Like most, I have been troubled by the heightened media surrounding race relations, recently. As a Mexican American, I have been particularly aghast at the rhetoric that I believe demonizes my race of people by certain wings of certain political parties (you know whom/what I am talking about). Truthfully, however, I am not surprised by it. My adolescence was spent in a predominantly white and affluent suburb of Denver, and neither of these descriptors are ones I could have used to speak about myself. So, as a teenager, I experienced the ways some aspects of systemic and cultural racism and elitism can persist in such an environment.
When I went to college in Northern Colorado, I faced a political climate that was much more active for both sides of the debate on immigration, a town that had a diverse population with many more Mexicans Americans, and a community that was more often at the front lines of dealing with race relations than my previous community. For an example, in the mid-oughts my collegiate city had to endure a serious and large-scale immigration raid that highlighted, on the one hand, the prevalence of illegal immigration in our city/state and, on the other, how COMPLETELY DEVASTATING mass deportation can be. This raid was crippling primarily because it fractured families and then communities and local economies (this is a great article looking back on that fateful Tues. http://www.denverpost.com/2013/01/14/fear-from-swift-plant-raid-resonates-in-greeley-six-years-later/ ). In addition, if you have spent any time reading through my blog, you know that after college, I spent some years working in Mexico and subsequently El Paso, TX, which has a predominantly Mexican/Mexican American population.
I say all this as a little back story to help demonstrate how the trajectory of my life, in the last fifteen years or so, has taken me away from some of the more in-your-faces instances of racism that I experienced in my adolescence. But, I have recently began working for a church in the suburbs where I spent my youth, and I am very excited at the opportunity that I have been afforded in joining this truly welcoming and supportive church body. Earlier this month, however, I witnessed something in our community that I was not prepared for.
In part to aid in my pastoral training, I had the opportunity to attend a conference, called Q Commons (http://qcommons.com/ ), at another local church where, hearing from both nationally renowned and great local speakers, crucial topics were discussed. These topics included the heightened political divide of this election season, the recent tensions in race relations between the African American communities and police, systemic racial biases, and other sensitive topics. Entering the seminar, I was unaware of the interactive nature of the conference. For those who don’t know. One thing Q Commons does is have their speakers address the audience in 9 or 18 minute speeches in order to, hopefully, be a bit more concise and to the point. These short talks allow time for people, seated at a round table, to discuss the issues being presented without going over the time limit.
The seminar was held in one small foyer of a massive local church. So, although I expected there to be thousands filling a grand auditorium, there were actually less than 150 folks, I would guess. Since I did not realize how interactive the seminar would be, I entered the time trying get a few tasks done – email, organization, etc. That is to say, I was determined not to interact with anyone I did not know, and I made that CLEAR by fully engaging my tech. Perhaps, this made what was about to happen all the more jarring. At the very least, it made me realize I need to do a much better job reading the “what to expect” portion of my ticket for these things!
Although trying my hardest to completely ignore everyone, people began to fill in the spots around me. I noticed them, acknowledged them, and continued to read emails. After what seemed to be hours, the evening began. We heard from some memorable speakers including my former teaching pastor Michael Hidalgo (http://michael-hidalgo.com/ ). Michael had a very impactful speech on the idea that we as individuals need to recognize the biases within ourselves and own up to the ways in which we perpetuate cultural and social racism. After Michael’s speech, we had a round of discussion.
One man at our table absolutely did not like or agree with Michael’s topic and so began what I would call a rant for the next ten minutes. This man, a white and older middle aged man who mentioned he lived in the affluent neighborhood where the church was situated, began to pontificate on how racism was simply a “smoke screen” for the nation’s lack of piety. According to this man, racism isn’t a problem in the United States but rather unrighteousness, ungodliness. He mentioned how he believed bias based on color was an absolutely inevitable social construct that was inherent to human nature and so racism could not be anything but an illusion based on human nature. And, I even seem to remember him mentioning something to the effect that fighting racism was simply a demonic distraction on the nation’s mindset. In the heatedness of the moment, I did not know what to do, though I fear my response was probably hugely inadequate. I simply sat there and listened. I did nothing.
