Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not Backing Down, But Sad about the Friends

It seems I'm dropping friends like flies, but perhaps it's worth it. If I lose friends for trying to determine what we as a nation should do and what we Christians should do to care for the health of our fellow citizens, then I'll stay on my bandwagon and lose the friends.

This is not like choosing your favorite football team or political party. It's not even about deciding who you think would be the best President of the US. And it's certainly not about trying to win an argument. This is about people's health, livelihood, welfare, and their lives. It matters to me as a US citizen and as a Christian.

BTW, if you support government involvement in health care, but honestly disagree with the particular plans that have been publicized, then my questions are not about you, and you don't need to waste your time defending your stance to me. I don't ask these questions to backhandedly support any particular plan. I've spoken clearly about what I think is the best plan. That's not the question I'm asking.

My questions remain (but with some new wordings):

What is the Christian motivation for opposing government involvement in filling our massive current health care gaps? Since the gaps persist, what should be done to fill them?

If it is exclusively Christians' responsibility, how do we justify the continuing foreclosures, bankruptcies, and deaths while we wait for Christians to fill the gap?

If it is not exclusively Christians' responsibility (as I believe), who are the legitimate entities who should fill the gap and why is government not one of them?

Is there any legitimate role for our elected officials in health care while they wait for those legitimate entities to fill the gap?

As an explanation, I'll take scripture, Christian tradition, or anything else reasonably Christian. Help me out, folks.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Against President Obama

My friend Tim asked me weeks (maybe months) ago to write something critical of President Obama. Now that the President has officially endorsed the House healthcare bill, H.R. 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, I have my chance.

First, to set the stage, Tim said that if I could describe where I differed with the President, it would help those who are not Obama-lovers to trust the judgment of those who are. He said that one thing that keeps them skeptical is the appearance that Obama supporters have no sense of discernment—that they seem to worship the man.

I’m not sure that Tim is right that many Obama-detractors would change their minds, regardless of anything (although I trust that Tim means well). Even if President Obama DID walk on water, many of those detractors would not become believers in his abilities, his character, or his legitimacy, let alone his policies. But then there are people like Tim, who at least want to be fair.

I have a hard time being fair because of my prior relationship with the President. My knowledge of him colors (and should color) my view of him today. But I am also critical by nature, and I was arguing with Mr. Obama long before we knew that one of us would be on the national stage. So in remembrance of those days and in response to Tim, here is an opening shot at criticism towards the President.

While I fully support the President’s criteria for health care reform, I do not agree that HR 3962, which he endorses, is the best bill to meet the real health care needs of all Americans. The bill will likely meet the minimal standards the President has demanded of anything he would sign:
1. bring down costs for citizens and businesses
2. cover nearly all Americans
3. deficit-neutral over the long-term
4. ban rejection for pre-existing conditions.
It matters to me that the AARP, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the National Farmers Union, and the Consumers Union all endorse the bill. This plan is better than no plan and is certainly better than that farce of a plan, the ‘‘Common Sense Health Care Reform and Affordability Act,’’ the GOP has finally come up with.

But HR 3962 still gives profit-motivated, deny-first, hope-not-to–pay-later insurance companies too much power (No, I am not opposed to putting them out of business). It leaves too many people struggling to pay medical bills whether or not they have insurance (been there, currently doing that).  

Of real concern is that HR 3962 keeps Americans looking like and acting like ethical neophytes when we are supposed to be the greatest, most moral, most “Christian” country in the world. It is not reflective of the spirit of America where “we the people” came together “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility” and “promote the general welfare” (that's the Constitution, folks). Coming together for the health of one another is a measure of our American character.

HR 3962 begins to reflect that character, but it doesn't go far enough. So I disagree with the President’s endorsement. It is not the best plan for the American people. To find out what is, go here.

Then urge your Representatives to support HR 3962--It is better than the status quo. Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good. HR 3962 is better than nothing.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Of Gnats, Camels, and Health Care Reform

I think I understand why political conservatives are antsy about health care reform. I understand their fears that this is socialized medicine, that it is federal encroachment into their lives, that it means that the government is taking their hard earned money to support an unproved program in order to protect the health of those who have failed to get reliable affordable health care. They fear that government involvement will only disturb the delicate balance of care and cost that only the free market should be allowed to mess with (and mess with they have). I disagree that their fears are fairly reflected in what is being proposed, but I understand the fears.

I agree that when liberals say health care is a right and not a privilege, that they can't back it up Constitutionally, just as conservatives can't back up the "right to life" (by which they mean, of course, the "right to be born," not the "right to keep living healthily" or the "right to abundant life"). But Constitutional silence should not dismiss decent human compassion and practice.

I have no desire to defend any specific health care bill or its particulars. The President has laid out reasonable principles regarding reform: That the reforms should bring down costs, increase access, promote choice, and be deficit-neutral. I also believe that a plan that gets more people protected will reduce the amount of money hard-working people are paying for the care of those lazy or stupid other people.

I think I understand the politically conservative view. What I don't understand is why Christian organizations are opposing health care reform. I don't understand why, according to the Washington Post, conservative Christians are increasing their support of Christian organizations in order to oppose health care reform. I don't understand what is Christian about opposing health care reform. Where in the Christian Bible does it say, "Thou shalt not provide health care? What in Christian history is a precedent for opposing the assurance that all people can get affordable care when they need it?

I know that some Christians talk about the idea that "the church" should be caring for people, not the government. They are half-right. It is our Christian duty to care for those in need. And if Christian individuals, congregations, and organizations were doing so, we would have no need for any other health care. But in the absence of such Christian action, when the vacuum of need is sucking the health and meager wealth of some (and the general wealth of us all), the least Christians could do is support any other entity that is doing their duty for them. And further, I see nothing in Scripture or in Christian tradition that prohibits Christians from doing their duty THROUGH another entity, such as government.

