The horrific shooting in the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston last week has brought the issue of racial reconciliation before us, full-screen, as a nation. We have heard a lot of speeches, and watched much breast-beating about the issue, . . . but to get to a real reconciliation, and rapport between races requires more than dramatic speeches, or protest rallies on the capitol steps, or signing a protest on a website. To achieve authentic reconciliation requires time spent in real conversation with real others who are different, and so to come to a mutual appreciation of each other.

I am a product of the segregated South. I grew up in the 1930s, way before the civil rights days of the 1960s-70s. Segregation was the way it was. There was a “colored community” and a “white community” and there was not a whole lot of communication between them. There was a white high school, and a black high school existing in fairly close geographical proximity, but with not any communication between them, no inter-school athletics. I was taught to be polite “to them” but it was a presupposition that somehow “they” were inferior. That was just the way it was, and I innocently and unquestioning accepted that understanding, and so much that I now look back on with genuine embarrassment.

I actually never had any significant communication with black adults until my days in campus ministry in North Carolina in the 1950s. Our Presbyterian campus ministries had an annual statewide weekend retreat, and that included several all-black colleges and universities. The problem was that most retreat centers were still segregated. We found one that was not segregated, owned by the United Church of Christ. It was pretty primitive, but all of us guys were housed in a large dormitory-type room with bunk beds, and for most of us, white and black, it was our first experience of being in intimate one-on-one encounters with those of the other race. I would have been about 26 years of age at that time—and that was my first encounter and the first conversations I had ever had with my black counterparts. All of the mutual caricatures and all of the complications of injustice and prejudice soon were on the table. But it was a huge step for me in understanding the cultures that had formed us.

Later I would be teaching in what was an all-white Bible conference in upstate New York, when an inner-city church planter brought in a gang of black kids fresh out of the projects in Newark, which was (to put it mildly) a learning experience for all of us. But I had to teach those high school guys every day for two weeks, and we became bonded. Honest conversations often take time, and can surface anger and pain and all kinds of bad attitudes. Later one of those young men, as a university student, would integrate our congregation in Durham, North Carolina. It was his first involvement in the segregated South. He would often stay in our home, and would become like a son to us. I became very sensitive to the fine print of racial injustice in those civil rights days of the 1960s primarily through such experiences of conversation and hospitality.

Later I would become acquainted with a remarkable black civil rights hero from Mississippi, and invited him and his family to spend a week in our home while he taught with me at a local seminary. It freaked-out some of my white neighbors, but it was a wonderful occasion of the blessing of hospitality in coming to racial reconciliation. My wife and I would subsequently spend time with him in his home in Mississippi. We became totally bonded to each other as dear friends.

In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, I want to advocate inviting acquaintances of other races into one’s home for coffee, or beer, or whatever, and begin to build the bridges of true reconciliation and mutual understanding and love. This is the only solid foundation that will ultimately lead us into a new day, and it is certainly the calling of God’s New Creation folk.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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