I was asked this question again today. Why are the leaders of the PBA focusing so much on racism this year? I can respond with the short answer: “Because we believe God told us to.” The long answer to that question will take many more words than my typical blog post. So here goes.
I was born and raised in Norfolk in a middle class family. I guess the first black person I knew was Irene, the nice lady who came to our house once a week to clean and iron our clothes. All I knew was that she rode a bus to get there for many years. Then one day she drove up in the car she had been saving for. She was still working for my parents until I was a young adult. I don’t know how she really felt about her work, but she was always kind and gracious.
I went to a private Christian school up through the 4th grade. It was all white. I transferred to public school in 5th grade. That was about the time I started playing community league football. The first black people I knew who were my age were other guys on our team. I formed some friendships that would last through my school years. By the time I got to Junior High (Middle School) there were more black kids but not a lot. I just remember that the black guys were cool, and popular.
Our high school reflected the community surrounding it, with 60% white and 40% black. Being an athlete, many of the guys I hung out with at school and at sporting events were black. I loved dancing with the black girls at school dances because they danced so much better than the white girls. I guess I was naïve, but I didn’t sense a lot of racism. And yet, though we hung out at school and at football games, we went home to different neighborhoods. We didn’t hang out on Saturday night, or spend time in each other’s homes.
Ironically, racism came to the fore at our school during my senior year when the city decided to mix things up. So many of the black kids who had attended our school were bused to other schools, and a lot of black kids from downtown were bused to our school. I quickly realized a cultural difference between the “uptown” and “downtown” black kids. Things got really ugly for a short period of time. Many of us couldn’t understand why this was happening. This was also the era of “peace, love, rock and roll” for a lot of us white kids. Racism was such a foreign idea to us.
That is a brief glimpse of my background. I became a Christian about the time I graduated high school. I never could understand why churches were still very segregated. To this day I can’t understand that. I’ve always had friends from different ethnic backgrounds than mine. I have worked to make every church I have served in more diverse. But I have never been much of an activist about racial issues.
However, about this time last year God started working on me. Like everyone else I watched the news reports from places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston. And it always seemed like the church, when it was present in these situations, was always reacting after the fact. “Celebrity” pastors would fly in and make statements while the cameras were rolling, and then disappear until the next tragic event. And it finally became clear to me. God did not put us here to simply react. He put us here to make things better.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past five years casting vision for God’s Kingdom in our region. It has become crystal clear to me that one of the biggest things holding back that vision is the divide between most churches. Of course, there are some churches that are ethnically diverse – but not many. I’m discovering that most black pastors don’t even know a white pastor (and vice versa) unless maybe they swapped pulpits with a church down the street once or twice. Most white people in our churches, don’t have a single black friend (and vice versa).
So we decided to begin with relationship. We have held four gatherings where we have invited white and black pastors to come and get to know each other. This has not been limited to pastors within the PBA, but rather to anyone who wants to come. Friendships are beginning to form out of these gatherings. Pastors who didn’t know each other a few months ago are going to lunch together. And guess what? They are finding that they have a lot in common.
So now it is time for a next step. On Saturday, October 17th we are inviting people (not just pastors) to come together and begin the same kind of conversations. (You can find details for this in our newsletter.) I truly believe this day could be a real turning point for race relations in our churches and communities. You can probably think of a lot of reasons not to attend this event. In fact, many people have already told us why they aren’t coming. But what if coming to this event was a baby step towards fulfilling God’s Kingdom vision for our area? We could be part of a great legacy!
My reason for telling you a bit of my story is to illustrate that I am not an expert on these things. I can’t fix all of the problems in the community. But that is no excuse for sitting back and pretending that it is someone else’s problem. God has made it clear that I am to do something. Fortunately, I am surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me when it comes to reaching into the community (Melanie Lassiter and Charles Cheek among them). Won’t you join us for this event. It probably won’t change the world – but it might just begin a change in you and me.