These last weeks and months have been exhausting. All of us are experiencing strain from the year that was 2020, with what felt like a new crisis each week. For me, and so many other people of color in America, there has also been the undercurrent of constant racial tension. After one of the high profile racial outrages, a friend remarked to me “Man, I can’t wait for all this race stuff to be over so things can just go back to the way they were.” I couldn’t respond. This has been going on for my entire life, not a new thing that just popped up alongside COVID-19. But that isn’t what my friend wants to hear. She only knows the part that she is currently experiencing, and is just ready to have her evening news back to covering “normal” stuff again. For so many people I know, issues of race and justice are an unwelcome intrusion into their otherwise ordinary lives.
Our church is hosting a small racial reconciliation group that started this fall. Like many other churches in the south, our membership boasts a pretty small number of minorities and quite a few people who are pretty sure they aren’t racist. So, I was not sure how this smaller group would shape up. I’ve been enthusiastic about it though, because I think it is a good, concrete step in the right direction from a church that to my knowledge has never had a black man preach from its pulpit. I love this community and I love these people. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling some apprehension alongside my enthusiasm every time our group meets. It makes me confront over and over that often the people who have the potential to hurt me the most are Christians. The threat is inside just as much (if not more) than outside the walls of the church.
This struck me anew the other day when I was scrolling through Facebook, thinking again about how much time I waste, when several posts in succession caught my eye. All of them were from “friends” of mine and folks who call themselves Christians, yet I felt myself cringe as I read them. One pictured the base of the confederate soldier statue that was soon to be removed from its post in our town square, except instead of the soldier there was a giant pacifier in its place with a caption insinuating that this would be better for those who want the statue removed. One was a picture of a man saying something to the effect of, “If you just follow the law, the police will leave you alone.” I have read post after post over the last year that makes me question: Who are these “friends” that I have? I’m thinking of refrains like, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” “Say AMEN if you only kneel before God and always stand for the ANTHEM!” or “Those Black Lives Matter people, THEY are the ones who are making racism an issue. I say ALL lives matter!”
I live in a mostly white community, attend a mostly white church, and married a white man. I have embraced the community that I have grown up in and love these people dearly, but at times like these I wonder if it has embraced me in return. I had several discussions recently with friends about systemic racism and the racial issues currently in the news. One asked in disbelief if I’ve ever even experienced racism. One listened politely to me explaining systemic racism, only to respond by asking, “But don’t you think there are really other factors at work here?” She said it so confidently, and laid out her argument so emphatically, that I didn’t really answer much after my first few responses. Over and over these conversations make me question myself. Do I really know what I am talking about? Could I be wrong? Do I even belong here?
During all this, I mentioned to our good friend Josh—who happened to be our minister at the time—that I was struggling and didn’t know if I was strong enough for all the work that needed to be done. He encouraged me and then said he was up for a chat if I needed it. I let that sit for a while before responding. While talking things out would be nice, those conversations with well-meaning white friends don’t always go well in my experience. My desire to talk won out over my reservations, however, so we set up a time to meet on Zoom (because of dang COVID).
The day came. Wes and I sat at our bar in the living room while the kids played Minecraft in the den. Grace interrupted multiple times to ask for cereal and cookies. Josh laughed it off and I got to wave at his wife Jenna when she came in to tell him their son wasn’t going to sleep like he should. Finally things got quiet and it was my turn to talk. But where to start? I kind of rambled for a bit, really just trying to explain the tension that I live with everyday that has been accentuated by the current climate and world of social media. I tried to explain what it is like to live as a person of color in a white community and in America right now without over-explaining and sounding like I was asking for sympathy. I talked about wanting to be a peacemaker, to lean into the role that my multiethnic heritage gave me and act as a bridge between cultures. That I want to see change and work for education and healing in a community that doesn’t even always see that it needs it—but also the tension of sometimes resenting the fact that it can make me feel subservient to white people, who half-heartedly work through race issues while using me as their sounding board and confessional for surface change, dumping their guilt and ignorance on me and walking away feeling like they are better for it. I talked about feeling gaslighted by white friends and Christians who listen patronizingly but then talk over me, insisting I am mistaken about my own experiences and those of people like me, and that because they never owned slaves or used the “n” word, racism really doesn’t exist. Who argue with me about racial justice, insisting that it is a distraction and deviation from the real truth of the gospel of a loving Savior (and really, the bible condones slavery, haven’t I read?). Then to have to listen to these same folks have the audacity to talk about the need for unity and reconciliation when what they mean is for me to stop raising my voice, do things their way and just be happy I have the legal right to vote while they get to keep being exactly the same but feel good because they used the buzzwords and made a statement. I talked about feeling homeless, like I don’t really belong anywhere, assimilated to white culture but not completely welcome even though this is where my life is and has always been. About hearing and reading statements from organizations I am an active part of that talk about needing to reach out to those people, the minorities, those black folks and show them love, making me question if I am (or have I ever been?) a welcome or recognized part of these groups. It is so hard to live in a world that wants everyone to be on a side and in a box and with a specific label because I feel like I just don’t fit and I am so tired. I just trailed off, not really knowing what else to say, so I traced patterns on the counter with the eraser of my pencil and we sat in silence.
