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Seeking to Understand

Updated: Jun 3


I admit it. I don’t understand what is happening throughout our nation as I watch the destruction, the violence and hatred pouring out. I don’t understand the kind of rage that causes a person to break windows and destroy businesses, to burn cars and to throw bricks at people.


I don’t understand the kind of deep hatred for another human being that would cause a police officer to pin down a man and hold him in a position that he clearly knew could kill him.


I don’t fully grasp the anguish a black mother has when her son goes out somewhere and is in danger, simply because of the color of his skin. I don’t fully know the deep, deep grief the black community feels, grief that has been a part of their history, and their ancestor’s history, for too many years.


Oh, I’ve studied racism; I understand a little. My heart goes out to all people who are hurting and mistreated and, in this time, I grieve with the family of George Floyd, who was killed at the hands of a man wearing a badge, who had no regard for his life. And I hope – I pray – justice will be done. I know that what we are witnessing with protests and riots did not just begin with this one incident. For too long people of color have been up against way more than I will ever experience.


To say that I know how you – a person of color – feel would be a lie. I can imagine how you feel but I cannot fully know. I know how I feel, I know my experience but I can only try to know yours.


From a very young age I was taught to never believe that I’m better than someone else, or that God favors me over someone else because of my race. Being white does not make me more loved, more special, more privileged than a person of color. And I’ve always believed that. Unfortunately, I have come to understand that I do have more privilege just because I’m white, but it isn’t because I expect it, or think it should be that way. Yet, I’m aware that my experience in society is different.


When I was in high school in the 1960’s, I had my first eye-opening lesson on white privilege. Yes, I knew there were segregated public bathrooms, swimming pools, housing areas and churches but in my childlike innocence, I just assumed that was what everyone wanted. I didn’t stop to think about that segregation being forced on people. I went to school with children of other races and we were friends. I did not think much about our differences.

But one night our high school girls’ choir was traveling home rather late from Oklahoma State University where we had had a joyful time at a choir festival. Choirs from all over Oklahoma gathered in one place to sing the Hallelujah Chorus and other songs. Being from a small school it was thrilling to us. We were all tired but giddy as we traveled home on the bus. But we were also hungry teenagers. So, we pulled into the parking lot of a diner along the highway and our small group of choir members, along with our director, a couple of parents, and the bus driver all piled out of the bus. But we did not make it into the diner.

As we waited in line outside the door, we heard the manager of the restaurant tell the adults that we were all welcome to come in … all except for one. That one was a beautiful girl with brown skin. A girl we all loved – who was a good, sweet, charming friend.


In just a few seconds, I saw her face go from joy to sorrow to embarrassment and discomfort. Because of her we could not go in. And of course, we would NOT go in. Not one of us would have considered leaving our friend while we went inside to eat. We all got back on the bus and were angry and sad at the injustice, the ridiculousness of being turned away because someone was different. And this is what stands out to me: I found it was difficult to look my friend in the eye after that. There was a feeling I had deep inside of being ashamed that her treatment was because she wasn’t white. Like me. I suddenly realized that there was a difference between us that I could not change. At least I had no idea how to go about it. And sadly, I still don’t.


That experience has stuck with me all my life. Never have I been turned away because of just being who I am. As a female pastor, I’ve had some criticism and skepticism about my ability to preach or even the legitimacy about whether or not God actually calls women to that ministry. But I’ve had very few outright rejections and even when I did, I understood that it wasn’t about me as a person. It was a theological issue, mostly. For the most part I have been blessed in ministry and felt affirmed in all the places where I served.


So, again, I can’t claim to understand. But I can try. I can be determined to never give up. I can read and participate in classes and discussions with an open mind. I can become more aware of the things I say and do (and think) and how they affect others; how what I practice in my life is an influence on others. I do stand in solidarity with the Floyd family and my black brothers and sisters who are hurting and are naturally angry.


I want to state clearly though, that while there is good reason for anger, I do not stand with rioters and those who are violent and destructive, who are tearing down businesses, injuring people, setting cities on fire. That is not going to help. At least it does not make a good case in my thinking. It confuses me. It angers me. It distracts me from keeping my heart and mind on the main thing, which is true injustice. It makes me feel helpless and hopeless in thinking there can be healing.


It makes me cry out: “Lord, don’t let me lose sight of the main thing here. Let me continue desiring to be a peacemaker and to love – even those who would destroy and tear down out of their hurt and anger.” Loving all people is not easy, but it is the second greatest commandment.


There is a hymn that comes to mind. The title is: God of Grace and God of Glory. The third verse goes like this:


Cure Thy children’s waring madness, bend our pride to Thy control; shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.


Healing God, grant us wisdom, courage and peace. Help me to understand. O Christ, give me the capacity to see others as you see them, to love others with the sacrificial love that you have shown the world. Help me to stay in prayer, that you might first heal my own heart, weeding out all that is not love. And raise me up to helpful action, O Holy Spirit, with you as my guide.


Amen.



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© 2020 by Dr. Sharlyn DeHaven Gates