Relationships are the basis of merciful conversations

In 1968, The Kerner Commission published a report on racial conditions in this country.  One of its conclusions was that there were two unequal Americas: one white, one black. Most people who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, remember images of racial injustice, intolerance, and inhumanity: Rosa Parks daring to sit on a bus, police shooting fire hoses, governors barricading schools. And there are the images in death of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today the images are Ferguson and Baltimore, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Grey, and Tamir Rice. The battles about whether Black lives matter are not only against racism, social and political injustice but against principalities and powers of evil.

Speakers at Urbana 2015  (theme: What Stories Will You Tell?) addressed the Black Lives Matter movement. InterVarsity chose to participate in this conversation, saying, “We believe that Christians have something distinctive to contribute in order to advance the gospel.” Prior to my getting the 2015 videos online, I listened to Tom Skinner’s talk at Urbana 1970. There he presented a history of American racism and said, then, that Black lives matter (as does the above 1787 anti-slavery symbol). Many were angry at Skinner. But he spoke the truth.

Some might disagree with the 2015 content. Those who are might be angry at the pro-life comment, “We are too busy holding mercy from the living and giving it to the unborn” or “Racism is an age-old idol. Tear it down. Justice is not to try, convict, and execute on the street.” But, can anyone be angry about the prayer? “God—wreck our hearts to haunt us. Challenge us.” The prayer challenges us to see the injustice that continues to divide us into two (or more) Americas. It challenges us to come together, hear each other’s stories and do something to address the parts of the body that hurt.  It challenges us to say, “Whatever life is like in your shoes, I want to know about it. You don’t think your life is important? Tell me more.” We can’t address what we don’t talk about.

What to do?

I believe we must bridge the cross-cultural and racial divide and hear the stories together at the foot of the cross. Suspend judgment. Listen to everyone’s stories. Engage in dialogue. Learn. Empathize. Offer hope. Establish relationships. It can be done.

Years ago, I facilitated the church Reconcilers Fellowship. The hope was to create a diverse community and a safe place to dialogue. These continue at Bridge-Builders every fourth Sunday.

In the group was someone who witnessed a lynching, another whose only contact with people of color was “the help,” one whose family had “passed” the brown paper bag test, two who grew up involved in protest marches, and one who wakens daily fearing the racism he will face.  In seeking reconciliation, they all knew the risks of vulnerability, rejection, and pain. They knew, like evangelist Tom Skinner:

Racial reconciliation is surgery, and surgery is never painless. Fear of this pain prompts many Christians to ignore their racial blinders. It requires exposing our vital organs to the truth that we speak to each other. It’s risky. If trust hasn’t been built, the operation is destined to fail. But, when we build trust and stay on the table to the end of the surgery there is hope for healing in the most delicate and vital places. (Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals, 190).

Every church needs to begin the dialogue now. Now is always the time for reconciliation–to sit down together, learn to trust one another, pray together, and move forward together.

Greg’s Story

Greg “had it made,” or so he thought. Sure, he was homeless and addicted. But he always bragged about the place he called home. That is, where he put his pillow and where he had pictures of surfers in Hawaii and people skiing in the Swiss Alps. You see, he slept on a dry heat vent above the subway, under an awning outside a travel agency. He made $15-20 an hour panhandling. Not bad, he thought.
Greg heard about our Ministry to homeless persons and began attending our Fellowship Bible Study and dinner. Over the years we established a good relationship with him, but he did not want to change. He knew the Bible, but he didn’t want a different lifestyle.
Picture him, next, in his new home behind bars. As I said, he believed he had it made . . . that is, until he was arrested, convicted of a crime, and sent to prison.  In his cell and on his unit, he had no more travel posters to look at, no more people to ask for spare change, and no more friends to study God’s word with. He did have lots of loneliness and lots of Muslims seeking to convert him. So, in his sorrow he reached out to us, probably the only people he both knew and trusted.
He wrote to us, put us on his visitor list, and our relationship grew. He became hungry for the Word. He was always a reader, so we sent him a study Bible and commentaries. He established a relationship with the chaplain and became a believer. We visited him and stayed in touch with him regularly.
Today he is living in another state, walking with the Lord, worshiping, and serving. And we give thanks for God’s work in Greg’s life.

