250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of racist housing policies. Does that explain everything? No. Does it mean something? Yes.
The Backseat Passenger:
A close friend and dear brother of ours, Pat Smith, is a professor at Gordon Conwell. He shared an example with me once that he gives his students to help them understand how to hear from different and diverse world views:
Imagine that you are driving down a busy highway and you put your blinker on and prepare to merge into the left lane. All of a sudden, your friend in the backseat yells, “Stop! You’re going to hit a car!” but you are confident that you checked your rearview mirror and feel almost certain there is no car in the lane next to you. What do you do?
The answer all comes down to how much you trust the person in that seat behind you. Is it a foolish, goofy middle school boy who likes to blurt random things out and startle you? If so, then you will likely ignore the voice and get into the next lane.
… Or is it a trusted friend? Your peer? Your equal? If it is a trusted friend then you will instantly put on your breaks without thinking or question.
Pat goes on to explain that the issues related to understanding the complexities of race is similar.
Whether or not you are willing to listen to another voice bring light to an issue that you may have a blind spot on all comes down to how much you trust the other person.
Vermon and I instantly connected on every subject under the sun. Our early dates had us up discussing theology, politics, and race in a hot Arizona parking lot til 4 am. We were smitten…. we just clicked. I joke that we started a conversation 8 years ago and it feels like we have never ended it, we just pause throughout the day to get other things done.
But we didn’t (and still don’t) agree on everything. Passionate debates and differing views of a few subjects have only worked to draw us closer and help us both grow in our perspectives and faith (not without a good amount of blood, sweat, and tears though!). But looking back, I can honestly say that I had this pride in the area of race that had me thinking that I “got it.”
Because we agreed on issues related to being black in America and I resonated with Vermon’s feelings, I thought that meant I was in a good place with the issue. It wasn’t until we had our first argument in this area that I realized how much I didn’t understand…
I was 23 and so confident in Every. Single. Opinion. And prideful. We had been married a few months.
I remember brushing our teeth and Vermon mentioning some excited feelings about the thought of Obama becoming our first black president. Vermon’s statement wasn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with political positions. It wasn’t about being a democrat or republican or who he thought would be better for our country. He was simply excited, given the history of our country that America finally had the potential to elect a non-white president.
But I missed the emotion he was expressing and went straight to the “facts.” I didn’t ask questions or trying to understand what he meant… I just got into some logical, factual argument about why I preferred another candidate to with the primary and twenty minutes later my husband was mad at me, we were still holding our tooth brushes, jabbing our opinions back and forth, getting no closer to agree and quickly dividing our hearts while wounding the other.
At some point Vermon got quiet, and I saw a look on his face that I instantly knew I never wanted to cause in my husband again. It was exhaustion, tiredness, and frustration …at trying to explain his 30-years of racial experience to his confident and prideful partner… Who was showing little evidence in that moment of caring much about partnership.
That began a journey of me realizing that I didn’t “get it”… I may have been able to have deep discussions with my husband about race, but I hadn’t lived THAT intimately side by side with someone who was African American and really give them permission to give me all their unfiltered thoughts with no threat of judgment, just a desire to really understand. It occurred to me in that moment that my other black friends around me, likely filtered their experiences and true feelings from me in order to prevent that same “tired” reaction I saw in my husbands face.
That began the greatest gift of my life… After many, many tears and deep broken apology I decided that I just don’t get the emotion Vermon was trying to communicate to me, but I needed to.
Vermon brought me into the inner circles of his dearest friends and let me participate in conversations where I didn’t have to prove I “got it” or that I could relate based on my own experiences of injustice, pain, or suffering. I just got to love and be loved without having to prove my own knowledge on a topic or relate in some way. I got to ask a lot of questions and hear a lot of stories.
I also had the ability to see black men relax and breathe a little lighter because they didn’t have to filter themselves in order to not offend people or get accused of playing the race card. I began to notice that when we leave Phoenix and go spend time with Vermon’s dear brothers who are black that he had the freedom to joke, lament, dream, and discuss life as a black man in America in a way that is different then when he’s here.
Some would say that makes my husband a chameleon. I think it is a beautiful characteristic of his Christ-likeness. When he is in Phoenix, he willingly lays down his preferences in order to build a diverse community that loves God and loves each other. When we are back East and Vermon can have freedom to joke around and talk more freely about certain subjects, he does it in a way that is always seeking to build, always having hope that we are moving forward.
