When I was a kid, I was afraid of the dark. I had a legitimate fear of what might be lurking in the vast darkness of my unlit bedroom or the woods behind my house.
There wasn’t any real reason for this fear. Nothing bad had happened to me in the darkness. The only reason I can think of being so terrified of what might exist in the darkness was the unknown. Without a light source to shine on what existed in the dark, it was unpredictable, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. Some might say being afraid of the dark is an irrational childhood fear (who am I kidding, I’m still afraid of the dark!). But the means for my fear of the dark are like the root of many of my (and others) fears.
Fear is often rooted in the idea that something or someone is dangerous or a threat. Like my fear of the dark, many fears exist because of the unknown or unfamiliar.
That, in fact, is the only, very small way I can begin to comprehend someone's bias against another person who might look, talk, or live differently than themselves. They have a fear of the unfamiliar. This is by no means a justification for racist actions and I am by no means perfect at being unbiased. This is only my way of trying to understand why these attitudes still exist in our country and our world.
Being a white woman I haven’t experienced bias for the color of my skin. And, to be honest, I grew up in a white bubble, so I wasn’t exposed to it either. The only kids I knew who looked different than me were the handful of adopted kids at my small, private high school. But not long after my husband and I started dating, I began to see into his world. Whether getting eyed by people of both light and dark pigments in downtown Holland or experiencing stares from a trucker at a fast food pitstop in the middle of Indiana, the reality of racism quickly flooded my life. I began to see a very small glimpse into what my husband has experienced his entire life.
As newlyweds, we lived in a second story apartment off of Wealthy and College in Grand Rapids. We loved that apartment. It was cheap, it was old, it was ours. One evening we decided to walk to the local bar for a drink. It was a great evening from what I can remember. We had a few drinks and a great conversation and walked home hand-in-hand. But as we approached our home, two men on bicycles rode past us in the street shouting racial slurs at my husband. I’m not going to repeat what they said. And not because I’m afraid to say it, but because the words are so disrespectful and hateful that they do not need repeating.
We quickly walked up the stairs of our porch and up to our second-floor apartment. I don’t remember much about what happened next. I may have asked my husband if he was okay once our apartment door clicked shut. I may have even said (or thought) a few comments about how unbelievable that was. But inside, my stomach had fallen to a new low. I remember he seemed to brush off the moment and move on. It was late, after all. But I knew it hit him deep, too. This was all too familiar. And this also hit close to home. Quite literally. That hurt my heart. I knew what happened that night was something he never wanted me to witness with him ever again, let alone in the first place.
As his wife, I wanted to protect him from ignorant people. From people who had an irrational fear of someone who was different than them. I wanted to stop those guys and ask them how many people they knew, truly knew, who were different than they were. Because if they took time to have coffee with someone, rub shoulders with someone, or even go for a bike ride with someone who was a little bit different than they were, they would realize there is nothing to be afraid of. And, in fact, I would like to believe they might even see how our differences make this world more vibrant and exciting. For we are all a beautiful expression of God.
I could keep talking about the experiences we’ve had or seen since then, but that’s not the reason for this blog. As we come off of Black History Month (celebrated in the shortest month of the year, mind you . . . but, that’s another rant), I want to encourage us to put into practice ways of welcoming our neighbors--regardless of how different they are, live, or look from us. Racism is, unfortunately, deeply rooted in this country. But I hope we are willing to work hard to fight against old tendencies. I hope we are willing to enter the hard conversations, not to hear our own voices or regurgitate the "right" words. But, instead, to listen to our brothers and sisters who add diversity to Grand Rapids and beyond. As Pastor Ron encouraged us to, I hope we will be intentional to listen to the experiences of individuals living with disabilities, to have a meal with someone of a different cultural background than our own, and to look fear in the face and call it out when we see it.
Facing our fears isn’t easy. In fact, it takes us out of our comfort zones. It requires stretching and challenging what we’ve known. But with that work comes growth and beauty and change. With that work, we as a body of believers, as the community of Grand Rapids, and as a country begin to look a little bit more like Jesus. So, let’s do the hard work. Let’s show up to these hard conversations not with another word to add, but with open hearts, open arms, and open ears--ready to be part of the solution.
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand— just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you.”
(2 Corinthians 1:8-14)
Written by Kelli Gilmore