The rumors reached my ears before the end of first period: The Ku Klux Klan planned to march around my junior high school at lunchtime, and some African-American students, fearing the worst, had stashed guns in their backpacks or pant pockets.
Dozens of students gained permission to go home early. I opted to stay, but as fifth period arrived and I filled my lunch tray, I was on high alert.
African-American students strolled the perimeter, talking in clusters, glancing regularly at the floor-to-ceiling windows on three of the cafeteria’s walls. More teachers than usual gathered near the cafeteria doorway. The air buzzed with speculative conversation. When the sharp crack of a dropped tray pierced the air, I flinched, nearly diving under the table.
Pollutants in the air of my family and hometown
The rumors about the Ku Klux Klan were unfounded, but that eighth-grade experience, in 1994, stuck with me.
Racial tension lingered in the air of my small Pennsylvania hometown like microscopic dust: unseen, but invariably present. Demographically, the town was more than 80 percent white; the minority percentage split between African-American and Hispanic people. Slurs routinely filled school buses and streets, and fistfights that broke out in school hallways were often racially motivated.
My white, mostly German-origin family wasn’t overtly racist, but subtle prejudices did appear. I learned at a very young age that we locked our car doors when driving through “bad neighborhoods,” which, I came to see, were predominantly African-American. A distant cousin I’d never met was estranged from the family because of her interracial marriage. My immediate family vocally lamented this, but I sensed that, even if the union wasn’t wrong, it was unfavorable.
These twin environments of my town and family shaped my view of the world. They were the air I breathed. And while this air wasn’t visibly smoggy, it was polluted. My innate sinful nature took this toxic air and processed it through malfunctioning lungs, resulting in an invisible heart-illness of racial bias that, sadly, still festers.
The starting point: awareness and confession
The memory of my hometown environment drifted through my mind as I prepared for the Lenses Institute late in 2018. This weeklong training for cohorts, or small groups of Cru staff members like myself, seeks to influence how we see, understand and act in our culturally diverse world. I desired to participate because I’m cognizant of my lingering heart-illness. Its most prominent symptom is an ugly internal list of negative stereotypes toward African-Americans.
I’ve never hurled slurs or knowingly discriminated. But, as difficult as it is to admit, I’ve subconsciously perceived African-Americans as “less civilized” and more disposed to violence, among other stereotypes. These unfair generalizations, borne out of polluted air and sinfully marred lungs, appear when I become ever-so-slightly more self-protective when walking past an African-American man, for example, or when I react with surprise at an African-American’s intellectual achievement.
As I’ve identified these humiliating, sinful attitudes over the years, I’ve brought them before God in brokenness and confession. But my week at the Lenses Institute revealed that these were just the first steps in experiencing transformation I desperately need.
From emotional to factual
Conversations about race and its attendant issues in modern America are politically charged, so I approached Lenses with reservation.
Pre-conference reading about the concept of “privilege,” and in particular, “white privilege,” caused me to recoil, a knee-jerk reaction driven by media sound bites that led me to believe that the label “white privilege” was a finger pointing to me, a white male, as some sort of villain. But as this emotion tapered, I realized that if I took a dismissive attitude, I’d short-circuit any work God intended to do in my heart.
Leaning into the topic led me to a foundational moment of understanding: Privilege, instead of being a pejorative judgment, is a simple, factual reality. It’s defined as “having systemic or inherited advantages in a society” in the Lenses Institute notebook. Everyone experiences privilege, depending on the setting. Being born in America is a privilege when compared with many other possible birthplaces, as is living now instead of in the Middle Ages. Wealth, too, offers advantages: access to better education, food, travel, personal safety, and a slew of other things.
Privilege is a simple social dynamic, not a moral one. There’s nothing wrong with being American or wealthy or white, and these privileges don’t invalidate the hardships and obstacles all individuals face. These recognitions removed a sense of guilt and allowed me to look at the social and cultural dynamics of race more objectively.
The intractable weed in American soil
The Lenses Institute uses articles, local speakers and documentaries to help participants gain a nuanced understanding of how American racial dynamics have developed historically and to hear the voices of people from typically less-privileged positions.
Racism is an intractable weed, introduced to the soil of the North American continent well before the colonial era. In spite of prior generations spraying it with powerful weed-killers, its roots still run deep. The most overt injustices, such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation, have been overturned. But the weed keeps breaking through the surface; the unhealthy air of my hometown and prejudicial undertone within my family attest to this.
But while it’s one thing to read about the history of racism and see some of the ways in which it’s still alive, it’s quite another to hear brothers and sisters in Christ describe the pain of firsthand experience: A fearful child wondering aloud if her father will return home, because she knows of people who look like him have been arrested or harmed by police. Being conspicuously followed while shopping. Repeated traffic stops for unclear reasons. Sensing that certain leadership positions are unattainable because no one of your ethnicity is represented.
I heard each of these examples at Lenses. Before, I labeled them minor inconveniences. Such experiences were unjust, but how often did they happen, and how affecting could they be?
My own experience helped change my view. The small generalization of “white privilege,” even when ascribed to me indirectly, felt like a disfigurement, and I reacted with defensiveness.
