Last week, the week our country celebrated our independence and freedom, July 3-9, 2016, tragedy struck and enflamed America. A black man was killed by police in Louisiana, and the next day in Minnesota. In both the deaths appeared needless. Thus both circumstance looked like they might be examples of lethal injustice inflicted upon black people by white systems of power. A lot of people believe that if the person in each of the encounters were white, not black, they certainly would not have been killed by the police. Many others do not believe race had anything to do with it. These conflicting interpretations and the rising sense among black people that their lives are put in danger by the police has been a combustible mix.
It blew up the next day in Dallas at a protest (protesting police violence against young black men). A sniper, a black military veteran, picked off police officers, sniper styles. He killed five and injured several others before he was killed by a police robot. Those police officers were keeping the peace so the people could have a protest that was done appropriately. And it all went to Hell as the sniper exacerbated the violence and the tension.
I agree with those interpreters who feel that African Americans are victims of systemic injustice. That is clear to me. That’s why I us the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. I think the system was established (hundreds of years ago) by people do not regard Africans or African Americans. Over time the American justice system has shifted, but is still tilted in favor of white people and against black people. And black people (and many white including me) are sick of it.
Sadly the shooting incidents continue. This type of national crisis has happened so often (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, etc) that I now have in myself a set of standard responses. This post is not intended to commend my own thinking nor to critique it. I am sharing what goes through my head, the impulses I feel. When highly public, racially-charged events happen, my first instinct is note every positive encounter I have had with black people. Maybe this is self-preservation for my own soul. I simply cannot swallow that it is all bad.
Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Eric Garner. Freddy Gray. Lorne Ahrens. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. It is bad and it is evil. But tragedy is not the only story playing out in America. It is an important story to be faced and dealt with, not ignored. We must walk in the tragedy, but not be overcome by it. One way to overcome instead of being overcome is to make space in our brains for other, better stories.
Another story playing out is one of harmony, peaceful coexistence, and even joyfully collaboration. Here I offer two examples from just this past week. The shootings were early in the week and then in Dallas, midweek. Saturday, I was still thinking about things. But for my kids, it was an extremely hot summer day. For relief from the oppressive heat, I took my kids to a waterpark in Greensboro, NC where the first better story happened.
Our group was my dad, my nephew, my sons, my daughter and me. My younger son and my daughter, 9 and 7 respectively, are both adopted and both black. My older son is adopted and white, and my nephew, also white, is also adopted (by my sister and her husband). My dad is my biological father and we are white. The only reason I am being so specific about race and relations here is this post is about race relations.
At this water park there was huge wave pool. It was enormous and on this Saturday, it was packed with people. The depth went from ankle deep down a gradual slope to six feet deep. At a far end, it is deeper, but that’s where they shoot the waves at you, so no swimmers are permitted past the 6 feet deep section. From where the waves come, they shoot from deeper to shallower, simulating the ways lap up on the ocean shore. The wave origination point is about 50 yards across, and there’s a 50 yard buffer where it is deep and swimmers are not permitted. In that space, the wave builds momentum.
At the 6-ft depth, the pool widens on each side at a right angle. In the shallow area where the masses swim, it is probably 100 yards by 200 yards – really big. The huge crowd at the water park that day had people of all races, shapes, colors, and sizes. It was true diversity.
However, one group was by far a majority. At least 60% of the people were African American. The number was probably higher. In that massive wave pool, body to body with people, I probably rubbed my pale flesh against more dark-skinned men and women in bathing suits than I can count. There were no incidents. Zero. None. No one said, “Hey a white person just brushed against me.” No one gave me a sneer. We all had the same mission. Have fun, stay cool, and keep our kids safe.
That keeping the kids safe part was complicated because of the crowds and the waves. My older son, 14, was on his own. The younger ones, including my 8-year-old nephews, want to follow the big kids to the deeper water, but the waves make that dicey. My dad and I had our hands full keeping my younger children and my nephew where they needed to be. However, it occurred to me after a while that I hadn’t seen my older son. I wasn’t all that confident in the life guards, so I went to check on him.
I started to mildly worry as I couldn’t find him in the crowd. But then I looked over to where the pool widened, right at the cusp of where swimming is permitted. He looked like the white spot on a black cow. He and a dozen other (non-white) teens discovered something very fun. When the wave runs through if you hug the wall, a whirlpool is stirred up that whips you around the 90 angle where the pool widens. What teenage boy, oblivious to risks to how own saftey, doesn’t want to be whipped around a corner out of control by a whirlpool?
I marveled at this because when I was 14, I really didn’t hang out with anyone who didn’t look just like me. It was white me and my white buddies. My worldview was limited because my crowd was limited. When I was 14, the black kids I encountered were on the football team and the basketball team. It seemed like they were all faster than me, stronger, and more talented. It never occurred to me that the uncoordinated, unathletic black kids didn’t go out for sports. Even passing those black kids in the hall at school, I didn’t notice them. The only ones I saw were the ones who were much better than me in the sports I loved. Something inside me assumed they were better because they were black. I didn’t assume the white kids who were better than were better because they were white. I thought maybe they worked harder or something.
As I watched my 14-year-old white son freely play with a dozen black boys he had never met, I felt joy that he had something I had not. He had freedom from the subtle racism that crept around the edges of my mind at age 14. There was nothing to this. Just a bunch of boys riding waves. Color was in that place, at that moment, irrelevant. How beautiful.
I experienced this beauty a second time last night. My wife had been taking our kids to a Vacation Bible School at another church. Our VBS was last month. What better way to fill the summer than to attend VBS at other churches. Our kids get out of the house, hear the Gospel, and have fun. My wife had taken them Sunday and Monday night. Last night was my turn.
I was amazed. It is an Adventist Church in Durham and it is as diverse as any church as I have found in North Carolina. I was surprised when my older son wanted to go to VBS with the younger ones. They love VBS, but as a teenager, he sometimes thinks he is too cool for such things. As a teenager he thinks he is too cool for a lot of things, including his parents. But he went to this enthusiastically. I was intrigued and wanted to see why.
I saw it. He was slotted in a class with other teens – all black (most born in Africa, now living in America). At this church led by Africans (black and white; the lead pastor is a white South African), it felt like race was irrelevant. My white 14-year-old son fit right in with his black groupmates with no problem. After the final prayer, he ran up to me and said, “We don’t have to go yet, do we?” I told him to take his time as long as he included his younger siblings in whatever game he was concocting.
He and the rest of the kids went outside where he organized a massive game of tag. Aside from their flagrant disregard for their own safety as they played their game in a parking lot where people were driving cars to leave the place, it was beautiful. A month ago, I had seen my son do the same thing, take over an entire campground by organizing a massive nocturnal game of tag. In that case, all the kids were white and most were younger than him. In this case at the VBS, the kids were many ages, a few older than him, and 60-70% were black. My son didn’t really care about race or time or place. It was a summer night with kids all around. What do you do? You play.
These stories aren’t going to be in the news. These stories are good and beautiful. The news will be full of anger, grief, funerals, recriminations, and down the line trials and depending on how the trials turn out. Those ominous, sad stories must be told. Followers of Jesus cannot avoid them. We must walk in them because Jesus is where hurting people are. We have to see him there and join him.
But today, I wanted to tell the story of black kids and white kids playing together in innocence and pure joy. I thank God that my son will be able to see the world with eyes much different than mine. I ask God to help me see it as he sees (“he” being my son; I also want to see as God sees). If more of us prayed this prayer to see with such freedom, there would be fewer sad stories to tell and more time to play.