina, a town with its own infamous history of racial tension, was my birthplace. From there I travelled with my parents to start a church in rural Tennessee. Our next stop was coal country in West Virginia. All of this happened in the first five of years of my life. And though each of these regions had their own story, as most children are, I was blissfully unaware of any tension connected to one’s racial identity.
My first full year of school would open wide a door of opportunity for which I am eternally grateful. We moved to the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Chicago’s suburbs were beginning to fill with immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants from around the world. The tiny slice of reality that I shared with my family and a handful of others was still almost exclusively white. The geographic area around me was beginning to change. Throughout my elementary years I would begin to know new friends who did not look like me. This very slow growth continued at the same pace into my college years. And as it does in many ways for many people for many reasons, my life would be altered forever for the better.
Lest you think that my university experience was anything different than it was, let me explain it to you. I attended two different universities during my college experience. Both of them had less than 1% of anyone other than caucasian. So, needless to say, I did not acquire my epiphany there. Those places did cause me to wonder how the country around me was diversifying, but the people around me were not. My epiphany sadly came in a horrific religious context. I do not remember all of the particulars – after all, it’s been almost 30 years – but I do remember the significant impact of this one experience. I was part of a small team that would go to public schools and invite students to come out for a night of games and noise and fun. The intentional climax of the evening was always the sharing of the gospel and an invitation to follow Jesus. The majority of our tour was throughout the southeastern United States. At each stop a local church would sponsor our team and provide a place for us to host our outreach. This particular week I was told that we were only allowed to invite white students. I do not remember exactly what I said, and I’m sure I was very disrespectful in the way I communicated it, but I distinctly remember a very heated conversation with our team leader. This event changed the trajectory of my understanding of race.
Honestly, not much changed for me right away. I went back to my 99% caucasian university and later transferred to a school that was almost 100% caucasian. The year was now 1993. As a newly-married couple with few job prospects, my wife was offered a job back in my hometown near Chicago. We dropped everything and moved to Illinois. The change was still in me. And when I was approached about an opportunity that would have seemed ludicrous to me just a few years before, I jumped at it. A friend of mine had been giving temporary support to a local Chinese church as they were without a youth minister. He had a full time pastoral job and asked me if I would consider taking over. It was very part time and paid little. I happily said yes! Within months the Chinese Gospel Church had asked me to come on full time. I did. My wife and myself, and soon our first daughter, were the only caucasians in this otherwise all-Asian congregation. We were accepted unconditionally. I learned more things about the way it is supposed to be than I have time here to write. We are still connected to many of those students. It has been my great joy to watch them continue to develop in their faith.
At each of our subsequent stops we continued to develop and practice diversity. From the shadows of Washington D.C., to Phoenix, Arizona, and even in the farmland of Kentucky we tried to model one race… the human race. Our final place of residence, prior to where we are now, was St. Joseph, Michigan. St. Joe was probably 98+% caucasian itself. But it’s “twin city” next door was Benton Harbor, which was probably 99+% black. The two were twins in no meaningful way. Over the years of serving there we were given occasions to partner with various Benton Harbor ministries. The single takeaway that I learned from those days was that coming in as a “white knight” to save the day was offensive and counterproductive. So we learned to come in and take the lowest place and serve the black leadership and thus, the black people. This posture taught me more about reaching people than any other experience.
Fast forward to 2008. Our time in Michigan was coming to an end because I began sensing that God wanted us to start a church. But where would we go? As we trained and studied and prayed, one thing was clear… we wanted to go to a place of diversity. After many months we chose Atlanta, Georgia; more specifically, Duluth, Georgia. The main reason we chose Duluth was its diversity. At the time Duluth was at least 25% Asian, African-American, Latino, and Caucasian. That’s about as beautifully diverse as it gets. And I can tell you ten years later, that choice continues to shape our lives. Our friends, our kid’s friends, our environment is multi-ethnic, multi-racial.
As I usually do, allow me to offer a few takeaways from our journey:
- It was a 30+ year journey. No matter where you find yourself in this discussion, begin. The famous Chinese proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Just start. More about that in a moment.
- Ask yourself hard questions. Especially in the early going, my own biases and insensitivities were regularly assaulted by hard questions. Questions like, “Why do I feel it is appropriate for me to think or feel this way in this circumstance?”
- Listen. As important as it is to ask yourself important questions, it is more important to listen to others who don’t look like you. This is not just “a white thing”. This is just a thing. If each of us will take time to listen to those not like us, we will begin to hear that what makes us different is so much smaller than what makes us one.
- Be tenacious. As you learn and grow in your understanding, be dogged. Apply what you are learning. Refuse to allow racist behavior in and around you.