And then there's abortion: our postmodern example of straining at a gnat to swallow a camel. Don't get me wrong I am pro-life. But if done right, health care reform is all about being pro-life, even though it does not prioritize unborn lives over already-born lives. And the President insists that the health care reform he supports does not allow money for abortion. I am in favor of language that would give such assurances.

But suppose those measures are not passed. Will conservative Christians oppose any health care reform that would save us all money, stop the bleeding of the economy, cover (nearly) every American, give citizens greater control over their own health care decisions, and save countless lives--just because the abortion measure doesn't have their preferred language? Are unborn lives the only ones that matter?

If already-born lives matter as much as unborn lives (and according to the Bible, I think they do), just what is the Christian justification for opposing health care reform?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

They Took a Chance

The words I most dread hearing when listening to the local news are “The suspect is a black male.” It may seem strange to you that I dread those words more than something more imminent like “The suspect is just outside your door.” If the latter statement were common or even likely, you would be right to question me. But the words I dread are all too common and likely. So much so that when real criminals want to distract attention from themselves as suspects in their crimes, more often than not they blame it on a fictional black guy or two.

I mention the dread not to say that suspects shouldn’t be identified by race and gender. Nor do I fear that, since I too am a black male, I become automatically suspect (although the statement puts me into the suspect pool). No, the dread has to do with reinforcing the fear that grips our national psyche and its attachment to certain types of people.

It is not only black men who suffer from the attachment; just ask my tattooed and pierced young adult white sons. Or ask any group of teenagers who gather in a public place. But tattoos are chosen, piercings can be removed, and teenagers grow up. We black males will always be black males (like the brown people who speak Spanish or who come from the Middle East will always be who they are).

The image in the national psyche is so indelible that not even the traditional symbols of “having arrived” erase the connection. You could be a Harvard professor or President of the United States, and large segments of American society still see you as a dangerous black man. The fear simply takes on a different sophistication.

No pity and no guilt allowed! Even black people have internalized the myth of the dangerous black man, which is a tragedy that will take decades to rectify. And it is made more tragic by the fact that, despite the disproportionate number of black men who are arrested and incarcerated over any particular charge, the vast majority of black males are law abiding citizens just like the rest of y’all.

Against that backdrop, I write to express gratitude. I want to thank parents of white teenagers in four states—north, south, east, and west —who grew to trust me with their children week after week for nearly twenty years. Their trust is not unique in the grand scheme of youth ministry. But that they were mostly white Evangelicals, that their children were mostly young teens, and that I could easily be perceived (even with my small stature) as a dangerous black man, I thank them that they took a personal chance on me. Those kinds of courageous chances might begin to chip away at that national image of the dangerous black man.

Lest you think I’m making too much of their courage, let me describe how deep their trust got here in the American South. On one retreat, four white seventh grade girls challenged me to a basketball game. If memory serves, I won (yes I can only win at basketball against white middle school girls). The bet was that the loser takes the winner out for lunch. So the four girls took me to Arby’s. The retreat and the lunch are perhaps a common youth leader level of trust from the parents.

But let’s up the ante. In each church I worked in, I tried (with uneven resolve) to guide the kids into leadership. To that end I once asked Ken Ray, a high school junior, and Derek Waltchak, an eighth grader, to travel with me out of town to check out a campsite for an upcoming retreat. Their parents okayed the trip. We were out of town from morning into evening one Saturday. We had a great time and chose a great site, but even then I realized that I had been given great trust.

Their trust didn’t compare to that of the Hudsons. On another occasion I was talking to Nikki Hudson, a homeschooled eighth grader about another retreat site evaluation. She asked me if she could go with me. I hesitated, but then said, “I’ll take you if your parents allow it.” I figured that would be the end of the question.
I don’t know how much discussing Chuck and Carol Hudson did before making a decision. But I know that they loved their 3rd of six children, their 2nd of five girls. And to my surprise they agreed to this venture. I think Nikki and I traveled on a weekday, since it was seen as a sort of homeschool project. I remember us stopping on our out-of-town trip at a gas station. I walked in with this tiny blonde young teen. I admit that I enjoyed seeing people’s faces in rural Tennessee.

Daytime retreat trips are one thing. Overnight stays at the apartment I shared with another young guy are another. At least three times a group of white parents allowed their kids to stay the night at my bachelor pad. The fist time was with a small co-ed group of kids during the summer between their 8th and 9th grades. The second and third times involved a co-ed group of 7th and 8th graders.

In yet another experience, parents of four white high school girls trusted me to escort their babies on a two-week mission trip to Mexico City. That’s out of the country, folks—and not just over the border!

Most of these instances came with protections that made the parents feel safer. Sometimes the group setting eased their fears, sometimes other adults were along for the ride. And surely someone will say something like: “Tony, this only happened because you’re such a great guy.” Thank you for saying so.

But being a great guy is too often not enough to overcome the fear of the black guy. These parents forgot all about the image of the dangerous black man, because their kids loved me and they themselves had grown to trust me. I don’t think most of them even thought they were being courageous.

As long as we deal only in the abstract—black man, Latina woman, Asian man, white woman, etc.—we get nowhere on these issues. And I do not agree that color-blindness is a possible or valuable goal. But if we can just step back and treat persons as persons in all their racial and gendered glory, we might actually get somewhere that enriches us all.

If you start with the pity or guilt, I’m coming after you! I might be standing right outside your door.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Way Forward on Race

Reasons that discussions of race often go nowhere:
1. Some people are afraid the conversation will end with somebody being called a racist.

