I was born 60 years ago in the United States of America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In our Declaration of Independence, it says, “all men are created equal.” But in my childhood, I saw the opposite.
Both of my parents are African American, but my mother is so fair skinned that she could easily pass for a white woman all day long. In the 50s and 60s my mom would frequent a local drug store that served lunch. In those days, Black people were not allowed to be served at the lunch counter or to sit at a table. But she looked so white that they never asked her if she was Black.
One time, Mom and her sister (my aunt) went to a restaurant, proceeded to the “Colored Section” and seated themselves. The waitress came over and told them that they were in the wrong section and asked them to move to the “White Only Section.”
Not long ago, my aunt told me that she once received a speeding ticket that she deserved. She retained a lawyer who asked her if everything was correct on the ticket. “Everything but my race,” she said. The lawyer told her not to say anything; she would have a better chance of getting off if the ticket indicated she was white.
As a child, I went to school by bus, and I remember passing two all-white schools that were close to our home, but we kept driving 17 miles until we reached an all-Black school. When our schools were desegregated in 1968, I was bused to the nearest school. But all of the Black students sat at the back of the bus.
The first year our schools were integrated, over 50 percent of the Black students were held back and asked to repeat the year. In part, this was due to the outdated schoolbooks that we had been given to use. One of my schoolbooks had my mother’s name in it. She is 24 years older than I am, so that tells you how far behind the Black schools were. We learned later that some of the white teachers didn’t really want the integration policies to be successful, so by not promoting many of the Black students it gave them the right to say, “I told you so.”
By the mid 70s when I was in high school, most of my closest friends were white, and I didn’t feel much racial tension. From time to time, I would hear my parents talk about workplace inequality and how it was tough for people of color to advance. Growing up, my parents would tell us that we needed to work twice as hard as white people in order to have a chance at a decent life.
I also remember being told that we already had two strikes against us: We were poor, and we were Black. As a teenager, that was a big pill to swallow. I knew that in baseball you only had three strikes and you were out. Even with those two strikes, God allowed my three siblings and me to grow up as Christians and to become successful and productive citizens.
My life has been uncomplicated compared to most people of color across this nation. In many areas, the opportunities that were available to me were not available for others.
I have spent the last 36 years as a pastor, half of those years as a bi-vocational pastor and plant manager, and 15 of those years as the district minister of the USMB Eastern District Conference. Other than my devotion to Jesus Christ and my family, my passion now is to engage with Christians about what I feel is the number one cause of disunity in our churches and nation: racial injustice.
The voice of Jesus
The American church should be the voice of Jesus in every situation and embrace God’s plan for the church as revealed in Revelation 7:9, “a great multitude…from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” The Christ-like church should be leading the charge and not following a particular political party or movement.
There are so many things dividing the churches in America today, from denominations to worship styles. In terms of race, the church is still the most segregated institution in America on Sunday mornings. I often ask myself: Why is that?
I invite you to begin asking yourself the same question as you think about the makeup of your local church. I also invite you to start praying with me and asking God to look deep into our hearts and to oust anything that is keeping our churches from reflecting his plans for his church. May I encourage you to make friends with people who do not look like you and learn to listen to their stories as you share your own. My prayer is that as Christians, we will find common ground in the Word of God and in our efforts to be peacemakers.
This essay has also been printed in Multiply’s Witness magazine. Multiply is the North American MB mission agency.