I wrote this about a year and a half ago, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict. It seems all the more appropriate now. As I read back over my words, I'm convicted that I have not listened very well over the last few months. I've a lot more talking and "convincing" than listening and learning. I can still echo my words from the summer of 2013: "As I reflect on the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin [Mike Brown, Eric Garner, etc. etc. ] verdict [or lack thereof], I'm [still] realizing just how much I don't understand."
It was a little after 9:00 on a cold, Chicago winter night. Our RUF group was spending a week serving, learning, and living on the city's South Side with a local ministry, and we had just finished dinner at a couple's home. As we walked the few blocks back to the ministry's office, a woman came around the corner. She gave us one look, and, in a low voice, she warned, "You boys watch out. There's a cop back there."
I was confused. Watch out? For a cop? Why did we need to watch out for a cop? In fact, I felt safer knowing that cop was there, because...well...you know. We were a group of white kids wearing expensive clothes walking through a black neighborhood late at night. Surely we weren't the ones the cops should be looking out for!
But then it dawned on me. I remembered what the ministry staff had told us earlier that week. White kids from the suburbs do come to this inner-city neighborhood on a regular basis. They come to buy drugs.
It suddenly made sense. I wanted to turn around and chase down this woman. I wanted to say, "Wait a minute! You have it all wrong! You think that we're here to buy drugs...just because we're white? As if that's the only reason we'd ever be in your neighborhood?"
Those words that I wanted to say, those perceptions and assumptions I wanted to correct...it all stuck with me for a few days. It made me uncomfortable, but as I reflected on that discomfort, I realized that it was temporary. It was limited. It was localized. At the end of the day, it didn't really impact my life.
In just a few days, I would be leaving this neighborhood and returning to my life in the majority. I would return to no longer worrying about society pre-judging me and my motives by the color of my skin. Store clerks would not watch me any more closely than anyone else when I went shopping. People would not lock their car doors when I passed by. Overzealous neighbors would not follow me with a gun when I walked around my neighborhood.
My mom never had to have the talk with me about how to avoid being seen as a threat simply by existing somewhere. I've never thought twice about getting into an elevator with a white woman...or anyone, for that matter. When driving through the gate of my Christian college after midnight, my friends and I could hold up slices of cheese instead of our Samford ID cards, and the security guard would simply wave us through, chuckling.
As I reflect on the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, I'm realizing just how much I don't understand.
It's one thing for me, as a white man, to say, "this isn't about race!" It's another for me to realize that for thousands of my fellow Americans and brothers & sisters in Christ...it is most definitely about race. It's one thing for me, as a member of the majority, to say, "I don't care what color you are! It makes no difference to me!" It's another for me to realize that many of my fellow Americans and brothers & sisters in Christ care very deeply about what color they are...that it makes a very big difference to them.
It's one thing for me to say, "Justice was served! It was a trial by a jury of peers! Let's accept the decision and move on." It's another for me to realize that, regardless of the trial's legitimacy, the verdict does nothing to calm or assuage the deep-seated fear and pain of these fellow Americans, my brothers & sisters in Christ. If anything, the verdict confirms those fears, it intensifies the pain, and my callous words of color-blindness only spit in their wounds.
If I'm going to love my brothers and sisters of different races, I don't need to explain and argue to them why I'm not prejudiced. I don't need to tell them why my words weren't intended to be hurtful and why they should give me the benefit of the doubt. I need to be quiet. I need to reflect. I need to pray. I need to cry. I need to sit beside and stand in solidarity. I need to listen. I need to listen a lot. I need to keep listening until I think I can't bear to hear anymore, and then I need to keep listening.
Then...maybe then...I can speak.
I don't understand prejudice. I don't understand race relations in America. I can't understand the depth of pain and fear and anger generated by George Zimmerman's not-guilty verdict. I don't know what a black mother feels now every time her teenage son walks out the door.
But I can't be content to sit here in this lack of understanding. I must listen, I must ask questions, and I must learn. I must be willing to admit that I've been blind, that I've been callous...that I've been wrong. I must let myself be shaped by the love of our Savior, love that isn't color-blind, but love that sees and values the beauty of diversity he created...diversity that leads us to greater unity.
There's a lot I don't understand about racism and racial prejudice, but I want to learn. Before I speak, I need to listen. Before I claim my innocence, I need to consider where I might be complicit...or even guilty. I need friends of different races and cultures who can tell me their stories, who can teach me, who can show me different aspects of the gospel that I've never seen.
When we do this, whether or not our beliefs or political positions change, we will be able to engage in the conversation in a way that truly reflects the love of our Savior. When we discuss the Trayvon Martin case, we won't just think of a generic "them." We will think of names and faces and stories and tears. We will think of people we care about so deeply that their pain becomes our pain.
Christians are called to identify with the outcast, to stand with the oppressed and seek justice.
We're called to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those mourn. Right now, the African-American community is mourning. It's hurting. What will our response be, people of God?
Let's start by listening.