When you’re the minority

eggsIt’s known as the country of hospitality, and for good reason. Living for 4 1/2 years (1999-2003) in the welcoming but scorching and malaria-ridden African nation of Benin was simultaneously a joy and a monumental challenge. We’ll forever be grateful that they took-in an American missionary family and – despite our failings – opened their hearts to us and loved us. We will always have Beninese soil in our shoes!

For all the positive memories of Benin that I treasure, one negative memory was a phrase we heard too many times to count:

Yovo, yovo, bon soir. Ça va? Cadeau!

Translation: “White person, white person, good evening. How are you? Give me a gift!”

It was a little sing-song that parents taught their children, what they apparently thought was a harmless ice-breaker. Every day Monday through Friday, I’d arrive at the church office to the enthusiastic greetings of a small group of neighborhood children. “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” I knew they meant well, so I’d shake their hands and tell them:

It’s true, my skin is white, but I have a name. It’s Pastor Crofford. What is your name?

I’m a teacher, so I was confident I could gradually teach a proper greeting to a group of little boys and girls, and they responded well. No longer was I “yovo.” Little-by-little, they called me “Pastor.” But around town was a different story. Outside of restaurants? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Walking down the street? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Arriving at one of our new churches? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” And it wasn’t always just children; sometimes adults also called you “yovo.” I’d remind myself that it didn’t matter, not to be so sensitive. But when it’s happening for the 10th time in one day, it’s like a grain of sand in your shoe on a long walk. It might be small, but it starts to grate you. You begin to wonder: 

Is the only thing about me that’s worth mentioning…my skin color?

Somewhere down in my soul, a seed of resentment quietly sprouted and took root. “You’re a Christian, a missionary no less!” I would preach at myself, but like fighting the Borg, resistance seemed futile.

One Sunday night we had a Bible study. Missionaries from various churches gathered at the house of an American diplomat. We always supsected that high-ranking U.S. Embassy personnel like “Rick” (not his name) lived in an involuntary bubble, but Rick confirmed our suspicions. He’d already lived in Cotonou for over a year. A week earlier, he’d been drafted to run in a 5k, representing the U.S. mission. We asked him how he’d done. He’d run well, but many had called out to him from the sides of the route, so he asked us:

What’s with this “yovo” thing?

We burst into laughter. We’d known about it since our first day in the country.

My wife, Amy, had a chance to chat with her adult English students, a dozen or so upper-class and well-connected Beninese. “What do you think of Benin?” they asked. She complimented them on the many things we liked, but got brave. “There is something you should change,” she remarked. “Get rid of the ‘yovo, yovo, bon soir’ chant. Ex-pats hate it.” It was an eye-opening moment for them. They thought the chant was welcoming; we saw it as a nuisance, a constant reminder that we were “other.”

Before we left the country a year later, we noticed fewer children were chanting it. When I visited Cotonou again four years later, the chant was gone!

Living in two West African nations for nine years forced me into a skin-color role reversal I never would have otherwise known.

In the New York state Erie Canal town where I attended school as a youth, African-American students – or “Negroes” as was commonly said then- were rare. Likewise, the college and seminary where I studied were almost entirely white. After seminary, I pastored a church in a Midwestern town that until 1948 had maintained two hospitals, one a well-equipped facility for white citizens and a separate (and inferior) hospital for black citizens. Our ministerial association had only white pastors, though there were some small all-black churches on the “other side of the tracks,” far away from our all-white churches.

My experiences in life until age 30 had been as a white person living in a white world. I had zero experience being in the minority. It’s hardly surprising then that I had no way to interpret the seemingly over-the-top comment of an African-American pastor who guest lectured in class one day. The only black man in the room speaking to a room full of white seminarians, he bravely observed (paraphrased):

Whether you acknowledge it or not, everyone in this room is at least somewhat racist. You can’t help it; that is the way you’ve been shaped by your white culture.

That was until I lived in West Africa. Only then, as a white raft adrift in a sea of black, did I have some appreciation of what it means to be perceived through the narrow lens of skin color. One of my Ivorian students admitted: “When we were little, our parents told us that when white people sleep, coins fall out of their ears.” I laughed! Maybe this was the tooth-fairy legend garbled? “No coins in my ears or on my pillow,” I assured him.

