Imagine a happy table, surrounded by people from the world over.
A meal of mixed cultures covers the counter and we sit together, laughing at the antics of children, hugging babies and talking about the different cultures from which we all hail. There is so much love in the room, love which we found for each other originally in our shared faith, but has grown with the knowledge of each other as we share our hopes and fears and likes and dislikes, laughing at differences and similarities. Eating deviled eggs and rice and Calypso chicken and drinking tea (a commonality!), the large world becomes small.
In the course of conversation, we discuss what it is like to come to the U.S. as a foreigner. What advice was given? The mood becomes quieter, less jovial, as the following story is told:
“My brother has lived in the U.S. for a long time. Since the 1970’s. I called and spoke with him about my upcoming move and he told me to be careful. That things are different here and I will need to watch out for myself. As a man of dark skin color, I would be treated differently than at home. He had been pulled over by police for no real cause and insulted, ‘What do you think you are doing here, boy?’ “
His brother had to watch every move he made. Watch what he said. For it was so easy to be turned into the stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Man’ for merely being upset that he was being unjustly treated.
This, he explained, is the poisonous cycle: A man is treated with contempt by someone in a position of authority. He cannot hold his temper any longer and speaks back in anger. Maybe he puts a hand out or raises his voice. He is quickly arrested. Or beaten. Or worse. His family is left wondering what happened. What did he do? Surely nothing to incite this overreaction. Who wouldn’t be upset when wrongly detained and insulted and denied justice? So they become angry. The next family member carries that with him and is unable to hide his contempt when facing a similar situation.
Those in authority are no longer trusted but arbitrary dealers of punishment based on race and stereotype.
And then there was more. A story of our peaceful, idyllic small town.
He was walking home from class when he noticed a police car. The officer made a u-turn then followed him. She parked in a cul-de-sac and watched him. He could feel her eyes upon him. He made sure to keep his hands visible. To walk at a steady pace. He did not wish to risk arrest or confrontation because he made the wrong move.
Horrified silence around the table.
Merely because of his skin color, this man who is kind and gentle and funny, a man who has answered a spiritual call to go to Seminary, was being watched by the local police officer.
What if he had been wearing a hoodie? What if it had been dark? What if he had run away in fear of someone stalking his movements?
Would we be reading a story about a man who “looked suspicious” being shot down?
Would we see pictures of the scene, blood spilling over his book bag full of Biblical texts and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries?
Stories like this need be told around the dinner table. Stories of what it is like to live in an environment suffused with racism, stereotype and misunderstanding. Told to people of different ethnicity who are sharing a meal so that in this relaxed environment, this time of sharing and eating and laughing, we can be receptive to the truth. That our societal struggle with race is far from over.
For until it is personal, until we feel the threat to people that we know, people that we love, people with whom we break bread, we will never do the hard work of dismantling the system.
As long as we remain in our comfortable boxes, only associating with those who look, speak, dress, and act like us, we will never begin to understand what it is like to move through society as a black man. Or a white woman. Or a person who is disabled. Or an immigrant. If we do not live that reality, we cannot understand what it is like unless we interact in meaningful ways with those who do.
The vision of heaven we are given is this, ” [I] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
If we are going to loudly announce to the world that we are followers of Christ, we had better make sure our actions fit our words.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.