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How I learned to value the differences between others and myself.

My vicarage congregation Berea Lutheran Church on E. Oliver Street, Baltimore, MD with our house in the background. Photo is from 1985

I’ve wanted to and needed to write this post for a while, but just had way too many thoughts and questions running through my head.

Racial justice is a big deal. It has been for a long time. I instinctively want to deny any trace of racism in my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions. I want to claim that I do not treat anyone differently because of the color of their skin. But I know that’s not true. I may not even be aware that I am doing it. But I know I am not immune from it.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia knowing few people of color. Communities just to the east and west of ours were very different, but we rarely ever ventured there. Glancing through my high school yearbook from forty-five years ago, our football, basketball, baseball and wrestling teams were all white. I heard about discrimination, prejudice and racial tensions, saw a little bit on TV, and talked some about it in school, but that was about as close as I got.

The student population at college was a little more diverse. However my cultural education there came mostly from friends and classmates who grew up in the Jewish faith, which I knew little about. I had a smattering of friends from different cultural backgrounds, but our primary focus on academics blurred most distinctions.

My first job with Bell Labs brought me into a little more of a multicultural setting. My department included a variety of engineers from India, Pakistan and the Middle East. As I struggled to tread water in that sea of genius, I was in the minority as a humble “code jockey.”

A few years later, I found myself at the seminary, making a significant career course correction. Though you’ll find them all over the world, the Lutheran church is predominantly white European and Scandanavian in tradition. I had a few black classmates, but as I struggled to tread water in another sea of genius, this time theological, race was the least of my worries.

And then came vicarage. For those unfamiliar with that term, a vicarage is an year-long internship at a church half-way through residential seminary education. A coalition of ten churches in Baltimore secured a grant to host five vicars a year for three years. Would I be willing to go to the inner city for a year? “Sure, why not?” said this naive suburban white student about to marry a young lady from rural southern Indiana. That’s when it got real.

The two churches we would serve put us up in a row house in a neighborhood where we were the only white people for miles. The only exception was two other vicars who lived next door to us in an adjoining house that year. The house had been burned out during a riot a number of years ago. With a little repair and paint, it was inhabitable. (Note: Were she to describe it, my wife would not use that adjective.) On the other side of our house, across a small yard, was a black Lutheran congregation where I would learn to preach and teach. Across the street was an elementary school attended by at least six hundred children all from black families.

The culture shock was seismic. I was told to wear my clerical shirt most of the time. At that time and in that community, the clergy were held in high regard. Our neighbors knew who we were and why we were there, and they looked out for us. The children quickly discovered our dogs and came over often to run around the yard with them. The sounds of the street lasted into the early morning hours, including music, loud conversation, even louder cars and gunshots. The church doors were shut and locked when it was time to start worship.

It took months to get used to our situation. I felt safe enough to go for a run in the early morning when no one was yet out on the street. We became comfortable shopping in local grocery stores, tasting unfamiliar foods and patronizing local businesses. Having two large dogs made us feel more secure. (Large dogs were also well-respected.) I cut my preaching teeth by preaching every other week while my wife got some experience in social work. I learned much from other pastors in black clergy caucuses whose meetings I attended. I had so much fun tutoring neighborhood children and taking some of the teens to summer camp.

Sometime during that year, something clicked. It wasn’t really racial distinctions we were adapting to. It was life in an inner city. It was life in the south (south of the Mason-Dixon line). It was life in an industrial urban setting. The foods we learned to eat were local blue crabs and oysters as well as greens and sweet potato pie. The choir sang pieces from a rich southern gospel tradition, creating harmonies we never tired of hearing. Not only did we grow comfortable in that setting, but we missed it after our year there was up. I am so grateful for the pastors and people of that community who taught us so much.

We had no idea where ministry would take us. My wife had no idea she would one day be sleeping in a small bug hut on a concrete floor in Haiti, just six months after the devastating 2010 earthquake. We had no idea that we would find ourselves out in the middle of Kenya and Madagascar, sleeping under mosquito nets, eating interesting food, not daring to drink the water and hoping we didn’t have to use the squat pot out back. Each and every time we would reminisce, “If we could survive that year in the city, we can do this!” Each and every time, the people we met and helped were so gracious, so appreciative, and so caring.

To tell you the truth, I think we had a harder time adapting to life at my first church in eastern Connecticut. It took us longer to get used to the New England attitudes and culture, where the population was all white. I also think it was harder to truly feel comfortable at my second parish in Iowa, where life revolved around agriculture. My experience just didn’t equip me to talk intelligently about hog farming, soybeans, hail insurance or commodity futures.

My third and current church in Florida was a refreshing change. The congregation and community was well-seasoned with people from Jamaica, Honduras, Barbados, India, the Philippines, Russia, Germany, Cambodia, Suriname, and Canada. And that just felt right. It still does.

So where am I going with all this? There are times when I feel suspicious or negative about someone whose skin color is different than mine, which some would call a racist attitude. But in such moments I have learned to pause and ask myself, “Why?” Why do I feel that way? What do I really know about that person? Are they in any way a threat to me? Most of the time, they’re not.

More importantly, I’ve learned to ask, “What’s that person’s story?” And, “What can they teach me?” I am grateful for all who have shared their stories and taught me much over the years. Those simple questions do not pretend to ignore the differences but instead leads me to value and appreciate them. Maybe that’s a good place to start.

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