But when do seemingly harmless stereotypes mutate into something more sinister?

In the United States, white supremacist ideology is pernicious because it stubbornly rejects what God has revealed, that all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). It thrives on discredited notions of eugenics, that there are superior “races” and inferior “races” rather than a single race, the human race. Contrary to the Apostle Paul, who taught that we are “one in Christ Jesus” no matter our gender, our nationality, or whether we are slave or free (Galatians 3:28), the twisted thinking of racism conditions children to fixate on the minor differences that divide us rather than celebrating the major similarities that unite us.

Sometimes the seeds of discrimination are planted subtly. When I was five or six, I’d sometimes watch public television. (It was “Sesame Street” or a similar educational program.) Three colorful round shapes appeared on the screen, and one square one. The catchy jingle?

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

It’s only in retrospect that I’m appalled by the lesson since little boys and girls have no way to process it. How would I have felt if I were Bruce or his sister, Julie, the only two African-American students in my class of twenty-five at elementary school? The sub-text was clear: I’m not like the others, so I don’t belong. 

This was public television, but shouldn’t Christian churches do better?

I loved my childhood church. At church, I learned many good things, including what it means to love God, but it’s not all that I learned. One adult, “Steve,” (not his name) would tell jokes at church at the expense of black people. His prejudiced yarns drew nervous chuckles from his grown-up listeners, but no one challenged him publicly.

Or how about the pastor who a few years ago – after a missionary service where they’d responsed well to the report of our work in Africa – walked us to the parking lot. He advised us to turn right out of the parking lot and not left. Why? “You’ll want to avoid the ‘bad part of town.’ ” The pastor drove off, but when he was out of sight, we turned left anyways, driving into the “bad part of town.” (It looked fine to us). For an hour, we enjoyed a tasty meal at a restaurant, the only white customers yet welcomed by the smiles of two dozen African-Americans who seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did.

Once, my fellow bank-teller during a lull in the drive-thru lamented (in all seriousness) that black men were “out to sleep with white women.” I mumbled a half-hearted protest, but uncomfortable, changed the subject.

NileCrocodile

Racism is pernicious because – like a crocodile – it lurks just below the surface of the human heart. You never know when it’s going to surface, clamp down on a victim and drag them under. Like the person who sees the splinter in the eye of her sister, not realizing the board she has in her own (Matthew 7:5), we must constantly bring ourselves before the Lord and ask God to examine our hearts, to “see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:13, NIV). We must sing the old Methodist hymn: “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

When all your life you have been part of the majority group, it’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of the minority.

Yet if my experience in West Africa of being a minority teaches me anything, it reminds me that my “default” position should be to give credance to the complaints of minorities and not simply shrugging: “There they go again, playing the race card” or dismissing charges of prejudice out-of-hand as exaggerations.

Change came when the Beninese took our “yovo, yovo” complaint seriously, and started teaching their children a different way of interacting with expatriates. How about us, as white Americans? Are we willing to listen, to allow minorities to point out our blind spots, and to adjust our behavior accordingly? May we be willing to pray, as Jesus taught us: “Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others…” (Matthew 6:12, CEV). And once forgiven, may God grant that we become the Lord’s agents of reconciliation.


 

Image credits

Eggs — Keira Hamilton, on Linked-In

Crocodiles — CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66978

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Blind spots

1024px-Car_side_mirror_sunsetWhen I was 16, my dad taught me to drive a car.

They say fewer American teenagers have a driver’s license now, but for me and my agemates, it was a rite of passage. I vividly recall heading with my dad to a rural road west of Rochester, NY. He pulled the Chevy to the right shoulder, parked, then switched seats with me. It was one thing to pass a 20 question, multiple-choice exam for a learner’s permit. Now, it was time for introductions: “Theory, meet practice.”

You’ve deduced that I acquitted myself well that day in June. After all, I’m typing this! Yet that experience was just the beginning of a months-long driving mentorship with my father. There were dozens of pieces of driving advice, good practices that over time have for me became good habits, second-nature.

One of those lessons endures: Watch out for the blind spot.  Seasoned drivers know that cars overtaking in the left lane disappear for a few seconds from your side-view mirror. If they’re in the blind spot – that invisible zone – you might slam into them when changing lanes.