2. Some people believe that the conversations SHOULD end with someone being called a racist.

3. Some people believe that every mention of the racial element in a particular situation MEANS that you’re calling someone a racist.

4. Some people believe that racism should never be called out.

5. Some people believe “Racism only matters if I can see it.”

6. Some people (even those who think racism is real and really ugly) believe that racism only matters if you can prove it.

7. Some people believe that any mention of unprovable racism adds more to the problem than does staying silent about it.

8. Some people believe that race problems will only be solved if “those other people” would
  • a. stop their racist ways
  • b. stop calling racism out
  • c. stop mentioning race
  • d. grow thicker skin
  • e. pretend they are not in the skin they are in
I don’t agree with any of these.

I believe that we can talk about race without only talking about racism.

I believe that we need to talk about racism. That racism talk can be productive at the beginning of the conversation (rarely, when sparked by an incident) or in the middle of the conversation (preferable), but should NEVER be the end of the conversation.

I believe that, while race issues come with a host of possibilities of misunderstanding and over-reaction, the ability to perceive race problems rests with those who HAVE to deal with race on a daily basis, more than with those who do not.

I believe that in order for us to grow beyond our race problems in conversation, we have to be able to talk through stories and feelings even more than through logic, observation, objectivism and proposition.

I believe we will never achieve total healing of race relations in this life, but if we are willing to bravely and humbly enter the conversation we can get substantial healing and we will all be the better for it.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lesson Plan: How to Do Ugly

I’m no political historian, but from what I hear, when President George Herbert Walker Bush was planning to speak to schoolchildren in 1991, Democratic politicians called “foul.” They feared that the Republican president was trying to indoctrinate young minds with partisan ideas. Turns out Bush’s remarks were nothing of the sort. It was straight down the line “Work hard to get a good education” stuff.

But as innocent as the speech was, the Democratic politicians had reason to be suspicious, since when President Reagan, Bush’s former boss, was in office, he had also spoken to schoolchildren in 1986. And while President  Reagan’s speech was also harmless, it clearly included more than glancing mention of his governmental ideology. No harm done. He probably inspired the minds of today’s brightest (as well as not-so-bright) young conservatives.

So if Democrats and other progressives objected back in 1991, why didn’t their objections reach the levels of today’s? Why were there no calls for nationwide boycotts? Why were school boards not forbidding the speech? Why weren’t parents choosing to keep their kids home because the President of the United States wanted to speak to them? Why weren’t permission slips sent home to allow the President to urge kids to work hard in school?

Some folks like the tit-for-tat and see the two episodes as equal. They clearly are not. CNN commentators almost uniformly suggest that the difference is today’s “politically charged atmosphere.” They are not far from the truth, but their assessment begs the further question: What is charging the atmosphere? I’ll leave that question to open speculation.

But I will take a stab at my first questions. And I will surely alienate at least as many as I amuse, educate, or inspire with my theory. But it’s a chance I’ll take in an effort to spark some positive change. I think there are two reasons that this effort of a President to speak to schoolchildren is different from the effort in 1991.

The first reason is that narrow-minded Republicans and conservatives do ugly politics way better than narrow-minded Democrats and progressives. I say this meaning no disrespect to the noble efforts at ugliness from the leftists. They try. But they are no match for their rivals. If the progressives throw the first punch, the conservatives knock them out with the counter. If the cons act first the libs come back with an anemic response. It’s like their heart’s not really in it.

So in this example, Democratic politicians cry foul in 1991 and Republicans (both elected officials and unelected media leaders) Never Forget. So they up the ante with a thunderous “scare the parents, call the names, pressure the school boards and teachers, boycott the President” assault.

I say all of this without intending to attach moral superiority to either side. I’m no fan of ugly, especially when it comes with its own air of moral superiority. But on both sides (and to some degree in the middle) there are people who decide to operate out of ugliness. I’m just saying that when it comes to ugly, conservatives do it better.

But there is another reason that this time is different from 1991. It has to do with President Obama, the man in office, more than with his political philosophy, his policies, or his ideology. It has to do with other feelings people have about him. It has to do with denial of his legitimacy to the office of President of the United States. It has to do with something else lurking.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Equally Yoked, Part 2

We lived at 3939-C Montague Street at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, when I was in fifth grade in 1969. Another black family, the Davises, lived next door at 3939-D, and for a few months their household included Sgt. and Mrs. Davis’s four-year-old granddaughter. She was the first person to say to me with resignation, “You’ll probably marry a white woman.” The second person was my black girlfriend when I was a teenager.

Popular opinion on interracial relationships has certainly shifted in the past few decades since 1967, when the federal Loving case struck down state laws against interracial marriage. Still there is no universal consensus; in fact everyone seems to have an opinion about the issue.

In the late 1970s at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, whenever my friends and I discussed interracial marriage, the most common comment was, “I think it’s okay except for one thing: what about the children?” The concern always amused me. My thinking was that (and I hope my biracial friends will set me straight), while biracial children would certainly have an upbringing different from other people, it is not likely that it would be more difficult than the experience of most black people.
Before Laura, I had only two “official” girlfriends—one black and one white. And, while in 18 years of single adulthood I had dated only black or white women, my “interests” came in many hues and ethnicities. That’s why the question of why some black men “prefer” white women always seemed strange to me.

