taking the words of Jesus seriously

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).

I love my job with Mission Year.  I get to speak to several different groups all over the United States, as well as travel with Shane Claiborne as he speaks to folks as well.  One thing I have noticed over the years is that more and more people are getting interested in serving the poor.  It seems just like yesterday that the concept of looking after the widows and orphans (serving the poor) was a radical concept that not a lot of people actually practiced in the Church.  Today things are different.

More and more preachers are speaking about God’s heart for the poor, people in the Church are doing more service projects among the poor and people everywhere are asking how they can begin serving Jesus as ordinary radicals among the poor.  The Scriptures tell us that pure and faultless religion is about caring for the orphans and widows as well as keeping oneself from being polluted by the world.

As good as it may be that folks are noticing the orphans and widows, we are also told to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.  I once had a shirt with a quote by Dom Helder Camara, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” It seems to be getting easier to find ways to talk about and to serve the poor and yet we ignore (or are ignorant to) the many polluters in our world that are creating the widows and orphans in the first place.  Jesus taught us that life is about loving God and loving our neighbor… I would like to suggest that anything that hinders our relationship with God or neighbor is a polluter that needs to be dealt with.  Caring for the widow and orphan is important but we also need to deal with the pollution (injustice) that keeps them in poverty.

Also by Chris: The Myth of the Melting Pot – What White People Can Do About Racism

One of the greatest polluters in our society that needs to be addressed is racism.  Honestly as a white guy that grew up in the white enclave of Huntington, Indiana, I never thought racism was a major issue in our society and particularly in the Church.  It wasn’t until I moved out of the enclave and into Philadelphia that my eyes were opened to the reality of racism that still exists in our society today.

As a white guy growing up in a small, predominantly white, town (98% white) I interpreted racism as some sort of “mean act” done to someone because of the color of their skin.  It wasn’t until I came across the book, “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum that my definition of racism broadened a bit.  She makes the distinction between prejudice and racism.  She says that prejudice is a preconceived judgment or opinion usually based on limited information (see p 5-6).  Racism on the other hand is a system of advantage based on race (see p7).  There is much more involved with racism than being mean or calling people names… racism involves an unjust system.  She also makes a distinction between active and passive racism.  I already knew about active racism… KKK rallies, Jim Crow laws, Sundown towns, etc; but it was passive racism that got my attention.

A couple years ago the Mission Year participants had just finished reading Tatum’s book and we were going to discuss them after watching the movie, American History X. The movie shows the result of active racism as white and black folks battle each other.  After the movie an African American Mission Year participant said that the movie was dangerous!  He went on to say that it was dangerous because not a single person in the room (mostly white) was “racist like that.”  He said the movie showed active racism and because most white people do not “act like that” or harbor mean feelings towards African Americans that they think they are off the hook when it comes to racism.  He continued by referring to the many subtle acts of racism that makes life difficult for him such as being followed in stores, questioned excessively by the police, ignorant (not necessarily mean) comments by white folks, etc.  It was his passionate diatribe against racism that opened my eyes to the system of advantage based on race.

Sure slavery is over, Jim Crow is history, and the KKK is obsolete; but racism still exists in our society today.  Racism as a system of advantage based on race is manifested in the prison system where 727 of every 100, 000 white folks are in prison while 4, 777 of every 100, 000 African Americans are imprisoned (see Michelle Alexander’s incredible book, “The New Jim Crow” for a detailed analysis of this).  The system also rears its head in how immigrants are treated and laws are used to marginalize them (see Matthew Soerens and Leith Anderson’s book, “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate”).  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his book, Racism Without Racist, also talks about the housing market in light of racism when he writes, “Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods” (p.2).

Also by Chris: The Great White Hope – What White People Can Do About Racism

I would not consider myself a social activist and I do not have any desire to stir up trouble.  I just cannot simply sit back any longer as I have seen this system of advantage have an effect on my neighbors.  One of the most exciting things we are working on in Philadelphia is called Timoteo, a flag football ministry for young men that allows us to mentor, as well as help some get into college, get employment, etc.  A couple years ago I had the opportunity to bring several of these youth from Philadelphia (mostly Latino and Black) back to the white enclave of my birth.  With the exception of one man trying to get us to leave his neighborhood during a food drive, they were treated very well.  But I can’t help but wonder how they would be treated if they were to actually move there?  Just a couple years ago a fundraising letter was sent to the local community from Huntington University.  On the cover of the mailer was a group of seven foreign exchange students (only one being white).  The mailer was sent back to the University with the following handwritten note, “No money from us as long as you insist on having the Univ. filled with the likes of those in this picture!  It will be the ruin of the University and of our town.” (It should be noted that the only white student on the mailer was cut out of the picture when it was sent back).  Yes, racism is a pollutant in our society.

In the days ahead I would like to walk through a few stages of reconciliation that we teach in Mission Year for our white identity training.  With this blog I hope to help those, particularly living in white enclaves, to see a broader reality of racism.  Racism involves more than being mean or prejudice, it involves a system that all of us are a part of one way or another.  We may not have been the ones to create the pollution, but we must be the ones to begin cleaning it up!

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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.

“What White People Can Do about Racism” is a collection of thoughts by Chris Lahr.  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 where white people are currently the minority.

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