Our Response To Racism: We Have To Do More
By: William Vanderbloemen June 4, 2020
In the creation narrative, God’s first gift to humans was to give us breath in our lungs and bring us to life. Last week, we saw video footage of yet another black man being held down and denied breath and life by a white man. Could anything be farther from God’s intent for us?
Jesus hates racism, and so do I. But I am realizing I just don’t understand how big the problem is, how much there is for me to learn, and how much more there is for our team to do to be a part of the solution and not the problem.
I have been pulled over by the police several times in my life.
I’ve never feared for my life when it’s happened.
I almost always get a decent table at a restaurant when I ask for my choice.
I’ve never really wondered, “why are they seating me all the way back here?”
There have been times when people asked me if I was new to the neighborhood.
I’ve never had people ask me if I “really belong” at the neighborhood pool.
And I’ve never, ever had to teach my kids how to avoid getting hurt because of their skin color.
This week has brought those truths into a more clear focus than ever before.
Maybe it’s the utter horror of George Floyd’s death, or the fact that it’s coupled with the senseless killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Maybe it’s the unsettling times we are living in today. But something is truly different about what’s happened in our country, and more importantly, inside me in the last few weeks.
I’m realizing anew how much I am part of the problem. I’m realizing the problem runs over 400 years deep. That it encompasses centuries of people of my heritage taking advantage of others, solely because of skin color. And while I didn’t participate in slave trade, the events of the last week have left me realizing that remnants of that structure still exist. I’m realizing nothing will substantively change in my world unless I’m willing to make more changes in how I run my life, how I speak up. Even deeper, I’m going to have to change how my heart is set if there is going to be real change in me that affects any change in the world. And our entire team will have to do the same.
It occurred to me that Mr. Floyd’s murder and the (hopeful) public awakening to systemic racism in America came right at the time of Pentecost. There are two days of Pentecost in the Bible: one in the Old Testament, and one in the New. Both have caused me to think hard about how to change going forward.
The Old Testament Pentecost, and the festival that was named after it, was a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses by God. These were a people who had been freed but needed a path forward. The Law, regulations for living, was meant to be a path toward freedom. Like most young adults, I always thought the laws, rules, and “thou shalt nots” were meant to hinder my freedom. But in the Scriptures, it is quite the opposite. Good laws bring freedom. In many ways, that’s where the US has tried to go over the years. We have made reforms, but we have so much more to do. We’ve enacted civil rights laws; but all too slowly. That has to change. I have enacted my own disciplines to shape my conduct toward rooting out racism. I’m now realizing how much more I need to do and we need to do as a team. So I’m actively listening and looking for places I can change my behavior toward a life that reflects freedom and respect for everyone. And we as a team will look for new disciplines we can follow to help move the ball forward.
The New Testament Pentecost was the same idea but on a grander scale. It marked the call for the church to reach out beyond their own kind, beyond Jewish Christians, and to accept people from other tribes, tongues, and nations. If you read the Greek that describes that call, the word for “other people” is ethnos (ironically, it’s also the word for “enemy” in Greek). Pentecost is literally God’s call to reach other ethnicities and not keep to “ourselves.” But the big difference is that God reached past regulations at Pentecost in the New Testament. In the Old, he gave his people a new Law. In the New, we are told he gives us a new heart.
That’s my biggest prayer for me during this season. For a new heart of understanding. A commitment that doesn’t rise and fall with the tides of the news cycle. A conviction that my life and our work will reflect something different than the racism that allowed Mr. Floyd’s senseless lynching.
Over the years, we have been honored to do a whole lot of work with many of the most historic Black Churches in the US. We will continue to do that work and proactively seek out how to do more. We will expand our efforts to proactively listen to and serve our sisters and brothers in the African American church. We as a company will expand our existing continuing education programs for our staff to learn more. We will build out our work on Diversity Search work faster than ever before. And we will do more as we discover the path we are learning. Not so we feel good. But because it’s the right thing to do. Because there’s so much left to do.
I take great pride in the work we have been able to do this far, but I’m realizing that it can easily make me feel like we have done enough. I’m learning that small victories can pacify me way too quickly to a larger call.
Three years ago, I got lucky and got to tour the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. If you ever get the chance to go, get yourself there.
If you’ve toured the museum, you know that you start the tour about six floors below ground, at the very basement, on a mocked-up slave ship. It’s dark. Hallways are narrow. Even the sounds are uncomfortable. The metaphor is palpable. As you ascend, floor by floor you move out of slave trade and toward modern-day (and toward the light). I remember after several floors of a wrenching telling of our past treatment of slaves and African Americans, I came up out of the basement of the Civil War, and on to a post-slavery America. I felt like finally, the story would get better.
Then I got to the floor with the train car. If you’ve been there, you know it. You walk through a car from the 1950s, front to back. A biracial couple and their young daughter were in front of me in line. I won’t forget the conversation:
Daughter: “Mommy, where would you sit on the train?”
Mom: “Here in the front of the car.”
Daughter: “Where would daddy sit?”
Mom: “Back there, in the back of the car with all of the other black people.”
And then, as only a kid could ask:
Daughter: “Then where would I have sat?
Mom: “Well baby, back then it would have been illegal for Daddy and me to get married. So I guess you wouldn’t be here at all.”
I don’t have any idea what that pain is like, but I’ll never forget the moment. I hope I never forget this week’s events and Mr. Floyd’s death.
It’s easy to think that since we have ended slavery, freedom is here. It’s easy to think that since we’ve passed civil rights laws, everyone is treated equally. And it’s been easy for me to think that since I’ve made some really good black friends over the years, that I “get it.”
I don’t. But I’m praying I will change my behavior and my heart. And as a company, we are committed to doing what we can to serve every tribe, every tongue, every nation like never before.