What I hope happens at Saturday’s “Race” video

Race: The Power of an Illusion, Episode 2This Saturday, February 27, I’ll be helping to host Part 2 of a video/discussion event, “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” We hosted Part 1 of the series last month, and we’ll host Part 3 next month.

It’s a good series, and, overall, last month’s discussion was healthy and helpful. But something disturbing happened that I hope not to repeat this Saturday. In essence, the discussion between the blacks and whites in the room was so robust that it became a little exclusionary. Someone who is not black and not white expressed it this way to me: “I felt like I didn’t belong.”

Now, I’m thrilled that those of us involved in this event were able to create an environment in which blacks and whites could honestly express themselves in front of each other.

But I’m disappointed that we were so focused on our own history, our own issues, our own hurts, that other people felt left out of the conversation.

I don’t want that to happen again.

Here’s what I do want to happen:

  1. I want people from cultures other than black and white to show up for the event—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Korean, Indian, and more. Those of us who are black or white will be less likely to forget about all the beautiful shades of brown if they are right there in front of us!
  2. I want all those beautiful shades of brown to share in the discussion—in the small group conversations as well as the large group reporting. The best way for me to learn how race issues throughout America’s history have affected people who are different from me is to hear it right from their mouths.
  3. I want to sense a spirit of curiosity among all participants. I want to hear reactions like, “Oh, I didn’t know that about you; I didn’t realize that; I didn’t understand that; that is interesting; thank you for sharing that; what else should I know?”
  4. Even though the video will reveal some historical truths that are painful, I want people to remember that healing and reconciliation are possible and hope is alive. I want diverse Christians especially to re-commit to making the heavenly vision of Revelation 7:9 a reality here on earth.

I’m a little nervous about the event, but I’m looking forward to it too. And I’m looking forward to having an encouraging report to share in a future blog!

The video series is from California Newsreel, and it’s called Race: The Power of an Illusion. Post a comment below or email me if you have any questions.

Update: About 40 people attended the event, shared breakfast together, watched the video, and then discussed some probing questions, including the following:

1. People who are white did not come off very positively in this episode–is that fair? That is, have whites been misrepresented at all?

2. What role did beliefs about race play in American colonization of Mexican territory, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam? Do those beliefs impact our international affairs today?

3. What is the significance of the episode’s title, “The Story We Tell”? What stories has the U.S. told throughout history? What stories about race do you tell? What stories do you hear from others?

4. A black woman who watched this episode said, “I was so angry, I couldn’t even finish it.” A white person said, “It made me sad. It made me feel bad about being white.” How can we take these historical realities and find healing? Do whites need to ask forgiveness? Do non-whites need to “forgive and forget”?

5. The closing quote from the video says, “We are a society based on principles so wonderful it brings tears to your eyes. But we are a society that too often allows itself to ignore these principles.” In what ways is this true of the Church as well?

We spent over an hour exploring answers to these questions, and there is so much more that could be said. Conversations like this are critical to understanding, healing, and community-building.

 

Diversity: art and illusion

This past Sunday, my church unveiled three new works of art by Toni Ruppert, a series based on three words: Faith, Family, and Worship.

The dedication ceremony was simple—lasting no more than 10 minutes between our morning services. But it was packed with meaning, and I’m only now beginning to unpack it.

My church, Living Springs, is a diverse collection of people. We represent a broad spectrum of ages, cultures, abilities, income levels, religious backgrounds, spiritual gifts, and family situations. This diversity is the fruit of a long-time commitment to being “intentionally inclusive” (one of our core values). Last Sunday, being so close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, gave us opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity in particular, and the unveiling of Toni’s paintings was a special part of that celebration. You can see Toni’s work in the video below:

But the art of diversity is not just a one-day celebration at Living Springs. It’s a journey, an adventure, a fragile, hope-filled, daily decision. For example, this Saturday, January 23, Living Springs will offer itself as a safe place to explore the topic of racism. Blacks, whites, Latinos, and other ethnicities from Glenwood, Homewood, Lansing, South Holland, Chicago Heights, and surrounding communities will gather to view the first installment of “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” a powerful video series produced by California Newsreel.

