How We Begin
A Posture of Humility
The professor stood at the front of my African American History class, educating freshmen about the African civilizations prior to the Atlantic slave trade. For the first time, I heard the full story of my heritage beyond slavery, the unwhitewashed truth. And all of it felt so significant to me.
As I listened, a feeling of discomfort set in. Why hadn’t I heard about the African empires—the kings, queens, and ingenuity of the people—prior to college? Why didn’t I learn this in high school? Why didn’t my family teach me? Why had no one introduced me to any of the scores of books on the slave trade?
Sure, I’d been taught simple Black history. “Your ancestors were slaves,” my high school teachers said. “Your ancestors were sharecroppers,” my parents taught me. I knew that before President Lincoln freed the slaves, Harriet Tubman had an underground railroad. I seemed to remember that maybe Frederick Douglass was part of that railroad. I knew Douglass had written a few books and published a newspaper. I knew about the Civil War, but there was a massive hole in my understanding of history. What had really happened between that war and the time when Martin Luther King Jr. marched for expanded civil rights? I didn’t know. And why did America seem so bogged down in racial division and discrimination so many years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed? I couldn’t quite say, at least not before I took that class.
I listened to my professor at East Carolina University share the unfiltered history, and as I received this fuller truth about African culture and my African American heritage, something shook loose. Why was I so uncomfortable with hearing this?
Underneath my shame and embarrassment, I felt ignorant. Ignorant of the historical context of my people. Ignorant of my own roots. I wondered how the White students in the class felt. Did they feel as ignorant as I did? Were they filled with embarrassment and shame by what their ancestors did to my people?
That history was part of our truth, the richness of the African cultures before the institution of the slave trade by White colonialists. It was a sort of shared history, even though my ancestors and the ancestors of the White students had been on opposites sides of a divide. Now we were together, facing the full truth of our past, and it was awkward for all of us.
When we lack historical understanding, we lose part of our identity. We don’t know where we came from and don’t know what there is to celebrate or lament. Likewise, without knowing our history, it can be difficult to know what needs repairing, what needs reconciling. As I sat in the class, I realized I had a lot to learn about my ancestral identity, about our collective history, and about the history of our country. And over the course of that semester, as I discovered more about where I came from and who I am, a sense of pride began to well up. I realized my very existence was a miracle in the making. I came from brave people, a dignified people, a resilient people. I came from a significant people, and this made me significant. As I learned more and more about the injustices wrought against my ancestors, I began to realize that we deserved justice. This realization awakened within me indignation, pain, and a holy discontent.
This holy discontent intensified after I graduated from college and began my career in corporate America. I worked for a predominantly White Fortune 500 company in Atlanta, an office in which very few people understood the history of Black America, much less the full implications of our country’s discriminatory past. When I later moved to Austin, Texas, in 2012 to join the staff of an almost entirely White church with an almost entirely White staff, that holy discontent reached a boiling point.
As I became friends with church and staff members, I began to see our historical and cultural disconnection. We had different worldviews, experiences, and perspectives. I’d come to learn the ways the White church in America had perpetuated slavery, segregation, and racism. I had learned how so many churches used and abused Scripture to justify the practices, how some denominations even split over slavery. (The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, was formed in 1845 as a result of a split within the Baptist denomination over whether or not slave owners could serve as missionaries.) My White friends had no connection with my heritage, had no idea how much had been taken from my people when we were sold into slavery. For the most part, they didn’t understand the heritage of racism baked into their own social and cultural structures, including their church.
It was a good church, full of good people, but I came to realize that I was the first and only African American person many of them had ever worked with. As a person of color, I’d integrated within their majority culture. I had become familiar with their movies, music, and fashion. I listened to contemporary Christian music and was familiar with what some of my Black friends call “White worship.” You know it: the moody guitar-driven music that sounds like Coldplay. I watched Friends, The Office, Gilmore Girls, and even the Hallmark Channel. I was comfortable and familiar with White culture, but they’d never had to learn about the history or culture of my people. If I quoted a line from The Color Purple or Doug E. Fresh, my friends were lost. And because I was the only Black person in so many of their lives, I became the go-to source for answers to all their questions about hair and music and all things Black. It felt as if people had saved all their “ask a Black person” questions for me, and they unloaded until it almost drove me insane.
But being the point person for all things African American wasn’t the only thing that led to my deepening disillusionment. A racial disconnect and a surprising level of ignorance about the divisions between our cultures was deeply rooted in the way they did church, and the more I encountered it, the more broken my heart became. Church leaders were slow to acknowledge, let alone lament, the continuing racism in our country. They didn’t have any understanding of the prevalence of police brutality against brown bodies in our country or how so many of my Black brothers are pulled over simply for being Black in a White neighborhood. They equated working hard with success, and they dismissed the reality of systemic issues that create barriers for people of color. They’d never been followed in a department store for being Black, never been stopped and questioned simply for walking down the street. They had always been given the benefit of the doubt, believed to be innocent until proven guilty. They couldn’t see the privileges they enjoyed simply because of the rules set by White society. And sometimes church leaders even referred to non-White communities with terms like they, them, and those people.
The longer I worked in the church, the more I came to see that it wasn’t a credible witness for racial reconciliation. This wasn’t true of only that local congregation, either. As I spoke with my Black friends across the country, I came to understand just how divided the non-White culture and majority-culture churches are. But why is it this way?
