Dorothy Day said, “The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”
I ask my friend who is a recent immigrant why she doesn’t want to live in the big city anymore. Without enough English skills to carefully mask her thoughts she says to me, “I am so afraid of the big black guy.” She goes on to tell me about some of the traumatic encounters her friends and family had with some black neighbors on US city streets.
There is an awkward silence, while I stare at my hands, the same brown as hers. I am used to hearing people in polite conversation cover their fear of black men with words like “crime, ” “dangerous neighborhood, ” or “poverty.” But she is new to this country and language, so she just says what she means.
Hurt, yet strangely thankful for the bluntness of her words, I think about where to go with this conversation. There is no second guessing, no subtlety, no decoding the meaning of what she just said. Now that she has spoken her fear so directly to me, I have an opportunity to respond to her with the same directness. To remain silent would imply agreement. Had she never spoken, I wouldn’t have this opportunity. I am thankful for a chance to speak into her fear with love.
I say, “You are talking about my people. My father is a ‘big black guy, ’ I know I may not look like it to you, but I am a black person. People of all colors do many bad things; people of all colors do many good things.”
She leans in to me, grabs my hand, shakes her head and apologizes profusely. I tell her I am not mad at her, just sad that she felt that way and sad that those negative experiences shaped her thinking about black men in particular. I tell her I am hopeful that her thinking can change. I know this one conversation will not instantly erase her fears, but it is a start.
We start talking about our kids. She tells me about her kids’ school and her face lights up when she says, “Last year my son’s teacher was a black man and very good. Their principal too is a black man. He is very good.” She is speaking these positive words about positive black men in her family’s life to rewrite the negative file in her head. She might just be telling me what I want to hear. But it’s a start.
Deciding not to fear our neighbors takes work. Choosing to love people, even after negative experiences, does not come naturally. There is a great deal of work that must be done on all levels of society to build trust. Acknowledging and choosing not to live in fear is work that each of us can do, wherever we are.
I look at images of current national events and replay the negative files in my head, from history and personal experience, and it takes all the strength I can muster to say, “I will not fear the police.” Even as I write these words, I think, “Lord, have mercy. Let it be so.”
How can I say I will not fear the police when a little boy in Cleveland just a few months older than my son was shot and killed by the police while he played in the park? I remember the men, women and children who marched in Alabama, singing “We Are Not Afraid” even when dogs and fire hoses were brought out to scare them. Their courage gives me strength. Choosing not to act on our fears is a decision more than a feeling.
I say, “I will not fear my neighbors, even the police” because I hope and pray that people like my friend will have the courage to say, “I will not fear black men.” Even though her friends, survivors of war in their native country, were murdered and mugged by black men in America, I pray that they will live not live in fear.
I say, “Let’s love one another beyond our fears” because if we continue to be a people that live and react out of fear, there will be no end to violence.
In a recent interview with NPR, attorney Constance Rice spoke of her work to build trust between the LAPD and communities of color. She was overwhelmed by the number of police who confessed to her privately that they are afraid of black men. She acted more as therapist—listening, empathizing and encouraging police to move beyond their fear and go into a place where they are hated with an attitude of humility and love.
We may not all be able to agree on a workable definition of racism, but perhaps we need to shift the focus to fear. We all know how it feels to be afraid. Maybe those of us who want to follow Jesus, the one who came to rescue us from sin and death, will look for him in the eyes of the people we fear.
We may not all be able to march, give speeches, or rewrite legislation to enact the systemic transformation that is needed. But if we want a better society, one in which human dignity is honored, we can start listening to each other’s fears. On a friend’s living room couch, in a lunchroom, at church we could name our fears and pray for the courage to trust that God will move us to compassion and love even for our enemies, even when we feel afraid.
Be not afraid. God has spoken these words to his people throughout history through angels and dreams. From Genesis to Revelation. “fear not” is repeated. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a command