After this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, I am left attempting to understand what exactly I witnessed and how to think rightly about it.  While many are dogmatic about its origin, its meaning and what the outcome should be, I find myself trying to make some sense of it all, desiring something concrete to focus on.  From a distance, there appear to be multi-faceted motivations for the expressions of bigotry and hatred and not just limited to the historical black and white divide here in America.  However, with that said and understanding that ultimately it’s a heart issue, it’s my opinion this black & white divide is the overarching and reoccurring theme that continues to divide our nation…and demand our attention.  Over the past several years we have witnessed events in various cities across the nation that have precipitated protests.  Baltimore comes to mind.  Can you name some of the others?  If we’re honest with ourselves we are glad to forget & move on and we feel safer when things “settle down”, at least for a while.  We put them behind us…until the next one.  It’s just a matter of time before we’re facing the same issue again, possibly right here in Richmond (the former capital of the confederacy) along with the tension, emotion and confusion that comes with it.  I believe events of this nature will continue until there is an honest acknowledgment of racism and prejudice that has permeated our nation for generations.  I am not without hope, though.  I believe we are witnessing an awakening in our country to centuries of injustices in the black community. While some in our caucasian race have been growing in this awareness and making some heroic attempts (often behind the scenes) to bring justice, there are many others who are just now having their eyes opened to the depth and scope of racial oppression and inequality.  That’s a positive development.

Here’s the rub.  When these events erupt on our landscape, I see several potential outcomes (or reactions).  For one, it raises awareness of generational injustices and more people have their racial naivety and prejudices exposed.  That’s a positive!  But, what we do with that matters.  And that’s a BIG ISSUE!  The problem is that we don’t know what to do with it.  We can post our opinions on social media, express our outrage, perhaps join the next protest (if it’s nearby and convenient) or our default is usually to just feel guilty about it and try not to think about it much. 

Or…

perhaps we get outraged at the reaction of the black community or others representing them.  We assuage our guilt by focusing on the seemingly overreaction by those protesting.  We end up pointing the finger and saying, “See!  They’re just as at fault!”  And, what gets lost in this are the very real issues of racism and injustice.We get distracted from the real culprit (or perhaps by the real culprit) of pride and hatred.

Here is where I’d like to offer something that I believe will be helpful in bridging this great divide in our local context.  If we’re just looking at the big picture, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.  Let me give you an analogy that might be helpful.  When our family moved into a predominately black neighborhood in 1997, I had a somewhat grandiose vision of bringing racial reconciliation to Richmond.  It didn’t take me too long to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the longstanding issues of racism and hatred.  Can you spell Naivety?  That was me with a capital ‘N’.  So, what happened?  God brought this 7 year old black kid named Devin to our door.  He came into our life and in many ways opened our eyes to the challenges faced by people of color…and he opened our hearts to love him.  Since then, we have been able to work with other kids from the neighborhood and touch other lives, but the point I’m making is that it’s crucial that we don’t get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the racial problem in America that we just duck our heads and ignore what we can do.  It matters!  Once, when Jesus was making a point about condemnation, he used an analogy about blindness.  He said,  “Why do you stare at the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, but ignore the plank in your own?  How can you say to your neighbor, “Here – let me get that splinter out of your eye,” when you’ve got the plank in your own? You’re just play-acting! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you’ll see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your neighbor’s eye”.  I believe we all have a ‘plank of prejudice’ in our eye.  By prejudice, I simply mean our preconceived way of seeing people of color that, while perhaps not racist in intent, was birthed in racism from years past.  We see people of color differently than we see ourselves…and often not in a positive light.  Perhaps, we are just accustomed to it, it’s just how we see things.  It’s our normal.  I contend that it’s generational, as we grew up seeing through the eyes of those who helped form and shape us to varying degrees of prejudice.  And, while the size of our ‘plank of prejudice’ will vary, it’s to our detriment to ignore it.  What if instead, when we witness an event like this past weekend in Cville or the next event, we see it as an invitation of sorts…an invitation to remove that ‘plank of prejudice’ from our eye and lay it down as a ‘plank of humility’ across the great divide of prejudice and racism and begin to build a bridge…at the very least a bridge of understanding and compassion.  This could have the very real possibility of informing our actions in a helpful way.  And…what if those possessing the biggest planks were to have an awakening?  Can you imagine the progress they will make on this bridge with the sheer size of their plank!  Let me leave you with something very concrete you can do to move in this direction, something that has the potential to awaken us to our own planks, to loosen them and perhaps begin to remove them from our eyes…and with humility lay them down.  Here it is:  Sometime this week, ask a person of color (someone that you know and hopefully trusts you a bit) what it’s been like for them as a person of color to grow up here in America…and then Just Listen!  Just Listen!  Put a clip on your lips if necessary and Just Listen!  No justifications, no excuses, no offering of solutions, no changing the subject (no matter how uncomfortable it is)…Just Listening!   I suspect you will be surprised.  It has the very real potential to begin a process of healing, for both.  I have been on this journey myself for the past 20 years and have thought of myself as somewhat astute when it comes to racial issues (did I mention that pride might be an issue for me? 🙂   I recently asked this question of a black friend who I felt might be vulnerable enough to go there with me (Don’t assume this).  I was surprised at what this person shared with me, some of his negative experiences on his college campus and with local authorities.  I’m thinking to myself, ‘are you kidding me!’  I believe it was helpful for him to share this with me, however, I’m making a big assumption with that and don’t want to presume.  I know it was helpful for me!  And, that is where it has to begin.  You see, it’s not about us ‘fixing them’. It’s about allowing God to have His way with us.  Then, we’ll see…

