Even though at the time I couldn’t wait to get out, I really enjoyed and appreciated my growing up years in little Ozark, Missouri. I attended the same school system K-12. I had great memories and ample opportunities. I tried hard and screwed around. I knew my teachers and classmates. I attended a fine church in Springfield, where I made my best high school friends and we had adventures together. I had both freedom and responsibility.
However, as I look back one thing I did not have was diversity in my life. My friends were all the same – your stereotypical White Anglo Saxon Protestants. All of them. I cannot think of an exception, though perhaps a few were Catholic. In fact, at the time I’d be hard pressed to name a person I knew who was gay, though I’m sure many now have come out since then. No one has changed ethnicities. We all had different, unique stories, but they certainly were more similar than different.
I’d never understood what a disadvantage that was until recently. I wish I could tell you I made even more diverse friends in college at Mizzou. That’s true when the starting place is zero. I’m thankful for the few “abnormal” friends I had, but I stuck to my WASP roots.
It wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t trying to do this. It just happened. That’s my excuse. The circles I ran in were self-perpetuating in that regard, even if they weren’t designed that way. You know who you know. Small changes in patterns are counted as much bigger than they actually are. You’re focused in on the small scale, so you can’t see the big scale.
That was true in Stillwater after college. That was true my one year in Lincoln, Nebraska. That was even true in St. Louis. I had opportunities, but I rarely took them. I enjoyed and appreciated meeting people from different parts of the country (and world) and having totally new conversations, but our denominational seminary looks mostly just like me. I didn’t choose to attend a racially diverse church, but our church was amazing. I grew in my love for theology, the Bible, the church, ministry and the world during my time in St. Louis.
We lived in Norman, Oklahoma for 10 years starting 2001. I started the RUF campus ministry there at OU. It was an incredible 10 years, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I had a few black students and Asian now and then. I knew a few professors who weren’t just like me. OU isn’t the most diverse place, and neither is Norman – at least not the places I went. We served the international students. Our family always “adopted” a few each year. We’d have them over for dinner and really loved getting to know them.
I’m trying to tell you that I was unawarely aware. I guess I knew people are diverse and different and we need all types of people in our lives. I would talk about it and preach about it. I would seek it out to a degree at least. I’d be frustrated that our ministry (and my life) seemed to only attract certain types, whatever those might be – national merit scholars, non Greeks, churched youth group kids, thinkers instead of doers, theologians. I didn’t know how to truly break the homogenous principle that seemed so engrained that I was stuck with and trapped with. I wasn’t sure if it was possible, or if I wanted to do more than talk about it and whatever it was that I was already doing.
That’s a long preface, and I feel I’ve used up my time.
It’s 2016 and a few things have changed. I attended a MLK, Jr memorial service with black churches in our city last year and did again this year. I will be at the parade today, as I was last year. I’m making space in my life, ministry and family for friends not like me. I’m realizing that I need to read more, listen more, show up more, disagree less, argue less, promote more, grieve more, stand up more, give up more, repent more, isolate less.
It’s not my fault that I was born white and grew up where I did. It’s not wrong for me to have the story I did, or to be in the place I am. It’s not wrong for anyone to have the skin color he or she has. or the story he or she has. Or be in the place he or she is in.
That’s just it. Our society says it is wrong. It’s bad to be black or brown. Why is that? How do I benefit from that system and belief? How do I cut against that grain?
- I ask God to change my heart and outlook to one that he has
- I confess and repent of my sins without blaming others
- I take responsibility for my thoughts, beliefs and actions, ones seen and unseen
- I pursue friendships and relationships with people who aren’t like me (racial, social, economic, tattoos, unbelief, age, physical abilities, stage of life, theological) (PS – I am terrible at this.)
- I try to move into humble, non-judgmental, fearless conversations if I’m allowed
- I attempt to show up with the people I’m trying to get to know. If I’m wanting to make friends with people at my Crossfit gym, I have to show up to hang out with them both at the formal and the informal times. If I want to have friendships with black friends, then I have to show up to hang out with them, both at the formal and informal times. Sometimes I initiate and sometimes I respond, but I’ll never make friendships without putting in the time and caring about them instead of only me.
- I ask questions and listen, but I don’t need to turn every conversation into my project. I have especially appreciated asking questions about the news when events come up to get a different perspective.
- I ask God to break my heart for the things that break his heart. I try to move toward those places, as led by him.
- I try to risk things now and then if I can. Our church risked its pulpit for four black pastors to preach to us. Our church is risking to bring in a new ministry to help us. Our family has been risking our Christmas Day to serve at a city-wide dinner. I risk being misunderstood, and I hate to be misunderstood. I risk saying stupid things, which I do all the time.
- I try to walk. I try to get outside of my normal comfort zone. I try to see things from a different place.
- I try to wonder what helping my neighbor might mean. I try to consider what if I were a refugee, or what if my mother were in jail, or what if I didn’t know a payday loan was bad, or what if I thought I would die when I was 19, or what if I grew up in a gang, or what if I were afraid of the police?
- As I’ve made friends this way, I’ve made a commitment to always say Yes when they ask me to do something. That’s not been easy, but it’s been good, very good for me.
When I type those out, they seem rather pathetic to me. OF COURSE we should do those things. I’m not sure why they need to be so intentional for me.
And I also spend most of my time not doing any of things. The above list doesn’t make me a better person or more loved or more accepted. Much of what I do is normal, every day white pastor Presbyterian ministry to the people in our church – which is important, vital, life-giving work. I’m not obsessed with racial reconciliation. I’m captivated by the gospel message, the good news that God saves sinners. He seeks and saves the lost. There is salvation in Christ alone.
Because of that message, we are free to love and be loved. We’re free to love our neighbors as ourselves. We’re commanded to do it, and we’re free to do it. We’re free to imagine and then help our city be the best and greatest it can be so it can flourish for all people in it, no matter what or who they are.
I regret that I’m so behind in some areas, and have over-focused in others. I’m sure I’m still getting that mix incorrect. May the Lord help me as I try to love him and others. I’m behind, and I’d like to catch up to what I think it will be more like in the new heavens and the new earth when every nation, tribe, people and language worship Jesus together in fullness.