Red Letter Christian and Sojourners President Jim Wallis recently published America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America. In town hall style meetings across the country, Jim is joining other Red Letter Christians to facilitate a conversation on becoming the nation we’ve not yet been by repenting of the sin of racism. We asked him to share the story here of how he was converted by a friendship across the color line in his hometown of Detroit 50 years ago.
Fifty years ago I was a teenager in Detroit. I took a job as a janitor at the Detroit Edison Company to earn money for college. There I met a young man named Butch who was also on the janitorial staff. But his money was going to support his family, because his father had died. We became friends. I was a young white man, and Butch was a young black man, and the more we talked, the more we wanted to keep talking.
When the company’s elevator operators were off, Butch and I would often be the fill-ins. When you operated elevators, the law required you to take breaks in the morning and in the afternoon. On my breaks, I’d go into Butch’s elevator to ride up and down and talk with him. On his breaks, Butch came to ride and talk with me.
Those conversations changed the way I saw Detroit, my country, and my life. Butch and I had both grown up in Detroit, but I began to realize that we had lived in two different countries—in the same city.
When Butch invited me to come to his home one night for dinner and meet his family, I said yes without even thinking about it. In the 1960s, whites from the suburbs, like me, didn’t travel at night into the city, where the African Americans lived. I had to get directions from Butch. When I arrived, his younger siblings quickly jumped into my lap with big smiles on their faces, but the older ones hung back and looked at me more suspiciously.
Later, I understood that the longer blacks lived in Detroit, the more negative experiences they had with white people. Butch was very political, and even becoming militant—he always carried a book he was reading, such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, stuffed into the back pocket of his khaki janitor’s uniform—but his mom certainly wasn’t. She was much like my own mother, focused on her kids and worried that her son’s ideas would get him into trouble.
As we talked through the evening about life in Detroit, Butch’s mom told me about the experiences all the men in her family—her father, her brothers, her husband, and her sons—had with the Detroit police. Then she said something I will never forget as long as I live. “So I tell all of my children, ” she said, “if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.”
As Butch’s mother said that to me, my own mother’s words rang in my head. My mom told all of her five kids, “If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.” Butch and I were becoming friends. And I remember his mother’s advice to her children as vividly today as I heard those words fifty years ago.
Five decades ago, revelations about race in my hometown turned my life upside down—and turned me in a different direction. Encounters with black Detroit set me on a new path, on which I am still walking. My own white church ignored and denied the problem of race. People there didn’t want to talk about the questions that were coming up in my head and heart—questions that suggested something very big was wrong about my city and my country.
As a teenager, I was listening to my city, reading the newspapers, having conversations with people. I wondered why life in black Detroit seemed so different from life in the white Detroit suburbs. I didn’t know any hungry people or dads without jobs, and I didn’t have any family members who had ever been in jail. Why were all these things happening in the city?
Weren’t there black churches in the city too? Why had we never visited them or had them come to visit us? Who was this minister in the south named King, and what was he up to? Nobody in my white world wanted to talk about it—any of it.
All of this drew me into the city to find answers to questions that nobody wanted to talk about at home. When I got my driver’s license at age sixteen, I would drive into the city and just walk around, looking and learning. I took jobs in downtown Detroit, working side by side with black men, and I tried to listen to them. That’s how I met Butch and many young men like him who had grown up in an entirely different city from me—just a few miles away.
In Detroit, I found the answers I was looking for, and I made new friends. I also met the black churches, which warmly took in a young white boy with so many questions and patiently explained the answers. When I came back to my white church with new ideas, new friends, and more questions, the response was painfully clear. An elder in my white church said to me one night, “Son, you’ve got to understand: Christianity has nothing to do with racism; that’s political, and our faith is personal.”
That conversation had a dramatic effect on me; it was a real conversion experience, but one that took me out of the church. That was the night that I left the church I had been raised in and the faith that had raised me—left it in my head and my heart. And my church was glad to see me go.
During my student years I joined the civil rights and antiwar movements of my generation and left faith behind. But that conversation with the church elder was indeed “converting, ” because it led me to the people who would later bring me back to my Christian faith—“the least of these” whom Jesus talks about in Matthew 25, which would ultimately become my conversion text.
How we treat the poorest and most vulnerable, Jesus instructs us in that Gospel passage, is how we treat him: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me” (v. 40). My white church had missed that fundamental gospel message and, in doing so, had missed where to find the Jesus it talked so much about. My church, like so many white churches, talked about Jesus all the time, but its isolated social and racial geography kept it from really knowing him.
At the same time, black churches were leading our nation to a new place. Their more holistic vision of the gospel was transforming my understanding of faith, and my relationship to the churches was forever changed. I had to leave my white home church to finally discover Christ himself and come back to my faith. In doing so, I discovered something that has shaped the rest of my life: I have always learned the most about the world by going to places I was never supposed to be and being with people I was never supposed to meet. What I discovered by driving from the white suburbs to the city of Detroit every day, and going into neighborhoods and homes like Butch’s, were some truths about America that the majority culture didn’t want to talk about—truths that are always more clearly seen from the bottom of a society than from the top. This different perspective continues to change me, and Matthew 25 continues to be my conversion passage.
As a teenager, I didn’t have the words to explain what happened to me that night with my church elder, but I found them later: God is always personal, but never private. Trying to understand the public meaning of faith has been my vocation ever since. How that personal and public gospel can overcome the remaining agendas of racism in America is the work I feel most called to today.