Pointing in a New Direction
An open letter from Brian McLaren to The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. To read Jacqui's previous letter to Brian, click here.
Thanks so much for sharing some of your story with me. While you were growing up Black in Middle America, I was growing up White on the East Coast.
My dad was the son of missionaries to Africa. He was born in the US while his parents were on furlough. As a boy he lived in Angola and went to school in Zambia before living briefly in Scotland and then finishing high school in Canada.
His dream was to be a doctor, and he and my mom met at a youth camp that brought together young people from their denomination, the Plymouth Brethren. After Dad finished medical school and a stint in the US military during the Korean War, he and mom settled in upstate New York. There Dad worked in public health and there I was born. We moved to Illinois, then back to New York, and then to Maryland, where I spent most of my life in an environment of racial diversity.
One of my many fond childhood memories of my dad was his love for the evening news with Walter Cronkite. After dinner many nights, while Mom (in traditional 1960’s fashion) cleaned the kitchen, Dad required my brother and me to join him on the couch to hear the global and national headlines, the stock market report, the weather. I would have rather been playing outside, but he told me that I needed to understand the world … from John Glenn blasting off into space to men walking on the moon, from JFK and RFK being shot to “women’s lib” and bra burnings and Woodstock, from Selma to Resurrection City to the assassination of Dr. King. “You’d better watch this, boys,” he’d say. “This is history being made in your lifetime.”
One of the realities of growing up white and privileged was that I didn't have to think about race the way you did. But my dad helped burst that fragile bubble by making me pay attention to the evening news.
Even more important was the example my parents set.
In the early 1960’s, our church was segregated. If a Black family showed up at our chapel on a Sunday morning, they would be politely but firmly referred to one of the “colored assemblies” across town. I remember being taught in Sunday School that segregation was God’s will and interracial marriage was a sin.
But my parents told me they disagreed with our church policy. In fact, they frequently took us to the “colored assemblies” to hear special speakers. We always received a warm welcome there (and the preaching and singing were way more lively too). In the late 1960’s, when a Black family began attending our church, my parents were the first to invite them to our home for dinner.
I remember as a teenager asking my Dad where he got beyond the prejudice that was standard among most white people we knew. It wasn’t that he grew up in Africa, he told me. (Sadly, many missionaries brought their prejudices with them.) Nor did he learn equality in the white Christian subculture of Christian books, music, radio, and TV; there, racism was considered a “political” topic so it was avoided or denied - much like climate change, economic inequality, LGBTQ equality, and white privilege are still largely avoided or denied today. It was the Army, he said, where he had worked with people of all races and learned first-hand that all people were equal.
Looking back, I realize that it was public school where I experienced what my dad experienced in the Army. In my integrated K-12 education, multi-racial friendships gave me first-hand knowledge that contradicted the myths and lies that were dominant in white culture, including white church culture. (As I write these words, I can’t help but lament the fact that many white Christian families still actively oppose public schools and work hard to shield their children from friendships across lines of race, religion, and class.)
So Jacqui, while you were growing up learning about racism from the vantage point of your skin color and all that entailed, I was growing up experiencing it from the vantage point of my skin color with all it entailed. Thankfully, my parents in their quiet, hospitable way, pointed in a better direction.
And thankfully, today you and I enjoy deep friendship with one another and with friends from many races and religions. Through these friendships we can seek to demonstrate a better way of life - a way of love, solidarity, collaboration, respect, justice, generosity, and mutual liberation.
I know we’ve both been grieving a lot this year … grieving that racism still buzzes like a hornet’s nest in so many sectors of white America, stirred up by unscrupulous politicians for partisan advantage. It infuriates me to think that white parents in 2016 still pass on various forms of racism, covert or overt, to their children. And it breaks my heart to think that parents with precious children of Native American, African American, Latino, Asian, Arab, and other descent still have to worry about how their children will be treated by the white majority.
So I agree with you: I hope people will vote in record numbers in this election, and I hope they will refuse to reward with their vote any parties or politicians who don’t understand and oppose those old scripts of prejudice. The more politicians stir up fear and hate, the more determined we must be to stand with love … and to vote with love.
I’m so grateful for bold and creative pastors like you who are getting this message out. And I’m so glad that friendships like ours can model the kind of partnerships needed in our faith communities, our nation, and our world.
- (2014) We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation
- (2016) The Great Spiritual Migration
To read Jacqui's previous letter to Brian, click here.