I grew up in the hills of West Virginia and had no African Americans in my graduating class. I attended a university with a relatively diverse campus, but most of my interactions with people who weren’t white came on the basketball court.
My experience in church was much the same. After I had become a Christian, I moved to Texas and was part of a solid, but mostly white congregation. I later became the pastor of a church plant in a small oil town named Graham, Texas. In the seven years I pastored there, we had one black member, a brother named Bobby who’s “amens” and “tell’em preacher” encouragements still ring in my soul.
Though I had a few black acquaintances, most of my friends looked like me, thought like me, felt like me, and experienced life in the same way I did. But all that changed in 2011 when I moved to Washington, DC to do an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Our intern class consisted of six men, one of whom was black.
The Conversation that Changed Everything
Trip Lee is a quiet guy with a baby face. When I met him, I thought he couldn’t be more than thirteen years old, but as our friendship developed, I grew to respect Trip for his devotion to Jesus and desire to be a humble servant of Christ’s church. We had regular discussions about theology, church, culture, and then one day—we talked about race.
As the discussion went deeper, Trip mentioned something about him being a black man. I leaned in and with all sincerity said to him, “Trip, when I see you, I don’t see you as black. I see you as my brother in Christ. I see you as a friend, but I don’t see you as a black friend.” My intention was to communicate respect and to ensure him that I was “color-blind” because that was the height of love—right?
Trip looked at me and gently said, “Listen man, we are brothers in Christ, and that means something. But if you and I are going to be able to be real friends that go deep, you need to know that I am a man—but I am a black man.”
After a moment of silent staring, I pushed back and said that I didn’t understand. I explained that I never thought of myself as a white man, and I wouldn’t want him to think of me as his “white friend.”
Trip said to me, “I hear you, but you’ve got to know that being a black man affects everything I do. Every time I walk into a store, every time a policeman looks at me, every time I step into our very-white church. I feel it. I breathe it. I live it. I am a black man; that is who God made me.”
He went on to explain being a black man meant that, in many ways, he experienced life differently than I do. His pains and joys and fears were similar to mine, but also very different. He has fears for his children that are different than the fears I have for my children. He has hurdles in relationships that I don’t have to jump over. He has to trust God in ways that are both similar and different than me. And those differences matter.
A Journey of Love
That conversation with Trip proved to be pivotal for me. It opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone sees and experiences life in the same way I do. This revelation shouldn’t have been such an eye opener to me, but it was.
I later became the lead pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Our church is mostly white but is slowly increasing in diversity. Shai Linne, our assistant pastor, is an African American brother who has graciously allowed me to ask him questions and wrestle openly with things I find confusing about race and ethnicity.
After George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, Shai and I had several conversations about why the news was so upsetting to many of my black friends, including him. We eventually had a public discussion with about twenty other people where I (the ignorant white friend) got to ask Shai questions about how he saw and experienced the tragic event—not just as a Christian man, but also as a Christian black man.
During our dialogue, Shai humbly shared about a time when he was walking down the street and was stopped by police. He was questioned, cuffed, and put into the back of a police cruiser because he “fit the description of someone they were looking for.” He described to us the pit that formed in his stomach when a car with a white woman pulled up next to him to identify if he was the person they were looking for. He said, “my life flashed before my eyes. In that moment I knew that if she said, ‘that’s him’ my life was over. I was going to jail. My whole life hung on what that woman said.”
I will never forget his tears as he told his story. I never knew that about him. But it made me love him and hate our fallen world and desire for Jesus to come back in a way I hadn’t felt before.
Nor will I ever forget the interaction Shai had with his young son after the news broke that the police who killed Eric Garner would not be facing any charges. While watching the news, his son asked, “Daddy, what are they talking about?” Shai responded, “Black lives matter.” And then with innocent eyes, he looked at his father and asked, “Why are they talking about that?”
Now, as a father, I’ve had to answer tough questions from my children before. But that kind of heart-wrenching questioning has never happened in my house. Shai and my other black friends have to explain things to their children that I don’t have to explain to my kids. Yes, we have the same kinds of concerns about the persecution our children will face if they follow Christ (2 Tim 3:12), but most of my black friends and their children have had (and still have) a path with more obstacles than the one my family and I walk on.
The Lord has given me relationships with friends from different ethnicities and cultures to open my eyes, not just to what it means to be black or Asian or Hispanic, but to what it means to love people who are different than I am. Moreover, these relationships have even impacted the way I read and apply the Scriptures.
Seeing More Clearly
Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Your law (Ps 119:18).
I’d like to highlight three passages from God’s Word that have taken on a whole new meaning for me because of the diverse friendships God has brought into my life.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).
If my black brothers and sisters weep and lose sleep over something, God-glorifying love calls me to care about it. I may not understand why they are weeping, but if they hurt, God calls me to sympathize with them and to seek to understand. There is no room in the heart of a Christian for apathy or indifference toward other believers (1 Pet 4:8).