At some point during the man’s bombastic tirade, I silently took stock of the people in the room and realized that I was one of only two people who were not white. It was me and one other black man who gave me a reassuring and knowing nod when I inadvertently made eye contact. It was a glance that said, “me and you, pal…me and you.” Again, having grown up in that neighborhood, I knew that sort of ratio was not uncommon for the area, but it seemed to make the situation worst because it added a palpable sense that the others at the table probably felt embarrassment FOR ME because of this other person’s ignorance. It was at this point I noticed that the man would not make eye contact with me. I realized that he was saying the things he was saying, discrediting any incident of racism I or anyone has ever encountered, knowing and not caring that it flew in the face of both my opinion and my experience as a Mexican American.
I usually try my hardest not to label people, but it has been a while since I have heard such ignorant rabble from someone who could easily be a caricature of white privilege in America. Eventually, as the rest of the line-up was introduced for the evening, this man not-so-quietly grumbled to his wife that he wasn’t going to sit through the rest of the race and political related speeches. And though she pleaded with him to stay (likely to save herself from embarrassment), he stormed out and left his wife sitting there with a table full of strangers. As he was leaving, he said he “didn’t care” and was going to walk home. She would eventually go after him, as soon as the only African American speaker took the podium.
I’m not sure what happened to the man after he left, though I’m sure he had a leisurely if not annoyed walk home in the chilled air of that Autumn evening. But, I also had the sense that my gut reaction, which was to completely write him off as a Trump-ian psycho, was not the response the Lord had to his child nor the one he wanted me to have; as my brother in Christ, I should I not hope for the Holy Spirit to continue the hard work of sanctification in him? Needless to say, I left the seminar more than slightly disturbed at what happened but also challenged by Michael Hidalgo’s speech and the Holy Spirit to understand what bias looks like in myself.
Later that week, I found myself reading Proverbs 15:9, which reads:
The Lord detests the way of the wicked
But he loves those who pursue righteousness
And, I began to think that it would be easy for me to project God’s judgment onto this man and to think of him, in his ignorance, as one who is that person who is wicked. I could easily rest in the notion that God’s wrath is all consuming and He would “take care” of this clearly crooked individual. I could have thought, “shame on him!” for being so bull headed, for having such a hard heart, and for perpetuating a culture that allows real hatred against young black men to persist and which led to such terrible vitriol against my own race in the current election cycle.
Instead, I heard an oft familiar, still and quiet voice gently remind me that Proverbs 15:9 has a second half – that God’s detestation of the wicked is not where that verse ends. Indeed, the Holy Spirit patiently reminded me that the truth of the gospel is no longer defined in damnation but in grace; that God “loves those who pursue righteousness.” I know, that this man’s opinion of me, of non-white people, and of racism in general is false and detestable. However, I also know that the Holy Spirit’s work is not finished in him. I have to believe that the Holy Spirit means to continue to mold him into Christ-likeness and that his love for God and desire to see others love him only evokes God’s love, based on what Proverbs tells us about the pursuit of righteousness. God knows his flaws, but loves him not because he already is righteous but for the chasing of righteousness. I have to hope, though he seemed not to want to confront his own bias in a meaningful way, that the Holy Spirit might push him to repentance in reflection of his erroneous remarks. I have to believe that if God’s grace is big enough for me, then it is big enough for him.
So, in the end, I have to say shame on me for not being more prepared that night to engage a brother who truly needed direction and fellowship with another Christian who does not have his same skin color. Shame on me for not confronting him with words that were salted with grace. Shame on me for not recognizing my own bias in assuming, if even for a split second, that this man was categorically outside the sphere of God’s grace. Shame on me for not immediately recognizing in my interaction with this man that sanctification is a process and for not remembering that “God loves those who pursue righteousness.”