Blind spots happen not only to drivers; they happen to believers. Acts 10 is a story of a blind spot. The religious narrative in which Peter and company were raised had shaped the way they viewed the world. In their day, there were only two categories of people: those who were chosen and those who were not. There was the People of God, aka the Jews, and those who were not the People of God, everyone else, the so-called Gentiles.

When Peter accepted Jesus as the anointed one of God, confessing him as “the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16, NIV), he was acknowledging Jesus as the long-awaited deliverer of the Jewish people. But what Peter did not perceive – his blind spot, if you will – was that this Christ was more than a national Savior; he was the Savior of all humankind. It took a divine revelation on a rooftop in Joppa – a command to kill and eat animals which the Mosaic law called “unclean” – for God to correct his faulty vision.

Peter followed the messenger and arrived at the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile centurion. When Cornelius and his household decided to follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. Later in Acts 15:9, Peter testified to his incredulous brothers gathered at the Council of Jerusalem:

He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith (CEB).

There was a longstanding way that they had interpreted Scripture which made it difficult for them to see something new that God wanted to do in the world. In short, they had a blind spot until the Holy Spirit in a disturbing vision performed worldview surgery on Peter.

In the same way, God has sometimes needed to correct my vision. He has used individuals to help me see what I could not see before. As a student at Eastern Nazarene College, Prof Helen Garretson taught abnormal psychology. She returned a report I’d written and deducted points for my use of  non-inclusive language. Before that day, I had no idea what the term “inclusive language” even meant! But she took the time to explain that speaking of the human race as “man” excluded half of human beings, while writing “humankind” or “humanity” included females and so empowered them, too. Honestly, at first I thought she was nitpicking; I resisted the change. Yet in conversations with my female classmates, I discovered that Prof Garretson was not alone in her viewpoint. Reluctantly, I changed how I used the English language and now have eyes for a gender equality issue to which before I had been oblivious.

1024px-Lasik_eye_surgery
Lasik surgery to correct faulty vision

Among evangelicals, tokenism is another blind spot. If there’s a gathering of church leaders with ten speakers, how often will the program include a 9:1 ratio of male to female speakers? We may be sensitive to how publicity brochures will look if they feature slick photos of all men, but rather than fixing the deeper systemic issue, do we avoid criticism by inviting the token woman? Never mind that qualified women whom our Universities and Seminaries have educated struggle to find even a small church where they can fulfill their pastoral calling.

Both of these examples speak to whether we really believe Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (NIV).

Here in Kenya, tribalism is another manifestation of blind spots. In 2007, violence erupted following a nationwide election, resulting in the death of more than 5,000 victims. In a recent chapel service, our assistant chaplain directed us to join hands in prayer for peace. As I looked across the room at brothers and sisters with hands clasped in prayer, I no longer saw Kikuyus, Merus, Luyas, Luos, Kambas or Americans. Rather, we were simply worshipers of God, united in Christ and our desire for peace as we anticipate a new round of elections.

In the 19th century United States, we had our own more severe form of tribalism, a deep-seated hatred nurtured through two hundred years of slavery. Those of European descent had long indentured those forcibly removed from Africa. We as a people rationalized a great evil, even as Christian preachers cherry-picked Scripture verses to justify the servitude of black men, women, and children. Even the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for purposes of representation to Congress counted a slave as only 3/5 of a human. God had to take our nation and its leaders up on a Joppa rooftop to perform painful worldview corrective surgery. Thousands of Civil War casualities shook us to our core, letting us finally see things in a new way. Old prejudices began to wither, a process that sadly is still far from complete.

As we think about blind spots, it pays to remember: Blind spots produce victims. Like the driver who changes lanes and crashes into the fellow motorist she couldn’t see, our blind spots can do serious damage. From the unplaced would-be female pastor who throws in the towel, to the grass that gets trampled when the proverbial African elephants fight, there is always a human price exacted. I wonder:

What other persistent blind spots might we as Christians have individually and collectively, blind spots that are taking a human toll?

Driving is a fine art. There are many lessons to learn to become a good driver; I’m thankful that my dad took the time to mentor me. Knowing there’s a blind spot in a side-view mirror still helps me avoid accidents. In the same way, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal our blind spots, doing for us what God did for Peter. May we like Peter not resist rooftop visions, always open to God ‘s corrective worldview surgery. Clearer vision is worth it.