Larry’s Story

Larry hated his life and what he’d become: addicted to alcohol, heroin, marijuana, crack and other mind altering drugs.

Larry was born in Paterson, New Jersey.  He grew up with three brothers and two sisters.  When I spoke with Larry about his early life, he said, “Life seemed to be great, but a closer look would show that my family was dysfunctional and messed up.”  He was reared in a two-parent home, but his mother and father were both alcoholics who left the children, as Larry states, “unmanaged and unmanageable.”   Larry stopped going to school at the age of 12.  By this time he was a drug addict and was wandering away from home.  Larry says that he called it “adventuring” but the court system called it running away from home. He soon found himself in shelters, institutions, jails, becoming very knowledgeable about “evil ways.”

I actually met Larry for the first time in 1966, the year after my public profession of faith. I served in my church’s “Summer Workshop in Missions” working with a small group of neighborhood kids. Larry was one of those children. I would not discover this fact until the early 1990s when I interviewed Larry for placement in a Christian rehab facility. It was a standard application, and included information on place of birth and any church affiliations. We discussed how we came from the same town and spent a lot of time reminiscing about Paterson. Then we talked about early church-going. Larry shared where he grew up, which was the Christopher Columbus apartments  (called, “the Projects”). When I shared that my church was just two blocks away, he asked what church that was. And when I told him it was Northside Community Chapel, he said he attended their Vacation Bible School. More questions, more discussion led to the fact that he was in my class!

For years Larry was “in” his addiction but would not come to Tenth Church for help or anything else. It was the care of a Tenth member that changed that. Bess lived near where Larry “put his pillow” (the steps of the synagogue a block from Tenth).  Larry was a fixture on that block. People knew him to be non-threatening, and so, greeted him. Some residents even paid him to walk their dogs. Thus, Bess was familiar with Larry. One day, instead of saying hello and passing by, she stopped and asked if he would like to share a sandwich. She sat on “his steps.” They ate together and she asked if he was aware of Tenth’s homeless outreach and their Sunday Bible study and dinner. According to Bess, Larry wasn’t ready to go to church. But, on an extremely cold and wet day the next winter, he decided he needed to get out of the cold and get a hot meal. The relationships that he established there would last a lifetime and bring him to new life.

When Larry was 16, he came to Philadelphia (where his grandmother lived) to look for his father who had left.  He said that his mother was very sick, in and out of nursing homes, and “was unable to help us.”  Larry says, “I needed guidance bad, I needed something.”  When Larry got to Philadelphia he was told by his grandmother that his father had already left for Tennessee.   He was “saddened,” he stated.  Not wanting to return to Paterson, he stayed in Philadelphia. Larry states that his grandmother was a born-again Christian but, about himself he says, “I was not saved—nor was I ready to be.”  He would visit his grandmother, but not stay with her.  “I was homeless but did not know it.  I was roamin’ the streets, adventuring again, feeling no pain.”

Soon Larry found a job, an apartment, a girlfriend, and a car.  “I thought I had it made and more.  Then I lost it all.  One big ride downhill.  With a strong drug and alcohol addiction I finally wound up strung out, homeless, and helpless.”

During his years living on the street Larry shared bottles, butts, crack pipes, and needles.  He shared the fact that three people who used the same heroin needle as he did became HIV+ and died.  One of these was his sister.

Over the years, Larry was in and out of recovery. After a series of relapses, Larry had fallen back into his addiction big time. He was back to sleeping “his steps” and looked horrible. He came to see me one very hot August day. I had seen him the day before wearing a clean white tee shirt and white jeans. It had rained the night before and the temperature was in the nineties. When he came in my office, he was filthy and sweaty, smelly and crying.  He said he was sick and tired of being sick and tired and was ready to let God work not only on his addiction, but on his life. He surrendered.

Larry is now clean and sober for over ten years.  He is reconciled and re-united with his wife and daughters.  They are all believers in Jesus Christ.  Larry is employed and recently purchased a home.