“Racism is the most common sin in the world.” -Rick Warren
On my thirty-fifth birthday, I made the front page. “Good Samaritan injured in carjacking.”
Accompanying the headline were two faces drawn by a police sketch artist based on my recall of the previous day’s attack. Two boys, late teens, Hispanic. One’s face broad; the other’s long and oval, with a torn, bleeding ear.
He’d injured it when they lost control of a stolen car on our winding country road and crashed into a eucalyptus tree. First on the scene, I’d pulled over to offer help. Next thing I knew, I was balled up on the ground, covering my head while they kicked me repeatedly. When they sped off in my SUV, I reoriented myself. You’re smack in the middle of the road, on a blind turn. Get up now.
Police investigations never yielded an arrest. And many months later, living and working and grocery shopping in a city with a Hispanic majority, I still carried a sense of imminent danger. And it owned me.
Which led to the afternoon when I fled Subway after noticing two teens ahead of me in the sandwich line, who only maybe-sorta resembled my attackers. It’s not them. Those are good boys. Somebody’s babies. But terror won. I couldn’t stay.
I’ll circle back to this story in a moment.
Thirty-some years earlier, an inferno of racial tension blazed across our country. While segregation experiments led to unrest, riots turned violent, and Martin Luther King, Jr. rallied, my parents purchased a tiny stucco house in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. On purpose. To raise their three WASP toddlers to regard people of different skin colors, religions, and cultures as neighbors and friends.
The old Serbian couple next door, Mr. and Mrs. Gopcevic, grew enchanting things in their garden — some as tall as me. (Don’t try to tell me the Tales of Peter Rabbit weren’t set among their cabbages and calla lillies; I won’t listen.) Three doors up lived Cedric, an African-American boy whose sunny smile could burn the fog right off the Monterey Bay. In a group photo from Cedric’s sixth birthday party, my round face stands out like a scoop of vanilla ice cream next to a three-layer chocolate cake.
My early besties included Syrie from Thailand and Nilifur from Turkey. Down the street at my Japanese friend’s home, I watched fat orange koi swim in a pond, slid the tatami doors, and tried strange foods. And in the elementary-school romance department, a Cuban boy named Emilio was the first to turn my sister’s blonde head. Meanwhile, I first-crushed on an Italian kid with an amazing number of vowels in his last name, Peter something-something-something-ee-o.
We cut our teeth on books about people of color, like Peter’s Chair and A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.
But then there was the family trip to my mother’s hometown on the east coast, where I met one of my aunts in person for the first time. She warned me, “Honey, if you see a *n-word*, walk on the opposite side of the street” and lamented the scourge of blacks who’d overrun their old neighborhood. Mom cringed. At the age of thirteen I was beginning to understand the significance of my parents’ choices.
By all accounts, Mom’s and Dad’s experiment worked. My sister married into a first-generation Mexican-American family, and our lives are richer for it. And I’ve always known deep down in my bones that my ethnicity doesn’t make me something special. God didn’t create a world of white people. We do that.
God never compares that which he creates. -Bob Goff
So I had escaped Subway that day with a toxic lack of peace–heart thumping, hands shaking on the wheel. Clearly, as long as I was profiling, suspecting, and avoiding, I wasn’t loving. As in God’s Big Idea: loving him and others. (Matthew 26:32–40; John 15:12). Terror had taken me out of the game. I tried again to talk to God, this time inching right up to the edge of the canyon I’d dug between him and me. I screamed across.
Lord, I know I’ve been relying on my fear to protect me, instead of letting you. I don’t know if I’m ready to trust you again.
I pulled my car off at the closest exit, parked in a dirt turnout, and cried out from the guts of my soul. Father, help. Forgive my distrust. Heal my wreckage. I can’t tell who’s safe and who’s not. I see only outward appearances, but you look at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Show me again how to see others through God-eyes.
In a transaction I still don’t comprehend nearly two decades later, there in that dirt patch not far from where I was attacked, my fears evaporated, never to return. I remain free. I’m not making this stuff up.
So it’s excruciating when today’s headlines reveal how far our country hasn’t come. Worse, I’m ashamed by how disinterested and out of touch I’ve become over time, living now in a placid, not-so-diverse rural community. Guess I’ve had my head buried in the high-desert sand.
Whether it’s apathy or blatant racism, there’s still a whole lot of ugly in our hearts. Mine included.
It occurs to me that those of us attempting to follow Jesus ought to be most offended, most repentant, and most determined to reconcile with God and each other. In a kingdom where the royal law of the land is Love Your Neighbor, there’s no place for discrimination or even a hint of favoritism (James 2:8-9).
I often say I received healing on the side of the road years ago. And it’s true. But it was preceded by a decision to yield, to invite the Spirit of God to lead me. So how can we know where he wants to lead us in this? If all Scripture is God-breathed, meaning by his Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), it follows that the trail markers found in the Bible are for you and me.
Which means we can’t get off simply treating everyone as equals and calling it good. Not even close.We’re to humbly regard others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3). We think we love others because we condemn hate. But most of the time, the absence of love isn’t hate. It’s disregard.
God doesn’t call us to be colorblind either. We often say “I don’t see color” as if that’s a good thing. Yet he delights in the variety he created. When we do the same, it honors him.
We’re to be his peacemakers. We’re to raise our kids as peacemakers. We are the antidote to racism in all its forms.
So let’s cry out. Let’s bury our faces in the dusty hem of Jesus’ robe and beg forgiveness for any ways we’ve ignored the Spirit’s leading in this. Where sorrow and gut-deep repentance cut you to the quick, that’s the place where Jesus applies his grace balm, nutrients for the miraculous: growth into Christ-likeness.
Let’s ask for new eyes and hearts. It isn’t enough to vow to be the change. Love isn’t a matter of the will, but of the heart.
Left to ourselves, we’ll keep detouring around those different from us. Let’s follow the Spirit into the discomfort zone. Reach across our communities and churches to interact with people we normally don’t. Sure, relationships are more easily built on common ground, but my experience tells me this is where we miss out.
And let’s become better listeners in a spirit of understanding and peace, dedicated to hearing what those of other races and cultures have to say. By the way, you’ll find some amazing voices online who speak to this topic from unique perspectives. Check out Light Breaks Forth and Diedra Riggs, for starters.
Today, Lord, remind me to practice holding everyone in high regard. Hallelujah.