In 1992, when Laura and I were dating, Ebony Man magazine published the article, “Interracial Dating: What Black Men Say About It.” They didn’t ask me, but I responded with this letter to the editor, dated March 24, 1992:
“Dear EM,
I was glad to see that someone is finally asking black men about interracial relationships. But if you had asked this black man, you would have gotten an answer that was not covered in your article. I am involved with a white woman because I love that woman. I did not search for a white woman. I did not
choose white WOMEN over black WOMEN. I chose this woman over all other women of any race. My involvement with this woman does not diminish my love and respect for my black mother, my black grandmothers or black sisters everywhere. The woman I love is strong, has come through hard times, is loving and selfless—just like my mother.
At the same time that you say Ebony Man does not endorse or condemn the choices black men make in women, you state that black men should “hurry home.” You are missing the point of relationships. I do not choose a mate to make a political statement. My home is with a woman I can love and who loves me. My home is with a woman whom I can love for a lifetime. There are women of every race who might fit that description. The woman in my life is white—not because I prefer white women but because I prefer THIS woman.
I am proud to be a black man. But if building up black people means that I cannot love people of other races, then I’ll settle for just building up the human race. And I won’t be counting on Ebony Man or popular opinion to tell me whom I should love.
So thanks for running the article; but as far as my interracial relationship is concerned, Ebony Man, like most everyone in the media, has missed the point.”
Years later in 2005 I expressed similar sentiments in a blog post, saying,
"Let me make clear that Laura and I did not marry to make a point. It was (and is) pure love, but it was a hard-fought decision, trying to anticipate possible problems for us and our children. In the end, hard-fought (not mushy) love won out. The hard-fighting hasn’t ended, though I think we’d both say it is mostly internal, along the lines of the theological tension mentioned above. The love of God and one another, and the shared mission to follow Jesus have sustained us."
A commenter graciously replied with a series of provocative questions. The beginning of his comment:
    “Grace2U, and Peace.
    You obviously made a decision, and I assume that you grew up during the 60's, that you had some wrestlings with. I do have a question or two, though, and I hope that you don't mind...

    I grew up in Gary, IN AKA Choklit City. My wife grew up in Pomona, CA and Leavenworth, KS. We are both African Americans. Because of the complex issues relating to romantic relationships between blacks and whites, particularly the issue of the desirability of white women, I have always said that I would not disrespect a sista by rejecting her for a white woman.
    My wife was formerly married to a black man who left her and her (at that time) 1 year old for a white woman. As you can well imagine, she views mixed race relationships somewhat differently than you and your wife do.
    I believe you when you say that you married her out of love, but was there ever an element of “I married up” for you?”
When I read the comment to Laura, she laughed out loud. If we’re going to take seriously all of those ridiculous on-paper measures (race, income, education, family of origin, life experiences) of “marrying up” or “marrying down,” Laura’s assessment is that I got the short end of the stick. She does suffer from runaway humility, but the commenter’s question demonstrates why we have no business looking from the outside at someone else’s relationship and trying to determine how it happened or what it means.

Like I said: everyone has an opinion. Only a few weeks ago, Laura was having one of her regular breakfasts with Miss Emma, a seventy-something white woman. A mixed-race couple walked into the restaurant. Miss Emma leaned over and said sweetly to Laura, “I don’t know how you feel about this, Dear, I just don’t think that, you know, that people should mix like that.” Laura leaned over and whispered just as sweetly, “Miss Emma, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m married to a black man.”

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Equally Yoked, Part 1

March 24, 1992

Dear Grandpa,

I hope this gets to you in time for your birthday. And I hope that you have a nice day.

I’ve had a busy year. I suppose Mom and Dad have told you about Laura McBride and her kids—the people I spend most of my non-working time with. They are a family I have known for the seven years I’ve been in Nashville. I’ve spent most of my holidays with them, and I’ve been there for all kids’ birthdays and celebrations…

…I don’t mean to take up you birthday note talking about my life, but I do have a couple questions for you about this situation. I do love Laura and the kids and I am dating Laura now. I remember Grandma saying at one point that it was okay to associate with white people, but that “we should not be unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14). I don’t think that’s what that verse is about. I think it has to do with people who believe differently than we do.

Anyway, Laura is white (I guess that’s obvious now). I want to know what you think about this issue. If our relationship comes to that, I don’t have any illusions about the marriage being easy. But I still consider it because I love Laura, I love the kids, they love me, and I think we could be a family together. Obviously, I’m a grown man and I will make my own decisions, but I would appreciate hearing what you think.

I still hope to see you sometime soon. I hope to hear from you sooner. Again, I hope your birthday is special. I’ll be praying for you.

Much Love, Your Grandson,


The question I asked Grandpa Peterson was prompted by a conversation I had had with Grandma Peterson back in 1977. The bus tour of the US that I took that year included a visit to Grandpa and Grandma’s little farm in Grove City, Ohio. It was my first trip to the farm as an adult and my first trip to see Grandma and Grandpa without either of my parents.

We kids had grown up with great affection for our grandparents, even though we didn’t see much of them. With all of our moving around, we lived nearby in Columbus, Ohio, only two years, when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade. In those days Mom and Dad took us out to “the country” as often as possible. I remember strawberries, blackberries, and gooseberries, Concord grape vines, apple and walnut trees, and cornfields. We explored the old barn and walked along the railroad track at the edge of the property. We drank from the handpump. I can’t forget the smell of the cellar, which housed all of Grandma’s canned fruits. We always ate well.

We loved it out there, even though there wasn’t that much for kids to do. We always hoped our cousin Jeffrey would be there. Sometimes our other cousins from Mom’s side of the family would come out with us.

There was a lot of serious talking, but it usually didn’t involve us kids much. Dad and Grandpa spent a lot of time together; I gather Dad was trying to soak up Grandpa’s wisdom. Dad revered his father until the day Grandpa died in 1996, maybe even until Dad’s own death only four years later.

