Article Feb 27, 2017

Learning about racial injustice: My family's journey

Each time I hear about another shooting of a black person by police and see the subsequent protests around the country, my heart aches. It aches for the families who have just lost loved ones, and the communities who do not feel safe. It aches for the families of police officers who are now fearful to send their loved ones to work.  It aches for the centuries-old wounds and divisions each incident exposes. But underneath it all, it aches for the brokenness and injustice that is ever-present in our fallen world.  

Yet, if I am brutally honest with myself, once the news cycle moves along to the next week’s story, the heartache is shamefully pushed to the back of my mind.  

I am not black. I am not a police officer, nor do I have any in my immediate family. I am a white woman who grew up in a predominantly white community, whose primary understanding of modern racism comes from living for several years in post-Apartheid South Africa.

I do not understand what it’s like to grow up in an urban environment, scared for my safety and fearful of those whose sworn duty is to protect me. I have never been looked at differently by a store clerk because of the color of my skin, nor have I been asked to do a job where my life is put in danger every day.  

I struggle to truly empathize with those losing lives, facing dangers and living in the constant shadow of the deadly consequences of sin in our world. Yet, Romans 12:15 makes it clear that God’s people are to “mourn with those who mourn.” My fleeting heartache is not enough.  

In the wake of the tragic deaths in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, my husband and I began to wrestle with our own lack of understanding. One Sunday following a shooting, we wept silently at church as our pastor challenged us to move beyond the sin-drenched divisive debates and talking points in order to love our neighbors in the midst of their pain.

My husband and I resolved to no longer allow our hearts to be unchanged as those around us mourned. We longed to have a deeper understanding of their pain so that we could authentically mourn alongside them as Scripture instructs.  

We set out on a sometimes awkward, but ever fascinating journey of asking honest questions and listening. The next time we had close black friends over for a meal, we asked them how they were doing in the wake of the shootings. We asked what it was like for them to grow up in predominantly black neighborhoods and what experiences they and their neighbors had with law enforcement. We spoke with our black church friends and asked what they thought white Christians needed to understand. We connected with black colleagues at the forefront of racial reconciliation ministries and asked what we could do to help.

We also reached out to friends who work in law enforcement, asking how they were handling increased tensions and pressures. We asked what their perspectives were on each shooting and what solutions they saw to the current unrest they were facing.   

Our first attempts at broaching these challenging subjects were not seamless. We fumbled with the right wording, tone and timing. But the wisdom we gained in spite of our clumsiness was immeasurable. In each conversation, our friends could see past our inelegance to the heart of our questions. Can we sit with you in your pain? Can you help us understand your hurt? Can we help be a solution in any way?  

Through the gracious candor of our friends, we were given a glimpse into the depths of the pain. As we sat and listened to their powerful stories and raw perspectives, our heartache began to give way to heartbreak. At the end of the day, we didn’t come away from each conversation agreeing on tactics, policies or even where blame should be laid in each particular tragedy. But listening to our friends, and entering into that deep hurt with them, united us with them in their mourning. Although we may never understand the full breadth of the challenges surrounding racial reconciliation in America, our friends helped us walk one step closer toward being a part of the solutions.

In her seminal book on racism in the south, Harper Lee wrote that you can never truly understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. For white Christians like me, the burden is on us to realize the limitations of our perspectives, to seek out our black brothers and sisters and to learn how to view the world as they do.  

There is no easy way to enter into someone else’s pain. When Jesus Christ entered our fallen world to pay the price for our sins, he modeled this concept to us and proved just how costly it can be. He now calls his redeemed to take up our crosses and enter into the pain of others so that we may bring his grace and redemption to the darkness.  

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Letters from a Birmingham Jail,

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

May we be a people who suffer and sacrifice alongside one another. May the gospel bring us humbly to our knees so that we may hear the cries of our brothers and sisters. May our actions of walking alongside each other in the midst of deep grief be a thermostat that transforms our broken and hurting society.