Not all my black friends have been affected in the same way by the Ferguson and Eric Garner decisions. But many of them have—and that must mean something if I am a Christian. Why? Because we are “members of one body” (Eph 4:25) and “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it…” (1 Cor 12:26). Jesus says that I am to “do to others what [I] would have them do to [me]” (Matt 7:12) and I am certain that when my day of weeping comes, I will want others to weep with me.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
We live in a fallen world that is filled with suffering. In many ways, all people’s suffering is similar, but there are also unique burdens each of us bear. Many of my African American friends have unique burdens to bear. And though understanding why they are burdened by certain events may not come natural to me, loving them (fulfilling the law of Christ) requires that I ask them to help me understand how I can bear their burden with them.
Sometimes this burden-bearing comes in the form of a prayer or a phone call. Often it comes just through listening and striving to learn more about your brother’s suffering. One of our white church members recently asked if he could have dinner with a few African American couples to talk about the issues of racial tension in our country that the events in Ferguson have exposed. They graciously agreed, and one of the brothers said to him, “I really appreciate you asking to talk with me about this, because from my experience, it is very rare that someone would reach out to talk about these issues.”
Burden bearing begins by taking a step of love toward another and saying, “Do you need help carrying that? I’m not sure I can help, but if I can, I’m here, and I’d like to try.”
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy…their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” Gal 2:11–14.
In days past I would have wholeheartedly dismissed the notion that “race issues” were Gospel issues. But the Apostle Paul clearly states here that because Peter and Barnabas (Jews) segregated themselves from the Gentile believers, “…their conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.” It was anti-Gospel to step away from brothers and sisters who weren’t like them in order to keep traditions that Jesus died to set them free from.
One of the goals of Jesus’ saving work on the cross is to “break down the wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile and to create in Himself a new humanity where hostility is put to death, and we are united in peace (Eph 2:14–16). The church is to be a “city set on a hill” (Matt 5:14) in which the glory of God is seen through the love and unity His people have for one another (John 13:34–35, 17:20–21).
If there is any place that love and unity seem tenuous, it is along racial lines. Marin Luther King famously said, “The most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” While we can praise God that there has been tremendous progress in race relations in the church since Dr. King’s day, we must all admit there is a long way to go.
And what is the way there? It is the way of Christ. God calls all His people to be “of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil 2:2). That doesn’t mean we will always agree on how we see an issue, but it does mean that we are to follow the example of Christ and humbly “count others more significant than ourselves” (Phil 2:3).
It is through loving those who are “other” to us that we most walk in step with the truth of the Gospel. It does us good to consider the fact that we are more “other” to Jesus than any of us are to each other. Jesus is God, and it doesn’t get any more “other” than that. What did Jesus do? He was moved by compassion and love for sinners to come and serve and die and rise for us (Phil 2:1–11). Jesus teaches us what it means to love.
Shai recently preached about loving those who are “other” in this sermon from Phil 3:17–4:3.
A Few Final Lessons About Love
While there is much more that could be said, I want to conclude with three reminders about what Gospel love requires from us.
Love requires relationship
If we are going to learn to understand people who are different than us, we must pursue relationships with people who are different than us. This isn’t limited to black and white relationships of course, but it is certainly true for them. If love is going to flourish in the church, we must be willing to risk stepping out of our comfort zones and into the lives of other people.
I read and hear what black men and women write on blogs and say on interviews, but love must go beyond this. As Shai said in the sermon I referenced above, “The more time and conversations you have with someone, the more sympathy is developed. It’s not going to happen through Facebook. It’s not going to happen on Twitter. It’s not going to happen on a blog post. It won’t be through watching news on cable, but its gonna be over the dinner table.”
How are you stretching yourself to develop authentic relationships with people who are different than you?
Love requires that I listen. I have learned that it is best for me to ask more questions and make fewer assumptions. This allows my brother the opportunity to speak for himself. And where better should we have the freedom to have these kinds of conversations than with our church family?
White police officers should be able to sit down with black members and talk about their mutual fears. They should also be able to encourage each other with how the Gospel gives them mutual hope. God is glorified in this, and the world is amazed.
If you walk down the path of love, you will be hurt, and you will hurt others. As John Piper recently said, “There is no love in this world without tears.” If you take the risk of walking with people, you will encounter relational briars of racism and apathy and skepticism and bitterness and cynicism. These will hurt you, and your briars will hurt others.
And this is why I am more convinced than ever that diversity in relationships is one of the best catalysts for our spiritual growth. When we are stretched to love and forgive and rejoice and weep in ways that are not natural to us, we are forced to lean upon Jesus in freshly desperate ways. And when we are all equally desperate before Jesus, we have great hope that He will move to unite us in ways that will call the world to ponder the power of our Lord.
There has been progress in our country and our church. We have great reason to hope that God will grant even more progress. But this growth will not come from being colorblind. Progress will come when we see each other as we are, and prayerfully draw together for the honor and glory of God.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
Used with permission.