On this trip I had Grandma and Grandpa to myself. I was a little nervous. What would I talk about? How could I sound impressive or at least not stupid. All I knew to do was talk about my life. I was in the middle of my sophomore year at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, so I talked about school—mostly about friends and activities. This particular conversation was just Grandma and me. She asked me if there were other “colored” students at the school. I replied that there were a few, but that most of my closest friends were white. “That’s okay for friendship” she said, “but just remember what the Scriptures say about being unequally yoked.” I wanted to correct her theological interpretation, but I remembered my manners and kept my objection to myself.

Grandma was, of course, a product of her generation. She was also a product of her scriptural teaching, the backing for what some thought to be a self-evident reality: Races should not mix.

I have never agreed with Grandma on this issue, but her words stayed with me until the days when I was contemplating marriage in 1992. I don’t know if her sentiments had changed by then. She died in 1990. I still didn’t know what Grandpa thought, and although I disagreed with Grandma’s comment, I did not want to disrespect my grandparents, so it was important to me to hear what they thought.

I have lost Grandpa’s response letter. But it must have encouraged me since I’ve found later correspondence from him on the matter. In one letter from September of that same year, he recounts all the mixed race couples he knows of in our family. And he goes on to talk about their love for one another and when appropriate, their shared Christian ministry.

Grandpa was not well enough to come to our wedding. Shortly after our wedding, my cousin Jeffrey bought the farm (No, people, I mean he literally bought Grandpa’s farm). Laura finally made it to the farm in 2000 for Dad’s burial, when Grandpa was already gone.

If Grandpa’s approval is based on the love between me and Laura and on our shared ministry, Grandpa would be thrilled with Laura. And she with him.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oreos Aren’t for Everyone

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect…me.

When I was a younger man, I worked for three years as the part-time Jr. High minister of a large church in a major city of the American Southeast. The church buildings were in the inner city, but the congregation outgrew that property and began to hold its Sunday services across town at a school that accommodated more people. The church was predominantly white; if memory serves, I was the only black person in any kind of leadership. But they were vocal about their desire for racial integration and what they called in those days “racial reconciliation.”

I had been in my position for about eighteen months when the senior pastor suddenly (and I mean suddenly) hired a youth pastor to be my supervisor. Stan Olivier was a tall white man with short cropped curly, almost kinky hair. He and I met weekly on Wednesday afternoons. From my perspective, he seemed to have no sense of what teenagers were like, but he had a clear idea of what he thought Christian teenagers should be like. As we met weekly, we were learning to tolerate one another.

Stan had been on staff a few months when we were both called into an all-staff meeting, which followed one of our Wednesday meetings. The elders of the church were committed to serving their community, so they found a way to return home and build a larger facility. Staff members were brought together to discuss temporary use of facilities. Toward the end of the meeting, Ruby Smith, the white woman who directed the extensive ministry to the poorer, predominantly black residents of the community, made a comment. “You know when we get the building built, there will be a lot of people from the neighborhood joining us. We need to educate our teachers for a few weeks to prepare them for it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but they will need more than a few weeks. We will have to continually educate because we’re gonna have a clash of cultures. We’ll have to learn from each other.” To which Stan responded, “I’m ready; I have the hair for it already!”—trying to be funny. I don’t remember if anyone laughed. I said nothing.

That night at youth group Stan began to impress upon the youth the importance of evangelism, bringing their non-Christian friends to church. In the midst of the predominantly white suburban group were three black inner city kids Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria —kids from the neighborhood who were part of the youth group since before I started eighteen months prior. Stan went on to say “It’s great that the Jr. High kids have brought these three kids from the inner city here. Now high school people, you need to start bringing your non-Christian friends too.

There were SO MANY things wrong with that verbal display. But let’s begin with only three. Stan assumed
1) that Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria were brought to the church by white kids (which means they are not “our” kids),

2) that they were not Christians, and

3) that they would not mind hearing themselves referred to as these second-class citizens.

He made several other unwise comments about younger adolescents in general, but those comments don’t fit this discussion.

By the end of the meeting, I was furious, too angry to think of anything constructive to say. I spent the week talking through things with friends and decided to wait until our next one-on-one meeting to address the issues with Stan. And so I began:

“Stan, last week you said a few things that bothered me. I know that they offended some other people and I just want to point them out to you to warn you of the possibility of offending more people with similar comments.” I started with the comment about his hair. I said. “Not only did you totally invalidate what Ruby and I were saying, and not only did you apparently miss the point, but it made me wonder what kind of experience you have had with black people.”

He responded boldly, “Extensive, I’ve had extensive experience with black people! I’ve told that joke about my hair many times to black people and they think it’s funny. You are an overly sensitive person, and that is sin. That comment doesn’t offend most black people. But you are not the typical black person. You are what they call an Oreo, black on the outside white on the inside. I know how to deal with black people. I don’t know how to deal with you.”

There was no way to respond. I took a deep breath and said, “Stan, there’s another reason I wonder about your relationships with black people.” I referred him to his comment in front of the youth about Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria. His response “You are reading something in that I didn’t intend. You’re being over sensitive again.”

I said, “What bothers me is that you assumed these kids are not Christians when they are.” Wrong thing to say.

“Oh they are Christians, huh?” he said. “Have they been baptized?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re their youth minister, and you don’t know if they’ve been baptized?! Don’t you think baptism is essential to salvation?”

“I guess not. I think it’s important. I think Christians should be baptized, but I guess I don’t think it’s essential.”

And so began the examination of my beliefs. “I’m concerned,” he said. “Do you believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God? What about abortion? What about homosexuality?”

