Series: How Peacemakers Began
Part 4—Germination: Winter of Conviction and Silence
So, as the summer and fall of 2015 and the discussions about race at the coffee shop wound down and the Love Your Neighbor March concluded, I entered the late fall and winter months determine to somehow, learn to speak up to other Christians and people in my church about racial issues.
I decided to approach a white, Christian man who attended my church and who was a friend of mine. Many months earlier, I had observed from conversations with him, comments he made, that he seemed to have a “blind spot” of sorts when it came to non-white people. I had the utmost respect for this particular brother in Christ, as he has an amazing testimony of how God turned his life around. I had heard his testimony many times and observed how he witnessed to others, proclaiming the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It was clear he had a heart for God and for others. I would watch him and think, “how is there room in this brother’s heart for these negative attitudes toward people of color?”
Galatians 6:1 speaks directly to the situation. “Brethren, if you see your brother overtaken in a fault, you who are more spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted (ESV).” I did not see myself as “more spiritual” than this brother. Actually, in many areas, I considered him “more spiritual” than me. But I could see that he had a blind spot, and I hated to see that blind spot interfere with the amazing way that I saw God use this man in evangelizing the lost. I did not see how he could have such attitudes in his heart and show love to both believers and unbelievers of color.
So, one evening, I sat down with him at a coffee shop to have this uncomfortable conversation. First, I pointed out to him how I have seen how God uses him to reach lost people, to testify of the grace and love of Christ. I expressed my respect and admiration for him as my brother in Christ. I pointed out that I had noticed he seemed to have a natural, God-given gift at “reading” people. Then, as gently and graciously as I could, that I had also noticed that when it came to black people that he did not seem to be able to read them at all. And I went on to remind him of specific assumptions he had expressed about a black friend of mine, who was not a follower of Christ. I explained that his negative assumptions about this person were inaccurate, as none of it was consistent with this person who I had known over a decade. I wondered aloud how it was that he was able to “read” white people so well, but could be so off base when it came to “reading” a black person.
My white friend became instantly defensive, and blurted out with regards to my black friend, “But HE is racist toward white people! He hates white people!” I asked him what made him think my black friend hated white people.
With visible frustration, he explained that my friend had “challenged” him about “my country’s history and my faith.” From this, he concluded that my black friend must be racist because his perspective as a black American man of American history was different from his own. He seemed particularly offended that my black friend, who does not believe Jesus is the Son of God, dared to “challenge” him about his faith. So, I reminded him of what Peter wrote in I Peter 3: 15-16 “..sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (ESV)
I explained to my friend that we should expect to have our faith challenged by unbelievers, and it is our duty to answer those challenges with love and grace. I asked him, “Do you know why I wanted my friend to meet you?” And went on to tell him that, knowing the powerful testimony God had given him, how he had run from God for so long, how he had long had the heart of a rebel, that I thought he was a Christian that my black, unbeliever friend needed to meet, given that he was so similar in personality, was running from God in a similar way, and had experienced so many encounters with Christians who did not exemplify Christ in any kind of way. I told him I thought his testimony would touch my friend’s heart. My white friend’s face fell as I spoke.
Then, I asked him, “Do you want to know what he had to say about you after he met and spoke with you?” He said he did, so I continued. “He said you were a really ‘cool guy.’ He said he really liked you, that you sounded like someone who took a lot of pride in his work. That you seemed like a ‘real Christian.’” Nothing that my black friend said about my white Christian friend was negative, hateful, or racist. Instead, he expressed admiration and respect. But sadly, my Christ-following white brother had interpreted his differing views of history and challenging his faith to be “racist” and “hateful.”
As he listened, my white brother in Christ’s eyes dropped and he stared at the table, as his face reddened. When he finally looked up, I saw shame in his eyes. Our conversation continued, he listened and seemed to be receptive to what I had to say. Eventually, the conversation wandered onto other topics. When we parted that evening, it seemed that he had no hard feelings toward me from what I had said. He and I met again another time after for coffee/breakfast, but after that never again did my white friend sit down to talk with me about anything at all.
