For those of you who don't know, I am a very white man. I do white man things, listen to white man music (i.e. sports talk radio), minister at a very white church...and when I turned 30 several years ago I was dismayed to learn I could no longer jump. At all. That's not the only thing I began to notice. I also noticed that fewer people living around me looked like me. I'm still part of a vast majority, but the demographics are changing in my own neighborhood, my church's neighborhood, and on the high school campus where I coach. It also struck me that I don't really understand how not-white people think about...stuff. So when the opportunity arose last summer I couldn't resist asking, "Why wouldn't a black man from the inner city go camping with his college roommates?" I forgot to mention I also attend classes at a seminary that isn't quite as white as I am...but it's close. So when I found myself next to a young African-American man one day I struck up a conversation. It was lunchtime. We were the only two who had brought sandwiches rather than heading to the local bistro. If you can't talk candidly with a seminary student who is every bit the cheapskate you are...who can you talk to? He was a campus minister at a large university. He had grown up in the inner-city and attended classes and played football at that same university. He broke the mold of seminary students I'd met to that point, thus I felt compelled to probe into my new friend's journey up to that time. He was glad to oblige.
Over the course of a week of economical lunching we talked about growing up city versus growing up suburbia. We discussed black church, white church, and the mostly hypothetical black and white church. We talked about awkward moments for him as an African-American, inner-city college guy, like when he was invited to go camping with his white roommates. "It's just not something that ever occurred to me to do," he said. "Sleep in the woods? Why?"
That was all well and good. Then a few weeks later the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case hit the news. Yeah. So I called my buddy at the U. two states away and I asked, "Are you really as upset about this as CNN claims you are?" He responded in the affirmative. "Can I play stupid one more time and ask you to explain it to me?" He did. He talked about things that had never occurred to me. His father had in fact sat him down when he was 13 years old and explained how to deal with white cops should they approach him. He had been and occasionally still is followed around by store employees as he shops. White women had crossed the street or gripped their purses a little tighter as he walked past. I offered that some of these things perhaps happen subconsciously, without people thinking about it. "That's the problem," he said. "People don't think about it."
Unfortunately that's how perception becomes reality. It's irrational to think that just because someone is black he is up to no good, but sometimes white people do it without even thinking about it. It's equally irrational for a black person to assume that all white people are racists, but sometimes it happens without him thinking about it. On this my friend and I agreed. Sin by its very nature is irrational; it is to jump to conclusions about another prior to any real knowledge of the other. People are turned into objects. Distancing ourselves from relationships with those who are markedly different from us because we're afraid of what they might do to us is irrational. Whether it's race, age, sexuality, politics, or brand of socks, politely ignoring our differences or pretending they don't exist only perpetuates the problem. It also denies the Holy Spirit's ability to transcend these differences, bring reconciliation, and reform believers into "new creations."
It's long past time we commit ourselves, both individually as "new creations" and collectively as the church, to the task of engaging in conversation with those who think differently than we do, rather than trying to create Christian ghettos full of people just like us. All sorts of people do not all have to think exactly the way you do about everything. But all sorts of people do need to experience the grace of Jesus and see the Holy Spirit at work in the church, just like you do. Apparently it's not going to be enough to simply invite all those people to go on a camping trip, although I'm up for it! We should probably get to work building a variety of bridges. Doing so does not mean we compromise our convictions. It only means we'll get so nervous that we'll have to trust Jesus that much more, perhaps strengthening our convictions.