What a Racist Taught Me About Community

“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” I used that provocative quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. as I began the Sunday school class. I was nervous. It was my first day teaching at the church as a seminary intern. I was unknown to the congregation and an untested teacher. To make matters worse, everyone in the classroom was easily twice my age. The pastor had assigned me to teach 1 Corinthians for six weeks in the “Primetimers” class—a name that probably described the group twenty years earlier. “What kind of name is Skye?” asked a woman in a polite and inquisitive tone. I issued my standard explanation. “Skye is a nickname. My given name is Akash. It’s a Hindi name that means sky.” “Oh, you’re Indian,” someone concluded. “Well, my father is from India,” I clarified, “but my mother is Anglo-American. My middle name is Charles, my maternal grandfather’s name.” A number in the class gave a polite nod. With my genealogy unpacked, I dove into the day’s lesson. The letter of 1 Corinthians begins with Paul addressing the presence of divisions within the church. Looking for a contemporary connection, I put Martin Luther King’s quote before the group. (A quote, by the way, more accurately attributed to Billy Graham who wrote the statement in a Reader’s Digest article years before it was borrowed by his friend, Reverend King.) “’Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.’ What do you think about that statement?” I asked. The long, awkward silence was finally broken by a man in the back row. “I think that statement is absolutely true,” he said. “I think it’s true, and I think it’s good.” Did this guy just say racial segregation in the church is good? I froze. Every set of bifocaled eyes was starring at me. I didn’t know what to do. I scanned the room hoping someone would speak and rescue me from the spotlight. No one did. Then I remembered my training: when you don’t know what to say, delay by asking a clarifying question. “Ok,” I said, “Can you explain what you mean?” “Well, the way I read Scripture,” he began, “we’re all going to be separate around the throne of God in heaven—every nation, tribe, and race, right? So, why shouldn’t we all be separate down here?” My plan had backfired. I was still speechless, and even more shocked than before. I wasn’t struck by the man’s complete misinterpretation of Revelation, or that a racist still existed 40 years after desegregation and 400 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I was speechless because just two minutes earlier I had explained my own bi-racial heritage to the class. I felt a conflicting surge of fear and anger pass over me. Had the anger won I would have shot back at the man with pointed questions. Where around God’s throne will I be? What race do I belong to? Or is there a special place for people like me, an island of misfits somewhere outside the pearly gates—a purgatory for half-bloods?  But my fear was stronger than my anger that day. I remained silent, flipped through my notes, and eventually preceded with the lesson. Later I contemplated how I might get out of teaching the Primetimers for another five weeks. On Monday I met with the pastor to explain my concerns and he empathically listened. I did not explicitly ask to be transferred to another class. I assumed after hearing my story the pastor would come to that recommendation on his own. “You’re teaching 1 Corinthians, right?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said. “About unity in the church?” he asked. “Right,” I replied. “Well, this sounds like a wonderful opportunity for you to practice what you teach.” The pastor went on to explain the man’s background who gave the racist answer. “He grew up in a very different time than you, and in a place that doesn’t share your values. You are going to have to find a way to teach that class, challenge his ideas, and stay in community with him.” Of course he was right. I had been so focused on retreating to a more comfortable setting that I couldn’t see the hypocrisy of my own desires. Henri Nouwen  observed that, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” It occurred to me that if I left the Primetimers class to preserve my comfort, I would have no right teaching 1 Corinthians to anyone else. I was going to have to face the racist in the ring of community. During the next five weeks I taught the class I challenged the man’s assumptions, and I did my best to hear his perspective. But I came to recognize that his ungodly values were matched by my own. Without knowing it, he helped me understand how my views about community had been shaped by my consumer expectation for comfort,  just as his views about community had been shaped by his upbringing in the Jim Crow south. We were contaminated by the same disease, we just presented different symptoms. Writing about the nature of Christian community Nouwen says: “Community has little to do with mutual compatibility. Similarities in educational background, psychological make-up, or social status can bring us together, but they can never be the basis for community. Community is grounded in God, who calls us together, and not in the attractiveness of people to each other. There are many groups that have been formed to protect their own interests, to defend the own status, or to promote their own causes, but none of these is a Christian community. Instead of breaking through the walls of fear and creating new space for God, they close themselves to real or imaginary intruders. The mystery of community is precisely that it embraces all people, whatever their individual differences may be, and allows them to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of his heavenly Father.” photo credit: Foxtongue via photopin cc

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