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Eleven days ago our nation bore witness to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4 a sniper shot King outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, ending the life of one of the greatest Civil Rights Leaders this world has ever known. Today that motel has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, a fitting redemption to such a tragic place. What stuns me today, however, is both how we seem to keep singing this same tune of racial struggle in the country and in how fifty years just isn’t that long ago. Several of you lived through this. I came into the world only a little over ten years later. The longer I live, the more I realize how close I still am to these events and how the church still has much to do in the realm of reconciliation.
Around 16 years later the band U2 penned a song that still rings true to many today, including me. It’s a constant reminder to me of the events of that terrible day.
Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
Thanks to that song that date is seared in my memory. You all know already that U2 is my favorite band, but it’s not just because I love their sound, which I do. No, it’s because the ethic of a politically and spiritually engaged Christianity blasts from their albums, their concerts, and everything they do. In them I hear Christ’s call to kingdom love and justice, whether it’s connected to their cries for peace in Ireland or in their deep love for our country. As I think today about the situation of race in our country, I find myself drawn to other U2 lyrics, which really are a psalm of lament: How long? Bono cries. How long must we sing this song? How long? How long?
Race as a dividing wall of hostility is woven into the very fabric of this country. Racism is the chief of our sins, dating back to building our very prosperity on the backs of slaves and then carrying on through the centuries and decades where we have struggled to see the humanity in those who do not look like us. America is a wonderful country, and it’s a new country, so our history is never far removed from us. Women were only given the right to vote a little under 100 years ago. Native Americans finally were fully enfranchised in 1948. It wasn’t until 1965 (!) that the vote was extended to all citizens, regardless of their race. This doesn’t even take into account the literacy tests, poll taxes, and other methods that were used to suppress the vote of minorities.
I was born in 1978 in Erie, Pennsylvania, to a dad who worked really hard to become a lawyer and a mom whose intelligence and work ethic are off the charts. They worked hard to give me and my brothers a good, comfortable life. We had a modest house in the suburbs. It was the kind of place where we really didn’t have to worry about locking the doors. Most of my neighbors and classmates were white like me. I knew that the projects were only about a mile and a half away. I knew not to go there. I knew that people didn’t really cross the city line in either direction, so I didn’t have to worry about the struggles of race or poverty. The closest I came was enjoying listening to rap artists like Public Enemy, who wrote with prophetic anger. I loved their music, but I had no idea why they were so angry.
One day, a young black teenager named Teegan crossed the city line from the projects into my neighborhood. Many local kids would gather at our house to play basketball, and Teegan found us there. He’d come by pretty frequently to play with us. We had fun playing ball with Teegan. For months we’d play together, having a great time. One day Teegan and another neighborhood friend got into an argument. This is seared in my memory because I can still see the kid from my neighborhood screaming at Teegan, “Get out of here! You don’t belong here! Go away!” He chased Teegan up the street, screaming at him and kicking at him. Teegan never came by to play ball again. I’m not sure I ever saw him again. I remember how awful I felt in that moment. This was more than just a fight between two teens. There were power and race sitting there like a couple of demons, letting the evil flow into my quiet suburban existence. I still ache for how terrible I feel that I didn’t stand up for Teegan then and there. That I didn’t break out of my cushy suburban existence and cry “foul!” when I saw evil on display. I should have done better.
When Jess and I were first married, we lived in Eastown in Grand Rapids. Those were great times for us. We were just figuring out what it meant to be adults. We were working our first jobs. We weren’t earning much, but we still look back on that first year with fondness because we didn’t really know how to spend money either. I’m pretty sure we saved over 20% of what we earned that year without trying. I know we haven’t been able to do that since.
We owned just one car. Jess took it to work down on 28th and Kalamazoo at the CRC Headquarters. I was working downtown, which was right along the bus route. In good weather, I’d ride my bike, but as fall turned into winter, I found myself riding the bus. I love public transportation. To this day, I try to figure out subways and buses in cities rather than trying a cab or Uber. As I waited for the bus, I’d keep an eye on anyone who was heading down the street. Most people would just pass me by without even making eye contact, but I noticed something about myself as I waited for the bus. When white men walked by, I really was never nervous, but if it was a black man? I’d worry. Not once did I ever have an issue with anyone. Never have I been robbed. Never did someone engage me in some weird conversation, but somewhere buried inside of me was racial fear – that somehow the one who didn’t look like me might try to take something from me. It was unfounded. It was unfair. It’s a sin I repented of then and by telling you this today, I continue my repentance. Buried deep within my safe, suburban existence was a fear of a segment of God’s children, and I needed to be healed of that fear. I was not racist the way a Klansman was, but I still had racism in my heart. It’s something for which I needed God’s healing.
In 2004 I took a group of Michigan students to a mission conference called Urbana that was hosted by Intervarsity at the University of Illinois. It was there that I attended a workshop led by a younger black woman – I don’t remember her name – and she spent the time we had talking about how Ephesians 2 had everything to do with the role of the church in racial reconciliation. “The dividing wall of hostility has been torn down,” Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus. Everything that separated people from God was obliterated. Everything that kept Gentiles and Jews separate was brought into perfect unity in Christ. “The dividing wall of hostility has been torn down,” she said, but what she meant is that the church had a mission to deliver that message to a world that is divided by race and class and sexuality and so much more. The radical grace of the good news of Jesus Christ is that we have brothers and sisters who look and act and speak totally differently from us, but we are a family all the same. The dividing wall of hostility was gone, and this is good news for the whole world.
I heard her words, and I started feeling some healing in my heart from all the ways I knew that I had built that wall up. For not standing up for Teegan. For not speaking up when others were the butt of racist jokes. For fearing the black man walking down the street while I waited for the bus. I started to realize that the church had a crucial role to play in delivering this good news and in living it out.
Elsewhere Paul writes that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). What radical and gracious news this is! All the labels we have given ourselves – Jew, Gentile, white, black, male, female, rich, poor – have found a unity and a peace in Jesus Christ. This is the great gift of the church to the world – that God has entrusted us with this message of grace and peace. Yet, it pains me to think that many churches are either disinterested in breaking down this dividing wall of hostility or that they’re OK with the status quo. This is not the gospel, and this is not the way of Christ. Churches should be better, including us.
Just two days ago in Rochester Hills, Michigan, only a few miles from where I recently lived, a 14-year-old young black man named Brennan Wright had missed his bus to Rochester High School. He was walking to school and stopped at a house on the way to ask directions. The homeowners answered the door, asked, “Why are you trying to break into my house?” while her husband grabbed a shotgun. Brennan took off running, and the man shot at him. Thank God that he missed.
“I’m kind of happy that I didn’t become a statistic,” Brennan later said. What a horrible thing for a 14-year-old to have to say, but he’s right. We have a race problem when a 14-year-old black youth can’t knock on the door in the suburbs and ask directions without being suspected of criminal activity. How long? How long must we sing this song? How long? How long?
Friends, in Jesus Christ, the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down. The wall between you and God? Gone. The wall between you and others who look or act differently than you? Gone. The wall between all of us has been obliterated by the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.
If you’re anything like me, you know you’re a work in progress. I still have work to do in my own life. I’m better than I was, but I haven’t arrived. I could do more. I could have more compassion on others who are calling out for justice. I could come alongside of them. I could seek relationships that foster justice in our community.
The church exists for healing. I hope you get a sense of that healing in your own lives. But I hope that you find yourselves yearning to bring that healing into our community and beyond. We can do better. And we will, Lord willing.