As a long-time resident of flyover country, I am often stunned by the off-hand comments of media types that are accepted as fact. These people are cloistered into large urban areas such as New York and Washington, and learn about the South by watching Duck Dynasty or Deliverance. Perhaps they have a friend who knew someone who once had a layover in the Atlanta airport. In other words, they are as knowledgeable as someone who considers himself an Egyptologist because he has danced to “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
One morning a couple of weeks ago, I was watching the news while getting ready for a funeral. Like the rest of the country, I was horrified at what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. A young, black man was shot by a police officer, and the town erupted into violence, looting, and rioting, which the police, the Highway Patrol, and even the National Guard seemed unable to quell. One of the commentators on the news panel flippantly opined that we can’t expect anything else from the South, since they’re all racists down there. Wait.. what? The discussion continued, but no one even blinked an eye at this comment, let alone challenged it.
What a tidy way to distance oneself from the situation, though. “We” could never be “them.” We don’t live in the South. It’s all a matter of geography. No, it’s not. It’s all a matter of the darkness of the human soul, and there’s plenty of darkness to go around. The most startling racist remark I’ve heard in the past year or so came out of the mouth of a visitor from the Northeast. (I recently learned from Colin Cowherd that he is offended by the term “Yankee,” bless his heart, so I’ll refrain from using it.) She was expressing distaste at the generous diversity of our area, as if we lived in a bad neighborhood. We all stood there with our mouths open. This is our neighborhood, thank you, and we like it.
I had to turn off the television so that I could get to the funeral of a man from our church. It’s a good thing I was early, because the church was packed. Although I had not known Mike well, I had taken classes from him and chatted with him a few times. He was brilliant, of course, but also warm and friendly, and his wife, Bekah, is smart and fun. What I did not know until the representative from the C.S. Lewis Institute (the C.S. Lewis Institute!) spoke was that Mike was a major scholar who had taught in loftier places than our little church. He also composed music and founded a company. All these accomplishments were wonderful, of course, but that’s not what drew us to the church that day. It was our love for Mike as a brother in the Lord, and our love for his wife and kids. As Mike’s African-American family and Bekah’s white family filed into their seats that day, and as different mourners from our diverse congregation came up to honor him with music or memories, I looked around at our grieving members and wondered, “Could this much love and sorrow heal Ferguson, Missouri?”
One of the eulogists spoke of conversations he had had with Mike, who grew up in what he called “the worst zip code in the nation for young, black men”— somewhere near Washington, D.C., I gathered. Mike had been a gang member and a drug runner, a fact that most of us had a hard time reconciling with the quiet father of four that we knew. One day, the family came home to find that their house had been broken into and ransacked, and Mike was ready to run out and avenge himself on the perpetrators. His dad looked around and calmly said, “Let’s go get some dinner.” He refused to resort to violence and vengeance, and that was a turning point in Mike’s life. He learned that he did not have to act on his anger, but could rather choose peace. Mike became a Christian, went on to college and seminary, and… well, you know the rest. We are not doomed to act out a role in the play that our culture has written for us. We can choose the better way.
You may or may not remember the media guffaws and slurs over the photograph of the Romney family with their biracial grandchild. Their assumption was that the conservative grandpa was quietly having a stroke over this adoption. Now, I do not know the politics of our church members— since our elders wisely focus on the gospel, not temporal endeavors—but most people assume that evangelical church members are conservatives. In my thirty-some years as a Christian, I have never known a Bible-believing church—all over the South, mind you—that did not have at least one family who had adopted across racial or ethnic lines. Sometimes it is very deliberate, an effort to break barriers. Most of the time, though, it’s just a couple, overflowing with love, adopting kids who need their open arms. They know the challenges, and they joyfully accept them, because Jesus tells us to care for “these little ones in my name.” Diversity in our families and in our churches is a tremendous blessing to all of us, as we have the opportunity to dwell on our shared faith and all those things we have in common, so that we begin to see beyond race, to see that we are all just children in need of grace.
In the larger community, too, though, we normally live and work in peace and cooperation. When I left the funeral that day and made my way back to the library building, I mused a bit on our workplace. We are men and women, black and white, who spend eight hours together every day. We don’t tolerate each other; we like each other. We talk about our work, our families, and our rival sports teams. We complain about the weather and exclaim over cute shoes. We continually ask, “How are your kids?” We are exasperated with cranky computers, and of course, since we’re in a library, we spend hours talking about books and authors. Rarely do we consider race. However, on that day, I thought about the maybe-not-so-young black men that I worked with and realized that all of them were wonderful husbands and fathers. Did they come to a decision point in their lives and choose to rise out of poverty, or did they grow up in happy, middle-class homes and just followed in their father’s footsteps? I don’t know, but here they are now, making everybody look good.
Perhaps I am Pollyanna. I am a middle-aged white woman working in a quiet profession. I’m not a poor person living in the inner city, but neither am I a wealthy elitist, solving the world’s problems at a sanitary distance. I’m just an ordinary person, but I think that is the point. There are pockets of real problems in cities, sure, including the cities near me, and the media will always throw gasoline on any fire they can find. It’s what they do. But the civil rights movement happened more than fifty years ago, and although we need to remember its lessons the way we remember the Holocaust, we get it. I believe that most people are like me. We’re working for a living, raising our kids and grandkids, and participating in our communities. We’re ordinary people, and we’re doing okay. We are the ones who can make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream a reality. We really can judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. We do it by living our ordinary lives together, day after ordinary day.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, my church, or anyone else. Photos of individuals are used by permission.