Reflections from a Former Racist

I was raised in Pittsburgh, and cruised the halls of high school in the 70’s, early in the desegregation era. My high school fused two racial and economic communities–a white middle-class and a poorer Black community–under one roof. The results were pretty explosive. I have dreadful memories of race riots at football games, in the cafeteria, and detonating beneath the stairwells at school. There were months where the racial tension felt so thick it was palpable the moment you arrived at your locker each morning to dial the combination.

As a white, middle-class jock, I was neither an activist nor a sympathist. My friends and I just assumed this was high school and managed around the charged climate with a detached ambivalence that we mistook for “cool.”

But not for long. I vividly remember standing at my brother’s bedside one Friday evening. He had been attacked by a group of older black students after a football game. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now he was collapsed across his bed, barely conscious, except for the moans that would escape his bloody lips. His face was bruised and swollen, and the way he draped his arms so tightly across his chest told me something nasty had happened to his ribs.

Most childhood memories are dynamic, not linear. They lock in on peculiar details–the black strobe light flashing across my brother’s Hendrix poster; broken spectacles on the nightstand; the soft whispering of my parents as they huddled in the other room discussing whether they could move him to the hospital.

Before that incident, I had associated with black friends at school. But that night something ugly broke loose in my heart. A seed of bigotry was planted and the roots of racism began to choke out any voice of love and reason. I did not understand at that time–nor did I care–about any of the historic injustices, social factors, or heart dynamics that were in play. All I knew is that I had a visceral disdain, and I carried it with me into conversion.


My Journey Forward

A few years passed and God seized my heart, filling it with love for Jesus. Several years after my conversion, I arrived at the Center for Urban Theological Study in inner city Philadelphia. I carried with me all of my ignorance and hostility and sin. Nestled in urban Philly, I sat under the teaching of Carl Ellis, Jr., Harvey Kahn, and Manny Ortiz. They were giants and pioneers in the field of racial reconciliation.

As I sat under their training, God began to excavate my heart and slowly hack away at the roots of racism that had become embedded there. Eventually, I became so convicted of my sin and so convinced of the Bible’s claim upon churches to pursue racial unity that I wrote my 1989 master’s thesis on the topic of racial reconciliation in a suburban church.

Recently, I paged through it. It’s embarrassing in many ways. I was naïve and yet, as I look back, I can see that there was something at work in my heart. I wanted to build a local church that would be a model of racial reconciliation in the suburbs, and I began to lead the suburban church where I pastored in that direction. As I look back, I can tell you that we had a few successes and many more failures.

Then, in 1992, God led Kimm and I to adopt an African-American boy. Our son, Asa, is now twenty-five years old. Asa was not a ministry project. He is our son. But in ’92, this direction became more personal. We knew that our future was somehow inextricably bound up with God’s reconciling work across racial barriers.

I’m recounting all this to help you see that diversity is hardly a new or trendy topic for me. Yet I’m under no illusion that I’ve arrived. I’m 3 decades older but sometimes still feel overwhelmed by the work to be done. I don’t have a lot of answers. But what I feel is an invitation from God to do deep heart-work; the kind of heart-work that is going to prepare me to listen better, serve more, and lay aside some preferences–ones I may not even live aware of.


From Division to Unity

I currently serve as the Executive Director for a church planting network named Sojourn Network. While the network is by no means monocultural, it is still easy to look around when we gather and see certain “absences.” We see an absence of ethnicities–African American, Latino, Asian American, and Asian.

We’re way too white, and it’s not what we want.

Instead, we want the kind of multicultural imprint that’s reflective of the holistic gospel that we believe. It’s the gospel that transforms every human relationship and every human endeavor.

We recognize that this vision is at times aspirational, but we are beginning to make significant strides in this area. Honestly, we’re clear that this is the direction we must go, but we don’t always know the path to get there. But we are thinking about it.

And in doing so, I have some preliminary reflections. I would love to say these are ‘lessons learned,’ meaning, I offer them as theologically resolved, personally applied, and pastorally implemented. But alas, I am not nearly that far along on the learning curve. So please read these more as just some things that have started to come into focus for me.


First, I am starting to see that I must study the Scriptures in a way that challenges my biases, not simply supports them.

In New Testament times, many Jewish leaders held a more privileged place in a slice of society. Rather than humbly receiving this blessing as a gift of God’s grace, these leaders became entitled. Sin polluted their perceptions, and they adopted a position of superiority, often regarding Roman and Samaritans as inferior people.

Prejudice is not first a color thing. It was genetically-installed in Eden as part of the fallen human condition.

