From a talk given to the University of Michigan-Flint’s Intervarsity group. 10/2015.
Tonight, I want to tell you what I’ve learned from Flint, Michigan.
But let me step back. I want to say that I remember being in undergrad, and remember hearing people come and speak at our mandatory chapel services. And so, I want to be careful right now because I particularly remember a day when I went to one of those chapel services and I was extremely put off. I had been having a good morning. Classes were going pretty well, I had just spent some time with my friends, and I came into chapel, and this lady started talking about something really heavy. And I really wasn’t feeling it. She came across like quite a downer. She was really passionate and going on and on about a severe topic, I think it was child slavery in India, but just from where I was as an undergrad at that time, where my mind was at that day, and where she was trying to take everybody, I didn’t want to have it. I put up the mental block and tuned out. I think at the time I was thinking “You really don’t have to take it so seriously, you can really tone it down a bit.” I didn’t remember anything from that message. But years later, I maybe was in a better spot to hear it, but I found out she had been working for the International Justice Mission and now knew it as an amazing organization that does amazing stuff. At that point I felt embarrassed because I didn’t really have a good reason for shutting her out years before other than I just been coming from a totally different place that morning and was just not in the frame of mind to hear what she was bringing; she brought a really hard and real thing and I just didn’t want to hear it that day.
So I want to be careful as we dig into this tonight as I realize that, like me, you all aren’t likely coming into this right now having thought about much of what I’ll be talking about. So I want to say that up front that I realize that and have been there myself, but want to keep it open so there’s space to get into that at the end.
Maybe, then, the way to ease into it is with a story. A story about Flint:
So there was this kid. Raised in the inner-city. From the start, the child watched his dad abuse his mom. Sometimes he abused the kids too… The kid grew up. Got married. Guess what? From the start, even while dating, the husband was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive. Why? Kids reflect the adults they’re around, they absorb habits by osmosis. But then, one day, about 20 years in, he decided he’d had a change of heart (for various reasons). He was going to stop. He informed his wife that he wouldn’t abuse her anymore. As time passed, he’d slip up every so often, his temper would get the best of him, but he’d assure her that it was ok because he was so much better than before. He liked this new life better. So much so that he’d tell others how great it was to not be abusive and the steps he’d taken to make the change. If you’d ask his wife, she’d say that, while she appreciates not being abused, he never really said he was sorry for those 20+ years of abuse nor asked her what he could do to help her with the pain she carries. He’d say that the past is in the past, he was young and immature then, and can’t we just move on and focus on the bright future ahead? She’s tried bringing it up to him, but each time he dismisses her, again alluding to progress made. What’s worse is that now friends are asking her why she’s down so often and why she keeps having bouts of depression. She’d say it’s because she has to live with a split personality as watching her husband openly proclaim about their great marriage while knowing they were not in a great spot most often makes it hurt more, but they’d just call her crazy.
When we moved to Flint 4 years ago, I really expected to do a lot of good for the city, to help it heal. But even though it sounds cliche, it’s actually been the other way around; I’ve been the one who had to heal.
In 4 years of living and working in Flint, here’s the lesson Flint taught me: In this story, with me being white, and part of the church in America today, in this story, I am that man.
And I would say, for you all, if you are white, and part of the church in America today, in this story, you are that man.
I know this is a hard thing to think about, it was a hard thing for me to think about. It took 3 years of being here before I even started unpacking this, it was not where I was at when I came here.
So as we talk about racism, I know it’s not something we all chose, but hundreds of years ago, our ancestors chose the theft and enslaving of black people. We stole them, raped, killed, lynched them. And even in our parents’ memory, there were ‘whites only’ bathrooms, they remember seeing this stuff. And it’s not really been addressed in any appreciable way by the church and it lies unfinished. And it still exists now. You can look at the prisons, the amount of black people who are in the prison system versus white people. They call it de facto and de jure segregation. It’s illegal to make laws for whites only neighborhoods, but we can do things that inadvertently make it the same way. You’ve got white schools. You’ve got black schools. Schools are now just as segregated as they were when segregation was legal. We’ve got the same segregation going on, it’s illegal now, but it’s still happening.
So this is really hard for me to handle. The fact that, not only did racism happen (we all knew that), but additionally that MLK and Obama didn’t make it go away. And this was something that took me up until just this last year to wrap my mind around as some friends, particularly some black friends helped me digest all of this. It was hard and it still is hard.
