I live in a segregated part of the mid-South in an affluent suburb; we spend a lot of time and effort and money here insulating ourselves from All-Things-Unpleasant. This isn’t a malicious effort. It’s an understandable human aspiration—to provide for our families, to send our kids to good schools, to work hard and enjoy the fruit of that labor.
Here we have manicured lawns and well-maintained houses. Somebody repairs the potholes in our streets almost as soon as they appear. A local parent live-tweets our county school board meetings so parents at home can follow along. We spearhead clothing drives for “the less fortunate,” and we hike for the homeless. We put stickers on our back windshields with how many miles we’ve run and where we vacation. Flags from our alma maters wave in the wind, anchored to the brick beside our garage doors.
We don’t like to think about things like racism around here. At least I didn’t. I didn’t have to.
All of that began to change for me one sunny morning through no fault of my own—believe me. I was inching forward through the drop-off line at our local elementary school. Our third-grader was quietly reading; our six-month old daughter was sleeping in her car seat, and I was listening to NPR’s morning news.
The topic was racism in America and specifically the death of Eric Garner. For reasons I can’t explain—the detail of the reporting, the injustices highlighted there, my sensitivity to the subject at that moment—I dropped off our son and pulled into the parking lot to listen to the rest of the report. Trying to understand it better, I pulled out my phone and pulled up the video of Garner’s encounter with the police. I had never seen the actual footage.
As if technology had transported me through time and space to that sidewalk on Staten Island, I watched the horrific scene unfold on my phone’s tiny screen. How could this be happening? I thought. Was this for real? Did this really happen just a few months ago?!
Heat rose in my cheeks, tears in my eyes, anger in my chest. The longer the footage rolled, the more my disbelief grew. I wanted to run into the scene, jump on the back of one of those officers and scream, “Stop! Let go! Can’t you see this man can’t breathe?”
Meanwhile, right outside my window, well-groomed children with monogrammed backpacks were trotting along the school sidewalk. Little girls’ pony tails bounced as they made their way down the bus steps, and teachers with steaming cups of coffee were smiling and welcoming our little ones.
Looking through my eyes, from my white, suburban perspective, that brutal scene on Staten Island seemed like an alternate reality. I might not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. But I had seen it. And I couldn’t unsee it.
“My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Ps. 119:136).
I had to pull myself together. I had groceries to buy, a baby to care for, a home to run. All the way to the grocery store, the tears kept spilling. I couldn’t stop crying. Hot, angry tears puddled in my lap, and prayers rolled right out with them.
The Holy Spirit was working in my heart, pressing me down with the weight of what I had just seen. Even now, I think those officers were not even aware of what was happening — of the part they were playing in this drama that is so much bigger than that moment on that day — and that thought terrifies me all the more.
My mind reeled, replaying all of the racism I had witnessed and been a part of in my own life. Jokes I had heard and re-told as a young girl. Confederate flags waving from the backs of trucks in my high school parking lot. The “n-word.” The more polite and socially nuanced racism of my adult life. Allowing comments to pass without rebuke. Tolerating it. Ignoring it. Ignoring it. Ignoring it.
Ignorance. Willful and plain.
Grief swelled and began cracking my heart open, forcing its walls to widen. Sorrow and repentance started pouring out from somewhere deep inside. I didn’t even know where this was coming from—I was experiencing a one-woman gospel-driven revolution in the middle of the most ordinary day in the world.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice!” (Ps. 130:1-2a).
I arrived at the grocery store and sat there in the parking lot, trying to pull it together. I reined in my tears, aware of those around me, of those who looked like me, lived like me—my tribe by all outward standards. In the parking lot of a grocery store in the safest suburb you can imagine, I cried out to the Lord quietly.
God in heaven. My Father. You are the Father of us all. Your throne is built on a foundation of righteousness and justice. You hate injustice and oppression. You hate it. It breaks your massive heart into a million pieces, and now it’s breaking mine. I can’t change this world Lord, but you can. I break things, but you—you do the exact opposite of that. You mend broken things. That’s what you do. You heal our brokenness.
Give your people eyes to see what you see. Bring repentance and true healing to your Church. Make us instruments of your grace and peace. Let your church rise up now, O Lord in righteousness and justice. Show the world Jesus through us.”
“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2a).
That morning, in a tiny but powerful way, the Lord began to open my eyes to the reality of racism in America. I had lived much of my life with the luxury of not really having to think about it. Had you asked me, I would’ve acknowledged that racism existed, but I would’ve simply been giving you information from my head—not my heart.
But our God is a God of wisdom and compassion—of head and heart—of justice and mercy. Who else is like him?
I wonder where you are in your personal narrative of racial reconciliation? I wonder if, like me, you’ve had the luxury of living much of your life without really thinking about it. I wonder if, like me, you’ve felt helpless and even defensive when thinking about racism in America and in the church.
Or maybe you’re living every day of your life with the harsh reality of racism shaping your experiences and opportunities. Maybe you are fighting to love like Jesus and extend grace and forgive in ways I will never fully understand. Maybe your story is completely different from mine.
Oh, may the love of God unite us. May he make us one in such a powerful and supernatural way that the world won’t be able to deny the reality and the deity of Jesus Christ. May the world come to know of Christ’s love for for us all by the healing of racism in the Church and its ripple effect on our nation and world.
Only he can make friends out of enemies. Only he can heal us. Our only hope is in him.
“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).