How do we start discussions with others on racial justice?
It begins with a request: Tell me about…
He is just over 30 with a beautiful wife and 3 small kids. He goes to a multi-ethnic and multi-generational church where he regularly plays guitar. Mike works in investments with precision and integrity, while meeting his client’s financial needs over the past 6 years.
He and I have been discussing racial reconciliation recently, and what that means in the Christian sphere. While I did ask specific questions about racial topics, I discovered more about him, more about being missional, and more about the gospel than I originally imagined.
We discussed community and how we think we are so connected, but we are more individualistic than ever.
Building community has become infinitely more difficult than it was 10 years ago. All of us are focused on the busyness that is our lives these days, but the question is, do we engage?
Some topics are uncomfortable. I asked about racial tension in society today. Where have we grown as a nation? He lamented how it seems we have grown in some areas and in others we’ve gone backwards:
“If we go back to 2012 for instance, there were many who did not experience the same level of racial tension that I saw regularly. There were others who had the inkling that maybe we haven’t had the progress we thought we had as a nation. It has become more pronounced because of social media and technology now. Fifty or sixty years ago it had to be something that made it on a national scale, such as events surrounding the Civil Rights movement. Now some people are coming into awareness of how their friends are going through this type of struggle. Progress is still limited to what makes the news headlines, but what are the things happening on a daily basis we don’t hear about? It has always been in existence to have different groups and minorities going through this.”
Mike has a unique perspective on this topic and shared some of his story with me. He grew up with a strong family bond and remained active in various churches full of multi ethnic backgrounds.
“Within my family, we’ve been talking about events in society since I can remember.
It simply comes out, we talk about it and what needs to be different and how it impacts our day to day. But that’s not the experience for everyone. From my perspective, the relationship I have with Jesus allows me to have hope where I may otherwise feel like a victim.”
A change in my viewpoint shifted here. We all have different experiences that echo from our past, becoming part of the framework of who we are.
Am I choosing to live as though I have no victory, or do I walk so closely in my relationship with the Lord that my outlook is permeated with hope?
Mike continued to share. “Where I began to notice a significant difference was high school and then again in college. In high school, my friends at church and school were mostly white. But it was almost like different pockets of my life because at home my cultural family norms were still there too. I started to get looks from people because most of my friends were white.
Looking back on it, my experience that was felt but never spoken was ‘Mike may be black but he’s not really black. He doesn’t act black.’ It was a very typical experience and a blind spot for them. They may have good intentions but just didn’t know how to approach the conversation. When you don’t know, you don’t know. ”
The challenge for me persisted here. How often do I look outside of myself regardless of the subject at hand, and think about others? Do I choose to live missionally? Is my experience more than my small friend and family community? Is that how I want my 30s and 40s to be? My future in general?
During the discussion, he asked me a question: “did you ever have a conversation with your parents about dating someone of another skin color?” I had not.
“I remember having conversations with friends and family members growing up about interracial dating and marriage, which caused feelings of tension. I felt like it became a defining point in my experience.” He paused, contemplative.
“I can’t think of any of my closest friends who had similar conversations.”
He began to discuss college: “I got an academic scholarship but people didn’t assume that I did, which was very hurtful. It’s like saying ‘I don’t care to know about you, but I’m going to tell you what I think people need to know about you.’ That’s what it felt like in college. Because I was a college athlete (I did have an athletic scholarship as well), conversations typically went like ‘oh do you play basketball or football?’ That was the normal assumption. As if to say ‘you’re automatically in the 10% of blacks that go to this college, and the majority of that 10% is here for sports. Since you probably got a sports scholarship, which of the two was it?’
When others would find out I had an athletic scholarship, they never considered I would play soccer at a predominately white college. Labeling was strong there. Some of that was having a conscious awareness, but most would unwittingly make that assumption.
I realized this was not the experience of a lot of my friends.”
I contemplated my own personal growth over the years. What investments have I made in the lives of others or people of different backgrounds?
Mike is often sought after for his advice. I continued to dig in a little deeper about other questions he’s been asked on racial justice in light of the media over the past couple of years.
When I asked Mike the question, “where could we continue to grow in race relations as Christians?” He told me simply:
“The same way you would build any other friendship.”
“That’s where it begins. That’s how to start reaching out to different ethnicities and backgrounds from you; to those you work with, neighbors, and those you want to share the gospel with. Allow the person to be themselves and talk about their experience, whatever it is. Listen first and then ask the questions later. You can’t take away someone’s experience, and that’s how to motivate that kind of conversation.”
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another. -John 13:35
Only a fraction of Mike’s strength and perseverance is mentioned here. His words are encouraging and moving, provoking us to eliminate labels and engage one another. And when we do, I pray we find ourselves with a similar thought he had:
“Maybe there’s something to this experience that I’d love to know more about.”
Let’s mobilize our Christian lives; step out of comfort zones and have difficult conversations with our fellow brothers and sisters. Let’s pursue discussions with those of completely different beliefs and build relationships. And in doing so, may we grow wildly in our faith.