February 1, 2017—My childhood was unusual in ways that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. Recent events have stirred up all kinds of memories and emotions that I suspect not everyone understands. I grew up in a fairly conservative Baptist church with a white pastor and a majority of white members. One might suspect that most of my family and friends held a particular political bent, but not exactly. It may be helpful to provide a few more details:
My pastor was a “missionary kid” raised in India.
Our church was located in a Jewish neighborhood. Instead of a YMCA and YWCA, there was a YMHA and YWHA. (“H” as in “Hebrew.)
One deacon (or elder) was a 3rd generation Japanese American. His father’s family was kept in American internment camps during World War II, even though they were citizens of the United States.
Another deacon was a political refugee from Liberia.
Our choir director, married to the first deacon, was from China.
Our church supported a family from Romania in their effort to escape from behind the Iron Curtain of communism.
There were also members and international students of a local college from Pakistan, Brazil, Jamaica, Haiti, and various parts of Africa.
Let’s just say that potluck dinners at my church were amazing! And I haven’t even mentioned the Korean-speaking church that met in the sanctuary on Sunday afternoons. Some of the English-speaking families would join us in the morning for the benefit of their children. For some time, my mother was the organist for both congregations.
Then there’s the experience of where I lived and went to school. Most of the town was white, though many were from working-class families who recently (within a generation or two) immigrated from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Portugal, Greece, and so on. Friends with whom I played basketball, baseball, and kickball on an almost daily basis were Jewish, Black, and Latino. My best friend’s mother told everyone that she was my “Jewish mother” with all the rights and heart-felt scoldings that come with such.
When I left for college, I realized that these experiences happened in something of a bubble. “Sunday morning at 11:00 am is the most divided hour of the week in American churches!” That was not my experience, but was and is for most. So it took me a while to realize the depth of pain behind that statement. One thing that has continued to hold true is there are many incredible people who have had to struggle for their basic rights. Their stories have been important to my understanding of a bigger picture of what is happening in the world.
That doesn’t mean I always “get it.” Reflecting back, I can see more clearly that my community, and even my church, was not a utopia for racial reconciliation. Racism is ingrained in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways throughout our culture, and through my own heart as well. What it does mean is that human rights are not just an “issue” for me. Real people have crossed paths with me, due to the sufferings of their parents or even in their own lives. These friends hoped for better, yet at times are left hoping for more.
Among the raucous disagreements surrounding immigration and racism in our country, multiple days for special observations have passed quietly by: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Day of Remembrance for Japanese American Internment, and today is the beginning of Black History Month. We repeat over and over, “Never forget!” Yet new stories of struggle continue to emerge. We cannot say that we truly remember the past, if we have no vision for a different future. We cannot expect a different future, unless we act toward justice in the present.
My idealism is very much rooted in my own limited reality of who God is and what the church was created to be. But I don’t think it’s just me. Friends raised in churches across the political spectrum and a wide range of cultural experiences seem to agree: from the recent blog post by Prof. Brennan Breed on Hebrew hospitality to this open letter from World Vision; from discussions about the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to a simple reminder from our country’s first document…
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Some of our professors have joined other scholars in a larger effort to show that we can find common ground in our shared American values across religious traditions. And many continue to break bread with new friends who help correct our vision, and help transform us and our communities in new and beautiful ways.
Find new friends. Not just ones who look and think and act like you, but ones with an entirely different experience of the world.
Love them well. Model a new community that welcomes those who need it most, even though it may be uncomfortable and involve some sacrifice.
Scratch that: It will be uncomfortable and involve sacrifice…but that’s when you know you’re making progress.
Michael Thompson is the Director of Communications for Columbia Theological Seminary.