At the end of it all, Stan said, “You and I are very different. We have some different beliefs, but we also have different approaches to ministry. I am bold and say what I think. You are sensitive and deliberate. Of all the people on staff it is people like you that I have the hardest time dealing with.”

Okay, people, where to begin? Let’s start with this. One barrier to race relationships in the church is the racial assumptions we hang onto. The beauty of Stan is that in his boldness he says out loud what some others only think and others still can’t even bring to their own consciousness. I don’t mean to assume that racial assumptions only go in one direction. They go in all manner of directions. This is why talking openly with good will can help us all. And for the mission of the Christian church it’s the sacrifice we must make to be truer to the Good News of Jesus.

So I addressed three specific assumptions above. Are you aware of others that become barriers to our bridging races and classes? How do we move forward?

Monday, August 24, 2009

How Deep Is Your Love?

We were late visitors to the worship service on Easter morning 1992. Laura and I had just started dating, and we were both without a church home. My friend and co-worker, Karen Williams, had invited us to her church, Braden United Methodist, for the Easter service.

We arrived at the entrance to the church, the back of the sanctuary, to find a full house. The usher greeted us and asked us to wait. He walked up to the second row and ushered out all of those men, the deacons. He signaled for us to come down the aisle and fill the row. So I walked with my white girlfriend and her four white children into this otherwise black assembly. Although I had prepared myself for this, I still felt self-conscious, especially for the children. As we were hurrying out at the end of the service, a few people greeted us. But the obligatory acknowledgement of our presence was not enough to erase the discomfort. I don’t know if the kids remember that church visit. I know Laura does.

After fifteen years worshiping and serving in another congregation, Laura and I started searching again for a church home in January 2009. We had visited around for a few months when we decided to save the actual decision for the end of the year. We wanted to be free simply to explore and enjoy the ways Christians worship in Nashville. We were six months into the worship tour when one Sunday as we were heading home, I said, “You realize that we have not visited a predominantly black church.”

There were a few moments of silence. And then some verbal wrestling. First Laura said, “I’ve been to black churches before.” In the early 1980s, Laura lived in a predominantly black New Jersey neighborhood working with black children (while I was living in a predominantly white Washington State community working with suburban white teens). For five years she interacted with children and their families and she occasionally attended black churches with white friends. “Although we were obviously visitors” she said about the church visits, “it seemed to me, that it didn’t really matter that we were there.”

Then she reminded me of our Braden visit. Of course the Braden experience was fraught with discomfort potential. And to be fair, the Braden people, who were not expecting this intrusion on Easter Sunday, took it in stride and acted with as much Christian hospitality as they could muster on short notice. But I don’t blame Laura for not wanting to repeat the experience.

Still there had to be something else. In our 2009 tour we visited many churches that treated us as if we didn’t matter. Finally Laura said, “There’s another reason I’m not excited about us going together to a black church. I would go WITHOUT you. I just don’t want to be the white woman who walks into the black church with her black husband, as if to say to black women ‘Look, I have him; you can’t have him.’”

I couldn’t let that go, “Well, Honey, they CAN'T have me. I don’t belong to black women. I belong to you.”

“I know,” she said, “but I don’t want to stir up that feeling in them.”

If you know Laura, you know she was speaking from her heart. And just like that, she demonstrated how complicated these issues are. This was not as simple as, “I feel fine in your church, why don’t you feel fine in mine?” No, the issues are myriad and interconnected. No wonder that individuals, racial groups, and churches don’t venture into them. This is not easy stuff.

The conversation that Laura and I had on the way home from church was eased by our love for each other. But we are still a man and a woman, a black person and a white person with drastically different backgrounds. If this husband and wife have to rely on our deep love for one another to get toward the core of these issues, why would anyone else bother to have these conversations? There is too much involved and too much at stake, and seemingly there is more to lose than there is to gain.

But Laura and I should not have needed to have this conversation at all. The travesty behind our predicament is the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of Christian churches are heavily single ethnicity gatherings (I hear your exception, people in Hawaii!). It’s as if we Christians believe that the first rule when establishing a church is “Gather a bunch of people who look like you.”

I know that historically there are some very good reasons for some single ethnicity churches. There are also some very bad reasons. And many of the original good reasons are now obsolete. It is time to examine them and to examine our own hearts. Don’t be mistaken; worship with people who do not look like us is not simply for the benefit of this interracial couple. I believe it is essential to the movement of God’s Good News.

So I am asking Christian people to accept no excuses. I am asking Christian people to look at their congregations and ask, “Is this single-ethnic gathering what God is up to? Is this what the Gospel is about?” If you agree with me that it is not, are you willing to have the conversations that move us forward? Are you willing to experience the discomfort that can lead to something better?

And whether or not you agree with me, are you willing to chase down anything in your congregation that would make a visitor feel unwelcome in your church?

Despite the potential landmines, we can exercise the Good News. It took the fierce, dedicated, patient love of a husband and wife to get Laura and me to a deeper level of understanding on this issue. But we Christians claim a love that is even deeper, broader, and more powerful.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Are We There Yet?

It was 1987. The assassinations of MLK and RFK were nearly twenty years in the past. The Voting Rights Act was more than twenty years old. Ronald Reagan was in his second term in the White House. And the Cosby Show was in its third season as America’s favorite TV show.

In January 1987, The Vanderbilt Hustler, the university’s student newspaper, reported the news that an African American woman had pledged a white sorority. The pledging either sparked or was sparked by (which came first is unclear) a mandate from Vandy’s provost and chancellor demanding that the sororities and fraternities develop plans for integration. The story made national news; at least the Washington Post took brief notice.

