A few years ago, my friend Heather and I got together at the pool with our kids on an ordinary summer day. We buckled our youngest children into their floaties and sprayed sunscreen on our oldests, hoping some of it would land on skin before they all swam off together toward the deep end. We hadn’t seen each other in weeks and looked forward to a few hours of catching up.
Under a royal blue awning protecting us from the glaring sun, I sat down in a low chair and she dug through an oversized pool bag looking for diving rings. We small talked and kept our eyes alert until the kids settled into a rhythm of play.
Then, while cracking open a cold seltzer, Heather said, “I went to Charlyne’s birthday party this weekend.” I only knew Charlyne casually. We all lived in the same neighborhood a few years back and Heather and she were still close.
“Fun,” I said.
“I was the only white person there,” she said.
“Yeah. Some of her friends were nice to me, but some were actually mad — Charlyne and I talked about it later.”
“Mad? What do you mean mad?”
“They were mad she invited me.”
“Because I’m white.”
“What!? But you’re her friend! You can’t be at her birthday party because you’re white? That’s not right,” I said, indignant.
“Sonya. Do you realize that some black people are just done with white people?”
I paused for a second. Blinked. The truth of what she said confused me, annoyed me, and kind of made me mad. “That’s not fair,” I replied. “You didn’t do anything.”
“I know. But white people have.”
Her comment stunned me.
I need you to know: Heather and I have been friends for a long time. She is a reformed Jewish woman and I am a born-again Christian. Over the course of our friendship, we have openly discussed all sorts of sensitive issues. We’ve talked about faith and eternity and God, and though we’ve gazed at stars and wondered about the vastness of the universe together, we don’t see eye to eye. But we do care for and respect each other. So we continued a friendly but pointed discussion on race that day — all in between fixing goggles and offering snacks to our kids.
Her bottom line: racism exists, is pervasive, systemic, affects people of all color throughout every social demographic and community space, and needs to be acknowledged in order to change.
My bottom line: she was wrong. Yes, there are racist people still out there — but racism as a whole isn’t the same beast it once was. I believed that a person of color had every opportunity a white person had.
To me, it was simple. I knew too many people of color who went to the schools I went to, worked in the places I’ve worked, and attend the church I attend. I’d done Bible studies led by women of color. I’d read books by people of different races my whole life. Racism was not — could not — be a problem anymore.
In addition, I couldn’t help but see the issue through the lens of my faith.
The Bible clearly talks about unity being a mark of Christ’s disciples (Ephesians 4:3, Galatians 3:28, and many others). The gospel, the good news which says that Jesus came to the world to save us from the sin we can’t help but commit, is life-changing. Transformational. It takes broken people and makes them whole. It takes hurt and heals it up. It takes wrong and makes things right. The gospel allows us to be redeemed by God and reconciled to Him. And because of how we are changed in that relationship, the same reconciliation is possible between believers.
At the time, I had almost no framework for how a person of color — outside, but especially inside a faith community — could feel effects of their race. I wanted to focus on what the gospel did, and could do.
But I failed to acknowledge what the gospel doesn’t do. The gospel doesn’t ignore. Brush under the rug. It doesn’t excuse egregious sin in the name of peace. The gospel exposes, brings to light, leaves no room for shame (or pride) — all because of the blood of Jesus.
My thinking on race didn’t change after this one conversation. Beliefs like this form over the course of our lives (whether out of ignorance or naivete) and are often affirmed by what we see and experience in our environment. Yet engaging in conversations like this can challenge assumptions and get us thinking critically about issues we may never have addressed before.
For me, the words “but white people have” kept playing over and over in my mind.
And I couldn’t help but ask myself:
- What part do I have in another person’s experience of race?
- Am I ignoring an issue that exists for others, simply because it doesn’t affect me?
- Have I ever considered asking a person of color in my life about their experience with race?
“But that’s so personal!” I’d immediately answer. “I can’t just go and ask something like that to someone I hardly know!” And that’s when it hit me; I didn’t know any person of color with whom I felt comfortable enough to ask such a sensitive question.
Up until then, I’d never once engaged a person of color, inside or outside a faith space, to ask how race affected their life. And I’d never even thought to seek out or listen to individuals who were willingly and candidly talking about it.
See, I’d formed my position on race through my own experience and the experiences of those around me. Experiences, let’s be real, of a white Christian woman. I never paid attention to race issues — because I didn’t need to. (Now, I understand what a privilege that actually is.)
So, I began expanding my circles. I sought out books, essays, and articles discussing race. I started to listen to podcasts by women (and a few men) of color. I hit ‘follow’ and ‘like’ and ‘share’ on social media platforms of speakers and authors and preachers of different races, some from different parts of the world.
I laid down any impulse to defend, justify, explain, or excuse — I simply listened. And learned.
And as I’ve been listening and learning these last few years, the story I hear, the story I’ve learned, is different than the one I believed at the pool. The story is hard and heartbreaking. It’s heavy. Pervasive. It’s one many of us don’t want to acknowledge, let alone look at in the face.
The purpose of the conversation at the pool wasn’t an argument intended to declare someone “right” and someone “wrong”; it was two people who care about each other and care about the world around them talking about something that needed to be talked about. Because of that conversation, I started on a path that’s led me to see a clearer picture of what effect race has on people of color in our country and in our churches. It also challenged me to have a better understanding what unity, in light of the gospel, looks like practically.
Yes, the gospel transcends race. But if I really want to love my neighbor, if I really want to build community with my sisters and brothers in Christ whose skin and culture is different than my own, if my heart desires to be open and humble with individuals who don’t know Jesus, I cannot — should not — ignore their story. There is no need to fix or justify or excuse.
As a church, we have an enormous opportunity to enter into this space of racial hurt and pain.
As a first step, let’s acknowledge it.
Because when we work towards reconciliation inside our walls, it will be an example of the power of Christ’s life-changing love to those outside of it.
There are more resources on this topic than I am capable of listing. There are articles, podcasts, essays, speakers, teachers — those coming from a faith background and those who don’t. (Not to mention that you can pretty much Google your way to anything you want. Try: “books on racial reconciliation in the church” or “books on race” to get started.) Speaking for myself, I consume a wide variety — with discernment.
Here are a few of the books I’ve read and learned from:
Just four of maybe 20 books on my TBR (To-Be-Read) list:
Website: Be The Bridge
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