You’ve done it too, and chances are you didn’t even notice it. Racism. Now before you respond with disdain in the form of a mental expletive or make your way for the exit out of this page—HOLD ON and hear me out. For the sake of illuminating a response that shouldn’t be (but is all too often) hidden away in the darkness of disregard, let me shed some light on a recent personal instance where it hit me like a (much-needed) sack of coconuts that I was sliding into a mindset of ignorance and insecurity—ultimately isolationism—fueled by an overwhelming feeling of incompetence. Education by self-degradation? Perhaps, I pray, hearing of my wrestling with racism—because we all face its temptation—and some revelations on it might make you more mindful of its welling up within you, and draw you to change your thinking and renew your response in similar such situations. To profess one’s complete and utter innocence void of candid self-reflection is to propel the wheel of injustice upon which we ride—all the while disregarding the ominous pathway forward over the cliff. STOP!!! I believe self-awareness is key to breaking the chain of hate and violence we continue to drag along through history—binding us, and hindering life-giving relationships with one another of which God truly intends for us. We must confess ourselves, sinful and broken, if we are to live fully in the forgiveness of Christ Jesus who makes us, our relationships, and all of creation whole.
Yesterday, was filled with visits talking to deans and admission representatives of four different universities across Juticalpa, Honduras. What a blessing to see how education is growing in this area as young people are encouraged to learn, prosper, and better themselves, their families, and community. Accompanied by our gifted and gracious translator, Juan Pablo, we were able to talk with these various individuals about programs offered, term schedules, course costs, matriculation provisions, degree/certification/license requirements, scholarship funding, additional education aids, and career potentials. Each conversation was simultaneously difficult yet humbling. It’s tremendously trying to sit with someone and only be able to understand a handful of words here or there. Having taken Spanish classes three times over high school and college, I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the language is still muy pequeño. On the other hand, if open to the situation, the conversational barrier can bring a person to a new level of respect and awe—for both those who communicate differently than oneself, and those who are able (and willing) to bridge cultures. Sitting there on the couch across from two of the university’s administrative leaders, my mind began to wander into a place of anxiety. What exactly were they saying? Could I be sure they weren’t talking about me—how stupid I surely am? How could I trust what was then being communicated with me? And in a moment’s notice, with what felt like a snap of the fingers, a voice chimed in my head. What is wrong with you!? Why are you going there, assuming the worst? Why can’t you trust them? Like a flood of sweat rushing down my face from the 80 plus degrees with 90 percent humidity, shame washed over me. I had been welcomed into this time and space with exceeding hospitality—buenos dias! mucho gusto!—and now I, the pastor, was failing to listen with grace and faith. Hear me say this as nothing more or less than a penitent confession: I was wrong in that moment. I sinned in not giving my newly-met neighbors the benefit of the doubt and trusting their words for what they truly were: assistance and care. Though not malicious, my thoughts there were, unfortunately, racist. For this, I am truly sorry.
I wish I could say this was the first and only time I’ve ever met someone who looks, sounds, or lives differently than me with this mental response. To do so, however, would be a heinous lie. This way of thinking, and the responses that often accompany it—Why can’t you just speak English? If you come into MY country you should learn to talk in MY language! (ironic, me being the one who can’t speak their language in their country)—are symptoms of a system we, privileged Americans in particular, have inherited and continue to pass down to future generations. What’d you get for Christmas, Timmy? A new bike? No, just some confusing systemic racism—but boy does it burn bright! This sad truth, no less prevalent than any other time in history, sure seems to be more explicit now than previously. No amount of affluence has been able to separate me from its affect than on anyone else. We each and altogether, whether we realize, admit it, or not, are simultaneously the cause and effect of racism. A vicious circle we many times inadvertently help to form—round and round we go, where we’ll end up no one knows…nor wants to confront. Frankly, it doesn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) take a 1,300 mile trip to a foreign country to figure all this out. Ignorance is bliss; but a change in context has a way of melting away that sweet treat into a hot sticky mess. Our ignorances and incompetencies feed our insecurities (and vice versa)—isolating us, instigating idolatrous ideas of inferiority. We fear what we don’t immediately understand, what we refuse to learn, what we struggle to master. In a country so ripe with faith, it was clearly a work of the Holy Spirit to be met by a crucifix with the Crucified Jesus on it some minutes after just having distrusted my neighbors. For this very reason, Andrew, I died—to forgive you, to free you from such racism, to draw you into relationship with those who look and sound differently but also receive my gifts of grace and love.
What is one to do with this? How are we to change our response from that of fear to instead trust? For me to try and offer some full-proof answer to the question would appear to disregard that I, myself, am still a part of the problem. Hence my personal confession. How fitting that this is an educational trip—learning more about the ministry done by Austin Helps Honduras, while also engaging with students and their families about their ongoing pursuit of education supported by their scholarship sponsors. An immediate answer to the question (if there is one) seems to be education. Meeting with others of differing cultures—relationship formation. Learning the language—honoring unfamiliarity as beautiful and valuable. Being shaped by the struggles of another—compassion. These are steps in the right direction. Incarnational, they force us to move beyond our comfort zones, diverge from our unquestioned assumptions, and truly meet the other for who they are—a fellow beloved child of God, no less deserving of love, respect, and trust. None of these means of engagement are ever mastered. At best, consciously practiced with peace and patience. Yet, before we can make this effort we must begin with confession and forgiveness. There’s a reason why, in the Lutheran Church, we start worship with this before anything else in the liturgy. Without first humbly admitting ourselves sinful and broken, guilty of hurting our neighbors in thought, word, or deed, we can’t fully receive and live in the good news Jesus proclaims: we are loved unconditionally, forgiven freely, and called to reflect these gifts in our daily lives and relationships with others. We need to own our racism—confessing ourselves in need of Jesus’s transforming cross, dying to our idolatry of ourselves and our particularities. If ever the kingdom of God is enter in our midst, we must continue to work diligently in dismantling all those systems that keep racism rampant and educate ourselves and one another to approach difference in appearance, race, language, and culture as something to be celebrated and affirmed, not feared or despised. God gives our neighbor, especially those different from us, not to be afraid but rather blessed by them. Let not ignorance, incompetence, insecurity, or isolation prevent you from encountering a blessing in another.
– Pastor Andrew