So in the opening story, it’s that we might have stopped overtly beating our family, but if we don’t go back and say “I’m sorry and I was wrong. What can I do to make that right?” Just trying to stop doesn’t make the pain go away.
This is the message that Flint has sent me.
And so as I am a white person in Flint, and I was wanting to come in and wave the flag of “hey let’s fix the city and let’s to reconciliation…” what I heard from my black friends was “When I see you, I see this unfinished business continuing. It’s not making it better, actually it’s making it worse. Can you listen to me for a second?”
And it was in doing that, that God really got inside me and started helping me heal… and then through that, I believe Flint will heal. But it starts with me addressing my stuff first.
Again, this is heavy, but we can talk about it more at the end.
So as we talk about these things in Flint and in other cities, and in the nation, I want to say that it’s not your fault, you didn’t set this up. In that story, his dad was abusive, he inherited that by osmosis. Kids are a reflection of the adults their around. We picked it up from our parents who picked it up from their parents, etc. This culture is the effect of racism, we’re living the effects of it; we’re not necessarily actively choosing to recreate it. But it’s still there. So it’s not our fault, but it is our heritage. So my message today is that as a white person in Flint, the city’s message to me is to take responsibility for my heritage and this is my admonition to you. I remember hearing bits and pieces of these things years ago, but I just didn’t want to mess with it. I had plans after chapel, friends I wanted to catch up with, just not now. But years later, I wished that I’d let a bit more of that sink in. I’m hoping now to give you all that leg up. Or you can dismiss me as crazy, that’s fine too.
But as someone who was there as an undergrad and who is now here, it’s been an extremely liberating thing to accept this as my heritage and to spend a lot of time listening to black voices as we would have told that abusive husband to do with his wife.
If we were to give advice to the guy in the story. What would it be? I think my advice would be “hey before you are going all around town telling people how great your marriage is, ask your wife if your marriage is great. And listen to what she says.” And it might take a number of times asking to get through. The first few times, he’ll probably go to her and ask and she’ll say “it’s good” as she’s used to having her pain dismissed. And this is how it’s been with white people. We say “hey tell us about being black in America!” and when they do we get defensive or dismissive or point the finger back at them. After a while, you just stop saying anything at all. I’ve had black friends say that they’ve stopped saying anything because anytime they have, they usually get dismissed or the relationship goes sour afterwards. So don’t expect the full answer the first time. So, the husband might say “how’s our marriage?” and she’d say “fine.” and he’d walk off saying “see! i knew we were good.” Or he could say to himself, “Wait, there’s more there, let me be persistent and really get to the bottom of this.”
For me, what is so interesting, is that i have not seen the American church, in any real way, do a public thing that says “We’re sorry for that.” The church had a really big part in keeping the slavery and segregation going (we had verses that supported it and taught the bad theology to both whites an blacks) but now we’ve been relatively silent on the apology and response side.
In that story, we’re back in the middle where the husband has stopped overtly beating his family, but he has yet to say he was sorry for what he had done. He blames it on him being young and dumb, but urges her to move on and focus on the future. And this doesn’t help his wife heal. So it’s saying “I’m sorry.”
And what I’ve learned is that we as white Christians in America have not really said that. Sure we’ve done what my 2 and 4 year old daughters might do. “I’m sorry, BUT…” or “But SHE…” But no parent accepts those kinds of apologies and we shouldn’t either. The real apology is “I’m sorry. Now tell me about it…” And letting that conversation unpack without you being defensive. That has not yet happened in this country in a real way. So I want to encourage us to start thinking in that way.
And really, we’ve benefited from this heritage. And I’m not trying to belittle any white people who have had a rough upbringing. That happens too. But I’m talking about our society as a whole, as the general thing that is not right. It’s just that there’s things that we have benefited from that attach us to this responsibility, is all I’m saying.
What I mean by heritage, is the 400 year head start. When I was growing up, what I the culture I was in taught me was 1969 happened, MLK happened, voting rights, leveled the playing field… here we go. Let’s do it. We’re colorblind, post-racial. That was just over 45 years ago. So even if that we true, which it’s debatable, that’s 45 years that we’ve been doing this supposedly healed thing, compared to, for most white folks, over 400 years to have built up family stability, wealth creation, leadership development, entrepreneurial skills. We had a 400 year head start on the black community in America. And so when you look at things like the recent improvements in downtown Flint, and you say, who’s owning the businesses that are starting? Ownership. It’s usually white guys. And it begs the question “Why?” Well, you all had a 400 year head start. It’s not because I worked harder that I’m a manager of a restaurant. A lot of it is connected to my history. There are a lot of things that undergird my successes and I have to acknowledge that.
