“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
I have been given a gift that I've always known was meant to be shared. I have felt a nudging in my spirit in recent days to take out this precious gift and offer it to others. Particularly to those who may only be open to receiving it from someone like me. Those who might not be open to receiving it from the initial givers.
I have resisted sharing this gift. Partly because it is sacred to me. There is a part of the essence of Jesus, a part of who He is, that I would never have known had these brothers and sisters not sacrificed to give this gift to me. And partly because I am afraid I will mishandle it... damage it somehow... as I attempt to share it, and it will not be the gift it was intended to be.
But mostly I have not shared it because I care too much what people think about me. I think my voice doesn't matter or won't be heard. I am afraid that I don't understand the gift well enough to share it.
But then I remember those who gave me the gift. And the One who opened their hearts to give. And I feel like keeping silent might dishonor the God who let me see this part of His heart. And the men and women that trusted me with something so sacred to them. Their story.
So here goes.
In my previous life, before I became a stay-at-home mom, I had an outside-the-home job. The kind where you cannot wear the same pair of yoga pants for three days without showering.
I was a campus minister with an international, inter-denominational campus ministry. I worked with students at the University of Florida.
Our group at UF included two chapters. One chapter existed to reach out primarily to black students on campus who struggled to feel welcomed and 'at home' in any of the existing college ministry groups.
After three years of working as a campus minister, I became the staff assigned to help lead Black Collegiate Christian Fellowship. I found myself in a place I never dreamed I would be, and at first I wondered if I could offer the kind of leadership these students needed.
But after a short time, I had a great peace about it all and was often unfazed by things that I now look back on and think are freakin' hilarious because I was so "out of place". Like the time when the two students assigned to work with me did not show up and so there I was on the "Set" of Turlington, known as the popular hang out for black students, standing behind our table (whose banner read "Black Collegiate Christian Fellowship") set up amidst all the black fraternities and sororities, handing out flyers to an event we were hosting- all by my self. Looking positively like a freckled-white-seventeen-year-old girl (though I was twenty five, thank you very much). And eight months pregnant. Wearing overalls... (I'm still not sure why I thought that was ok, but whatev.)
Anyway, back to the gift.
By the grace of God, during the years that I worked alongside my black brothers and sisters- students as well as other Intervarsity staff- they chose to trust me enough to tell me the truth. To tell me their stories.
These stories I carry around today like they are a treasure. These men and women became my friends and we did ministry together and prayed together.
Alysha. Kesha. Candace. Mikela. Cathy. Cheron.*
They told me what it is like to grow up black in America. Like most white people, I honestly thought that the cries of "racism" or "racial profiling" were from the mouths of those who were bitter or stuck on the past or (God help me, but I am going to say what many believe) from those who "fit the bill", somehow deserving the stigma that was given them. But here I was face to face with these educated, promising young women baring their souls and they were all saying the same thing. Racism is still very much alive in America, and the only reason I do not know it is because I am white and middle-class and have never really had a close black friend who trusted me enough to tell me the truth.
But it wasn't the women's stories that hit me the hardest. It was the men. Their stories were hard to hear.
Stories of being followed in stores, accused of shoplifting with no evidence but the color of their skin. Of walking at night on campus and others very obviously turning in the other direction to avoid the danger that must be lurking if a black man is walking alone at night. Of being told by professionals that they must only be at UF because of affirmative action. And I have yet to meet a black man who has told me that at some point (more likely multiple times in his life) he has not been pulled over for Driving While Black (which basically means pulled over by cops for no violation of traffic laws- just suspicion). And this is just the beginning.
David. Paul. Kareem. Harvey.*
These men told their stories. They weren't bitter. They weren't trying to get me to "see" something, arguing persuasively that these things really happened. I asked about their experiences (because other staff led the way and encouraged me to do this). Their stories were told matter-of-fact-like, usually with very little anger but more of just a sadness or a heaviness... with a desire to see change but also a resignation of sorts that this is just how it is.
Can I tell you why this is a big deal? And why it is a really big deal right now?
It is a big deal because they were taking a huge chance in telling their stories. It is always brave when someone shares from a place of suffering, particularly when the one receiving the gift of their vulnerability looks a heck of a lot like the ones who caused the suffering. It is brave when you have shared this way before and your experience has been shrugged off, made obsolete because your "perspective" must be off, you must have been "reading into" things.
And this is why it is a big deal right now. With the George Zimmerman trial all over the media all of us are exposed to the discussions of racism and racial profiling. And those of us who are not black, many of us, want to just focus on what we call the "justice" issue and we are putting our fingers in our ears and saying, "I don't want to hear your whining. There was a fair trial-by-jury. Justice has been served. It's time to move on!"
The truth is none of us knows exactly what happened that day after Trayvon was confronted. But we have to open our eyes to the reality that the fact that he was confronted was because he was black and was therefore perceived as dangerous. So regardless of the results of the trial I think the real "justice" issue that begs to be seen is this: what is "just" about a society that perpetuates from one generation to the next the idea that a person may be assumed to be dangerous (and therefore suffer the consequences of that assumption) because of the color of his skin?
Though we may not like the way some people have been saying it, our black brothers and sisters are trying to tell us that there is still a huge race problem in America. And we want so badly to say, "Yeah, but Trayvon smoked marijuana", but we're missing the point. We are focusing on details of an incident we cannot fully understand and we are missing the bigger picture.
I want to say this particularly to my Caucasian brothers and sisters in Christ. Listen. Love. Ask questions. And hear the answers with humility rather than defensiveness. If someone shares with you something you have never seen, before discounting their stories, consider that perhaps you have not seen it because you do not have to... because it does not affect your day-to-day life.
Many of the voices you are hearing from African American community are your brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a community of people who are suffering deeply. As you accept the gift of hearing their stories and entering into their suffering you will find that there is a piece of God's heart there that you've never known before.
Finally, there is a religious message here for all Christians... If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.
White Christians cannot and must not leave the sole responsibility of telling the truth about America, how it has failed Trayvon Martin and so many black Americans, solely to their African-American brothers and sisters in Christ. It's time for white Christians to listen to their black brothers and sisters, to learn their stories, and to speak out for racial justice and reconciliation.
- Jim Wallis, Huffington Post
To my black friends I want to say this: Thank you for trusting me with your story. I see your pain in your facebook posts , in your blog posts and I just want you to know that I hear you. That I love you. That this is all so messy and I've cried like fifteen times trying to write this blasted post and it's taken me like seven hours because I just cannot say it how I want to say it... and I've cried when I've read your words ... and I wanted so bad to not care, to say a prayer about it all and move on.
I categorically do not like getting involved in messy things. And you'd love me just the same if I said nothing. Which is maybe why I'm saying something. Thank you for your friendship.
(I feel like I must note that I believe the problem of racism in America certainly affects far more than just black people and white people. The gift I received through my time in campus ministry with InterVarsity included the opportunity to grow friendships and hear the voices of Asian and Latino colleagues and students as well. I understand that Zimmerman was Hispanic. I just simply did not feel like I could address all these nuances in this one post so I decided to hone in on what I felt most qualified to speak about here.)
* changed names
To hear other voices on this subject, please check out this post written by my friend, Matt. This article by a current InterVarsity staffworker, Sean. This article by Sojourner's president, Jim Wallis. And this short video: