The Healing Power of a Relationship (Part 2 of 3)
By Patrick Morley
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
Note: Some portions of this blog have been included in a previous blog.
A man was killed in Minneapolis. He was black. You’re upset. I’m upset. Black people are upset. White people are upset. People of every race, ethnicity, faith, class, and generation are upset. Of course, the killing of George Floyd was just the pin that popped a festered wound.
However, the predictable pattern is as troubling as it is repetitive: With a few exceptions, most of us will go from nearly zero engagement to full tilt but then, in a few weeks, back to roughly zero.
Is there any way to change that pattern? I think there is. The answer is what we might call “the healing power of a relationship.” How does that work?
At this week’s Bible study leader meeting, two of our African American leaders shared their very different stories as black men in America. One of our brothers said, “I appreciate being asked how I feel. This is the first time I’ve ever shared about this in a group setting.”
The effect was palpable. It’s a whole different kettle of fish when people you love and care about are being affected.
But what if you’re thinking, That’s just not my issue? Then I encourage you to read on.
The Problem: We Do Not Know Each Other
Growing up, I attended segregated public schools. As a result, I never actually knew a black person on a personal level until I was in the Army.
Then in the early 1970s, I became best friends with an African American named Tom Skinner.
When Tom and I first met, he was already talking to people about how to build racial bridges. He frequently said, “If you want to change your community, become to one person what you want your community to become, and that will create a model so powerful that others will be drawn to it.”
Honestly, I could have lived my whole life without knowing a black person with little consequence. So my unthinking response to racism had been apathy. And because most black people feel the apathy of white people, they understandably harbor anger. When you add the thoughtless and often open discrimination based on skin color, it’s no mystery why we have a problem.
As Tom often repeated, “The problem is that we do not know each other.”
How Do We Solve This Problem?
So Tom and I got to know each other. We both played tennis and we both loved theology, so we started hanging out around our mutual interests.
As we spent more and more time together, we increasingly had the courage to tackle uncomfortable, complex topics and share what we really thought. We found that when we didn’t judge, rebuke, correct, or dismiss each other’s experiences or motives, we started trusting each other to go deeper. We both genuinely wanted to better understand each other.
Here’s why this is so important: When we don’t actually know someone who is different, all our information is based on hearsay and stereotypes. It’s just natural to be suspicious of someone we don’t know when they are “different” in some significant way—whether that’s education level, income bracket, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. We all do it. It happens all the time.
So what’s the solution?In the same way a deep physical cut cannot heal until the two separated parts are brought into contact with each other, neither can our deep racial divisions heal until we are brought into contact with each other.Click To Tweet
As Tom and I listened to each other and became friends, an interesting thing happened. Tom helped take away my apathy, and I helped take away his anger.
THE BIG IDEA: All the programs in the world pale in comparison to the strategy of two people from different backgrounds sitting down and getting to know each other.
One of the questions we should be asking is, “Do I know someone of a different race well enough to experience the healing power of conversation with them?”
But you may wonder, Is this really a Christian duty? The answer may surprise you.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
This question of whether or not we really know each other takes on biblical proportion: Am I my brother’s keeper? And who is my brother? The Bible has a lot to say about our obligations to each other. My personal favorite is 1 John 4:20-21, which says:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
So, who is my brother? First and foremost, anyone who is “in Christ” is your brother, according to Galatians 3:28-29:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
At an even more basic level, everyone is my brother and sister. We are all sons and daughters of Noah through Shem, Ham, or Japheth. From Shem came the Semitic people, the Jews. From Ham came the dark-skinned Africans and Canaanites. From Japheth came the fair-skinned Europeans. We are literally all related biologically. We come from the same bloodline.
Finally, and most importantly, every human being is created in the Imago Dei, the image of God. A human being is the full expression of God’s creative genius. To dishonor any human being is to dishonor the One who made them.
A Relationship: The Most Powerful Force in the World
In 1980, we had a small racial incident here in Orlando, but it was big enough to make the evening news. With the help of my black professor friend, we called a meeting that was attended by 10 black men and 10 white men. We all agreed that we wanted to take a next step, but there was disagreement about what the next step should be. Half wanted to do a task. The other half wanted to build relationships. We decided that first we needed to really know each other.
