EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout July, we’re engaging in an online book study of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. Each Friday, we’ll offer a guest reflection based on our readings and discussion. Follow along as we reflect on Chapters 7 & 8 of the book this week.
It was still early, just before sunrise, and I could already taste the freshly picked onions in the air. It made me gag, but most of all it made me grateful to be picking chili peppers instead. We had slipped across the river at the Ft. Hancock crossing, sliding under the fence. Back then no one cared. They knew the group I was traveling with, the day laborers who picked pepper and onions from the vast river-bottoms of the Rio Grande’s Texas side — and the Border Patrol was uninterested.
I hated picking the fields, but I liked pepper fields better than the cotton fields I had been picking on the Mexican side. At least on the U.S. side, the pay was better. My friend Isra, who was the associate pastor where I served at the iglesia bautista (Baptist Church) in Colonia Esperanza, Chihuahua, was a picker today — as was I. We both needed the money: The ails of bi-vocational ministry, where “working hand-to-mouth” wasn’t just a figure of speech. I had been a typical 19-year-old kid from the States when I arrived many months earlier. Now I had transformed into a 20-year-old vallense (people from the Juarez valley). My hair was long and disheveled, and I wore a long-sleeve plaid shirt like most of the other Mexican men working the fields. My skin had adopted a sun-kissed hue. My accent was indistinguishable from the other workers. By some miracle, my tongue had found a native ease in the language. I hadn’t spoken English, let alone thought in English, for months now.
As I lined up to take a bucket with the other workers, everyone assumed I was Mexican —even the white farm owners who were handing out the buckets. I suddenly saw a neighbor friend, Rogelio, in the line near me. It surprised me; I didn’t know he would be there that day.
I greeted him with a smile, “Ai compa, ¿Qué haces aqui?” (Hey friend, what are you doing here?).
He responded immediately with an expression I had heard many times before but never really thought about: “trabajar como el negro para vivir como el blanco.” (to work like the black man in order to live like the white man)
It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, after having returned to the U.S. from living abroad for several years that I heard the expression again. I was working in the corporate world now and was speaking to a potential client in Spanish, and when I asked, “¿Como le va?” (How’s it going?), he answered with the same race-laden response that Rogelio had, and for some reason it only then affected me, and deeply. By then I had witnessed much more blatant systemic racism throughout the world. I had seen with my own eyes: Israeli security forces firing on young unarmed Palestinian boys; Arab “masters” beating their South Asian domestic helpers; American soldiers shoving Arab subjugates at the Iraqi border. Maybe these instances were far enough removed from my own personal context that I was only now suddenly becoming aware of the racism I grew up with, like a fish who becomes aware of the water in which it has lived all its life. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
Here I was back in the U.S., thinking my new Latino friend wouldn’t cross such lines. However, his words quickly reminded me that Blacks in America are seen as subjugates even by the immigrant working class. This level of racism was not born overnight. It was systematically formed through hundreds of years of racial imperialism and colonization, and it spews its ugliness from all sides. I realized in that moment that I had been complicit all along. I, in this way, am a white supremacist. This lie of racial superiority was fueled by my silence. I was part of the problem.
James Cone, the great liberation theologian, created controversy with his assertion that Jesus is Black, but I now must concede, wholeheartedly, that he was right. Jesus was — like the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed him — truly “the suffering servant,” and in our time this title resonates most closely with the recently enslaved of our country. Jesus was indeed Black, and in his liberation we find our own.
Blackness should naturally be a title of honor, not an object of hate and bigotry. Somehow, we Christians got it wrong. We, in each generation, chose to elevate the empowered (oppressors) of our era to be “in Christ” merely based on their majority culture status and pious language while truncating the prophetic voice of Christ calling out among a “suffering” people — with a call to repentance for their slaveholders.
As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove asserts in Reconstructing the Gospel, the historically white, Southern, body of Christ cannot make peace with their Black counterparts and historical subjugates— the Black bodies that bore the pain of centuries of brutal flesh wounds inflicted by these “good Christian people” — until there is true repentance. Instead, our Confederate monuments serve as our holy spaces, stone tributes to the ideals of ethnic pride and, ultimately, racial superiority.
After answering Rev. William Barber’s call to march for voter’s rights at the Moral Monday gathering in Winston-Salem, NC, in 2015, I quickly read the signs all around me that said, “This is Our Selma.” It took my breath away. What a pointed assessment of the battle in which we find ourselves today. To think, we are in Selma again — if not physically, then certainly spiritually we are trying to cross that bridge once more, Blacks and whites together.
Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove lays out a compelling case for why to do nothing is a complicity in and of itself, and yet to be a member of the majority-culture (white) and lead the charge has a certain ring of tone-deafness (more my description than his). Of the latter, though, he says, “The last thing any attempt to reconstruct the gospel in America needs is a white man to lead the charge. Yet, this is what whiteness conditions people like me and Nicodemus to imagine… The moment we wake up and realize that slavery didn’t go away but simply evolved, we think somebody has to do something. If not me, then who?” In this, I believe, the responsibility has to be shared. It is radical to think that one must squelch their own white privilege in order to catalyze the process, but it is most certainly the case. To find where the prophetic voice birthed out of our own enslaved people is calling us to go, we are compelled to follow it towards its liberating end: Forward, not back. And at times I must simply get out of the way.
Two summers later, now in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Square, I did my best to be hopeful while handing out water to thirsty clergy who had interlocked their arms in prayer while singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” The mounting groups of white nationalists tried to drown them out with what seemed like battle cries — angry and bigoted, hateful screams, while parading around the “sacred” Confederate monuments in defiance to their fate. One distraught local woman collapsed in convulsions on the sidewalk next to me. Disbelieving what she was witnessing, she grabbed onto my clergy robe, hoping to steady herself. She looked at me, eyes full of tears, and sobbed, “Why, why, why?” All I could do was hold her, careful not to let the fresh pepper spray on my stole affect her. I had no answers to give that day.
Trabajar como el negro para vivir como el blanco. Even the Latino immigrants who suffer much just to arrive into this country, facing their own slew of persecutions along the way (i.e. hunger, rape, torture, family separations, death), understand America’s racial dynamics. It will take much work to delegitimize the expression, that is to say, to make it untrue. It will take an intentional “reconstruction” to redefine its terms of content — and that will take a movement. But in the end, my hope is that a new expression will find its way into the Latino immigrant’s vernacular, simply “vivir juntos en paz” (to live together in peace). Everything else just seems to fall short of what we all really want. But to live together in peace, it must start with us, the peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).