People of color encounter generalizations like this day after day. One or two might not cause much notice. But I imagine them like small rocks dropped into a backpack; eventually these marginalizing, even dehumanizing, experiences weigh down both the heart and the will.
Diverse voices and the image of God
On the last morning of Lenses, I wrote an action plan. My first step: Intentionally seek out others’ voices. Reading books by women and people of color can offer this. Building friendships with people who do not look like me is even more powerful.
Nearly all of my closest friends are white, and whether out of comfort, fear or other reasons, I naturally avoid physical or relational spaces in which people of color are the majority.
This robs me of vital opportunities for my Christian growth. Developing empathy that can motivate me to shoulder another’s burdens is one opportunity. Another is the ability to see God more clearly.
The Bible declares that every tribe, language, people and nation will be represented in the coming kingdom of God (Revelation 5:9, 7:9). The church was born on Pentecost (Acts 2), when the Holy Spirit enabled Jews and Jewish converts from many nations to hear the apostles’ message in their own languages. At Creation, God made a vast array of plant and animal species and made humans male and female. Diversity has been an integral part of God’s design from creation and will be an important part of the future kingdom.
A single person or culture cannot fully reflect God’s multifaceted image. When we remain in segregated, monocultural environments or attempt to assimilate into a common sameness, we flatten that image.
Assimilation is something I’ve rarely considered. Middle-class, white, socially and religiously conservative: These are, in general, seen as the default “norms” that shape many American values. There’s nothing wrong with these classifications. But because I grew up in this mainstream culture, I’ve assumed that my norms and values are “right” or “best” and that others must adopt them.
When God began moving among the Gentiles, largely through the apostle Paul, he advocated for their freedom to follow Christ within their own cultural traditions, so long as they remained biblical. Acts 15:1-21 and Galatians 2 show Paul objecting to Jewish believers who demanded that Gentiles receive circumcision and adopt other Jewish customs to become Christians.
Reconciliation required a Jew — Paul — to advocate for the voiceless Gentile community. This yields an applicable principle: Instead of calling non-majority people to assimilate, those with influence can wield it to preserve, or even champion, the marginalized. This echoes Jesus, who humbled Himself and yielded His heavenly position to serve and save powerless, sinful human beings (Philippians 2:5-11).
I need to relate to those who are different and to preserve cultural expressions not in conflict with biblical values. Doing so imitates Christ and exposes me to a more robust picture of God. Worship and transformation logically follow.
Discover resources to help you see, understand and act differently in the areas of race and culture.
I found that where I dove into the waters of ethnicity and racial reconciliation isn’t nearly as important as how: humbly listening and learning. The process of seeing injustice and pain and understanding how it has affected both individuals and society has led me to thoughtful action steps.
Prescribing actions for others would be presumptuous, so here are some possible ways to see and understand more fully.
Visit: Local history centers can offer a glimpse of the different peoples and their historical experiences in your area. Visiting ethnic restaurants, or attending a minority-culture church can open doors for new relationships and insightful conversations.
Read: Learning about how others have experienced life in our culture, about culture itself, and about history and current-day issues has been helpful to me. I found the following insightful:
As a Cru staff member, I think about how to effectively reach people for Christ. At first glance, it’s difficult to connect the arduous, never-ending work of racial reconciliation — sometimes deemed an endeavor of “social justice,” a label often unfairly seen as unrelated, or even opposed, to evangelistic ministry — and sharing Christ. But I came away from Lenses believing that the pursuit of biblical oneness is a powerful evangelistic resource in the hands of the body of Christ.
In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for the unity of His followers and connects His prayer to evangelism: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23, New International Version). Ephesians 2:11-22 describes how any human divisions are abolished by Christ. When people are reconciled to Christ, they are necessarily reconciled to one another.
“Every aspect of the way God views and saves sinners is designed to undermine racism and lead to a reconciled and redeemed humanity from every people group in the world.”
John Piper, Bloodlines: Race, Christ and the Christian
But casual observation reveals that divisions between people are everywhere. Among Christians, division and hostility not only create a warped picture of God’s kingdom, but they also undermine our ability to present the love of Christ to those around us.
Racial inequality isn’t as overt as it was in the past, but that persistent weed still entangles. It painfully lingers in the communal memory of African-American, Native American and other minority communities, and many individuals experience trauma today.
It’s difficult to see how I, an individual, can help the body of Christ more fully reflect John 17 and Ephesians 2. But I know that the kingdom of God is irresistibly beautiful. If the body of Christ were to lead the way in bridging divides; giving voice to the voiceless; and living out forgiveness, oneness and authentic equality, the world would see Jesus clearly and powerfully. Our verbal proclamation of Christ’s love would include a compelling, tangible testimony.
For this reason, I left the Lenses Institute filled with hope. In a day when media and political landmines surround this necessary conversation, Lenses plots a beautifully biblical course. And through the cumulative effect of God’s people working toward healing and true unity in Christ, we could witness hearts softened toward Jesus in ways not seen in generations.
How have you experienced, or do you desire to experience, cross-cultural relationships?
Jason writes for The Communications Group of Cru®. He served as a team leader for Cru’s campus ministry in Pittsburgh for seven years. He has one wife, three kids, and an embarrassing number of brain cells reserved for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.