Black History Month

Black History Month is a celebration! It is not a time to say that one group is greater than another, but it exists to recognize and respect the resilience of a people amid obstacles they were never meant to overcome. Whether they are engineers, scientists, artists, athletes, inventors, or entrepreneurs, Black people have contributed to the society we all are a part of in the USA and around the world.

American history has not been written in favor of Black people. Movies, television shows, news and history books themselves have distorted views on who Black people are, where they come from, and how they came to be. Black History Month is meant to change the narrative that has been accepted for so long. It is a chance for us to reflect on “…our 400-year-old sin,” as Rev. Scott Dudley speaks of it, as well as the achievements in spite of that.

Black people invented all sorts of things that we use today. Notable innovations such as the first successful open heart surgery, the common day street light, and the first automated oiler for steam-engine trains were brought to our country by brilliant Black people, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, and Elijah McCoy. Jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, rock & roll, and funk music all trace back to Black culture.

It is worth noting how many Black women have contributed and continue to enrich our society. Katherine Johnson,  mathematician and scientist (portrayed in the film Hidden Figures), helped NASA launch the first human-crewed mission to the moon. The first self-made millionaire, Madam CJ Walker, was Black. Modern-day trailblazers continue to fight for equality as well as equity in different realms of American society that were never considered “for Black people.” Oprah Winfrey is the first Black woman to become a billionaire. Misty Copeland is the first Black Principal Dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. Gabrielle Douglas is the first woman of color (of any nationality) and the first Black gymnast in Olympic history to become the Individual All-Around Champion. She is also the first American gymnast to win gold in both the gymnastic individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympic games.

There are so many things to thank Black people for throughout our history, but it does not end there. Today, Black people continue to be the face of popular culture. Hip-hop is now the most popular music around the world. Black people make up roughly 75% of the professional athletes in the NBA and NFL. And with access that was never given before in the corporate world, there are more and more Black business people, lawyers and engineers creating our future.

If we are all made in God’s image, we should celebrate this new narrative. We, as Christians, have the opportunity to help shift the storyline from degradation to celebration.

While the world may demean Black people, let’s honor the accomplishments of our brothers and sisters. We can show the world a new way, the third way, to reconciliation.

“A candle never loses its light by lighting another.” – Rumi (Persian poet)

Becoming Aware of Being Unaware

Brent Christie is the founder and former executive director of Jubilee REACH.

Race – a “hot button” issue and perhaps the most explosive issue in our society. Conversations about race and racism can be very uncomfortable, socially awkward, even a bit dangerous, as latent emotions, perceptions, and pain become unmasked.

I thought I was ready, even eager, to engage in the racial conversation when I was invited by friends and partners within the Bellevue School District to participate in a five-day conference on race: “Courageous Conversations.” That’s five days among 900 racially diverse “strangers” from school districts throughout the country.

The first prerequisite for participation in the conference was that I “stay engaged.” No matter how personal or perilous the dialogue on race, every participant was to stay engaged and committed to the conversation. The second related and requisite tenet was to “expect and experience discomfort.” I was about to discover (when unpacking my own and others’ perspectives and experiences about race) things were going to get uncomfortable. It didn’t take long.

In response to 26 statements of what I consider normal, everyday life and social experiences, each of us was asked to privately score “our truths” based upon our race or color. After totaling our scores, we silently lined up around the room, highest scores to lowest. Without a sound, 250 diversely mixed people became ranked according to their racial “truth experience score.” White males formed the front of the line and then clustered with white females. From there, the line extended from lighter to darker shades of brown to black at the very end of the line. The quiet was palpable; the visual, profound. Then our facilitator asked who had college degrees, master’s degrees, and Ph.D.’s by a show of hands. Ultimately, more hands remained raised at the end of the line.

Discomfort – The conference called Courageous Conversations just got real. Voices began to speak. Voices of color spoke most: first from observations, then from inner thoughts and feelings, then from profound personal stories of real life experiences. Polite turned to painful. As the conversation became more personal, penetrating and risky, the more silent I and my white colleagues became. Retreating to my “white male comfort club” was no longer a choice. My gut was churning.

Face to face in public for the next few days, I was facilitated through a deeper dialogue. In smaller groups, we unpacked. Through a persistent process of awkward (often gut-wrenching) dialogue, I recognized how truly unconscious I was of my privilege. Being oblivious to my state of entitlement and white privilege, I can actually irritate another person.

I absorbed stories from black and brown people, professionals with Ph.D.’s, being pulled over by police being told, “you people take advantage of our rights…” I empathized with a highly educated black mother defending her children when a white school teacher insisted her 8-year-old son “didn’t belong” and demanded he be placed in special education classes. When that well-educated black mother became upset and persistent, she was dismissed as “irrational and angry,” asked to calm down or be removed from the school.

Using only eye contact, we were directed to select a person of a different race to engage in a direct one-on-one conversation. Earlier, I had observed a black woman speaking in our general session. I was drawn to her pleasant, thoughtful manner. Fortunately, we made eye contact at the same time and our gesture to one another sealed our mutual selection of each other to engage in a courageous conversation. I learned Bernadette was a Ph.D. and school board trustee for one of the largest school districts in the country. Learning I was from Seattle, Bernadette explained how she loved Nordstrom. Then she shared her truth, “When I shop at Nordstrom, I always dress well. I have learned that when I dress casually, I’m looked at differently and I don’t receive the same service or attention.”

