he fishing in Galveston Bay was fabulous. My mind was capturing the memories of friends who shared in the adventure, perfect weather for a Texas August day, and a bountiful catch of speckled trout. One of my colleagues and I spontaneously decided to grab a light dinner before heading home. That choice would test the fortitude of my soul. A wary alertness has grown from a lifetime of dangers. I was about to face again the filthy dregs of racism.
When we entered the grill where we chose to eat, my buddy let me in first. I walked past a table of about ten adults, all white. At the head of the table a middle-aged man was laughing with his friends as he was sitting down. His eyes shot up at me, lingered with a look that I have known all too well, and I heard him utter snide comments. Enough around him heard. He knew that I caught his ugly, racist rancor. His utterances rhymed with chong, ch’ing, or chop. Of course such people squint their eyes for punctuation. Remarkably, a companion or two of this bigot were obviously shocked. They stared at him, dismayed, glancing up at me with mouths gaping. Quickly, they looked down out of sheer embarrassment. There was a time in my past when I would have kicked out the legs of his chair from underneath him. Now, however, I am older and wiser. I am also a pastor and seminary professor. I sat down at our table, and our waiter welcomed us with menus. My mind reflected back on moments when I faced the racist insults hurled in my direction. They were terrifying.
My Youth Experience
My two brothers and I were just youngsters. We grew up in the hot Sacramento Valley of California. Staying cool was a major summertime feature. One of our favorite pastimes was being dropped off at the public swimming pool. We played and splashed for hours.
When the lifeguard announced that the pool was about to close, we lingered as long as we could. Then we hit the showers. That day it was a mistake to be last. After we dried off, and dressed, we turned to leave. The locker room was already mostly vacant. But three teenagers blocked our exit. That is when I first saw a sneer and heard that laugh of derision. Over my lifetime I would see and hear it many times. It was the same in the eatery on Galveston Bay.
Those teenagers were a lot bigger than we were. They looked different from us. The taunts came. They rhymed with “Ch’ing, Chong, and Chinaman.” It wasn’t funny to me. It was terrifying. I hated the fear. We said nothing. I imagined without ever having been told that this could end up painful and bloody. Then, like flipping a light switch they changed. Their laughter disappeared like an ice cube on a California sidewalk. Bold, caustic speech morphed into mumbling. Shifting eyes of evil turned into shaded eyes, hiding their previous malcontent. The boys melted into the exit, never to be seen again.
Aware of a presence behind us, my brothers and I turned to look. A full-grown man, also different from us, was standing behind us. His eyes were on the exit where the teenagers had disappeared. Our benefactor was not tall, but he was muscular, very muscular. He was not a man to be trifled with if you wanted to keep all of your body parts intact. He seethed. His words are ones that I heard for the first time and have never forgotten: “White trash!” Without ever talking to us, he walked out of the locker room. We were only kids, but we knew enough to grab our stuff and walk out close behind our anonymous rescuer.
Trouble in the Church
I grew up in the Sacramento Chinese Gospel Mission. Our youth group went to a Bible-memory-verse rally. When we arrived, we were the only Chinese group. Everyone else looked different from us. We mingled in the chaos of hundreds of youth gathering for an event, then noticed a couple of teens from another group pointing at us. “Hey, Chinaman,” one of them challenged, “the verses have to be spoken in English, not. . . !” Yes, the predictable followed. (Do these guys read from the same book of bigotry?) “Ch’ing-Chong-Chop Suey language,” they cackled.
This time I stood unafraid. I launched my left shoulder into the loud mouth closest to me. He was foolish not to be more alert. Knocked off balance, he fell into his compatriot. Both stayed on their feet but stumbled. They jumped back with a start. Two against one are odds that a bully loves. Their hands balled up, but there was no back-down in my eyes. That was the year that I wrestled on our high school team. I was ready for a fight. My resolve drained away their brashness.
Then a voice of authority called two names. Mine was not included. An adult stepped into the picture. He glared at the two mockers. “Knock it off, you two,” he said. Like every other past and future encounter, racist lowlifes repeat the same reaction whenever they get caught. “What? We didn’t do anything. That guy shoved us for no reason.” They whined like alley cats.
Those two were eliminated in the first round of the memory- verse competition. Our youth group did not win, but we advanced a long way in the contest. On our way out I shot a deliberate stare at the two bullies. They frowned, laughed about some joke shared between them, and ran off.
That episode taught me that racism exists in the church. It may vary in its scope, but it is there. One incident, however, does not indicate an epidemic. Jesus Christ does something about protecting his church that keeps sin at bay. I was not so much disappointed as I was made alert to the trouble.
An Uninviting Question
Once, I was invited to speak at a church in the Midwest. When my wife and I arrived, we immediately split up to greet people. But she was back by my side in little time, concern written all over her face. We have been together long enough for me to ask without asking. She quietly said, “I’ll tell you later.” On our drive home she brought up a conversation that she had with one of the wives of an elder. They were white. Their daughter ran off and married a man who was black. Now estranged from her daughter, the woman blurted out, “Why can’t they just keep to their own kind?”
Things to Consider
If people call the Lord by name and claim to be followers of Jesus who is Lord of all, regardless of color or ethnic origin or nationality, why is there so much racial rancor in the church? We read the same Bible, pray to the same Father in heaven, trust in the same Savior, walk with the same Spirit, yet we segregate ourselves on purpose to be with people like ourselves. Everyone in the same church building looks alike. That’s not much of a witness to the world that needs the Savior.
No, we aren’t yet living his theology when it comes to race and the church. But as a follower of Christ, I could possibly make a difference. After all, he is the one who broke down the barrier between the most prejudiced groups at odds with each other. By his death and resurrection he tore down the wall between Jew and Gentile and made the two become one.