#thebridgerva

#blackandwhitebridge

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He’s a young father who has just walked his two daughters several blocks to our Wednesday Reading Club.  As he steps into the noisy, crowded foyer of our home, the first impression that hits me is his long dreadlocks and the pungent aroma of alcohol from his breath.  After signing the girls in, he turns to leave and says, “This is a good thing y’all are doing.  We need more of these, you feel me?”  I knowingly smile!  Why, yes we do!

We’ve all heard the old adage, ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ because first impressions can be deceiving.  This is true in this father’s case.  Here’s a man who loves his children and is trying to do right by them, to give them a future.  Yet, I know that if many of my caucasian friends were to pass this young father on the sidewalk there would be a sense of caution or even outright fear.  There would be assumptions made and stereotypical thoughts.  How do I know this?  Because I’m that person too!  I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond the prejudicial attitudes, that I’m an enlightened person who has severed all ties to the generational racism of my ancestors.  There are times when I present myself that way.  However, if I am completely honest, a more apt description would be that at best I am a recovering prejudiced person.  While I still have a long way to go in this journey of recovery, I am learning a few things along the way.  The following analogy has proved helpful.

In recent years, much emphasis has been placed on prenatal care for expectant mothers.  The human womb is designed to be one of the safest and most nurturing environments on the planet.  When a pregnant woman is instructed in prenatal care, the desired outcome is a healthy, viable child delivered at full term with the opportunity to flourish.  It has been documented that mothers who take good care of themselves during pregnancy, greatly enhance these odds.      

 I believe this picture of the human womb as a place of physical development can be an instructive analogy in understanding and appreciating much of the civil unrest we’ve witnessed in our nation recently.  We have seen a rise in the volume of racial rhetoric and the depth of our racial divide has been revealed and taken center stage.   We’ve witnessed disturbing images cross our television screens of protests, both peaceful and occasionally violent.  Exactly what was disturbing about the images depends on who you ask and typically, though certainly not always, falls along racial lines.  What has emerged is a movement called Black Lives Matter, which has also proved to be predictably divisive.   In response to this, signs go up  ‘All Lives Matter’, ‘White Lives Matter’, ‘Police Lives Matter’, ‘__________ Lives Matter’, fill in the blank.  It’s an understandable reaction given our country’s racial history.  But, as is often the case in our racial monologues, these responses miss the point.  

If we can hit the ‘pause button’ for a moment on our first impressions and visceral reactions, I believe we can begin to understand some of what is behind the anger we are witnessing and hopefully move toward more constructive dialogue and conciliation.  You see, there is another womb…the womb of the inner city.  This is a womb where thousands of children find themselves today.  Through no choice of their own, they are growing up in a toxic environment that threatens their ability to emerge into adulthood physically, emotionally and mentally healthy.   For example, they find their young lives exposed to violence on a regular basis.  Some experience parental neglect & abuse.  Many have incarcerated, absent or dead parents.  They are often subjected to poor nutrition and even real hunger.  Lack of affordable housing options results in multiple relocations by families.  They are stereotyped because of color or economic class.  If that isn’t enough, they are often judged on how they handle this enormous challenge.  Tragically, some do not make it to adulthood at all. 

Now, I know that some will look on this from a distance and say that this population has the same freedom and opportunity afforded every American citizen.  It’s simply not true.  Admittedly, there are also challenging issues in suburbia including the heroin epidemic, but in our inner-cities there is layer upon layer of issues that in and of themselves would be enough cause for alarm.  We often affix blame on the parents and in some cases, rightly so.  You might be surprised, though, at the level of love and support faithfully present in the parents of many of these children…wanting the best for them, yet working as if they have one arm tied behind their back.  In my opinion, it’s only by the grace of God and an incredible tenacity and faithfulness forged in the fires of adversity that help deliver these children to adulthood and some on to success.  Even if you have a hard time seeing past some of the self-inflicted situations the parents find themselves in, could you stop for a moment and consider the children.  They are the ones who have no choice in their environment.  They are simply recipients of another’s choice and might I add…enabled by our society’s years of turning a blind eye.  I think we can rightly call this ‘The Womb of Injustice.” 

