I owe many of my friends an apology. Sitting down to write them a letter, my thoughts go something like this:
Dear Friends of Color,
(That sounds a bit odd as I usually don’t differentiate between my friends of color and the others. Technically, all my friends have color. At any rate, it seems like today this is an appropriate distinction.)
I want to tell you first and foremost how sorry I am that I haven’t said something before now. You may have been waiting, or maybe not. I have reasons but they’re not valid excuses. They may help explain my poor choice of actions, but I’m aware they don’t excuse them.
I’ve been silent because honestly, I haven’t known what to say. I struggle with whether I need to apologize on behalf of my race, on behalf of my church, or just on behalf of me. I’m pretty sure the latter is the only one that matters.
I’ve been silent because, to be completely honest, I thought I’d been doing a pretty good job in the area of race relations. And I thought we (you and I) were good with where we were relationally.
Growing up in the military, I thought racial tension was at bay. I watched people of every color work together, serve together, live together and play together. I naively assumed this is how the rest of the world operated. I realize not everyone saw the military through the same eyes. Please forgive my ignorance.
My first college roommate was black. The only difference I really noticed was the type of music we listened to. I had not been privy to much of Michael Jackson and Prince in my limited knowledge of music genres. Her color of skin didn’t phase me.
I was a summer missionary one year in the inner city of Buffalo. My roommate was black as was the pastor’s family and most of the congregation. I was comfortable and felt at home. Several nights we walked to apartment buildings where some of the church members lived. They called them the projects. (Ironically, my husband lived in the projects when he was growing up, as well. I just thought they were more affordable apartments for people struggling to make ends meet.) We would walk down the sidewalks and through the yards, people turning to notice us as it was summertime and kids and adults alike were outside playing and visiting until late at night. When we reached the apartment of a lady from the church, we would sit on her steps and eat and visit with her and her neighbors. At some point, I noticed I was the only white person in the vicinity. Yes, there were men who whistled and made comments, but I shrugged them off because when we were with our friend, I felt safe.
Fresh out of seminary, my husband pastored a church in a small town in north Florida. We lived in the parsonage and drove a mile down the main road and onto a side road to get to the church. Once on the side road we passed a row of small brick houses referred to as “the quarters.” In the first house lived a lady named Mary Jewel, one of the best cooks in town. We came to know and love Mary Jewel as she was the housekeeper for one of our elderly widowers.
Everyone was friendly enough to say hello to her but she knew her place; she understood the unspoken (and sadly, sometimes spoken) rules that accompanied living in a small town in the south. On the Sundays we had “dinner on the grounds” she would show up at the back door of the fellowship hall with her chicken and dumplings and pound cake. I kept asking her to come on in; little did I know her bounty of delicious home-cooked food was welcome past the threshold, but she was not. I thought that was so sad. So, I tried to show her a different way; I tried to show her I was her friend. Forgive me for not voicing my confusion at this injustice and taking more of a stand.
A short time later we joined the military and moved to South Carolina. One Sunday we went with another chaplain and his wife to a restaurant in a little town not far from the base. My husband and our friend had both preached in different services. Having given their all, they were tired and hungry. We seated ourselves and waited for what seemed forever until we were finally served. Chalk it up once again to my naivety, but I had no clue we weren’t being served because our friends were black. It never crossed my mind. I thought we’d bridged that gap back in the 60s. Please forgive my ignorance.
My husband pastored gospel services where we were the minority family. The real difference in my mind was how our brothers and sisters of color seemed much freer in their expression of praise and worship. I longed to be like them. They welcomed us and made us feel at home. I was unaware this was not everyone else’s experience.
When we moved to Virginia, we divinely ended up renting a home where we were the only white people on the street. Two years later we moved into Washington, D.C. and once again, had next door neighbors of color and many other friends of color in our apartment building. We were in the middle of a historically black but gentrified neighborhood. We listened to stories of injustice experienced by our friends who grew up in the area.
We longed to be known as that “white couple” who loved and cared for all the residents of our building – race, gender preference and religion aside. Could we have done more? Sure. But we tried to make a difference in our tiny part of the world. My heart and mind were finally opening to the reality that racial injustice was still preeminent in many areas of the country and we set out to be part of the change to our neighbors and friends.
As I’ve struggled to define my response and responsibility during these trying times, I’ve been spending more time asking God what a white girl like me should being doing.
A few things I’ve heard Him say is to become more educated about the issue of racism. I need to be informed. But a trusted friend told me I also need to be wise in who I’m listening to these days. There are a lot of people who want to educate others in their own ways and agendas. I need to be discerning in who I’m listening to.
I’m learning there is a corporate response for those in my shoes, but really, a personal response is where the Lord is calling me. Many of my friends agree with my response; some don’t. I’ve experienced division and anger and self-righteous pride in discussing my views with some of my friends. Oh, Lord, may grace abound.
The most important responsibility the Lord has called me to is to show up for my friends of color. The ones I love who are most affected. The ones whose stories I haven’t had the privilege of hearing because I thought we were all good.
My sisters of color, I want you to know I see you. I love you. And I want to know your stories. I want to enter into your pain and grief and sit with my arms wrapped around you. I want to acknowledge your loss, the death of dreams, the fear for your children and their children.`
I want to be here for you.
And I long for the day when injustice bows to Jesus.
Oh, Friend, I want you to know I’m so sorry.