This is not the first time Living Springs has shown this video series and invited different cultures to dialogue about it together. Two years ago approximately 40 people came out on three Monday nights to view and discuss it. More recently, last November, Living Springs hosted a day-long “Joining the Multi-Cultural Journey” workshop, at which clips from “Race” were shown. In one case, a white man felt the need to ask forgiveness; in the other, a white man walked out, offended.

What will happen this Saturday, I’m not sure. I hold no illusions about the art of diversity! But I’m glad to be part of a church that is willing to keep learning and keep inviting others to share life’s colorful, complicated journey.

If you are familiar with Toni Ruppert’s art, I’d love it if you would post a comment below about what her three new Living Springs pieces say to you.

And if you attend the video/discussion event this Saturday, I’d love it if you would come back to this blog and post your opinion about the interactions. Is Living Springs really a safe place to talk honestly about race? Or are we promoting an illusion?

Oatmeal, donuts, and ethnic relations

Deeper than diversity training

Yesterday morning, three dozen people gathered for a breakfast of oatmeal, donuts, fruit, granola bars, and cold cereal. The location was Living Springs Community Church in Glenwood, Illinois. The event was a program called Breakfast Club.

BreakfastClub_logoRGB

Breakfast Club is a program sponsored by the Building Bridges ministry of Living Springs, a ministry I co-lead with Jamieson Clay. Our vision statement reads: “Building Bridges helps people on earth prepare for the multi-cultural reality of heaven as described in Reveleation 7:9.” Throughout the years, the Building Bridges team has organized a variety of events that allow people of different ethnic backgrounds to learn about each other and celebrate their differences. Our annual Taste of Reconciliation is a community-wide celebration involving hundreds of people, dozens of different ethnic dishes, and a praise service that includes participants from churches throughout Chicago’s south suburbs.

It is good to have opportunities to rub shoulders with people who don’t look like you, but overcoming racism requires a deeper commitment. So when the Building Bridges ministry learned about the Breakfast Club program, we were eager to try it.

The purpose of Breakfast Club is to create a safe environment where people of different ethnicities can develop a relationship in which they can ask difficult questions and receive grace from each other. The program matches up two people of different cultural backgrounds and equips them to meet monthly for a meal and conversation. Each month, participants receive a handout with five or six questions to discuss. The questions are intended to help people from different backgrounds learn what makes them different and what makes them similar.

Ground rules

At yesterday’s kick-off breakfast, we spent a significant amount of time reviewing the “Ground Rules” for the program:

  1. Commit to keeping the conversation confidential.
  2. Commit to meeting monthly for the whole year.
  3. Commit to being honest, not necessarily polite. (This one drew audible expressions of “Hmmm” from the group.)
  4. Commit to openly listening to your partner.
  5. Commit to praying with and for each other.
  6. Commit to speaking for yourself, not your race. (This one also elicited an audible reaction.)

When an African-American woman confessed she had trouble being completely honest—because she had been raised to be polite and not express herself when something was bothering her—a number of people agreed, and a spirited discussion ensued. In the end, the group agreed that:

  • Being honest and being polite do not have to be mutually exclusive.
  • Complete honesty takes time to develop; as trust within a relationship grows, honesty grows too.
  • Extending grace to each other means (1) not being quick to take offense, and (2) being quick to apologize when you have offended, even if unintentionally.

After about 30 minutes of discussion in the large-group setting, people who were there with their partners were given the opportunity to meet one-on-one and work through the first month’s handout. People whose partners were not at the meeting had the option of gathering with a group of other “un-partnered” people and working through the questions together.

Taking a bite out of racism

It really was a wonderful kick-off for this year’s Breakfast Club. I was impressed with the level of participation, particularly from people who are new to the program—and new to each other! These people showed extraordinary courage in their willingness to be paired with someone they had never met. They showed gracious confidence in expressing themselves publicly on a sensitive topic. And they showed supportive acceptance as a group, with affirmative nods for whoever was speaking at the moment. The spirit of grace was almost tangible.

I’m looking forward to a wonderful year of learning and growth. And I hope to post occasional updates here throughout the year, so you can track our progress in this journey of discovery and healing.

If you have been involved in Breakfast Club or a similar program somewhere, I would love to hear your opinions about the value of such a concept. Can 12 meals and 12 conversations really make a difference? Is this a reasonable way to take a bite out of racism?

From China to Glenwood: adventures in diversity

I’m thinking about China today. I’m thinking about Glenwood, Illinois, too. And the two places are related in my mind because they both represent rich cultural opportunities for me.

