A couple months ago I was at a one-day conference on raising money and sustaining your sport’s club. Working with Timoteo, a flag football ministry in Philly that mentors young men, I was eager to learn how we could be self-sustaining. The attendees of the conference included a racially diverse group, with white folks making up well under half of the group.
Seemingly out of the blue an African- American woman shared with the group, “The Majority needs diversity more than the minority.” To some it may have seemed rather random, but it was apparent that she was responding to a white attendee who had earlier asked how he could move his nationally successful sports program into a Philly neighborhood.
Through his presentation it seemed that he knew what the neighborhood needed and he had the answers. The problem was that he did not know anyone that actually lived in the neighborhood. The woman’s point makes a lot of since. I have seen it a lot in my neighborhood where white folks come in thinking they know the problems of the neighborhood and they have the solution. The real issue is that they do not take the time to actually get to know the people in the neighborhood or the issues that they face.
In the previous article of this series it was mentioned that the first step towards reconciliation is moving from ignorance to awareness. “The majority needs diversity more than the minority.” I think she was right. In many ways we have created a society where white folks can live their whole lives without ever interacting with a person of color. I know this is true because I was one of them. Living in a white enclave I never had to think about race and racism was certainly a thing of the past… I was ignorant. My own awareness of race and the effect of racism did not occur until I went to college!
I’ll never forget my first day of college. When it came to issues of race I am convinced there was no one dumber than I. The first night at Eastern University a bunch of students had gathered together for a welcoming dinner. I quickly noticed a group of African Americans singing a song called “How Excellent.” It was the first time I had ever heard Gospel music in my life, unless you count Southern Gospel J. I asked someone about the song and they told me it was one of the songs the school’s Gospel Choir (Angels of Harmony) sang. I couldn’t believe they had a whole choir of this great music (see I told you I was pretty dumb J). Intrigued I found out when the choir practiced and I started showing up to watch. Initially I was the only white guy showing up, but I didn’t care because I had discovered Christian music that was so much better than Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. I was such a regular at the practices they eventually asked if I wanted to sing. After convincing them that I was not much of a singer they ordained me as the Angels of Harmony’s official groupie!
I remember the first concert that I traveled with the choir. I was told that we would be leaving at 9:00 am. Not wanting to miss anything I was there at 8:45am… I was the first. About five minutes after 9:00 another person came, and then another until we were all there about 9:40am and we left. I didn’t think much about it until about the 4th concert I was still the first one to the bus. I asked my friend Miriam, who was in the choir, what was up with everyone always being late? She quickly responded, “Haven’t you heard of CPT? Color People Time! You white people always have to be on time for everything!” It was during my time with the Angels of Harmony that I learned of a world much different than I had grown up in.
My friendship with Miriam was very important to me. She was the one that introduced me to cheesesteaks and the world of Gospel music. I am so grateful for the grace she showed me early on in our friendship. We would spend hours playing Rummy and talking about life. Often I would say things that were very insensitive and showed my extreme ignorance… one example that comes to mind was when I asked her, “Do black people get tattoos?” Obviously before the days of Dennis Rodman, she reminded me how dumb I was and that I needed help J. Through it all she remained my friend, and still is today. I remember one time at the start of a semester, just after our summer break, she told me that she needed to talk. As we went for a walk she informed me that she hated white people (not white people in general, just the ones who were perpetuating the racist attitudes at the time)! It was then that I really began to move from ignorance to awareness. As she unpacked her frustrations I heard the plea of someone I cared for and I knew something was not right.
My time at Eastern forever changed my life. At first I did not understand why they celebrated Black History Month (up to that point I did not know it even existed) in chapel. I figured we should only have Jesus History Month. It wasn’t until I moved back into a predominantly white world and attended a school that did not celebrate it that I realized that maybe Black History Month was Jesus History Month. It was at Eastern that I learned things are not right in our world. Things started becoming clearer to me after my roommate Frank, one of the nicest people you could have ever met, told me that he had been arrested over the break. I was shocked and asked for what… he said shoplifting! I knew there was no way he would shoplift, unless maybe his life depended on it. As it turned out his life wasn’t in jeopardy, rather, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and because his skin color matched the description of the thief, he was picked up. He was later let go, because he didn’t do it, but the damage had been done and things are not right.
Racism will never cease in our society as long as people insulate and isolate themselves from others. Folks need to be willing to be in uncomfortable situations and to open themselves to some hard truths in our world. We must move from ignorance to awareness. It is not enough to simply go on a cross-cultural mission trip either. One of my pet peeves often occurs with white folks from a suburban background as they debrief their time after serving in the city. With almost every group there is someone who proclaims that the thing they are taking away most from their experience in the city is that “they realized how blessed they are.” This is not enough! There was a man in Scripture who realized he was blessed and built bigger barns… things did not turn out so great for him. White folks need to put themselves in cross-cultural situations but they need to lose power in the process. Even in doing service projects we tend to have all of the power and call all of the shots. Too often mission trips breed a one-way relationship that leads to an unhealthy dependency and keeps oneself ignorant. By losing power one takes the time to get to know someone and relationships are reciprocal. Racial justice calls us to see and know people not just assume stereotypes. It is about getting to know the reality that all people are created in the image of God.
Though there are many ways for this to occur I want to mention two opportunities to make this kind of relationship happen. First, on a very small scale, Mission Year offers a weekend program called PROP. PROP offers a radical alternative to the typical “mission trip.” Rather than coming to the city to serve poor people, folks come to the city and live as one. For one weekend folks are stripped of their conveniences and they wonder the streets of Philly with no money, cell phones, etc. During the weekend they spend time getting to know people living on the streets. Rather than handing out food to the hungry, participants walk among them seeking their own daily bread. Instead of giving money to a beggar, or walking on the other side of the street to ignore one, participants take time to panhandle for their next meal. The response from those who have done PRoP has been amazing. Folks talk about their vulnerability not having anything to give to folks as they walk the street. That is, until they realize they have themselves to give. PRoP opens people’s eyes not only to the humanity of others but their own humanity as well. We are all in need of each other and we all have been created with gifts meant to be shared with the larger human family.
Another opportunity for folks to move from ignorance to awareness is doing Mission Year. Mission Year is a year-long opportunity for folks to live in community in one of several cities. The focus of those doing Mission Year is learning to be a good neighbor. Participants do not move in with the unction to start something new, rather they live in the neighborhood as a learner. They attend a local congregation, volunteer at a nearby community service site and they focus their energies on loving God through loving their neighbors. For many, Mission Year is the first time they have lived in a neighborhood where they are the minority. For those who do Mission Year their eyes are opened to many of the injustices in our world including racism.
“The majority needs diversity more than the minority.” We need to move from ignorance to awareness. It is not enough to simply “be nice” and not have a mean bone in our body towards people of color. The question is… do we know any people of color? Just as we all have a gift, I believe we also have been given an inadequacy, that is a need for people. If we want to see this world become a healthier place for our children we need to work with each other, we need to be willing to listen.
“What White People Can Do about Racism” is a collection of thoughts by Chris Lahr based on a white identity training taught during Mission Year. Through this blog series he hopes to touch on lessons learned from his journey of living in a small predominantly white town in Indiana to living in a city (Philadelphia) where white people are currently the minority. Check out earlier posts in this series here. Chris will be teaching the workshop, “What white people can do about racism” at the CCDA Conference in Indianapolis on October 13 and 15.
Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, email Jen Casselberry.