Bernadette said that she would be leaving the conference early to tend to a civil unrest issue (a video that had gone viral) in her district. The video was of her! She had challenged the stance of her white male superintendent on a racial matter at her school board meeting. As she left the meeting, the superintendent arranged for the police to forcibly arrest her as she departed the building. I watched the YouTube video in disbelief.  Now knowing Bernadette, I was angry.

The third tenet of Courageous Conversations required I “speak my truth,” not passing off my own thoughts or assumptions as “some people.” I must own my own thoughts, feelings, and opinions without fear of offending, appearing angry or sounding ignorant.

The fourth and final tenet was to “expect and accept a lack of closure.” Conversations about race usually provide no resolution but can perpetuate a process of learning, understanding, even appreciation and perhaps empathy.

Intense – that is one way of describing “my truth” of five days of Courageous Conversation in New Orleans. I certainly became aware of how unaware I was. Unaware and unconscious of the liberties, privileges, even entitlements being a white male affords me in our society. Douglas Fitch, a Methodist pastor wrote, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” I realize that many of my beliefs on race are based on misconceptions because I have never experienced being a person of color in school, living in a white culture, entering the workforce or pursuing a career,

For racial conditions to change, I also realized it is not my role to play “savior” or be the “big white fix.” Rather I must change – I must be the change. I must be culturally competent and conscious, and deconstruct the barriers and biases that assume there is something wrong with people based on their racial or ethnic makeup. I must be the change I want to see, stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak my truth, and expect and accept this is not going to be easy. I must get comfortable with discomfort.

And to Bernadette, on the chance that you may ever read this, I want to say “thanks.” “Thank you for speaking your truth to me, for connecting your eyes with mine, allowing me to hear your truth and see your heart as a mother, a courageous leader, and a friend during an intense week of personal discovery.”

 

 

June 28-29 at Odle Middle School: Beyond Diversity is a powerful, personal transforming 2-day seminar designed to help leaders, educators, students, parents, administrators and community participants understand the impact of race on students learning and investigate the role that racism plays in institutionalizing academic achievement disparities.
Get more information or register online at courageousconversations.com

Racism and the Gospel, a visit with Dr. John Perkins

Racism: the belief that some races are inherently superior (physically, intellectually, or culturally) to others and therefore have a right to dominate them. Racism breeds fear and distrust, robbing everyone involved of their identity in Christ, created in God’s image, to know God, to love and bJohn-Perkinse loved. Racism is hateful and evil, pitting one human against another human, destroying relationships and ultimately bringing death. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you news of great joy which will be for all people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).  All people. Racism steals away the good news of the gospel.

John Perkins began his life in 1930 in Mississippi as the son of a poor sharecropper. When he was seven months old his mother died and his father abandoned the family, leaving the children to be raised in poverty by their grandmother and extended family. John was seventeen when his older brother was murdered by a town marshal, and John’s family became afraid for his life. Vowing never to return to the place of his birth, John fled to California.

Fast forward to 1957 when John, through his son’s encouragement, attended a church service and encountered the Lord, giving his life to Christ. Though he had vowed never to return to his boyhood home, God had a bigger plan for John. In 1960, John moved their family to Mississippi to share the gospel of Christ with those still living in that area. John became a vocal supporter and leader in the civil rights movement, was beaten, arrested and tortured in jail, but never lost sight of the call on his life or the love of God in his heart. He came through this experience with a vision of a holistic ministry designed to remove the bondage of racism from all people, the oppressor and the oppressed.

Through the next four decades John wrote, spoke, taught, earned degrees and became an international leader in the church. He authored nine books, created non-profit ministries, joined boards at World Vision and Prison Fellowship, and became a leader in community development for impoverished people in urban and rural settings.  In 2004, Seattle Pacific joined with now Dr. John Perkins to launch the campus-based John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development.

Dr. Perkins was in town last week. On Monday, I had the privilege of joining a small gathering of urban leaders for lunch and teaching with by Dr. John. We met at Urban Impact and for two hours we sat at the feet of the master of reconciliation. At 85 years of age, he is an energetic man with a gentle demeanor and an incredible heart for God’s people. Moving around the room as he spoke, he made eye contact with each person. Words of scripture flowed effortlessly from him as spoke about the utter devastation racism had on our country, our communities and our churches.

He asked, “What is the time in which each of us is living? It is not the time to profile and hate, it is the time to start reading the word of God and believe what it says!” God has not designed us to be defined by race; we are all members of one race, the human race. We come from different ethnicities, cultures, lands, and we are all one race under God.

Dr. John spoke on God’s call on our lives to love. He said, “Love is the best chance…people get trapped in their own cultures…we have to love their eyes open…to look for ways to serve both sides.” The Gospel is the power to reconcile people together, and as the church we are called to reconcilers, to let the God of Reconciliation live in our hearts and walk out reconciliation in our lives. As Dr. John stated, “Let’s enjoy loving each other across all lines that divide us.” How do we do this? By coming together, working and learning together, and by staying together no matter what.

Have you experienced racism in your own life? If so, how did it impact your faith and your understanding of reconciliation?

Are you interested in further conversations on race and reconciliation? If so, BelPres has a Justice and Reconciliation team that meets twice a month. For more information contact me,  Mary McCracken, Director of Community Outreach at mmccracken@belpres.org.