I’m an American middle-aged white guy. Even though I’ve lived the last fifteen years of my life in Canada, my Yankee roots run deep. So the white and black issues of late burning up the headlines in my former country have been inescapable to me; even more so because of my own personal history.
My Dad was the pastor of a ethnically Dutch church in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960’s. Like many places in the US at that time, tensions were high. But my Dad was a strong believer in what Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were promoting. In fact, when there was going to be a peaceful protest march in Grand Rapids, he asked his elders’ permission to announce the date and time of the march from the pulpit. They refused. So my Dad inserted a little tidbit into his congregational prayer that morning that went something like this: “And dear Lord, please bless the march for Civil Rights that will take place at 10am on Saturday at …” That’s right: In an act of passive aggressive disobedience, he went ahead and announced the march anyway… in the middle of a prayer.
I tell you this story to give you some context to my family of origin. My parents allowed no racial slurs in our house, no racial jokes or jabs. I certainly never heard anything of the sort coming from them. There was definitely the sense that we were to be about racial equality as part of what it meant for us to be followers of Jesus. This was both stated and implied in the way I was raised. Yet I didn’t personally know a lot of people of “color”. Growing up in Denver, Colorado I lived in a mostly white neighborhood, attended a mostly white church, and went to a mostly white school. By “mostly” I mean around 99.5%. I believe there was one black girl in my entire high school student body of around 200. She was really cute and fun, too. I didn’t think about it then but I know now that she was also brave.
I didn’t grow up a racist. But I did grow up white; white and middle-class in the United States. And I grew up removed from other ethnic groups, rarely having reason or opportunity to cross paths with others not white like me.
That changed when I went off to college, back to my parents’ home town of Grand Rapids. My college was, again, mostly white but there were more visible minorities there than anywhere else I had called home. What brought me into more contact with black American culture was the amazing church I began to attend in my early twenties. It was part of my ethnically Dutch denomination, yet so vividly and colorfully different than anything I had experienced before. The elders were both men and women, white and black and Hispanic.There were two pastors on staff: one a white guy from a Dutch background like mine and one a black guy from Puerto Rico who grew up in New York city. The music and worship in the place was heavily influenced by black spirituality and tradition. Even though the membership of the church was only about 25% black, the church was in a predominantly black neighborhood, and it fit in just fine in that context. We had a marvelous Gospel choir that was representative of the unique people that made up the place.
I gained an incredible love for Gospel music and for the authenticity and power of worship in an African American style. But I also gained friends and connections with people from many, many backgrounds. I began to put names and faces and stories to the racial equality my parents had professed in my upbringing.
When I got married, my wife and I moved into a home located in a predominantly black neighborhood of Grand Rapids. The irony is that it had once been a predominantly Dutch neighborhood before the seemingly inevitable Flight of the White. In fact, it had been my parents’ childhood neighborhood and the locale of my Grandpa’s former bike shop, just a few blocks away, not to mention that church my Dad had served back in the 1960’s. We had made our way back to an area where my family had once set down roots. Now it was a very different place: Low income, many rental properties, and mostly black; not 99.5% black, but mostly black.
Certainly, it was different from any other area I had ever lived. If I needed any reminder of that, the homemade signs hanging from tree branches along the street when we first moved in did the trick; they read things like “Drug dealers get off our street” and “Leave our children alone”. It is safe to say no messages like that were ever posted on my quiet little suburban street in Denver when I was a kid. It is also safe to say that no one ever used my car hood as a trampoline either. One evening my wife and I got in our car to leave for some place. A group of young black men were walking down the street as we entered our car. One of them jumped up on our car and bounced off the hood so he could take a whack at one of the anti-drug dealer signs hanging above. We sat in stunned silence in the car, not a little freaked out.
We learned to avoid a notorious corner not far from our house where many young men congregated. It was reputed to be a crack house. Routinely we would hear a very unfamiliar sound to our ears: Gunfire. In fact, in the few years we lived there, at least three gun-related deaths happened within a block radius of our house. We grew uneasily accustomed to a lot of noise at night, to the sounds of raised voices and smashing glass, to calling the police if we thought something dangerous was happening outside our doors.
We also grew uneasily accustomed to being afraid. It was the first and only time my wife and I had a serious discussion about owning a gun. We opted for a German Shepherd instead; a wimpy German Shepherd with little bite, to be sure, but one blessed with a deep and scary bark!
I know some of what I’ve written looks like stereotyping and I am sorry if it seems that way. I am simply relating the truth of that neighborhood, not casting judgement on black America. In fact, because of the wonderful black friends and fellow church-goers we had in our lives, I never grouped all of black America into one category. That would have been absolutely ridiculous. The people we knew and loved had as much in common with the ones causing havoc in my neighborhood as I have with the pathetic racist who shot innocent people at a Bible study in South Carolina.
