I had certainly intended to follow-up before now on my last blog post about white church leaders! However, schedule creep turned into a bit of a tidal wave and I am trying hard to swim back to shore. I know that some white church leaders (and others) may have thought from my last post that I am down on them, but that is not the case. I do believe that raising awareness among our leaders about the needs I am addressing in this blog has proved to be something of an uphill climb.
That being said, I am receiving many letters and comments from white disciples who fully support and appreciate what I am writing. Sometimes I can get frustrated with the speed of progress in raising awareness, and my frustration might be interpreted as if few folks in my color category really care. That is decidedly not the case.
In my next post, I am going to share what I have seen in my home church in Dallas. We may not be the perfect model, but we have done some important things from which others can learn. However, to be very candid, I have received enough comments from my black brothers and sisters here to know that we still have a long way to go. I do believe that our leaders are definitely on the right track and wanting to keep helping us make progress. But now, we still need some more preparation in this article as a precursor to that next one.
Uncaring or Unaware?
One of the things that I hear from black friends is that their white leaders say that they just don’t see the need to focus much on racial issues because their black members (and others of color) don’t seem to be having any problems related to race. I don’t question their honesty on this in the least. They really don’t see the problem, or if they do, they seriously underestimate the depths of it. Thus, I am trying my best to help raise awareness.
Once I was in an orchard of fruit trees with a friend and he remarked how much fruit was on the trees. I thought he was kidding, because I didn’t see even one piece of fruit. He then helped me to see that although the fruit was still green and small, and blended in well with the leaves, it was there in abundance. Although I didn’t see it at first, once my eyes focused on the first piece of fruit, I almost immediately saw an amazing amount of fruit all in those trees. Sometimes our awareness level simply has to be focused and raised. That, I think, is the case with so many of our white Christians. They aren’t uncaring, but they are unaware and thus need help.
Why Are We Not Seeing the Realities?
That’s a good question, with several answers. One, some just don’t want to see because the realities of other’s pain hurts them. Perhaps I have already mentioned the conversation I had with a Christian sister that I know well. After asking her if she were reading my blog, she admitted that she wasn’t reading it and said something to this effect: “I’m not racist or prejudiced; I’m colorblind and I just don’t like talking about race.” Well, I don’t either. If the problem weren’t there, I would be so relieved – but it is there, more of it than this sister even begins to imagine. Her lack of awareness is shown in the use of “colorblind,” which many people of color take as an insult. It insinuates that black or brown doesn’t count.
Two, some don’t want to see the problem because they realize how limited in knowledge they are about the whole subject and are just embarrassed to expose their ignorance. Their fear factor is real and their level of knowledge is extremely low in this arena. They are right about that, but they are wrong about willfully remaining ignorant and also wrong about letting their fears stop them. We are all going to have to learn to humbly confess how little we know and how afraid we are to venture into such sensitive new territory – but then do it. Such honesty will lower the fear factor on both sides of the discussion. It is not unlike the challenge of talking to your children when they are young about sex. When there is a need to talk, we must conquer our fears and start replacing our ignorance with knowledge.
Three, some simply do not understand the dynamics that I explained in my last post. The problem is hiding in plain sight. White folks are hiding behind their fears of exposing their ignorance and hurting their brothers and sisters of color unintentionally. Black folks are afraid to say what they are really feeling about the world in which they live because that world is better than it was a few decades ago, especially in the church, and they don’t want to risk losing what they have gained.
As I also said in my last blog post, the dynamics are akin to how teens feel about sharing their deepest fears and feelings with their parents. Bottom line, they are afraid that total honesty would cause their parents to freak out. Especially is this true when they are unsure of just how their pent-up emotions inside them might come out. Some parents don’t always handle their children’s emotions well, especially if they come out with anger. Really wise parents who are abundantly endued with the gift of self-control would much rather their children be totally honest with them, even if that honesty is clothed in seriously heightened emotions, rather than keeping it all locked up inside.
Part of a Different World
My wife and I lived in France for six months. For two kids (at heart) from Louisiana, that was indeed a different world. We had to adjust to the ways of the French in order to function in their world. When you are a minority, as we were, you will learn to adapt to what the majority population finds normal and acceptable. We did that in spite of the fact that we didn’t like some of what we saw in that culture. We enjoyed the food a bit too much, I must say!
Suppose I had met some other American citizens and we were having an honest conversation outside a restaurant about what we didn’t like about the French culture. As we were talking, imagine that a French person who obviously understood English came near and started listening intently to our conversation. Would we keep talking about their “world” or would we likely change the subject as long as they were listening?
If you get that, you might start understanding that black folks talking about racial issues are going to change the subject when white folks start listening. And yes, this applies to members in our church. Many have told me that this is indeed the case, and I understand why. It is pretty much parallel to what I described about the same type of conversation in France. One black friend, a Christian, shared with me that when he and his non-Christian physical brothers get together, they morph into a discussion of racial issues within five minutes of getting together. When among white fellow Christians, their issues are hidden in plain sight, as I said. That is why we whitebread folks need to initiate discussions, perhaps beginning by sharing our fears and our ignorance, and then start learning what other’s burdens are so that we can help bear them.