We met one Saturday morning each month for the next five years. We called ourselves “The Black/White Fellowship.” At first it was understandably awkward. But frankly that only lasted a minute. We all wanted it to be a safe place, and soon everyone was sharing openly and honestly.
As it turned out, instead of doing one task, we did many. Over those five years, we met financial needs, helped the poor, repaired houses, assisted with medical needs, sent men to seminary, and started ministries. And it all happened because we got to know each other.
We Help People We Care About
One of our biggest takeaways was that we are all far more likely to help someone we know and care about than a stranger.
Picture yourself driving by a funeral home with a funeral in progress. You glance that way. The hearse and dark clothing evoke a feeling of sympathy that grabs your heart for a few seconds, but then you arrive at your destination and your attention turns to other things.
But what if, instead, you were inside the funeral home? What if you knew the deceased personally, or an uncle or nephew or daughter of the deceased? What if you saw the family and friends hugging, laughing, and weeping together? Quite a different story, right?
We all agree—systemic changes are needed across the board to address racial injustice and disparities. But that is job #2.
Job #1 is building relationships. Because if we’re just doing a “drive by,” our attentions will soon turn to other things.
So how can Christians—of all races—respond to the ongoing issues surrounding racism?
In my lifetime, we have made a huge amount of progress in this country, but racism is still a very thick wall. At times, it might feel like the problem is so big and so complex that we’re powerless to do anything about it, but can I show you how you can make a difference, both individually and as a leader?
Some Practical Steps You Can Take Right Now
- SELF-REFLECTION: Ask yourself honestly, “Am I willing to be intentional in building relationships with men who are racially different than me?”
- SELF-EXAMINATION: In the recent discussions you’ve participated in, watched, or read about race, ask yourself honestly, “What are the parts of this conversation that bother me the most? Why?”
- PERSONAL ACTION: Call someone of a different race to check in on them before the week is over. Ask them how they are feeling and what you can do support them. Don’t add your opinion, disagree, or offer a solution. Just listen.
- ONE CUP OF COFFEE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD: Subject to your community’s reopen rules, invite a man of a different race for lunch or coffee this week. Exchange details about your families, work, and interests. Share your faith stories. Ask him to share his own personal experiences with racism, if he’d like to do so. Just listen.
- WHAT IF YOU GET TURNED DOWN? Some men are receptive and ready to break out of their comfort zones. Others are not. Don’t take it personally if a man isn’t as far along the continuum of receptivity as you are. And don’t say, “Well, I tried.” Rather, keep asking until someone says, “Yes.”
- INVOLVE YOUR FAMILY: Subject to your community’s reopen rules, invite a family of another race to your home for dinner. If it’s just adults, then listen to each other’s stories. If you bring the kids, just focus on having fun together.
- EDUCATE YOURSELF: Ask yourself these questions: “Am I humble enough to admit I don’t understand fully what’s going on? If so, how can I educate myself about the issues of systemic racism and personal prejudice? And who can I talk to about getting that education?”
- STAY ENGAGED AFTER A FEW WEEKS: Pray for God to show you what you can personally do to make a difference after most people’s engagement goes back to near zero.
- CONNECT WITH CHANGE AGENTS: Ask yourself, “Who in my community can effect change? Is there any reason not to connect with them?”
- MEN’S LEADERS: Contact the leader of a men’s group from a church with a different racial makeup than your own and plan a service project or fun activity together. (We did a Fish n’ Grits dinner here that was a home run.)
Based on several decades of working on and off in this field, I can assure you nothing will change just because we think this is really important. Or because we really want it. Or because it the right thing to do.
Rather, change is only going to happen if you and I are intentional about getting to know each other. Brothers, the relationship is the task.THE BIG IDEA: All the programs in the world pale in comparison to the strategy of two people from different backgrounds sitting down and getting to know each other.Click To Tweet
Yours for changed lives,