I went to the Missio Alliance Truly Human conference to present a workshop and hang out with my friends – those were my intentions. After sitting in on a forum on race and reconciliation, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and unable to restrain my tears – those were not my intentions, but they were the Lord’s.
The forum I attended was called Grappling with Race & Reconciliation as Resurrected Sons & Daughters. The four panelists were Don Coleman, Brenda Salter McNeil, Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, and Nikki Toyama-Szeto – one African-American man, two African-American women, and one Asian-American woman.
As I sat and listened, I quickly realized that no matter how much I think I understand racial issues, I simply don’t. There is a simple reason–I am a white middle-class American male. That’s just a fact. It means I see the world from a position of privilege, from a position of power.
I am a well-read and thoughtful person, someone concerned with social issues. Therefore I would not consider myself ignorant of the challenges facing minorities in our country, but it wasn’t until I sat and listened to these four people that I began to realize just how ignorant I am.
Remember, being ignorant is not the same as being stupid. If you are stupid it means you lack intelligence; if you are ignorant it means you lack knowledge. These are very different. I am an intelligent person, but what I lack is first-hand knowledge of what it means to live as a minority.
My ignorance was first exposed through a few simple remarks made by Nikki Toyama-Szeto, my colleague at International Justice Mission. Nikki described her own experience of a prolonged season of wrestling in prayer with a couple questions, “Jesus, do you know what it’s like to be an Asian-American woman? If so, are there any of your commands that you would change?” Specifically, she was asking questions related to things Jesus said such as, “Take the lowest seat at the table.” She described that as an Asian-American woman, it was culturally implied that she already belonged at the lowest seat at the table. In that moment I realized that if I would have applied every bit of my intellectual power to thinking about race and gender issues that Asian-American women face, I would have never, ever, considered asking such questions. Why? Because those questions would never, ever, cross my mind. I have absolutely no idea what it is like to be an Asian-American woman. I am ignorant.
With my ignorance exposed, I went on listening to my friend Don Coleman discuss what it is like to be an African-American man serving as the Chair of the Public School Board in Richmond, Virginia, a city that was once the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The challenges he faces are ones that I would never, ever, even conceive of as a white male. I am ignorant.
And then there was Brenda Salter McNeil and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson. I’ve gotten to know Brenda a little bit over the past year and I will simply say that she is one of the most admirable women I have ever been around. I love her and have learned a great deal from her. She is an important voice, not only for the church, but for the world. Natasha was the only one of these four who I did not know personally. She shared her story of growing up as an African-American woman in a predominantly African-American community. Natasha was an overachieving high school student who excelled in school and had many college options. Her high school western civilization teacher, a white man, was a great supporter and mentor to her. He encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone, which was the African-American community, and to enroll in a predominantly white college. She took his advice and was accepted to the US Naval Academy. After graduating, she spent six years as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps before going on to work at the Department of Homeland Security for a few years. Natasha now has a degree from Gordon-Conwell Seminary and a book being published in February 2016.
I was stunned when I heard Natasha’s story. It was like hearing my life in reverse.
I grew up as a white male in a predominantly white community. Far from being an overachieving high school student, I was kicked out of a private school and had no college options. I enlisted in the Marine Corps because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. At that point in my life, I didn’t have a mentor who could challenge me to do anything. And then I met one of the most impressive men I have ever known, an African-American named Monte Powell.
Monte was my platoon sergeant when I first joined my unit at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He had been in the Marines for seven years and was everything I knew a leader should be. From the first day I met him, I aspired to be everything he was. He made me want to be a better Marine, a better man, and a better person. I hadn’t even been in my platoon for a week when he pulled me aside one day and spoke words to me that would change my life forever, “Moore, you are a leader. I’m going to teach you how to be a great one.” I can still hear him saying those words, spoken to me twenty years ago, as clear as the day I first heard them. Those words contained power. They caused something inside me to come alive. It wasn’t what he said that impacted me. What impacted me was the one who said them.
My life, from that moment until now, has been characterized by me being a leader. There is no need to recount that story here, but I do want you to hear Monte’s story. A couple of years after we met, Monte was meritoriously commissioned as an officer. In the midst of eight combat tours, he earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in criminal justice. Today he is a lieutenant colonel, soon to retire from the Marine Corps after 30 years of active duty service. He is now embarking on PhD studies and plans to give the rest of his life to serving the world through humanitarian work.
Monte’s story is important and it needs to be heard.
For too many people, there is only one narrative when it comes to young black men – they are to be feared. The stories we encounter in the media all seem to reinforce this narrative. I want to amplify stories and voices from people of color that challenge that narrative
My story is the story of an underprivileged black man teaching an overprivileged white man how to be a better person.
I had a chance to share my story with Natasha after the forum was over. We were both amazed at the way in which God had worked in our two very similar and yet very different stories.
As I tried to elaborate on the impact of her story and what Monte had meant to me, I simply could not control my tears. I simply stood there and cried. Moments like these are part of what it means to be truly human. These are moments in which those of us living in a terrorized world, shaped by the horrific story of Cain and Abel and death, experience a foretaste of the new creation, shaped by the beautiful story of Jesus and his resurrection. When a white man suddenly feels the pain of his black brothers and sisters, and as a result stands weeping in front of a black woman he barely knows, it is a moment of restoration. It’s a moment in which the divisions in humanity become subversive to the larger reality – we have been created in the image of God and in Christ there is no male or female, slave nor free.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
[photo: Fibonacci Blue]