Taking Responsibility

 

Taking Responsibility

As people grow older, everyone has their moment or a series of moments that leads to a greater awakening or enlightenment. Either about themselves, their heritage, what they believe about God, the world, the universe, their city, the history of the U.S., the value of time, money, people, etc. For many of us white people, one of those awakenings is what many call the “woke” moment. It’s the moment we realize that we belong to a racist society, that our country was built on this system, and that we are actually a part of the problem that continues today. While the word “woke” does not carry as much weight as it once did, I believe the words “awakened” or “enlightened” carry significance. 

Growing up I always knew about racism, but racists were the bad people who we’re a part of groups like the “Ku Klux Klan” or the “Neo Nazis” who did awful things. It had nothing to do with me or my family. Therefore, it stayed a distant idea and in the history books. I never had to fully worry about it or get into the depths of feeling emotional about it. I was only able to cognitively understand that it was a bad thing that we don’t deal with as much with anymore. 

I grew up as an average white boy who belonged to a middle-class family in the suburbs of a “Christian” city called Tulsa. I went to a Christian school. I went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and youth group on Wednesday nights. After I graduated from my Christian high school, I walked across the street to my Christian college. I am what you call a classic, privileged, white, evangelical Christian who grew up in a tiny bubble in a red state.

As a kid I first started to become culturally aware when I visited South America on mission trips with my high school and church. Now, these were still mission trips that served “fast food salvation,” but they were eye opening experiences for a kid who grew up in Tulsa. God still moved and I saw crazy things. During these experiences, I had the opportunity to visit Mexico, Honduras, Dominic Republic, and Brazil all before I turned 18. These were critical experiences allowing me to get a glimpse of the world outside of my privilege, though it was my privilege that allowed me to get there in the first place.

It is important to note that I do not devalue my upbringing, though at times I poke fun and have very different theological views today. God still uses our past and our past shapes us into who we are today. 

The first true enlightenment experience I had was when I felt a deep love for a people group while I was on a mission trip to India my freshman year of college. This was not a “fast food salvation” mission trip, but this was a trip that lasted 6 weeks where 10 of us college students partnered in the ministry with local Christians in the city of Hyderabad. We slept on mats on the roof of a tall home every night because there was no A/C during a heat wave in the summer of 2010. On this trip we did everything from teaching worship bands how play Shout to the Lord, passing out medical supplies, cleaning up event spaces, traveling to villages handing out food, and visiting HIV orphanages. 

The experience that broke me the most was when we spent several days with little kids who had HIV in an orphanage called Agape. Most of these kids would not live into their teenage years. Our job was to solely hold them, love them, and sing songs so they could experience some joy. This was the first time that I felt another race was part of my family. I felt like these children were my little brothers and sisters, if not my sons and daughters. Especially this boy, Deepak, who I specifically bonded with. My team members and I all ended up getting lice from these children and sobbed while we brushed them out of each other’s hair. We were broken.

As we said goodbye to these kids on the last day, we knew we would never be the same and we knew we would never see them again. While I realized I could love people of a different race as actual family members, I also realized the damage that white evangelicals can bring when visiting places such as this. It’s like showing up as the white Jesus savior, leaving, and never returning again. While these experiences can be transformational for us, what kind of change are we truly bringing other than more broken hearts? That is a different conversation. 

Fast forward throughout the years, my enlightenment grew, and my deconstruction continued. The second biggest enlightenment moment was about 6 years later when my family moved to Harlem in New York City during the winter of 2016. As you know, New York is the second most expensive city in the U.S., and we were only able to afford this move if we lived in Harlem with another couple (who were good friends of ours). Harlem is a beautiful area with eclectic architecture and historical culture, but it is also dangerous in some areas due to gang activity. The neighborhood is predominantly black and Dominican, and white people are the minority in this neighborhood. During the time of our move the tensions were extra high because more and more white people were moving into the neighborhood due to gentrification (another complicated topic) and the neighborhood did not absolutely love this idea.

Everyday my wife would get cat-called on the street, while even being pregnant with a big olé belly. Every other night or so, we would hear gun shots or fights breaking out in the street. It was very hard to not have prejudice during this time. As we walked on the streets of our neighborhood, the first thoughts that would come to our minds would be “Does this person have a gun” or “Are we safe?” This was often due to people looking a little rough or wearing certain clothes. Some would say, “It is okay to assume these things. It is using calculation to assume your safety.” I would say, while we must always take precautions and be wise, to assume every black man or woman on our block was dangerous, had a gun, or in a gang was a very wrong assumption and is the definition of prejudice.

As we spent more time in the neighborhood and got to know the locals, we found that the majority of the people were very safe and beautiful human beings. While there were gangs, and some inappropriate people, or individuals who were strung out on heroine, the people in our neighborhood were beautiful loving people. Our prejudice kept us from getting to know even more of the people in our neighborhood. 

This experience brought out the hidden prejudices that were within us. We never thought we had them, but until we were living in the middle of a neighborhood where we were some of the only white people, we were blind to those prejudices. Many people who push back on me when I discuss the topic of racism and prejudice are often people who have never left their suburban homes or who have only gone on “fast food salvation” mission trips. This is not to say their opinions are not heard or valued, but it is to say that everyone has their own story of enlightenment and even some never receive it. 

After 6 months of this experience, we had the opportunity to move out of our apartment and move into a lovely place called General Theological Seminary in the neighborhood of Chelsea, one of the richest neighborhoods in the city. Talk about two extremes. Our time in Harlem was short-lived and part of me wishes it could have been longer so our cultural frame could have been widened even more, but we could not pass up the opportunity to our have our own space and sanctuary as a family of 4. 

My third main enlightenment moment was while I was studying in school. I was in my ethics class and we were learning about racial reconciliation. There was one specific author we were reading, Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, and his quote is what became the Kairos of my life (and my latest song): 

“My humanity is bound up in yours for we can only be human together. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

This quote wrecked me because it summed up everything I believed in two single sentences. Every experience I had overseas and every experience I had with someone of a different race, sexuality, view of God, or different upbringing came to mind when I heard this quote. All people I have experienced are my family members made in the image of God. All human. And I can only be human if I am human with them. What this means to me is that I am no better than anyone. That we are all one in Christ together no matter our differences. Our differences are what helps us see God in a greater way. Our differences help each other discover enlightenment. We are bound to one another by God, blood, and bone. We can only be human together. 

While I am nowhere near the place I want to be, I am still striving to make steps every day towards this enlightenment and reconciliation. With my experiences and enlightenment, it is my responsibility to no longer stay silent. I must go to marches with my brothers and sisters. I must have hard conversations with friends and family members. I must lament for racial violence. I must seek forgiveness and apologize for when I was ignorant. I must actively seek reconciliation and try to be better in my individual life. While I can’t change a society alone, I change myself through the help of God and other humans. If I take this responsibility seriously, then I believe we are one step closer to a unified humanity.

Jean Vanier says it best,

“My vision is that belonging should be at the heart of a fundamental discovery: that we all belong to a common humanity, the human race.” 

 

 

More By Will Retherford