Beautiful, fun diversity

I’ve spent this past week preparing for my church’s Taste of Reconciliation, which takes place in Glenwood tomorrow at 5:00pm. The Taste is an annual event that celebrates the beautiful diversity of my church’s congregation and the wonderful variety of churches in Glenwood and surrounding communities.

I love the Taste because it takes the edge off race relations. It makes it fun to be different—the more variety, the better! The more experiences, the richer the evening is for you. “Oh, you’re serving fried plantain? Ok, I’ll try some! …Hmm. Not my favorite, but thanks for sharing it!” No hard feelings. No big deal.

Breaking bread together can be a great way break down walls—as long as you divest the food of some (not all) of its emotional power. When I eat your fried plantain, I appreciate that it holds childhood memories of Nigeria for you, and I love hearing your stories about it. At the same time, you recognize that plantain holds no memories for me, and you don’t take it personally when I don’t fall in love with the fruit itself. You appreciate that I appreciate your memories of the food, if not the food itself, for it is those shared memories, not the plant or its preparation, that are important to our relationship.

A willingness to laugh

Breaking bread together also breaks down walls if you go into it with a spirit of adventure and a willingness to laugh at yourself. When I was in China about 15 years ago, I was blessed to travel with a number of people who relished new experiences. One evening, five of us met for dinner in the hotel before a meeting later that night. This hotel was not a typical tourist spot, and none of the waitresses spoke any English—and we spoke even less Chinese! The staff did manage to round up some menus that had English subtitles, so we could point to the dishes we wanted.

We didn’t realize as we were ordering that each dish was enough for about seven people. Jason’s soup came out first. He thought he had ordered just a cup for himself, so his eyes bugged out when the waitress brought out a half-gallon bowl and set it down in front of him. When she began ladling out some for each of us, we began to understand.

Glenwood and China
Fried carp with sweet and sour sauce (photo source: China Tours)
Each time they brought out another dish, they would set it in the middle of the table, so we were never exactly sure which dish it was. “Who ordered this?” we’d ask each other. “Is this the Buddha’s Delight? What is this?” But when my dish came out, there was no mistaking what it was. I had ordered the fried carp with sweet and sour sauce. What they brought out was a huge fish—head, eyes, tail, and all—elegantly arranged in a pool of brown sauce. We all howled with laughter when they set it down in front of me.

Now, this experience could have been much different if my fellow travelers and I had gone into it with a sense of entitlement or frustration rather than a sense of humor and adventure. Yes, we were hungry, we were tired, we were out of our element. But we enjoyed ourselves. And we ate well. In spite of its unexpected appearance, my fried carp was delicious.

To be fair, the staff at the hotel restaurant could also have handled the situation differently. I suppose they could have been offended that we didn’t speak their language, that we didn’t know what we wanted, that we were louder than anyone else in the room. For all I know, fried carp may be a delicacy deserving of much more respect than we gave it, but our hosts were gracious and patient. In spite of their initial befuddlement, they worked hard to meet our needs, and gradually they came to appreciate the comedy of the occasion, laughing at our “oohs” and “aahs” each time they set a new dish on the table. They helped us pronounce the Chinese names of our entrées, and I think they appreciated our attempts to eat with chopsticks.

All this to say, breaking bread together can be a rich opportunity to break down walls. It is no accident that my church’s Taste of Reconciliation is both a worship service and a food fest: by giving people opportunities to rub shoulders with each other over gyros, gumbo, egg rolls, and pierogi before the worship service, we prepare them to meet God in new ways, and to find it fun instead of frustrating.

A spirit of adventure

This will be, I believe, my fifth Taste of Reconciliation in Glenwood. As far as I know, we’ve never had a plantain dish there before. But I love the fact that Yefunde is bringing it this year to represent her Nigerian culture. I love the excitement I heard in her voice when she called to tell me about it. I love that even though this is her very first Taste of Reconciliation, she’s taking the initiative—her enthusiasm is contagious! I believe Yefunde is embracing this year’s Taste with the spirit of adventure that makes this celebration such a success!

The Taste of Reconciliation has been hosted by Living Springs Community Church in Glenwood, Illinois, every summer for nearly a decade, and everyone is welcome. Just show up with an appetite as large as your sense of adventure!

Related posts: