Understanding Race In America

Driving In TanzaniaShortly after landing in Nairobi last Monday night, I started to hear of the unrest in Baltimore.  At first, it was hard to gauge how serious the situation was but it soon became clear that something major was happening.  It seemed so ironic to be laying in bed in Kenya, texting with my brother who lives in Baltimore and telling him I would be praying for his safety.

As I watched events unfold from East Africa, I was alarmed by not only what I saw in Baltimore but also on my news feed.  So many of the tweets and status updates I read were unhelpful at best and hateful at worst.  Whites decrying the loss of property.  Blacks decrying the loss of justice.  So much pain, fear, anger and misunderstanding.

All week, I kept thinking of a quote from Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  I wonder how different our conversation about race in America would be if we actually took that advice.  The Bible commends the wisdom of listening as well, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” (Prov. 1:5)  As a 37 year old, middle class, white male, I’m convinced the most significant thing I have to offer the conversation is my ears, not my voice.

Last week helped me realize just how little I understand the African American experience.  God used a road trip from Arusha, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya to help me see that.  On Thursday morning, I made the roughly four hour drive with three friends in a car with Kenyan license plates.  From the time we left the medical clinic we had visited that morning to the time we crossed the border (about an hour and a half), we were pulled over 7 times by the police.  It seems like Tanzanian police love to pull over a car with Kenyan tags.  By the way, we weren’t getting pulled over because we had done anything wrong.  We were getting pulled over to see if we had done anything wrong.

On the first stop, it was determined that there was one person in the car breaking the law.  Me.  I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.  So, the officer issued a ticket and demanded payment on the spot in cash.  That set us back 60,000 Tanzanian shillings, which happened to be all the cash we had on us.

Six more times we went through the ritual (sometimes within a few hundred yards of a previous stop).  I found myself getting more and more frustrated, impatient and angry.  I also felt a little twinge of fear each time.  What if they did find another offense?  What if they demanded payment on the spot?  We didn’t have any money.  What would happen?  Would they detain us?  Could I possibly end up in a Tanzanian police station?  Yes, I felt a little comfort in my American passport but I also knew that wouldn’t necessarily help all that much.  The balance of power had shifted and, for one of the few times in my life, I felt nervous around authority.  I wasn’t sure the system would protect me.  I wasn’t sure I would be treated fairly.  I wasn’t sure justice would win.

I’m not pretending for one second that my experience in Tanzania has made me an expert on the black experience in America.  Just the opposite – it’s convinced me of how little I really know and understand.  So, I’m determined to listen.  I’m determined to ask uncomfortable questions.  I’m determined to understand a little more.

That’s my challenge to you – whether you are white or black.  Throwing rocks, tweets and ill formed opinions isn’t getting us anywhere.  Maybe it’s time to find the humility to listen.

Kibera, Baltimore & Nepal

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This is Kibera.  It’s one of the largest slums in the world.  Somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people live here.  Their lives are defined by poverty, disease and lack of opportunity.  The smog of despair hangs over Kibera.

It’s so obvious our world is broken.  Kibera, Baltimore and Nepal tell the same story.  This is not how things should be; this is not the world God created.  The clouds of injustice, poverty, violence, fear, hatred and tragedy that swirl over our planet don’t come from the heart of God.  They come from the wickedness of man and the brokenness of our planet.

But I also know there is hope in Kibera.  It’s the hope of children who are now able to go to school.  It’s the hope of a medical clinic that is coming to life.  It’s the hope of a business employing 70 women.  It’s the hope of knowing Jesus is real, He’s alive and He’s at work.

The sunlight of hope can break through the thickest of clouds.  Yes, there are times we’re tempted to believe the clouds are winning.  But the cross reminds us there is no situation so evil that God can’t redeem it for good.  The gospel tells us that God will one day make all things right and every sad thing will become untrue.  The clouds will be banished and Jesus will win.

Until that day, He’s at work in Kibera. And Baltimore. And Nepal. And your life.

The question is whether we’re leveraging our lives as fully as possible to usher the rays of hope into our world.  Are we fighting for justice, for peace, for a better tomorrow?  Or are we simply looking to make our lives a tiny bit more entertaining?  Are we willing to sacrifice that others might live?  Or do we demand others sacrifice so we can live more comfortably?

The church really is the hope of the world.  We just need to act the part.  Don’t settle for complacency in the face of the world’s desperation.  Fight for what matters and shine the light of Christ in whatever corner of the globe God has put you.

Kibera needs hope.  And so does Washington.  Kibera needs the church to rise up and be the people of God.  So does your city.

My prayer today is that the church will find her voice, embrace her mission and fight for restoration in our world.

Praying For Baltimore

If you’re like me, you spent much of last evening watching the news of the horrible events unfolding in Baltimore.  Maybe, like me, you spent some time texting with family and friends who live in Baltimore to check on them and offer some encouragement.  And, maybe, you took the time to pray.

Right now the most important thing we have to offer Baltimore is our prayers.  I want to encourage you to pray throughout the day today for peace, justice, and calm to sweep through the streets of Baltimore.

Some of you have also asked what else we can be doing as a church since we’re just down the road from Baltimore.  One of the benefits of being part of The Summit Network is that we are connected with likeminded churches around the country, including one in Baltimore.  I’ve been emailing with Brad O’Brien, the lead pastor at Jesus, Our Redeemer in Baltimore to let him know we’re willing to come along side their church and city any way that’s needed.  For now, Brad agrees that prayer is the best thing we can offer.  Should that change, he’ll let me know and we’ll see what we can do to help our neighbors in Baltimore.

God brings good out of evil.  I’m praying part of the good He brings out of this situation is a renewed longing in all of our hearts for Jesus and the restoration He offers a broken, hurting and frightened world.