A few years ago Lisa and I visited New York City. It's an amazing place; truly the melting pot of hundreds of nationalities and cultures. Many nice people helped us find our way through the fast moving, chaotic, crowded subways and busy streets. Lisa and I visited many places: The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the 9-11 Memorial and Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Museum of Natural History, Central Park and more. I could tell many stories but as I reflected on our trip after returning home to Michigan one stood out to me. It's a humbling memory yet it continually calls me to be something more than I was that day.
Here's how my story played out.
As Lisa and I walked through the 9-11 Museum we met a wonderful family who lived in New York city. They were friendly and engaging. I won't forget their warmth and hospitality. During our conversation I told them Lisa and I were staying at the Hampton Inn near Newark airport. We came to the city through Newark and by the subway from Newark Penn Station. The man then told us that Newark is the most dangerous city in America, especially at night. I didn't think a lot about his comment til the next day when old fears that were rooted in my childhood caught me by surprise.
My childhood story...
When I was about seven or eight years old, the civil rights movement was emerging. We lived near Hammond and Gary Indiana where riots and marches were not uncommon. People got hurt. Buildings burned. One was never quite sure what might happen. Mom's extended family lived in Hammond. We often drove there for holidays and social gatherings. But driving through Hammond wasn't easy. I'll never forget the many times my brother and I watched from the back seat while Dad was driving the car. Mom was next to him. Whenever my mom saw a black man coming toward our car she'd panic and cry out to my dad and say, "Chuck! Quick! Lock your door!" Each time I saw her terror, fear grew in me. Without realizing it, I came to believe that black people wanted to hurt me, maybe kill me if they could get inside our car. Each time I heard about marches or riots in the news and experienced mom and dad's reaction to it all I became a racist without knowing it. I don't think I believed black people were less than me. I just thought they hated me. I grew up assuming they wanted to hurt me. I feared black people. I'm saddened by my story. Over the years God has helped me face my prejudice. I have repented. But something happened in New York City that stirred old lies and fears.
Back to Lisa and me in New York City.
The next morning after our conversation with our friends at the 9-11 museum, Lisa and I went to the bus station to go back to New York city for the day. As we boarded the bus I didn't realize it would take us through downtown Newark. And as we stepped up into the bus, I saw it was filled with black people. Lisa and I were the only whites. The words of my friend the day before came back with force--"Newark is the most dangerous city in America." Fear surged through me and nearly took my breath away. My childhood wounds and memories sprung to life with new power. It seemed everyone on the bus was looking at me with hatred. My fears grew to near panic as we slowly lumbered through downtown Newark. Each bus stop brought new people on board.
I became so aware of my fears I couldn't avoid how choked I was by them. It was in that moment the Holy Spirit came to my rescue. A prayer welled up deep inside my heart, "Dear Father. I cannot love, I cannot care about the people in this bus if I'm consumed by fear. Please help me. Please release me from these lies I'm believing and from my self-centeredness." Just then a lady, who had been sitting near Lisa, got up and left when we came to the next bus stop. The seat remained empty. I turned and saw a young lady standing near me. She looked very sad. My heart was moved with compassion. I asked her if she'd like to sit down as I pointed to the seat. She said, "No" and turned away. I decided to sit down between Lisa and an older black woman. I looked at the black lady and she was looking at me with a kind and beautiful smile; almost a look of being pleased that I was setting next to her. The bus made another stop. An older black man came in and stood in front of me. He held on to the railing as the bus lurched forward. I smiled at him and asked how he was doing, how his day was going. He said he was doing well. We talked a bit. He too was smiling. And then said in a kind and grateful voice, "Thank you for asking." The same lady who was sitting next to me, the one with the beautiful smile, looked at me too and said, "Yes. Thank you for asking." She was smiling at me again. Their kindness was disarming. Their spirits were so gracious, warm and welcoming. The three of us talked. Nothing deep or too personal but it was all pleasant. This was a sweet moment. Connection happened and my fears turned to gratitude and love. As Lisa and I left the bus I told them I hoped they would have a blessed day. They said thank you and wished the same for me. I left that bus different. Love melted my lies and fears.
Later that day, as Lisa and I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I saw a beautiful painting by Winslow Homer. It was a picture of several black slaves who had been freed. The painting style was amazing but the subject drew me in. I took a picture of it and wanted to find a copy of it for framing as a memory and invitation to not fear but to love. It's called "Dressing for the Carnival." That particular painting marked a change in Homer's work--from nice, memorable pictures to a serious and deeper look at the plight of African Americans even though they had been freed. Homer felt their situation in life had changed little even after their emancipation. He cared about them and began to use his art to speak out on their behalf.
Racism is evil. It is an attack on the image of God. It is rooted in lies and fear.
In what ways might you struggle with racism? How did your story shape it? Will you pray and ask God to free you from fear that you can love? What would that freedom look like and how could it help others love instead of fear?