At Fuller Seminary in 2015, Moderated by Dr. Love Sechrest
Last year, about this time, Darcie and I took our daughters, aged 5 and 3 at the time, to a panel discussion at Fuller Seminary that pondered if Black Lives Really Mattered in our country, and particularly in dominant American Evangelical Christendom. It was moderated by one of my all-time favorite professors, Dr. Love Sechrest, and on the panel were some friends like PJ Johnson, Toby Castle, and Dei Thompson (mentioned in an earlier post here). In a gathering of about 200 people, we were not the only ones who brought children, but ours were the only children of European descent that I remember seeing.
At a break in the evening, Darcie, the woman who agreed to marry me and continues to believe that was a good idea, was approached by another white woman:
“How do you bring your kids to something like this?” And the question was not judgmental, as I misunderstood when Darcie started describing the story moments later. Perhaps I was still bothered by the flak we received earlier that year for taking our kids to an MLK Day Parade in Leimert Park. This woman’s question, however, was more along the lines of “how do you explain this to them?”
Darcie offered that we didn’t really have a formula or a method, just a mindset that we must train our kids to walk in this world, and that kids who do not have the same skin tone as ours never get the choice of whether they have to “deal with this” or not. In fact, some of our daughter’s young male friends are already getting “the talk.” No, that’s not about sex, it’s about what to do around police officers. And there’s no formula there either, our friends explain: do you tell your kids to just be quiet and not talk back to the police officer? But what if the police officer reads that as rude and becomes angry? Do you tell them to do everything the police officer says? But what then? What if they get in the car for a crime they did not commit? It seems clear, given all we’ve seen lately, that one message is consistent: don’t run.
With all the confusion of how to best respond when police confront you, because they definitely will if you are a brown-skinned person at some point in your life, and most likely at multiple points regardless of if you are “following the law” or not, can you blame young men who freak out and run anyway? Because in the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with African-American and Latino families, it is a survival discussion that must be had. And it is far more complicated than just “YOU OBEY,” as Franklin Graham trumpeted on Facebook exactly a year ago. “The Police Talk” is not one I ever remember as a child, but one that every non-white parent must confront. My friend Marvin fears for his three sons, literally every single day, as they navigate the Los Angeles Metro in their late teens and early twenties. Fruitvale Station is a good representation of why he is afraid.
You see, these 6 and 7 year old boys are already having to ponder this with their parents. Why shouldn’t our girls understand that reality to the best of their abilities now? True, they don’t fully understand everything discussed at this Graduate/PhD level panel, but they certainly understood some of it. “Why are people with brown skin afraid of the police?” our oldest asked at dinner. And we explained, careful to share that all police are not out to hurt people who don’t look like us, but why the fear is legitimate. Of course, the girls also remember that night as the time we finally let them try “real” Sushi. And of course, our girls loved it more than we expected and more than our single income can afford very often. Parental fail.
With DeRay Mckesson at the Teach For America 25th Anniversary
But seriously, as teachers in the public school system, both my wife and I know that textbooks are presenting a limited representation of American History. It is from the vantage point of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants being the heroes of “founding” America. It does a poor job telling a balanced perspective of how African-Americans built this country, like the Hebrews built the Egyptian Pyramids, and how African-Americans in wealthy white homes were often more of the parental figures for both their children and the master’s/employer’s children. It fails to frame the founding of America from the point of view of the natives, who were conveniently branded as savages so that their conquer and slaughter could be morally justifiable.
So we teach our children what we already know they will not automatically learn as white youth. And, for me, I’m realizing how my own parents did this for me. While neighbors in our suburb warned against ever going to Detroit and some spoke with unhinged racism during every local news story, my parents did not follow suit. We went downtown about once a month, for Tiger’s games and for Mexican food; for parades and concerts; to work in food service kitchens at Thanksgiving. Now, it wasn’t necessarily actively anti-racist, but it certainly was a household that allowed us to grow up with an alternative frame of reference. The worst year of my father’s life was 1968: his mother died along with RFK and MLK. I’ll never forget him telling me about that despair and how it profoundly changed him. Darcie and I were grateful in the truth of Jesus when our oldest came home from school to say how a friend with brown-skin at school was getting in trouble with the teacher for talking too much, and our daughter said that it wasn’t true. It was actually our daughter who had been talking, and she confessed that to the teacher publicly. Justice doesn’t magically happen in our world, it has to be taught and practiced.
So when our oldest walked out dressed like this (see above) for school yesterday, I told her she looked a little like DeRay Mckesson. She asked who that is and we told her. (If you don’t know who that is, he is a leading voice in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a candidate for mayor in Baltimore, and a community organizer who quickly gained respect by listening and lifting up the stories of others primarily through Twitter.) At the TFA event in DC, he explained why he always wears his signature blue vest, and he said it makes him feel safe, as it also helps him remember that there is always danger for people who look like him. My favorite image of him in this blue vest was at his recent meeting at the White House with Barack Obama and other civil rights leaders last month. He wore a shirt and tie under the vest!
Brittany Packnett, on Obama’s right, is the co-founder, with Deray, of Campaign Zero.Click here for her reflections on the above meeting.
Now: this is not saying that we are better parents because of our choices. It is meant to lift up a piece of what I trust God has been teaching me through the many voices of our friends whose American experiences are not congruent with mine. When Jesus explains to his followers to visit those who are sick, in prison, homeless, etc. in Matthew 25:31–46, I believe part of the story is that we are supposed to care for those who are often overlooked and ignored. But, and this is a big Biblical butt, I believe it also means that if you are really looking to learn more about Jesus, start by coming alongside the actual, real-life struggles of those whose lives do not match yours in privilege or status or experiences. I know that is consistently where I’ve learned the most about Jesus, and I believe it’s the heart of what Jesus speaks about days before he dies for reconciliation amongst neighbors, reconciliation with humanity and God, and the forgiveness of all sins. I believe All Sins Matter to Jesus, as all of them are a misunderstanding and a deviation from the will of God. Racism, and ignoring racial injustice, is a sin.
So, white Christians? Are you threatened by #BlackLivesMatter and the recent wave of protests over racial discord? Have you ever met someone involved in that movement, or been impacted by the injustices of our legal system? If not, please try to do so, it’s actually not that difficult and I’m more than happy to help point you in the right direction. After you meet a few people, then let’s sit down and talk, maybe even agreeing to disagree.
I stake my entire faith on this: God intended us to learn from one another. God created us with differences as part of the good, good plan. Who are we to edit God’s design by pretending that some of us matter more than others?
And never forget this: the grandparents of my children grew up with access to reading materials like the ones shown below. These were Little and Big Golden Books.
This was only half a century ago. If you think that lingering effects of elementary school education are not still alive and well today, just turn on your television during these political campaigns. We must actively teach different stories and we must tell the truth. The full truth. I believe it is the only hope of ever achieving social freedom, and ultimately, freedom in Christ eternal.
Thanks for reading: @MatthewJSchmitt