The Hustler published a letter to the editor from Blair Robinson. That letter conveyed the sentiments of many people I talked to; they wanted to know: “Why is this front page news?” I was studying at Scarritt Graduate School at the time, taking my Bible classes at Vanderbilt’s divinity school. As a quasi-member of the Vandy community, I wrote my own letter to the editor in response to Ms. Robinson et al.:

"To the Editor

I agree with Blair Robinson’s letter in the January 23 issue of
The Vanderbilt Hustler: The event of a black woman joining a traditionally white sorority should not be a big deal. Michelle Alexander and Pi Beta Phi should be applauded for not making an issue of the pledging. But The Vanderbilt Hustler deserves equal applause for recognizing and publicizing the significance of the event.

Eighty-three years of discrimination is a big deal! Perhaps we were all aware of racism at Vanderbilt. Perhaps we have grown sick of this annual focus on racism every January. Or perhaps we are content to ignore the problem, hoping that it will solve itself. Perhaps it will. But 83 years of history have shown otherwise. Any successive approximations to true integration and equality deserve to be recognized, if not for the celebration of the progress then for the acknowledgement of the continuing tragedy.

Blair Robinson understates our goal saying, “Until an action like this can happen without gaining front page attention, we still have a long way to go.” I would add that until an action like this can happen without prompting a controversial administrative mandate, we have a long way to go. Until blacks and whites can live together without denying their heritage, we have a long way to go. Until whites and blacks can recognize their dependence on each other, we have a long way to go. And while at Vanderbilt the issue is black and white, until we recognize that respect and interaction among ALL races is both just and mutually beneficial, we cheat ourselves out of the enrichment in diversity. Until we can learn, work, and celebrate together because of and in spite of our differences, we still have a very long way to go.

So Pi Beta Phi did not choose Michelle Alexander because she is black. And Ms Alexander did not join Pi Beta Phi to make a statement. But I suppose they are learning to live with the unsolicited publicity. Michelle Alexander is a black woman in an otherwise white sorority . And at Vanderbilt University in January 1987, that is still a big deal."

Now another twenty years have passed. Barack Obama is in the White House, and we haven’t had a bona fide American assassination in some time.

Bu I can’t think of any top-rated TV shows that feature black (or Latino or Asian) casts. And we still seem to be squeamish talking about race.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Just Thinkin'

I’m wrestling with when and whether I will meet Damon for lunch at school. At first it was a no-brainer: I’d love that, and so would he! After all he visited me at work on a number of occasions. And we first went out into public—just the two of us before he was two weeks old (We went to Home Depot).

But then I remembered: kids can be cruel. And innocent, curious kindergarteners can be unintentionally hurtful.

When Timothy was in kindergarten, I ate lunch with him once after his persistent requests. I met his friends, and we had a great time. Damon has his Uncle Timothy’s take-it-or-leave-it confidence. But he also has his daddy’s desire to make sure everyone is getting along (“No-one should be left out!”). What would my presence in these early days do to a little boy who is trying to fit in and to make sure everyone else fits in? How would he handle their innocently curious questions? What would their questions tell him about what is “normal”?

I knew those questions would be inevitable for our kids. Before I asked Laura to marry me, we had been close friends for ten years and had dated for three years. I had a lot to think about before deciding that this was what I wanted to do. At the top of my foot-dragging list was the knowledge that the kids would have to explain to other kids something that they did not choose.

One day, after we had been married about five years, I was down in the basement sorting through stuff (I have a little bit of stuff). The kids, all teenagers except Timothy, were gone for the weekend. My mind started working; and when I would let it go like that, it usually focused on the kids. All of a sudden I was overcome with emotion. The thought that prompted the flood was the realization that I had never once asked the kids what happens when people at school learn that they have a black stepfather. I had not asked, and they had not told. I started thinking of all the possible reactions.

During the next week, I asked each of our children in private.

Kimberly said, “I go to Hume-Fogg (Academic Magnet School). There are a lot more unusual family situations than ours!”

Thomas said, “My friends think it’s cool, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

Charlie said, “Nothing happens.” When I pressed him, it wasn’t clear if to me if the subject never came up, if he was ashamed, or if he was protecting me. Now that he’s a little older and a lot more mature, I might ask him again.

Timothy said, “They ask me ‘So are you mixed?’ and I say, ‘Do I LOOK mixed?’”

So I finally asked them, and I think their message to me was, “It’s not a big deal.” But in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t asking about how much they love me or anything like that. I think the kids and I have all come through that “Can I trust that you really love me? stage.”

Likewise I have no doubt about the bond between Damon and me. But love often comes with a cost, sometimes with a burden. Real love can bear the burden, especially once we reach a certain level of maturity. By the time I asked my kids that question, they were all veterans of school society and they had already borne some burdens.

Damon is new at this. I think the lunch visit can wait until he gets his classroom and schoolyard legs under him. Unless he persists.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some People Change

It was no secret that Don McMillen hated black people. Don was a young American soldier who started dating my German sister, Karla, during the last months of our time in Germany. Don was not allowed in our home. And according to Dad, Don forbade (It was the early 1960s!) Karla’s coming to our home, but she would sneak over anyway. Don and Karla married, and Don moved his new wife back home to ol’ Kentucky.

When Dad was transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1970, we were not far from Karla, Don and their girls in Louisville. Karla couldn’t have us that close for a year and not see us. So we would pile into the car and drive to Louisville to visit. All I remember about those visits is that regardless of the time of year or weather conditions, it was always the same scenario: We’d arrive. Don would go out to his car and stay there until we left. His racial prejudice became legendary in our family discussions.

I started getting brave in my young adulthood. During my sophomore year of college I decided to spend my winter break visiting family and friends around the country via Greyhound’s Ameripass. Louisville was one of my stops.

