I ponder a lot these days, about racial issues and the unrest in our country, our communities, our churches. Many of my thoughts center around the recent unrest, longtime social injustice, and police brutality. I ruminate about white Christians and how so many are reluctant, have no desire to enter deeply or with any measure, into the lives of their black friends, if they have any at all.
For me it brings an interesting dynamic and definition to the word friendship, contrary to the ways I have conducted myself as a friend since childhood: being loyal, having heartfelt, honest conversations with each other; understanding and sometimes misunderstanding one another, investing time into, and placing value on the relationship; keeping it balanced – not one-sided – and above all, having one another’s back in times of crisis.
I, in no way, believe the definition or ability of a true friend changes (nor should it) based on which race you happen to be or happen to be with. Yet what does it tell us when it does? When the relationship is tested unexpectedly, does race win out over friendship and humanity?
For instance, let us say there are two Christians, one white, the other is black. They are standing in a safe place, but they happen to witness a robbery. Without hesitation, they will grab their cell phones and one will dial 911. While there is no reason for two calls to the emergency line, they know instinctively it is the right, the only correct action to take. The measures are well within their reach to those who have the power and authority to stop the criminal activity. But what if one of them, suggests instead to pray first to be sure of what steps to take? No doubt, the robbery goes off without a hitch and the robbers getaway.
Now, consider this scenario; A woman walks into a classroom of my church and takes her time to speak to everyone seated in my row by name. In what should be considered a safe place, a real robbery is about to take place. I was sitting between two white women, one whom I had recently met and my close friend K. This Christian greeted the woman on my right side, whom she knew by name, skipped over me, and then, because she did not know my friend K, deliberately touched her shoulder and with much intentionality looked at her and asked, “How are you?” She wanted to make me aware that I was not included in her greetings, for me to note she did not acknowledge that she even saw me.
She was a robber. This white ‘Christian’ attempted to rob the dignity and violate the humanity of the lone black person in the room. Perhaps her crime would go unpunished in church, but she could not force me to tolerate it. I looked up at her as she turned to walk away, and said, “I’m doing fine, thanks.” Whether she heard me or not is beside the point. It would not be the last time we watched her robbery ploys.
This incident took K by surprise. She looked at me and laughed nervously at my comment but was speechless at what had just happened. I was not surprised in the least. This type of behavior, leveled against a black person’s self-esteem, has happened with such regularity I’ve learned to laugh inwardly, to pity, and then ignore the perpetrator, especially in a church setting. Did this church member ever read God’s instruction to “be kind one to another?” Did she even bother to listen to the sermons regularly preached about the unconditional love of God?
When K and I discussed this incident later, I related several other occasions at our church where the unwelcome mat had been laid out for me.
K has long been bothered by the diversity deficit at our church. During our walks together, she wondered out loud why it is so and was convinced something must be done. She was so upset by what I refer to as “the classroom crime”, she shared her intention to bring it to the leadership’s attention, and in that moment, I felt somewhat protected by her commitment. I learned later that she’d indeed followed through and had a meeting to discuss the racial climate and lack of diversity at our church.
On another Sunday, a friend and I were engrossed in conversation in our church lobby after service and a man abruptly stepped directly in between us, his back to my face. We two had been standing so close together as we talked that I had to step back so he wouldn’t knock me over. He began speaking to my friend. I expected her to say something like “I’m sorry we were just finishing up,” or “excuse me, but we were talking.” However, she said nothing to him, he said nothing to me, but rather, they conversed with one another. Their actions spoke volumes.
When he left, I was still stunned. I expected her to express dismay at his ill-mannered behavior or feel embarrassed at his discourtesy. I thought she would surely understand how I had felt at his unChrist-like dismissal of me. Instead, she found my mention of her friend’s rude conduct uncomfortable. She took umbrage that I dared suggest it was racial. She coolly assured me she had never seen him be prejudiced or anything like that. How could you? I wondered. Look around you. Mine is the only black face you see in this membership. When would he have had the opportunity before now to show you his bias?
I don’t remember the conversation verbatim, but the conclusion was she would pray about whether to say anything to him. I’ve yet to see any change in him, so I can only conclude she is still praying. Not only that, I have come to realize that, by her silence in not addressing her friend’s rude interruption but rather excusing and no less siding with his behavior, she also took something from me, thereby becoming his accomplice. However, I did not let her keep it. I reclaimed it. Immediately. My self-worth, my dignity as a human being is worthy of common courtesy from others.
A true friend is hard to find and worth holding onto at any cost, and race should never affect the posture of the friendship. The moment it does, you will find yourself at a crossroads – choosing to justify subtle racism or to speak out; taking time to pray as you witness injustice or moving into action. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, “We will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”