What I learned about building bridges while living in the inner city
By Jason Phelps
One winter day, I bundled up and walked the two blocks to our ministry center. A typical walk—except this day I almost got arrested.
I am white, and my neighborhood was 98 percent black. Our family was living and working with an inner-city ministry in St. Louis, Mo. The four years we spent in the hood challenged my worldview, exposing the innate differences resulting from growing up in middle-class, rural Oklahoma.
For example, my childhood was carefree and innocent. For my best friend in St. Louis, it was much different. As a young boy, he was hanging out in an abandoned house when suddenly a cop broke through the door. Handcuffing them all, the police searched the place and found a small bag of weed and a handgun. “Whose gun?” was met with silence. So the officer put all the kids in a circle, spinning the gun like “Spin the Bottle” at a junior high party. “Whoever it lands on, that’s whose gun it is!” One kid, chosen at random, forever has “possession of a firearm” on his record.
To my friend, this was a story of simple happenstance. He wasn’t appalled. He was simply relating a typical story of childhood. He went on—racial profiling, suspicion, unjust accusations. All were merely part of growing up as a black youth in inner-city St. Louis. Honestly, as a white outsider, this reality was hard to grasp.
Until that winter day. As I walked, a police car turned and began tailing me slowly. Me. The one walking from the home we’d made with our little girl. The one who had moved hundreds of miles to serve in the zip code with the highest homicide rate in that year’s “Most Dangerous City in America.” The one who was trying to make a difference.
“Where are you going?”
I responded, “That way,” and kept walking.
Frustrated, I repeated, “Up there.”
Now the cops became forceful. “Listen, we’ve got a report of a white male who just robbed a place, and he matches your profile. So we need to know where you’re going and where you came from…now!”
On that day, in a neighborhood where I was the minority, where all white people looked alike, I experienced profiling. My friends’ stories of being followed simply because of the color of their skin suddenly had a new meaning. Stories of the stares and the instant suspicion.
A bubble broke for me. Sadly, we once joked that in our part of St. Louis, the police wouldn’t respond in under an hour unless someone was shot. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times we called 911 after a drive-by shooting or event, only to get a recorded message.
And yet I look at those years as a gift. A gift of being the minority. Of glimpsing the other side of the racial and economic divide in America. Of walking a mile, or simply two blocks, in someone else’s shoes.
We all have fears. But most fear is based on ignorance, a fear of the unknown. Because I cannot fully experience your reality, I am ignorant about your world. However, if we can share freely and honestly, we begin to understand. We open our lives and engage with the other, listening and seeking different perspectives. By learning from each other we build bridges together rather than walls between.
Jason Phelps is co-pastor of Watershed, a USMB congregation in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo: Jason Phelps, second from left, and his newborn daughter stand with friends in St. Louis. Photo provided by Jason Phelps.