The moment I began to be most profoundly aware of how deeply race matters came somewhat late in life. I was 31. It’s ironic that having grown up in Mississippi and North Carolina, this moment came halfway across the world, in a hotel room in South Africa, in a reflection time among a group of Divinity School students and pastors, black and white, who had been hearing the stories of South Africa’s painful history of race.
Finally, one of my African-American sisters said, “It’s time we talk about the elephant in the room—race.” I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t even know there was an elephant in the room among us.
Then came their stories, the stories of my African-American friends being followed by security when they go shopping, a cousin in prison, a family member who had been shot. Unsure of how to handle all these stories, I began to listen, not just that night, but afterwards. I began to pay better attention. I somehow learned to ask, awkwardly at times, but ask nonetheless. And I listened.
As I listened, a whole new world (of the South where I had always lived, but yet never seen) opened up to me. Just as I had gone to South Africa as a foreigner, I felt like a foreigner in my own land. So I have done what I do when I travel to a new place—watch and listen, watch and listen, and try to learn.
I have heard how an African-American friend feared ever having a son, for all the undue suspicion he would undergo, for the troubles that might come his way. I have learned why my friends, whom I saw as smarter than me, better dressed than me, more articulate than me, put themselves together so, because if they go out in their sweatpants to the mall, they will be followed by security. I heard how they have to work additionally hard to earn equal regard in school, jobs, or any public setting.
I learned more about the history of the South—about the lynchings that soaked our soil in blood, up to several a week at some points, often on Sundays, after church; about the fear-mongering that took place in newspapers, advertisements, in outright bullying and threats, creating a psychological fear of black men among whites; of the barrier after barrier after barrier erected to keep African Americans from voting; of murder after murder after murder of African Americans that went unnoticed and unpunished by society and our judicial system.
I have learned how much race matters, by beginning to recognize that I grew up in white Mississippi, in white North Carolina, in a white church. Yet I am a Christian, dedicating my life to the one who is our peace, who has broken down all the dividing walls, the one who calls all people to himself, the one who has instructed us to pray “on earth as it is in heaven.”
How do I live in such a divided world? There is so much more than what I know and what I see. I seek to be a listener, a learner, assuming that I do not know the pain my brother or sister has endured, and knowing I cannot walk a mile in their shoes.
I have different eyes and different ears since I began to realize how much race matters. And I thank my friends who have had the courage to tell me what I do know. I seek to keep listening, fumbling though I am at times, listening to the news and social media, to the words around me, spoken by church members, friends, neighbors, and strangers. I seek to see the suffering and the gift in my neighbor, and shape my life accordingly. Lord in your mercy – be our peace.