A few months went by, and it was a Sunday morning during January 2016. That morning I witnessed an incident that horrified me. At that time, there was a black man attending our church. He walked with a cane, and normally sat on the outside, aisle seat, across the aisle and slightly ahead of me. He would place his cane under the seats so that no one tripped over it. That morning, there were several empty seats to the left of him on his row. The worship service had already begun, when my white friend arrived, to find the seat where he usually sat already occupied, and there were not many places to sit on that side, except on the row by the black man. My white friend walked up to the black man. The black man picked up his cane and stepped aside to allow the white man to access the row. However, instead of moving down the row to an unoccupied seat, the white man took the seat at the end of the row, the very seat the black man had just been sitting in. The white man then stood and joined in the worship service, taking no notice whatsoever of the black brother in Christ, who stood in the center of the aisle with his cane, first looking confused and baffled, and gradually looking embarrassed and finally, humiliated, as he stood there, looking around for a place to sit.
I stared in this scene in shock and dismay, trying to believe this had just happened right in front of me. As I processed this scene, before I could respond, a person sitting a couple rows back from where the black man had been sitting motioned for him to come to sit with their family, which he did. I sat through the rest of the service, including the sermon, unable to think about anything except what had just happened. I looked at my white friend, trying to make sense of this. Had he really just done that? I knew this white man to be a courteous, gracious, very well mannered person. I could not imagine him doing that to me, or to my son, or to anyone. But I didn’t want to believe that he had done it with ill-intent.
So my internal rationalization of his behavior began:
- Is it possible he did not see the black man?
- Could he have just not been paying attention?
- Did he think the black man was giving him his seat?
- But if he thought that, why would he assume the black man would just give him the seat?Is this just something he expects black people to do? Give up their seats to white people?
- How could he just not SEE his disabled black brother in Christ standing in that aisle?
- Is this what my black friends were talking about when they spoke about being “invisible” to white people?
No matter how I tried to rationalize this incident as some sort of misunderstanding, it just raised more questions in my mind, and I finally concluded there was NO justification for the white brother’s behavior, no explanation that made any sense except that he could not have possibly seen his black brother as being of the same value and worth as his white brothers and sisters.
The next question was for myself: What do I do? What do I say?
I had thought that my white friend had been receptive to what I had spoken to him about at the coffee shop, but this incident made me realize that those attitudes were more deeply rooted than I realized –that quite likely–nothing I had said had even made a dent. So, though I knew I should speak to him about his actions that Sunday morning, as scripture directs us, I didn’t. At the time, I told myself there was no point, that he would not listen, and that it might even make things worse. Basically, I talked and rationalized myself out of confronting this brother.
The next questions were:
- Do I tell my pastor about this?
- Would I be acting in a divisive or “trouble-making” manner if I told him?
- Would saying something cause more harm?
How are we supposed to address something like this in the Church?
After this happened, I did not see the black brother at church for over a month. Each Sunday after this happened, I would tell myself, if he was not at church by the next Sunday, I was going to talk to my pastor, or I was going to see if I could get the last name and contact information for this black brother and call him and tell him I was sorry that happened at church.
But each week, I procrastinated. By the time he came back to church, I convinced myself too much time had gone by to say anything. Over time, this black brother came less and less, until he simply stopped coming to church. I don’t know why he left, whether it had to do with other personal reasons, or if it had something to do with that disgraceful and unchristlike behavior of a white brother in Christ and the unchristlike silence and complicity of white brothers and sisters, myself included.
In the months that passed after that incident, the conviction on my heart and spirit grew heavier and heavier. The more I fought it, the heavier it became. It became the “winter of conviction and silence.”
If my black brother in Christ who was humiliated at church that Sunday is reading this post, I want to say, from the bottom of my heart, three years later:
- I am sorry.
- I am sorry this happened to you at our church.
- I am sorry I was silent and complicit in the face of it.
But I want you to know what happened to you has served to propel me further down the road of pursuing racial reconciliation in the Church. Whenever I hear people say “there’s not a problem,” I remember that Sunday and the look on your face. Whenever I feel discouraged or demoralized in this work, I remember that look on your face, and I am reminded why it is so imperative that the Body of Christ address racism and racial divisions in the Church. Whenever I hear or read about black Christians leaving majority-white churches, or black Christians leaving the faith altogether, I remember that Sunday, what the white brother did to you, and that look on your face that haunts me still.
To those believers reading this who share my complexion, if you have ever been silent or defensive in the face of racist actions, it is NOT too late to speak up. You can repent. If it is possible, you can reach out to the person who was hurt by it. If you can’t do anything about it, remember it that you CAN speak up NOW when you see such things happen. We should never be silent in the face of such actions by a fellow Believer. Such actions and our silence in the face of them is a reproach to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and deters lost people from embracing our Lord because of such lack of love on the part of Christians.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35, ESV