I’m beginning to see how American evangelicals (like me) have similar issues. We have often been pretty dogmatic about presenting truth in language that corresponds with our systematic categories. But, while dotting our theological i’s, we can also be remarkably blind to the ways our paradigms have failed God’s people socially and ethically. As Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. observes, “our theology [is] deficient at the core, allowing much of the reformed community to peacefully co-exist with slavery, Jim Crow, racial discrimination, maltreatment of immigrants, cruelty toward first nations, etc.”


Second, I’m learning that racial prejudice is an ideology of hate that can be fortified by social power.

Being racist involves judging another racial group to be physically, mentally, or morally inferior on the basis of that group’s shared history and heredity. Strictly speaking, racism, like all kinds of social favoritism (James 2:1-4), is common to man. It’s possible for white people to be racist against black people, of course. But it’s also possible for people of color to have racist attitudes toward one another – for an African American male, for example, to shame another black man because he talks ‘white’, which often means ‘proper.’ It’s also possible for a minority culture to hate the color of the majority culture.

Prejudice is not first a color thing. It was genetically-installed in Eden as part of the fallen human condition.

But, having said this, it’s important to observe that racism, historically speaking, is most often promoted and perpetuated by social power. Dr. Jarvis Williams describes it this way:

In the US, the majority group’s racist perception of minority groups led to the creation and implementation of laws and policies that socially and economically enslaved black and brown people to the white majority… A few examples of this impact are economic inequality, educational inequality, and the small, but increasing, minority of black and brown people with power in [evangelical leadership].

As Dr. Williams observes, social power often expresses itself legally—first in social mores and then in actual laws. It’s a problem that spans all civilizations.


Third, I’m beginning to understand that we can neither downplay individual sin nor overlook sinful structures in society.

Individual blame for racism remains essential, because prejudice springs from a sinful heart. True liberation requires more than social change. I need to be rescued by the Savior and experience ongoing gospel renewal. But I’m starting to see that while we–as humanity–want to ensure conversations about racism keep personal responsibility in view, it’s important to remember that one’s individual culpability cannot bear the full freight of sin’s impact.

True liberation requires more than social change. I need to be rescued by the Savior and experience ongoing gospel renewal.

Lately I am growing more aware of how sinful behavior and racist beliefs become enculturated and embedded in the institutions of our society. It’s everywhere—from racial profiling to unequal sentencing. And this seems to mean that when we think about racism, we must stretch our thinking beyond personal sin to the places where patterns of prejudicial behavior organize into structures, ethos, and shared assumptions within our culture.

This means I need to discern not only where I’ve been personally racist, but also the ways we’ve participated, sometimes unknowingly and without personally prejudiced motives, in unjust institutional systems. This should sensitize my conscience to where I may even need to repent of ways I have participated in systems that unjustly protect and preserve the majority culture’s prejudice.


Finally, I am seeing that the polarizing problems of race can only be solved among friends who stand on level ground at the foot of the cross.

It was into the racially charged New Testament climate that Jesus came. Early in his ministry, Jesus determined to travel through the region of Samaria. There, he labored to dismantle the racial and gender walls that had been erected by the culture. Jesus adjusted his disciples’ ethnocentric perceptions simply by engaging the Samaritan woman in dialogue.

The significance of their talking must be seen in light of the prejudice against the Samaritans and the patriarchal tendencies of that culture. It’s shocking for the disciples, because Jesus engaged the woman as an equal even though he was not her equal socially or spiritually. He didn’t simply preach to the woman, but he invited the woman to give water to him. “In doing so,” John Perkins writes “He affirmed her dignity. Then by offering her living water He related to her in a way that empowered her to rise above her past.”

We’re not Jesus. But often when white evangelicals do reach across culture, we can come across like we have a social or spiritual superiority–condescending from our heights of privilege to shower a little relational mercy on some “poor minority”.

At the end of the day, the only good we truly have to offer is the good news of a crucified and risen Savior. That both humbles and inspires us. We can’t solve the global problem of racism. But what we can do is model love, speak up, and express gospel-hope by cultivating honest friendships with people who don’t look like us.

The only good we truly have to offer is the good news of a crucified and risen Savior.


Continuing My Journey

God never promised that the journey forward toward racial reconciliation would be easy. From where I sit, it can actually seem pretty daunting. But there’s an ember kindled deep in my soul. I sense the Spirit blowing fresh wind to gently stoke a flame. For a guy who’s logged close to 6 decades sojourning through this world, fresh winds are more needed than ever….and I think they are better appreciated!

Pray for me as I walk this path. And should you feel a spark kindled within your own heart, come join me on this journey.

Up ahead there is a land of people united from “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). It’s our homeland, the place for which we were ultimately created. We know the destination. Each day we strive for it here will better prepare us to delight in it there.

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