Fears of Heightened Emotions
Most of us have three gears of communication. Level one is the very calm cliché level where we talk about the weather, sports, shopping and the like. Level two is when the content is much more serious, but we do it with relative calmness. Level three is what occurs when we haven’t developed a level two! At level three, our content is strong and our manner of expressing it is likewise strong. Those who hold in strong feelings long enough are likely to explode into level three at some point.
Learning to communicate at level two is an art form in one sense, and uncommon spirituality in another sense. It is uncommon because most of us are people pleasers and conflict avoiders. Here is the Bible’s description of level two, that uncommon spirituality:
“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:23-26).
What did God say through Paul in this passage? Not to engage in arguments and quarrels with those who are emotionally out of their senses. He didn’t say to shut down the conversation or run away from it. He said to listen to the fiery talk without dishing it back, and to remain kind while continuing to reason with the fireball and not to get resentful (meaning not to take it personally). Along with that gentle instruction, you keep praying that God will help them out of the emotional turmoil that they are locked into. In this way, you can be a tool of God to help them work through what they are feeling, and to then come to their senses.
Black leader friends have told me that they are very concerned about how some black disciples might express themselves once they get started talking about race and their feelings start pouring out. They often try to help prepare their brothers and sisters of color to express themselves as calmly as possible, and they should try hard to do this. But what if that doesn’t happen in the heat of the moment? Am I going to shut down the conversation when the volume goes up, or love enough to help them work through what they are feeling? Would I help my own child (especially in those teen years) work through their pain, or would I insist on them saying it just the right way before I would be willing to hear them out? The loving parent would follow the first approach and the unloving parent would do the second – resulting in a shut-down kid whose very future might be in danger. Are you listening yet?
Venting Has Its Place!
Have you ever been out of your senses and said things you shouldn’t have said, or at least said whatever you said in a very wrong way? God knows I have – many times! I am an emotionally based guy, to the point that I have wished for an “emotionectomy” countless times. Has anyone ever turned it back on me and totally rejected my content because I was saying it in the wrong way? Oh yes, more than once! Has anyone ever put 2 Timothy 2 into practice with me? Praise God, yes, and what a difference it made in my heart and life. I remember some of those times like they were yesterday, and I will always be thankful – thankful for them and thankful to God for them.
My wife is a great people helper. I honestly don’t know anyone better at helping other women work through their emotional pain. (She helps males too, me being the foremost of those!) She listens to their pain to a point that she forgets her own. It’s called self-denial, which is the first requisite of following Jesus, as I recall. She often asks those she is helping if they want advice or just need to vent. If they choose the latter, she listens intently, no matter what they say or how they say it. Almost always, they are open to spiritual advice after venting. Theresa has mastered the principles in that passage amazingly well, with the occasional exception when her husband pushes too many of her buttons. She is almost an angel, but not quite!
Real Life Examples
I had a black Christian sister on Facebook write some things in an emotional state that she soon erased. She wrote me on Messenger, the private side of FB, and apologized. Along with the first apology came some additional venting, aimed mainly at herself, complete with some racial terminology. Afterwards, she soon wrote me another apology. Obviously she was hurting. I quickly let her know that her apology was accepted, but more importantly, I let her know that I was a safe place and that I wasn’t offended in the least by what she wrote. I just hurt with her and was so glad that she felt safe enough with me to say what was on her heart.
I received an email a few days ago from another black sister with this heading: “Feeling Hopeless in My Battle Against Ignorance.” She poured her heart out to me and it was full of pain. She recounted instances of white sisters using terminology in front of others that they perhaps thought was acceptable and even “cool,” but it was anything but. It hurt her deeply. She also described her attempts to share her pain with white sisters who got offended quickly by her honesty and by her emotional state as she shared. She assured me that she has talked to a number of other black sisters who felt exactly the same. When such instances occur, they just try to smile and endure, trying to avoid making bad situations worse.
A Jesus Ministry
After sending me the email, this second sister was very fearful, expecting me to rebuke her (her words). Of course, I wrote back quickly to assure her that I was a safe place. I told her to relax and get a good night’s sleep – to make up for the long night when she wrote and sent the email. I will speak with her on the phone in the next few days to make sure I understand her heart and the pain in it more accurately. I want to help bear her burdens. The longer I deal with this systemic racism issue, the more I understand the heart of Jesus, when he said that he came to “set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Oppression comes in many forms, some of it intentional and some of it unintentional. I believe that those of us who are trying to help deal with this form of it are smackdab in the middle of a Jesus ministry.
I want to be there for my brothers and sisters of color. In the past year, I have learned so much about what my fellow Christian friends of color are really feeling. I’m glad they are opening up to me. As one brother says, he has racial demons inside, and often our conversations are quite something. He says that his wife is very grateful for me and he also says that I’m one of the few white guys that he can share with about those demons. I’m glad to be one of the few in one sense, but in another sense, the number of us palefaces who are willing to help others like him deal with their demons must increase, and increase mightily. Won’t you join the battle? Please?