I know I raised a lot of questions with my sermon last week. Some of you really liked the sermon and encouraged me to keep taking bold steps while others were less encouraging. It was my hope that we would not to be like the “Sons of Laban.” We need to always respond to events with an open mind and a willingness to forgive, apologize and understand. It is my hope we can continue to dialogue with one another. We must seek to live out our Christian belief, as expressed by Paul, that we are all one in Christ Jesus. That is our calling, and we are working to live into it. We are not quite there. We must always strive to do better. It is because of this, I thought I would share a bit of my journey.
The ninth grade was a turning point for me. I fear I realize what I could have become when I look back. It was the first year of crosstown busing and the students from Roland Grice Junior High were shipped to Williston, in the inner-city area of Wilmington. We didn’t want to be there and those who were from Williston didn’t want us there. It was a scary time. There were riots. At times, there was a National Guard presence in the street.
There were two camping trips that year which helped shaped me. I didn’t get to go on the first. My mother wouldn’t let me go as there were no adults. It was probably the best thing that happened to me that year. A bunch of guys with whom I’d hung out at Williston, kind of a gang joined together for protection and mischief, went camping by themselves. There were some older brothers who joined them and brought along some alcohol. Late that evening, everyone was feeling bold and they decided to go burn a cross in the yard of an African-American family. They were lucky they didn’t get shot, but they all ended up with police records and spent the rest of their school years working off community service hours. I hope I would have had the moral courage to have stood up to such an awful idea, but I’m not sure. As a ninth grader, peer pressure is an awful thing. I am thankful my mom kept me from having to make that decision.
My mother instilled in me a sensitivity for others and was always asking me how I would feel if I were in their situation. I hated such guilt, but it opened me up to think of how others feel.
The second camping trip was with the Order of the Arrow, a Boy Scout fraternity. We were camping up on the northeast Cape Fear River. It was a cold winter night and there was an African American Scout named Charles who needed a place to sleep. I had a large four man tent and there was just me and another guy sleeping in it. One of the leaders came to me and asked if it was okay for Charles to stay in my tent. I was torn, but I also knew it was the right thing to do. Besides, I knew if my mother ever got word that I had failed to open up my tent, I would be in trouble. Charles and I talked a lot that evening and I realized he wasn’t any different than me, except that he was a few years older. I would later become good friends with his brother who was my age.
As a young man working for the Boy Scouts of America, I remember calling on the sheriff of Bladen County. Behind his desk in his office were two flags, an American and a Confederate battle flag. While in his office, I couldn’t help but think that if his constituents in the county had known of the second flag, he’d probably not be sheriff. He certainly didn’t have the Confederate battle flag on his campaign posters in a county that was over fifty percent African American. Sitting before his desk, I wondered how others would feel with this flag being present in a public space.
Years later, I was a pastor in Michigan and was shocked and disturbed to see people in pickup trucks driving around flying Confederate flags. I was shocked because these folks’ ancestors had fought and died for the Union. I also felt as if they were taking something that belonged to my heritage and using it to promote a racist agenda. I then learned that the county I was living in had a long history of Klan activity.
Yes, racism isn’t just limited to the South. It’s around the world. In my travels, I’ve witnessed it in far flung places like Japan, Malaysia, and Russia. It is a part of our fallen human state. But as Christians, as followers of that Jew from Nazareth, we are called into a new relationship with one another. We are going to have to find a way to talk past our differences. Those of us who are followers of Jesus should be willing to take the first steps to break down barriers that divide us and also to build bridges that will allow us to see one another as having been created in God’s image.
What is most important to us? Is holding on to myths of the past more important than seeking the face of the living God in all who are alive today? Can we open ourselves to God’s guidance and have a conversation about this?