I thought I was going to come and give a gift to Flint, subconsciously. But what the city said back was “Hold on. Actually what I’d prefer is that you just sat and listened for awhile.”
So going back to the husband and wife, what should he do? Well, he should apologize, and listen. And then apologize again, and listen. And apologize, and listen. I had a friend who had found out he’d been kind of a jerk in his marriage. Not abusive, just a jerk. But he came around. He apologized to his wife and tried to do better. But it didn’t instantly feel all better and so he went back to her and asked what was wrong. And she needed to her him say he was sorry again and listen to her… and he ended up doing this for the better part of a year before real change in the marriage happened. Apologizing and listening and apologizing and listening and Apologizing and listening. Just saying you’re sorry once doesn’t make it all better.
So that’s what I want to leave with you all. As we’re talking about Flint, and cities, the nation, I want to encourage you to learn and listen.
Painting churches and donating food is good (people are hungry and Flint definitely needs a coat of paint), but what I’ve been impressed on by the city is that the healing will come when people listen, and keep listening, and keep listening, and don’t go “well, BUT…” but we keep listening, and keep listening, and we keep listening.
One last tiny story from just the other day really brought this home for me.
There’s a deaf family that lives a couple houses down from us. They have a couple young kids and my four year old Juniper was wanting to be friends with them, but this obviously a hard thing to do. Well, I was out working in the yard one day, and I she ran by me towards the deaf kids who were playing in their front yard. She spent an hour or two just sitting by a tree next to their yard just watching and waiting. The next day, it was two of the family and a couple deaf friends playing with a scooter. She went over there again and she sat. About 15ft from them, and just sat. She was watching, and listening, and waiting. Eventually, seeing that they were interested in their scooter, she went and got her little toy skateboard that she’d tied a rope to and sat down again by the tree, with the skateboard. Saying but not saying, you’ve got a scooter, I’ve got a skateboard, and I’m here, just in case. And eventually, after enough time had passed, one of them ran inside and grabbed their sister, who was part of the family but could hear too, and brought her out to my daughter. I couldn’t hear it all, I could just see, but they seemed to spend a bit making introductions through sign language translation and then playing and then they were all over in our yard playing and now they’re friends. And what I saw in that is that apparently my daughter understands something about how to do this but most of us don’t. She didn’t go over and impose herself on them and say “hey come be my friend and come play at my house, we’re going to this and this and this…” She thought, “I don’t really understand what’s going on, so I’m not going to impose myself on them until I’m invited.”
And that’s what I encourage you all towards as we close, is to be like my daughter in a sense. Listen and watch in our cities. In addition to the hard things, there’s also a lot of beautiful things that you’ll see and hear along the way. But you have to keep listening and keep listening. And then wait to be invited in.
So if you’re wondering now what you can do, some practical things, the Canadian Mennonite church put together a great list. They were originally for white Christians in Canada wanting to respectfully engage the Native American communities they’d displaced. We’ve adapted it for the black/white communities in the US. It’s on the blog “weneedtoheal.wordpress.com” It’s not “Go give them $1000!” You can do that. But it’s more along the lines of, not going to the soup kitchen to volunteer but instead to a black-led organization and volunteer shuffling papers or cleaning bathrooms. Don’t teach a seminar or lead the kids program. Go there to listen and learn. Be in the back seat for a while and listen and see what kinds of invitations you receive rather than coming in and imposing yourself and “saving them.” Because that’s no necessarily what they need. The blog also has lots of books, articles, and videos from black voices speaking about these issues. Again, respectful, practical ways to deal with this other than just feeling bad or trying to run to the rescue. weneedtoheal.wordpress.com
So, the words that I keep in my head all the time: I was wrong. I’m sorry. I love you. And that’s the message that I live with my life. It’s the message shalom. Shalom, being probably the biggest concept in the Bible. The whole old testament is about shalom, God’s vision for the earth. It means right relationship. That everything on the earth is in right relationship with everything else. The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ message of shalom. Doing unto others, Love your neighbor, love your enemy, the kingdom of God is the pursuit of shalom. If you look in Flint or other cities, there is not much shalom to see. And specifically between blacks and whites in America, there is notshalom. And so the way you begin to do shalom is not going and “fixing” the other people. It’s listening and allowing them to bring shalom to you.
Thank you for listening and also for allowing me to interrupt your otherwise normal life with this very heavy message. But I really appreciate it. Thank you.