Yet the fear was very real. And it galled me. Here I was: white, middle-class and afraid; afraid of the young black man. This wasn’t supposed to be part of my M.O. I was supposed to rise above that. I didn’t believe in the stereotypes and the black and white divide. We chose to live in this neighborhood to be a visible sign of that. But my heart would still race when the groups of young black men came down the street.
Then something very fascinating happened. At that time I was working for a landscaping company in the city. When I first began, everyone that worked there was white, no exceptions. But then they hired Danny.
Danny was a young black man. Danny lived just a mile or so away from me. And Danny pulled the trigger that killed someone just a half block from my house. I didn’t know all this at first. It came out bit by bit as Danny and I got to know each other better. I remember when I had to drive through my neighborhood and made a quick stop at my house with Danny in tow. He remarked, “I don’t like this area, man.” Eventually I learned that on an infamous corner a stone’s throw from my house, Danny and a friend were set on by a couple of other young guys while they sat in their car. Danny’s friend had a gun in the car and when the other guys pulled a gun, intent on doing some major harm, Danny grabbed his friend’s gun and fired.
It was self-defence. But Danny was a young black man. He turned himself in and told his story in full to the police. But Danny was a young black man. He went through the system and testified in court. But Danny was a young black man. He was made to wear an electronic tether around his ankle as part of his sentence. He could only be at work or at home. An amazing athlete, he couldn’t be a part of basketball team we put together at work for a summer 3-on-3 tournament because of the restrictions on his life.
I couldn’t help but see it as a modern chain around his ankle. A young black man chained, with very little of the freedoms I took for granted as a white, middle-class guy. If roles were reversed, would I have been mandated to wear an electronic tether? Highly unlikely. Despite no prior convictions, despite his cooperation and his character, this young black man was punished for essentially being in the wrong place and the wrong time and defending his life.
This is when it began to sink in for me: I may have been living in a mostly black neighborhood but Danny lived in a mostly white world. The vast majority of the money, the power, the influence was white. The greatest share of the opportunities and the education went to the whites. The judicial system was mostly white. I may not have believed in the white and black divide in America but that does not mean it didn’t exist. Or that it does not still exist today.
In order for Danny to keep his job at the landscaping company, he had to pass a test to receive his license to apply pesticides. He had two chances to pass. He failed the first time and so I offered to help him study for the next one. I went to his home one weekend. The atmosphere there was a revelation: noisy, cramped, children and adults coming and going, and Danny and I huddled over the information he needed to retain for his test, unable to go anywhere else in order to study owing to the modern chain that tied him down.
Danny failed the test a second time. He didn’t even bother coming in to work after he found out. I never saw Danny again. I still think about him, though, and I sometimes wonder if I did enough for him, enough to help him keep his job. Mostly I feel like I failed him and that regret sits heavy on me. Danny was all alone in the white world of that landscaping company. He was incredibly brave working there for as long as he did. If he had fear I never saw it but I can’t imagine he didn’t feel fear in the lonely position he was in. He was a young black man. Simply by virtue of those categories he had obstacles to overcome that I would never know.
A year or so after this I moved away from that neighborhood to a small town in Wisconsin where I began serving as a pastor. I left that place behind that had raised fear in me. I had the freedom to do that. But I realize now that though I lived in an area where I didn’t feel safe, it was just a neighborhood in a city in Michigan. I could easily pack up and go somewhere more comfortable, more assuring. For the black person in America, there is no safe place to move to. As one of the parishioners from the church in Charleston related, her church was the one place she felt safe, so where would she go now?
If you are white like me, living in the United States or Canada or anywhere else where it is clearly to our advantage to be white, this thought from this aging black parishioner should shock us into action. How could it be that a citizen of a democracy, a place supposedly of equality, could feel fear simply because of the color of her skin? And not just a fear from living in a particular neighborhood but a fear that comes from living, period? If this does not seem like a glaring injustice to you, then try to take a moment inside that other person’s skin, walk around in it for awhile. I did so, briefly, in that neighborhood in Grand Rapids. Believe me, it can bring some stunning clarity.
Perhaps we should begin to look at things this way: The shootings in South Carolina have justly been called a hate crime, an act of racism. But the reality is there is only one race: The human race. Therefore, this crime was a racist crime against all of us. If you are white like me, perhaps viewing it this way will help you understand how this was an assault on your life, too. If you are white like me, perhaps it will help you grasp that this fight against hatred and violence is your fight, too.
In one sense, there is still a white and black divide. But this senseless and bloody act should inspire us all to realize that we are ultimately one; one race, one people, who share much more in common than we have differences.
If you are white like me, with the power and the privilege, you have a responsibility to set things right. For the sake of our race, the human race, let’s do it.