A first-generation son of a Brazilian immigrant and a Michigan-born wife, I was brought up to be color-blind. But, in the 1960’s if you were that way, others were quick to point out your ignorance.
I felt the first stings of racism at the age of nine. When a black youth, who visited our all-white neighborhood collecting for recycling, was befriended by our family, we were shunned. I was called “n…..lover” and physically threatened by childhood friends. The entire neighborhood became shattered by the strong offense that many felt.
In high school, I was confronted by students belonging to the Nazi Party and active in the Ku Klux Klan. Entering the workplace, I found race determined who was hired or promoted.
I found reason to hope for the healing of racism in the 1990’s. When Johnny, the much-loved head janitor of the church we then attended, died, Johnny’s congregation of Rockland Baptist and Hendersonville First – one black, the other white – remembered Johnny together. Their two pastors agreed to work together to strengthen this connection of love. Joint worship services, choir festivals, unity prayer services, combined youth group activities, race unity studies, and shared meals built trust and love between the races in this once-segregated town.
One special unifier was a local slave cemetery project. This project began when Andi and Danny Seals discovered that the large unmarked graveyard on their property was the slave cemetery of a local historic plantation, Rock Castle. Joining with blacks and whites of many faiths, we restored the burial grounds. One elderly man in his 90’s, who visited the cemetery with some of his family, found his grandparents’ graves, recalling that young oak saplings were planted on each grave with a large stone placed between them. With tears in his eyes, he looked heavenward, as the saplings were now a towering oak with two huge trunks, the large stone in between!
I never again saw that young man who triggered a racist divide in our town in the 1960’s, but his black life mattered very much. His friendship triggered a sensitivity to the destructive sin of racism that has been one of the passions of my life. Likewise, Johnny’s life mattered, as the legacy of love he left moved a segregated town into cross-racial relationships. The black slaves, who lay in unmarked graves, mattered too, and in the restoration of their cemetery, they also brought healing and reconciliation to their descendants.
Prayer: God, you are writing the story of your reconciliation. We want to be a part of that story. Help us to be faithful, and work for unity and love for all of your children. Amen.