What might be the crucial ingredient in helping us move toward a society where justice is a reality and not just a cliche or an unfulfilled dream?  I believe it begins with seeing things rightly, seeing this ‘womb of injustice.’  It would serve us well to heed Father Gregory Boyle’s advice, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”  This begs the question, ‘what does this look like practically?’  It begins with seeing rightly.  The next time you cross paths with the father I mentioned at the beginning (or someone who looks like him), perhaps consider that he might be one of these children as well.   He most likely grew up in this womb of injustice.  You could smile, speak a word of encouragement, listen to him, or perhaps even follow a biblical adage that says, “mourn with those who mourn.”  From this place of empathy, a compassion may emerge and you just may be moved to action.  You may be moved to help remedy a situation, to change a life-trajectory and begin to see justice birthed…where the womb of the inner city is becoming a healthier, safer environment and its children can be born into adulthood with the opportunity to flourish.  This I believe will be a birthday we can celebrate for years to come. 

Just another day…

Three kids in the yard as I pull up, jumping in the van, buckling up
The sister face-times her brother
who’s left the Plaza making his way home
through alleys and yards wanting to come
Meandering the streets ourselves we hear a shout
Ralph and his friend now make five who become eight, then fourteen

We arrive at our destination and join with others singing “break every chain” as it gradually becomes a very real anthem for us gathered at the church
Children under the pews
One hiding, one chasing, some singing
So much chaos, so much distraction, so much…

A fleeting, yet illuminating glimpse emerges, a sense of the pain and turmoil that encompass these young lives
Feeling a bit of the pain in God’s heart,
I vacillate with my own impatience and shortcomings, my buttons effectively pushed
Desiring to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of so much anxiety, yet feeling so inadequate…I’m sure I wasn’t alone

Small groups gather, learning about Jesus here and there
a meal is shared, hunger sated
at least for a while
We play a bit, shooting hoops, throwing spirals, hula-hooping
We hit the road, insults now thrown around like daggers, non-present family members included, how did we avoid an all out brawl
After dropping off a few, I’m left with the original five…these five, who many would label too far gone, too much trouble, “in the pipeline”

Cruising down Jeff-Davis, I have one of those ‘nudges’ to ask these Fabulous Five, “there’s power where?”
And little four year old Anthony and his six year old brother Isaiah reach into their memory from their earlier foray under the pews and say/sing practically in unison…
“There’s power in the name of Jesus!”

OK…I think I’ll show up again!

“To the religious elite who were looking down on others, Jesus said, ‘The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” I like Jesus!  With just a few words He could bring such clarity to a misguided and misrepresented view of God.  Can we fall into the same trap as these religious leaders of Jesus’ day?  How easy it is for us to point the finger and talk maliciously about people and things we don’t understand.  I believe this more often than not flows out of our own insecurities, our own lack of understanding about how much we are loved and treasured by God.  Jesus, on the other hand, was deeply secure in His relationship with His Father.  This allowed Him to ‘see rightly’, to ‘think rightly’ and ultimately to ‘love rightly.’   I like Jesus!  He modeled for us what it means to live out a healthy relationship with God and others.  Why do we think another way will work?  Why do we believe we know better than God how to navigate this life here on earth?  Again, I don’t think it’s as intentional on our part as it is continuing to live out of our shame rather than a secure, loving communion with our Heavenly Father.  Jesus made this possible for us when He went to the cross, bridging the great chasm between us and God. I like Jesus!  It’s my belief that that only out of this relationship with Him can we ‘love rightly’ those that our society, even our churches, look down upon.  If we want to love as Jesus loved, then “…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  I  like Jesus!

This brings clarity. Worthy of your time to read.

WE PERSEVERE: A Blog on theology and global religious freedom

In the wake of the Brown/Garner decisions, it has been revealed that numerous conversations need to take place  in American Christian circles regarding culture, race, class, systemic injustice, public policy, Christian responsibility, and so forth. Of course, at the center of each of these themes we place the Gospel and its implications for each.

Enter the urban disciple maker, who has long been considering these themes. The Christian focus throughout the twentieth century on conversion strategies alone has already been weighed by many and found wanting. Our urban disciple makers understand that discipleship is a much longer and deeper commitment than simply moving an individual from impiety to piety. It involves walking alongside men and women from foolishness to wisdom, and making certain that they know – tangibly – that Christ has earned them a valued place and given them a strong, secure and transcendent identity in Him; a place where…

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My intention with this blog is to share a bit of my family’s journey into the city…in particular to a racially diverse neighborhood.  I was born in 1957 and lived the first 12 years of my life near Highland Park in Richmond, Va.  In 1969, my family participated in ‘white flight’, although I had no idea that’s what it was.  We moved to Hanover Co into the midst of Civil War history and much lingering prejudice.  After coming to faith in Jesus, I began to recognize my own prejudices.  I discovered that I had grown up ‘generationally prejudiced.’  28 years later I found myself moving my family back to the city (intentionally integrating) so that my children would grow up ‘generationally reconciled.’ It’s this story that I want to share and invite you into, to share your story, interact with mine and…hopefully examine and explore our own prejudices with the hope that we can become a bridge for others to walk across.