I still don’t and likely will never fully understand the deep hurt and pain that Vermon and his brothers share over different incidents. But now that I am 8 years down the road, have black sons and daughters, have dear friends who have shared their experiences of unspeakable horror and constitutional violations in America’s ghettos, have seen my husband racially profiled & white friends question the reality of his experience…after that, this is now an issue I will forever be passionate about.
Why Ferguson Matters:
Here is what it comes down to for me. We can disagree about facts. I see some people posting articles sharing one view, one perspective, and certain “facts.” Then I see others who are posting different eye witness accounts and different “facts.” I see some feeling more for the police officer and others feeling for Michael Brown’s family.
A healthy discussion allows us to look at it all, read it all, listen to it all and ask, “can this all fit together as one story?” I believe it can. It does not have to be innocent vs. guilty, right vs. wrong, or a self defense killing vs. a murder.
If you took some time to really listen to what many (not all) African American’s are saying you may hear something like this:
Let’s just assume, for argument sake that Michael Brown was guilty & and that was the police officer’s only option…
we are still broken. (this, friend….is where you ask…why?)
(the answer to this why is a long and complex…most especially in the south…so ask the question to multiple people who are wrestling with this right now…)
Or perhaps you would hear this…
We don’t trust the police. The same police force that pepper sprayed our peaceful protest last week, fire hosed my grandfather (who is still alive by the way) and turned a blind eye when his brother was lynched. We repeatedly experience search and seizures without warrants. Our community is 70% African American and yet our police force of 64 only has 3 African Americans on it. It is hard to trust facts when you have directly seen grandmas, sisters, and friends beaten for no reason.
Or perhaps you would hear…
I’m tired of never being heard. I’m tired of not being able to share my experience or opinion without being called a race baiter. Or an angry black man. Yes, I’m angry. Angry and tired. I’m broken that the minority that looted take away from the majority that have protested peacefully. I’m broken that death is an everyday occurrence in this community, that our kids aren’t being taught to read in our failing public school systems while the white suburban and country schools are thriving and receiving all the money.
This is what I have heard from my friends who have experienced Ferguson first hand. My backseat voice telling me to break is not the media, CNN, Fox News, Facebook, but trusted friends, brothers, sisters…my husband. When these people yell “brake” I am going to slam on my brakes, regardless of what others say.
You can “yeah, but” or you can just listen and observe. Observe a community weeping and ask … Why? Observe a community rioting and ask why? Observe people thousands of miles away deeply impacted, maybe even depressed over it and ask why?
I want someone to remind me to think and pray for that police officer and his family. Unless he truly is evil, he is likely broken and afraid. Even if he feels 100% confident and justified in the shooting, he has to live with the reality that he killed someone. That is never easy. Then, on top of that…his actions turned into a huge discussion of race and divided an already struggling city.
But unless we sit down, together, and converse face to face and listen to each other, that perspective won’t get added to the conversation.
I have read all the articles I can find on both sides of the position and I think its ugly, messy, and complex. I am not calling the police officer a murder, but I dare not say Michael Brown deserved death either. Who am I to make that judgment on either person? But what I will do, is stand in solidarity with my African American brothers and sisters who are broken and mourning. I will talk on the phone, pray with, and say, “I’m sorry you are tired.”
I will always mourn the brokenness of the most marginalized and poor in our community. I will plead with the Lord and seek wisdom for whatever role my family is supposed to play in fighting against systemic injustice. I will lament at watching a city full of impoverished people steal and loot and the complex reasons that happened. I will stand proud of those who protested peacefully and grieve and pray for those who were violent.
Some believe that uncovering the “facts” will heal the wounds. But they aren’t your wounds…so perhaps you should ask instead of tell what will heal those wounds. And dear brother or sister, you have your own wounds…and there will be a time and place to bring those things to the table too, but I assure you the “facts” will not heal them either. I know this because they are emotional wounds. They have context in each person’s own narrative and story. There is no broad, sweeping answer that will heal these wounds. Healing happens as we sit, side by side, and wrestle with each and every individual story and the history that proceeded that incident. And that can only happen through deep relationship.
Ferguson matters because it has brought up wounds that are deep. Wounds that have never been healed. It is a reminder that this is a topic we cannot ignore. Division does not come because you believe there is a racial divide or systemic injustice. Healing does not come by reporting “facts.” History and the scriptures tell us what heals:
Humility. Listening. Weeping with those who weep. Comforting those who mourn. Humility. Listening. Say, “explain” “tell me your story.” Humility. Making room for different perspectives. Humility. Humility like that of our wonderful Savior:
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”
Philippians 2: 4-8