After a forever long moment, Josh cleared his throat and told me that he had spent the day considering what he would say during our conversation. He said he was going to tell me what he felt the Spirit had led him to say. Inwardly I groaned. I tried to keep my face neutral. But I knew of about five times in my life that anything actually helpful had followed the words, “I felt led to tell you this.” I was already regretting being so open with him, setting myself up for more of the same wounds. But then he looked me in the eye and said simply, “I believe you.” Silence. He held my gaze until I had to drop my eyes as the weight of those words hit my heart. “I believe you,” he said again. “I don’t understand everything, but I believe you.” Nothing more. I could feel a knot somewhere in my chest that I didn’t even know was there start to slowly release. Hot tears stung my eyes. He didn’t do all the things I feared. He didn’t rationalize the way people responded to me or what I had seen. He didn’t question or belittle my experiences, or even try to relate to them by telling me of his similar experiences. He didn’t confess doing any of the things wrong I was mentioning and talk about how he was growing. He sat in silence while I talked and then acknowledged my words. He believed me.
I wanted to share this because I think the posture Josh chose is so important. To my white friends and family, this is a way we can start and move forward. Listen to us. Believe us. Don’t run off and try to fix the world because you listened to a podcast on racial injustice and now you have all the answers. Take time to really listen to what is going on around you. If you have black friends or people of color in your life who are willing to expend the energy to talk to you, just listen. Because it takes a lot from us right now to even want to have those conversations. I am not saying this is the whole answer to systemic racism or corruption or that all of our problems are going to be solved tomorrow this way. But this is where it has to start. If we are going to have any kind of helpful conversations at all, the posture of the people involved must start here. Nothing productive can happen if we don’t. There is plenty of time for research, discussion, debate, and growth. You don’t need me to help you do all of that—there are so many resources out there to work through. Now, I (and we) need gentleness. I need you to sit and hear and lament with me. Don’t lament for me or rush to tell me all the ways you never did the things I mention. Just make space for me, listen, and believe me.
Hear my experiences with an open heart and see if the God of your Bible would sit with me too. I believe that He does and His word has always spoken my dignity and demanded I be seen as His child. This isn't a distraction from the gospel; it is the very heart of the gospel.Bailey McGee
For white Christians who read this and wonder what this has to do with you, I beg you to read the scriptures again. Start in the garden created in God’s image, make your way into slavery with God’s people, and then look to that same God for liberation. Read over and over the provisions for treatment of slaves and foreigners in the law and traditions. Hear the prophetic call warning about impending judgment because of the lack of justice. After years of exile and oppression, long for a Savior, a new Moses, who will bring deliverance. Be welcomed into the family of Christ regardless of who you are. Yearn along with all creation for the coming redemption that will see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation praising our Savior. Our God has always been a God of liberation and redemption, of restoration and reconciliation. We as his followers are heralds of his coming kingdom, the very kingdom that began breaking in that glorious morning the women found the tomb open and empty. We now live in the in-between, leaning into a reality we can’t see but are called to make real here. Holding all this, friend, consider again my request simply to listen to what I’m saying. Hear my experiences with an open heart and see if the God of your Bible would sit with me too. I believe that He does and His word has always spoken my dignity and demanded I be seen as His child. This isn’t a distraction from the gospel; it is the very heart of the gospel. And after a year like we have had, a posture of love and submission from the body of Christ would speak volumes to a hurting world.
As an addendum, I want to share several resources that I have found beneficial and encouraging. They have given me words when I struggled to articulate my feelings and validated thoughts I have seen dismissed by others.
Jemar Tisby has two fantastic books out that I highly recommend: The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism is a great place to start the conversation. The Rabbit Room did a book study through this a couple of years back, and it was very helpful. His new book How to Fight Racism answers the question that his first book demands: What do I do now? This book has lots of great concrete ideas and suggestions. You can find it in the Rabbit Room Bookstore.
Esau McCaulley’s book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope is another great resource. It has been a breath of fresh air for me, encouraging me to see my place at the table in my Biblical interpretation and theology. I especially enjoyed hearing the audiobook since he reads it himself. The Lament for Justice playlist the Rabbit Room put together is also amazing.
My one request with all of these suggestions is that you spend time just listening. Even if they make you uncomfortable or you disagree, sit with these ideas for a while before you comment or offer your opinion.
[Editor’s note: Unkind comments will be deleted, but genuine questions and conversations are encouraged.]