I have access to the hour-by-hour (in some cases, minute-by-minute) activities of that visit. I’ll spare you some of the tedium, but there were significant points.

The bus from Columbus, Ohio, was 50 minutes late. Karla and her family had just returned home from the bus depot when I called to say that I was in (This was before cellphones, people!). I waited and eventually saw Susie and Don coming. I recognized eleven-year-old Susie from a few days before when I passed through Louisville but didn’t stay. Karla and Susie had met me at the bus depot and brought me something to eat. This time we left the bus depot with Don talking to me about the damn cold and damn everything else with a little s--- mixed in. I wrote in my journal, “He was very nice, though.”

I was greeted at the door by Donna, only seven years old and acting like she knew me from years earlier when she was a newborn. After learning where I was to sleep, I went in to the TV room, where Don was watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs. As we watched together, Don commented on all the damn plays, while Susie interjected all the news of her life. Donna was helping Karla in the kitchen. I kept hearing my name from her little voice, “Where will Tony sit? This chair’s for Tony. What will Tony drink?” She came out and whispered something to Susie, to which Susie replied, “I don’t know; ask him.” She asked, and I answered, “7-Up.”

We ate at halftime, and I was seated at the head of the table. Don did not eat, apparently distressed over a friend he just heard had died. But after supper Don invited me to go with him to “The Convenient.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Fourteen-year-old Nancy warned me that he was planning to go “drown his sorrows,” so I declined. I spent the evening playing board games with the girls as the two younger ones campaigned for my attention.

They were all in bed when Don got home. He came into the room I was staying in and asked if I needed anything. He apologized for “Fraulein,” the clock that would be chiming every hour while I tried to sleep (And Fraulein DID chime!).

The next day I had promised Susie that I’d go with her collecting for her paper route (against Donna’s wishes). We set out into the bitter cold. We had reached what Donna called the “stinky neighborhood,” when all I could think of was getting back home. But I was amused by all the people staring at this 12-year-old white girl in the company of this 19-year old black guy. Before long, I looked up and saw Karla arriving in the car. Seems several concerned citizens had called Karla to report that they saw Susie with some guy. I’m not sure how they described me, but I have some guesses.

At everyone’s insistence I stayed a day longer than I intended. There were a lot of board games to play; jigsaw puzzles to be put together; ballgames game shows, and soap operas (I was into “All My Children” at the time) to watch.

Don has since passed away. I’ve never asked Karla or the girls what transformed him from the legendary bigot to this gracious man falling over himself to make my stay enjoyable. I always give God the credit for that stuff, even if the subject isn’t aware of God’s intervention.

Don obviously did not die a perfect man, but in this one area he emerges as my favorite example of the foolishness of holding people to their past deeds. Some people do change. As a Christian, it is a basic tenet of my faith that every person CAN change. It gives me delight to remember Don McMillen as a man who, the last time I saw him, treated me like royalty in his own home.

Don't Tell Karla!

It'll be news to my wife, Laura, but Karla was my first crush. She was a white German teenager and I was a black American preschooler, but I was determined to marry her when I grew up. Shortly after we moved to Germany, she became our babysitter. Within a few years she had essentially moved in with us. Knowing that most of our memories would fade, Dad later wrote about those days for his kids. Note that Dad intentionally misspells Karla’s name to match his, Carl:

"Carla Leipold had been coming to Camp King for a year or so before we arrived. She must have been about 14 then. She visited a black family who left shortly after we arrived. They were a really rowdy bunch and were partly responsible for the negative image of blacks which prevailed at Camp King.

Carla was dating David Morgan a black MP. I still must smile when I think of this little blonde-haired blue, eyed German girl with black American [language and accent] coming from her lips. When the other family left, Carla latched onto us. David was allowed to visit here at our house, but only under close supervision.

Eventually, Carla was spending every day after school and all weekend with us. She was our daughter, housekeeper, and live-in baby-sitter. She went to her real parents’ house to sleep unless we were going to be out late and we obtained permission for her to spend the night. She wanted blanket permission to stay overnight every night, but her parents would not consent, and we didn’t pursue the issue. Carla finished 8th or 9th grade while she was living with us…

By most people’s standards the relationship between the Leipolds and Petersons was a weird one. The daughter of Susie and Karl was also the daughter of Rena and Carl. And Susie and Karl considered us to be their schwartz (black) daughter, son, and grandchildren. Many times while Carla was at our house, one or more of you would be at their house…"

Dad had a lot more to say to us about Karla, but not all of it was intended for public consumption, so I’ll take over here with my memories. The Leipolds lived just outside the Army base gate about a five-minute walk. We kids loved going off-base to visit Karla’s parents, who were like grandparents to us. I remember them taking us to the candy store, where we would buy a ring wrapped around gummy candy. Later in high school when I bought Haribo Gummi Bears from the German Club, it took me immediately back to Germany.

Karla is still in my life today as are her kids and grandkids. She and her family were at my graduate school graduation,
they were at my wedding,
they were in Hawaii for my nephew’s wedding,
and they were at my daughter’s wedding.
Mom and Karla talk on the phone, Denver to Louisville, nearly every day.If you see Karla; her daughters, Nancy, Susie, or Donna; and her grandchildren hanging out in Louisville, Denver, Nashville, or Waipahu, with my mom, my siblings, my wife, my children, or my grandchildren, you could easily be confused by the brother, sister, daughter, aunt, uncle, mother, grandmother, grandfather language. It gets really complicated when you add in Karla’s German mother who still calls my mother her daughter.

But wait, there’s more. Our family history with Karla is a little more complicated...

And…nobody tell Karla about that crush thing!