It was 1990 and I was heading off to Bloomsburg University, not really knowing what I would experience or the people who would somehow touch my life in many different facets. As I was graduating from high school and preparing for college that summer, one expectation that the university had of new students was to do summer reading, a foreign concept to me at the time. One of the books on the list of readings, which obviously had some kind of impact on me since I can still recall it these years later, was Black Like Me by journalist, John Howard Griffin. As a young man who grew up in a town in Pennsylvania that was nothing less than white, the whole idea was hard to grasp. I couldn’t imagine why I would need to read such a book, and yet, of the books I had to read, it was the only one I had read in its entirety. Somehow, of which I wouldn’t begin to grasp until years later, touched me on a very deep and profound level.
And so there I was, baby steps outside of my hometown, a mere forty-five minutes West on Interstate 80, embarking on an environment that I knew nothing about. If you didn’t look like me or someone like me, you were often only known by something that I would now call derogatory. I was having a difficult time trying to reconcile what it was that I had experienced in the years leading up to college and the reality of the people I would eat with, drink and party with, take classes with, socialize with, and so on. I can look back now and only begin to imagine the confusion of people different than myself. Yet, the words of Griffin’s book continued to stick with me and wrestle within me, but only led to greater division within myself. It was as if I were living in two different worlds, trying to literally, talk out of both sides of my mouth, only leading to a deeper loneliness because I knew deep down that what I had learned really wasn’t the reality, but rather what I was experiencing in relationship began to change who I was and am today.
As years went by and I began to travel on mission trips to places like Haiti and several Latin American countries, I always returned to what I had read in that book. The experiences I had, flipped the table on me, not just through the relationships, but the lived experience of being the minority in countries where “gringo’s” were outnumbered by natives, and somehow that made sense and I could begin to feel my insides shaking, trembling, needing to break free, that somehow God was providing an opportunity to know what it’s like on the other side and how I would want to be treated. I remember living with some fear and anxiety as I walked through the streets and alleys of Haiti, a feeling that I have experienced just in my time living in the city of Baltimore. How does a guy who’s skin color is white live in a world and neighborhood where that’s not the majority? I didn’t know an answer, but if I were to live here, and I do, then I’d have to allow myself to live with that struggle as I have in the past and in these many different situations; somehow God is once again leading to greater depths, deeper conversion, and an expansion of the soul. The difference, in the past, the experiences ended in just a week or two, but this is now a way of life.
As I have watched events unfold in Ferguson these past few months, and simply sit with them in prayer, I often can’t help but to reflect on some of my own struggles that I have had to face within myself. It saddens me and has brought me to tears at times watching it all unfold. Violence is never an answer, and I do believe that with my whole heart. Yet, I understand it. I understand it because I’ve had that within myself, and all too often, have taken it out on myself, rather than direct it outward as some choose to do. All too often it is an outward sign of what is experienced on the inside of one’s heart and soul. I also understand, though, that we live in a time in this country when tension is already high as we are so often pulled into the extremes of politics, power, and money. We live with a constant mistrust of many systems that no longer function in a healthy manner, from politics, the justice system, and unfortunately, religious institutions. It’s nothing against any one individual. People like Michael Brown and Darren Wilson so often become the scapegoats to the dysfunction, distracting us from the real issues on inequality, human rights, and most especially, from the very foundation of our biblical roots, the dignity of the human person being violated and the reality and fact that we are all brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of a God of love and mercy.
I’m still of the mindset, and I do hope I’m proven wrong at some point, that there is more to come. There will be more violence that people will choose to act upon rather than sitting with their own discomfort and anger. There will be more protest, even if it is tamped down and squashed in order that we can go on with our lives and continue to live with the illusion as if nothing is wrong in our communities and most definitely, in our country. All of us can only, for a time, repress and suppress what it is that is wrong before it begins to rear its ugly head. Rather than seeing it as something to fear and continue to bury, maybe it’s simply an invitation for us to finally grow up and accept parts of ourselves that have put us on the defense in our lives or have made us feel less than, a minority in one way or another.
Black Like Me may end up being one of the most influential books I have read in my life and it came at a time when it challenged everything that I had led myself to believe about others and only to be proven wrong, over and over again. I will never forget the experiences I’ve had in life that have put, or better yet, where God had led, me into places within myself that turned me upside down. I do know, though, that the only way to peace and change is to turn the mirror on oneself and see myself from the Other’s view. It’s uncomfortable. It’s painful. It’s downright hard work and a difficult journey, but it’s the only way to be able to walk in the others shoes, be changed and transformed, and to come to a greater and deeper understanding of the plight of humanity and one that we all share in. Sure, we often continue to have our judgments of others, but we begin to reconcile that with who and whose we are, of a God who sees beyond it all and is ever so gently, and albeit it, painful at times, moving us towards understanding and not one or the other, but a new order and a new way of life free from what binds and separates. All these years later, maybe it’s time to pull out a copy of that book and allow it once again to speak to me and others of the challenges of being deemed different and rather than see it as an obstacle, reconcile with it and allow it to be the gift God created it to be, God created you and me to be.