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Image credits

Side-view mirror: The sunset viewed from a car’s side view mirror. |photographer=J RAWLS |photographer_location= |photographer_url=http://flickr.com/photos/94571281@N00 |flickr_url=http://flickr.com/photos/94571281@N00/13037170 |taken=2005-05-09 00:10:05 |reviewer=Tintazul }; via Wikimedia commons

Lasik eye surgery: By Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA (Lasik : Laser Eye Surgery) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Getting beyond the fear factor

Love-Is-Greater-Than-Fear-Sticker-(5143)Fear sells.

Check out any news website. How many of the stories use fear as a hook?

– Something sinister is in our food!

– Vaccines cause autism!

– A meteor will strike the Earth!

The message is loud-and-clear: Be very, very scared.

The problem with fear is that it destroys relationships. The first ruptured relationship was between humans and our Creator. Genesis 3 tells the story of God’s search for Adam in the garden. God asked: “Where are you?” Adam and Eve were hiding, and Adam answered:

“I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”

Their sin – disobedience to God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – produced fear. Fear in-turn led them to flee from God. Hiding symbolizes estrangement, absence of relationship.

Yet fear wreaks havoc not only on our relationship with God. It also prevents deep relationships with others. Some years ago, we spoke of our missionary work at a church located in a U.S. town where historically there has been high tension between blacks and whites. After the service, the pastor gave us directions back home.

“Make sure,” he said, “that you don’t turn right heading out of the parking lot. That will take you through a bad section of town.”

Once the pastor had gone, rebels that we are, we climbed in the car, pulled out of the parking lot and turned right. We soon found a chicken restaurant and had some dinner. Sure, we were the only white customers in the establishment; it mattered not one bit. The employees treated us kindly and with respect and the other customers smiled at us. There was no fear; we were welcome. The well-meaning pastor had given us fear-based directions. Instead, we chose otherwise and enjoyed a pleasant and safe dinner. In a way, I pitied the pastor. What relationships was he missing out on in that town because he could not get past the fear factor, a fear based upon the superficial characteristic of skin color?

The apostle John gives the remedy for the fear factor. It’s the love factor:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV).

Paul writes: “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13b). Service is the incubator in which love can grow. You may fear the homeless and want to walk past them, holding your wallet a bit tighter. But something happens when you volunteer at the rescue mission and find out that it’s not just “the homeless.” It’s George and Susan and Ralph and – suddenly – you begin to care.

Perfect love casts out fear.

“Religion of hate” is another popular phrase that instills fear. It allows us to “other” an entire swath of the Earth’s population, to write them off as infected with what can come across as a dangerous form of belief. But what happens when stereotypes are subjected to new information? “Aalim” (not his name) sat next to me on the plane. He was traveling home with some other high school students, checking out universities where he might attend. He told me that he liked the Oklahoma City Thunder (a city where I’ve lived before) and loved playing basketball. We talked about Kevin Durant and his amazing skills on the court. By the end of the flight, Aalim was no longer a faceless individual in a group. He was just a regular teenager, a basketball fan, an aspiring architect. Yes, I know what I’m told to think about “them.” It’s the same fear-based thinking that told me not to drive through “the bad part of town,” but how can I fear someone like Aalim when I get to know him even a little?

Perfect love casts out fear.

I’m part of the Wesleyan-Holiness stream of Christianity. We pride ourselves on the “optimism of grace,” a belief that God can do amazing things in the human heart, transforming our lives and making us like Jesus, filling us with love for God and neighbor. But when it comes to our knee-jerk response to current events, sometimes I wonder:

Do we have spiritual dyslexia? Is perfect fear driving out our love?

Do divisions in our families, communities and nation persist because we have allowed ourselves to be overcome by fear instead of getting down on our knees and giving our fears to God, serving the very ones we fear and thereby dispelling fear with love? What unquestioned prejudices passed down allow us with impunity to “other” our neighbors, building walls instead of bridges?

Fellow follower of Jesus, perfect love still drives out fear. Isn’t it high time we get beyond the fear factor?

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Image credit: Northern Sun