My phone rang yesterday and, on the other end was the voice of a dear friend of mine. I’d never heard her voice before yesterday, but that is the nature of some friendships, isn’t it? I just checked Facebook and found out we’ve been friends since October, 2011. But, we’d never actually spoken to each other, until yesterday.
My friend needed me to clarify some things for her. She was, in her own words, bewildered. Through the earbuds in my ears, I could hear the shakiness in her voice and, she told me, her heart was pounding.
I’ve felt like that before. It’s not fun.
So we stopped, and we prayed, and we took a deep breath.
Her words tumbled out in a cascade of breathless emotion. She wasn’t angry. She was, actually, bewildered. She told me she’d started to contact me nearly fifty times in the past few months, but she had always decided against it, until yesterday.
My friend asked me some deep questions about race in America, my experience of it, and the words I write about it. She told me when she reads the words I’ve been writing about race, she feels distant from me, where before, she’d felt closer. We talked for over an hour—her in her home miles from mine; me, lying on my turquoise picnic table on my deck.
This morning, I was still thinking about our conversation, so I messaged my friend to ask if she’d be okay with me writing about it. Because, I believe if I have one friend out there feeling the way this friend does, there are probably others out there, feeling the same way.
“Absolutely!” my friend messaged back.
Here are some things I want you to know, especially when it comes to the topic of race and racism in America:
- I have this crazy dream that the Church can be a leader in the conversation about racism. When I listen to us, however, I often hear us sounding just like (and sometimes worse than) everyone else. We are often polarized, defensive, and dug in to our way of seeing things. I believe we can be different. I believe we are called to be different. When I write about racism, here in this space, my goal is to help give us tools to elevate the conversation and help us find common ground. Then, when we leave this space and engage the conversation on social media, or around our dining room tables, it’s my prayer that we bring something beautiful to the conversation—something that makes people listening and watching say, “Wow, what you said makes me feel hopeful. I want more of that. How did you come to see things that way?” I don’t want the answer to be, “I learned this over at Deidra’s blog!” No. I want the answer to be, “I have seen grace at work. I have been part of conversations that generate forward movement. I have seen what happens when people of faith engage one another with kindness and love.”
- I deeply desire for the Church to establish credibility in the world when it comes to pressing back the oppressive element of racism. However, when our churches are divided along racial lines, I don’t think we’re giving those watching us anything to aspire to. I want us to think about this, and talk about it here. I want us to consider the reasons we remain divided by race when we worship on Sunday or Saturday or Wednesday, and critically consider what Jesus might have to say about that.
- When I write about racism in our country and our churches, I am writing about systems, not people. Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post titled, “You’re Probably Not a Racist.” I still believe that, and I stand by every word I wrote in that piece. When I write and talk about racism, I am talking about systems in our country—and, sadly, even in our churches—that benefit some people, and leave others out or, at best, on the margins. Because of the specific history of our country, many of these systems were founded upon racist ideologies and, despite the progress we’ve made over the years, many of the systems continue to perpetuate those ideologies because they have not been examined, challenged, and/or sufficiently amended or rejected.
- I am not proficient in the conversation. I have biases. I have blind spots. I sometimes say the wrong thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. I have lots of room to grow. It is never my goal to offend or to make people feel as if they aren’t welcome to the conversation. I do have ground rules, and they include grace, kindness, and an openness to other people’s ideas. My ground rules allow for push back, but not for repeated attacks or stirring the pot simply for the sake of stirring the pot.
I realize there will always be people who, for various reasons, believe they are better than others. I agree that people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities are susceptible to bias against others. I believe our country has made great strides, but that we still have work to do. I am convinced there are people of every race, culture, and ethnicity who benefit from the systems set in place in our country. I am convinced there are people of every race, culture, and ethnicity on the margins in our country.
I applaud people of faith who speak up and try to elevate the conversation around causes about which they are passionate. Race seems to be the topic for me. It may be something else for someone else.
If my words, or the conversation here have made you feel pushed to the edges, or pushed out of the room, I want to apologize for that. And, I’d like to thank my friend for picking up the phone and pressing in yesterday. If you’re feeling some of what my friend was feeling, don’t ever hesitate to let me know. We are better together. We need each other. And, if you’re feeling squeezed to the margins of this space, I’d like to extend my hand, ask your forgiveness, and invite you back to the table.
What a grace-filled post, Deidra. I have been at the table, and plan to stick around. Love you dearly.
[email protected] Not
I am so glad you have a friend who reached out in this way. I’m also at the table listening, gleaning, learning.
I have to admit that the more I engage in talk about race, the larger the elephant in the room gets. It is not supposed to work that way, is it… The more we describe a different past, different experiences, different viewpoints, the more I feel I need to filter my words as to not offend. The catalog of “words you can use” and “words to avoid” gets ever thicker. It becomes easier to stay silent. [I do not feel that in this sacred space]
But you mentioned the word “systems” in your post. That is helpful. It made me think of the advice I have given my children as they have developed relationships into marriage. I tell them that there will be disagreements, and the best way to approach differences is to pretend you are both looking at a blackboard with the problem written on it. You stand side by side, looking at the problem–over there–not in between the two of you. It can be easier to see the others point of view without feeling like you need to defend your territory. Solutions can become a bit more clear when you stop pointing to each other and instead point towards the board.
This is overly simplistic I know, but it helps me when I think of race issues. If we point to systems to work on and improve, if we can identify what makes us hurt and what makes us feel accepted, if we can point out to trends rather than instances–we remove the need to defend our “turf.” Lets stand side by side and point out towards the systems that need fixing, that need to be more hospitable, that offer wide grace.
More than anything, we need hospitality–the making of space for another. Hospitality provides space for another person’s opinions and fears to be expressed without the need to protect yourself. Deidre, thanks for providing that open space.
Patricia W Hunter
Such great advice to your children, Bill. And I agree about the need for hospitality and how Deidra has provided that for us.
I like the blackboard, side-by-side recommendation. Nice framework.
So grateful for your leadership, friendship and tenderness. I am sticking around, I’m learning a great deal.
Patricia W Hunter
When you first began writing about racism–a long time ago, I was defensive and “squeezed to the margins.” Maybe because I’m weary of the prejudices our family has encountered for years for being rural white southerners. (The stories I could tell.) But I kept reading. And tried to remain humble. You have been so full of wisdom and grace and kindness that for a long time now I’ve felt like there’s a chair with my name on it at the table. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You make me brave, and I’m so grateful to call you my sister and friend.
Sandra Heska King
I want to squeeze you. With a hug, of course. And I smiled when I saw the photo above… a room I’ve sat it and breathed in what you breathed out. That’s a new thought to me. All of us there that evening shared breath…
I’m grateful for your humble leadership and open invitation to conversation in this area of race. I have so much to learn and give thanks for this space you are cultivating to do just that.
I love that she called you, Deidra. Makes me wonder how many relationships we’ve all lost along the way because we weren’t courageous enough to pick up the phone …
We’ve been given very clear instructions in the bible and, when someone in the body of Christ upsets us, or is upset with us, we’re supposed to go directly to that person and work it out between the two of us. It’s one of the hardest, bravest acts of worship I can think of. But it’s also one of the most powerful elements of reconciliation that we’ve been given. It’s the example God set for us, from the beginning of time: always moving toward us, and not waiting for us to realize we’ve set out in the wrong direction. Also, when we mess up, God does not broadcast our offense to the world. He comes directly to us—gently and with an open heart. It’s such a beautiful, healing way to live.
This is beautiful and helpful. I have felt squeezed, not so much by you, but because I feel helpless and unsure of how to communicate on such a deeply divisive topic. Our family believes that we are “color blind” and our friendships reflect that but we have been frustrated at times by being considered racist because we are white.
I think that you are right to have this conversation and I am grateful to you for having it.
I see you you and think you’re so very brave… Sis. Blessings
I love your blog and as you can see from my tweets, I send others to it.
I feel pushed by the conversation, but I think that’s necessary. In my role as a pastor, I feel it is my responsibility to push people past their comfort zones. I think of Jesus telling James and John and the 12 that they cannot sit as his right and left but rather that the first shall be last. I think of Jesus telling the rich ruler to give it all up and follow him. I think of Paul telling Philemon, ‘Onesimus was your slave but he is now your brother.’ We have to go beyond our safe zones to those uncomfortable, awkward conversations, whether the topic is race, materialism, same-sex marriage, immigration, or something else. As people who are ‘in Christ’ we must be willing to “go there.” I feel like I have to push people sometimes (and at other times coddle and caress).
I guess I get what you meant when you apologized for making people feel pushed. I hear you. But, I also know as a white male, I need to be pushed constantly. It is always tempting to retreat to fortress of “white privilege” where I hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. It is the push that gets my head out of the sand.
So, however nicely and gently you need to be, please, please, keep pushing.
I’m at the table too, well at the children’s table, off in the corner, listening very carefully. From my work with minorities for the last twenty years I have things I could say, but I think the words, “Be Still” so I will be quiet. But I am listening. I wish you all good things, and wisdom in your bridge building.
(I wonder if a place to start with churches is to turn the focus away from race and towards something like Bible study. I think of C.S. Lewis’ insight that the best friendships work when people look outward to a subject rather than at each other. Let people share how they see the texts, and show each other who they are. I bet conversations about race will rise but hopefully in the context of friendship. Maybe that is a place to start. Putting the focus on writing and the various readings I used, and standing before my students as someone very real–a rich white farm girl–created some amazing communities and yes many of my kids learned to write.)
Jody Ohlsen Collins
I am listening……thank you for pushing us all. I love you.
You would have loved our staff conference with Cru. We talked so much about issues of race and ethnicity and also what it is to operate from privilege. I was so challenged and still am…I wrote some about it here: http://www.alifeoverseas.com/when-you-realize-you-are-privileged/
Basically, my heart was/is broken…
You, Deidra, are my hero. I am inspired to be braver and more patient because of you. You are our Esther…here, for such a time as this. The Church must lead these conversations. Otherwise, we’re just a social club.
Please, never stop raising your voice.
I love you so much. Really. I thought of you and Harry, yesterday, when I attended the birth of a (white) baby. The woman and man who delivered the baby were African American. I thought of you because of their calmness, capability, control, dignity. This birth experience was so beautiful. So quiet. It made me miss you.
Found and subscribed to your blog yesterday and reading this, I am so glad I did!
I love your honesty. THANKS! I also enjoy sitting at this table and reading and learning…oh, I have so much to learn!
we are all so different and I think this topic hits people in so many places… we can’t confuse a person pushing us to the margins and our own hearts and minds pushing us there… An open and honest discussion invites people to a table where they may not normally sit.. it is in this new space that our hearts and minds are tested… Deidra…may we all be set free of wanting other human beings to be perfect… thanks for being honest, humble and inviting. I am thankful for the conversation… I need it.
Deidra, I’m always listening but rarely comment. Your grace and kindness in your posts make me feel welcome. I think it’s my own uncomfortableness with the topic as I so hate confrontational issues that pushes me to the outside edge. I do recognize that this is not a good trait in myself. Thank you for sharing this particular post. I do believe it helps pull me closer to the table.
I rarely comment, but I always read. You are wise and offer insight I would otherwise not have. I’m grateful your friend reached out because I know and understand her feelings. I’ve had to push through some of them myself because I knew that was not your intention. She had the courage to reach out – bravo for her!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: yours is one of the richest, most grace-filled, wisest and most beautifully articulate voices out here on this topic. Thank you for continuing to pursue this, for being honest and gracious and brave. Thank you.
After living in two third world countries where there were the same racial lines you write about has led me even more to believe the battle lies within the hearts of mankind. Jesus is the only one who made the ground level at the cross, no man did that. Each race of people we have worked with wants to be on higher ground as if they bought and paid for the ground. You encourage me Deidra to continue to spread the gospel when ever there is an open door. For out of the souls of man comes the issues of life and when it is filled with pride on any level racism along with other sinful actions will follow. And the woman who called you is a courageous wise women, how blessed you are that she would let down her guard and risk that phone call. You both have influenced each other to act like
Christ. Great read for me today.
Dr. Helen Fagan
Kudos to your friend for picking up the phone and kudos to you for sharing from your experience. Her willingness to call you, and your willingness to listen, shows a depth of spiritual maturity that is necessary in order for conversations of race and racism to be constructive instead of destructive. Way to model the way!
Thank you, and your friend, for showing tremendous courage in “going there”. We grow as we go there, whether online or in person. May God continue to give us grace to have these hard conversations, Deidra.