I began to ask questions of and have conversations with my White friends within the church about this topic, and as I did, I found that many were oblivious to the full scope of American history and its multicultural realities. With that realization, I made a conscious decision: I’d do my best to build a bridge between the majority and non-White church cultures. That bridge might open space for my White friends to better understand my history, culture, and experience and would provide room for my non-White culture friends to share their pain. I didn’t know exactly where to start, so I started simply. I invited my White friends to watch the movie based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple.
As I stretched deeper into this bridge-building process, a few friends joined with me and we formed a racial-reconciliation discussion group. We came together under an umbrella, the shared idea that we could and must do better, and doing better meant showing up to listen and learn. We met once a month to discuss racial tensions in America. Around our reconciliation table, I shared about the history of racism in American Christianity and challenged us to remove the words them, those, and they from our vocabularies, at least in reference to people who represent a different culture from our own. I asked my friends to explore their own family histories, the ways they might have been complicit in racism. Together, we talked, laughed, cried, ate, and prayed. Sometimes we alternated formal meetings with social events to get to know one another in more casual contexts. We pushed deeper into reconciliation and relationship, and as we did we found we understood one another a little better. That understanding brought such healing.
A few months into our meeting, the landscape of American race relations was exposed. Ferguson, Missouri, erupted with violent protests in the wake of the fatal shooting of an eighteen-year-old Black man, and the surrounding events would shape many of us in the group. Many of my new friends had never before been proximate with an ethnically diverse group. And so as we had hard and raw conversations about Michael Brown, policing, and Black lives, space opened for anger, grief, and empathy. Many of my White friends admitted that if it wasn’t for the group, they might have ignored the context or dismissed the events of Ferguson. Attending the monthly circles ensured they wouldn’t remain silent, wouldn’t be complicit. As they became aware of racial injustice and the history of discrimination, it become impossible for them to turn a blind eye.
These conversations set the stage for the launch of Be the Bridge, an organization committed to bringing the reconciliation power of the gospel to the racial divide in America. As we’ve replicated our reconciliation conversations in hundreds of groups across the nation and beyond, I’ve watched people awaken to the realities of the racial divide and their personal racial illiteracy. I’ve seen them go from living in hard-hearted denial to leading movements toward reconciliation. I’ve seen them awaken to the work of the Lord in their lives.
Understanding Begins with the Right Posture
If you’ve picked up this book, chances are you’re interested in the work of racial reconciliation. I’m glad you’re here. Before we start, please understand this: the work of racial reconciliation requires a certain posture. If you’re White, if you come from the majority culture, you’ll need to bend low in a posture of humility. You may need to talk less and listen more, opening your heart to the voices of your non-White brothers and sisters. You’ll need to open your mind and study the hard truths of history without trying to explain them away. You’ll need to examine your own life and the lives of your ancestors so you can see whether you’ve participated in, perpetuated, or benefited from systems of racism.
If you’re Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, or part of any other non-White group, you’ll need to come with your own posture of humility, though it will look different from that of your White brothers and sisters. In humility, you might need to sit with other non-White groups and learn their stories. You might need to confess the ways you’ve perpetuated oppression of other non-White people. People of color may need to confess internalized racism and colorism. You’ll need to correct and instruct when necessary and will need to recognize the effort of those trying to cross the bridge, even if imperfectly. After all, the work of racial reconciliation is anything but perfect.
If we come together in the posture of humility, we can start to bridge the racial divide. A bridge that lifts up marginalized voices. A bridge of voices that is about equity of marginalized voices, not equality. How do I know? Because I’ve witnessed it.
Since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the racial divide in America has only gotten worse. We’ve seen a rise in white nationalism in the media. We’ve heard government officials use language that, to minorities, sounds racially coded. But even though the country is more racially divided than ever, bridge builders are meeting in Be the Bridge groups across America. Week after week, I hear their stories. People of all ethnicities are coming together. They’re learning, growing, and even worshipping together in the spirit of John 17, a spirit of multiethnic unity.
God is inviting all of us to be active participants in racial reconciliation, to show the world that racial unity is possible through Christ. So, in the pages to come, I’m inviting you to journey with me toward racial reconciliation. I hope that as you do, you’ll engage with the prayers that conclude each chapter and use them to form your own prayers. And after each of the three major sections of the book, let the liturgies draw you deeper into God’s heart for reconciliation.
Ultimately, I pray you’ll join a movement of bridge builders who are fighting for oneness and unity, not uniformity, in “such a time as this.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Have you studied the history of non-White cultures in America and how those cultures came to be here? If so, what books and articles have you read and what videos and documentaries have you watched about the history of those cultures prior to their forced migration?
2. Describe some of the books you have read, films you have watched, or art you have admired that were produced by individuals of a different ethnicity than yours.
3. Do you approach conversations of racial reconciliation as if you have all the answers? Do you approach those conversations with a willingness to be corrected? What do you think it looks like for participants to approach those conversations in humility?
4. Are you committed to leaning in to this book, to reading each chapter and answering the questions, even when it’s difficult?
A Prayer for Humility
Lord, we ask that the words of this book fall on the soil of our hearts. Come into our brokenness and our lives with your love that heals all. Consume our pride and replace it with humility and vulnerability. Allow us to make space for your correction and redemption. Allow us to bow down with humble hearts, hearts of repentance. Bind us together in true unity and restoration. May we hear your voice within the words of these pages. Give us collective eyes to see our role in repairing what has been broken. Allow these words to be a conduit for personal transformation that would lead to collective reproduction.