I went backwards in time to remind myself of some important things over the weekend. I finished reading a book that influenced me profoundly when I was a teenager.
In 1959 a white man by the name of John Howard Griffin decided to pigment his skin black and then try to experience the world of ‘another’ in the deep south. His book is called “Black Like Me”. Somehow or another I ran across it when I was in very early adolescence and was struck hard by both his courage and the mind numbing reality of racism.
Growing up in northern Wisconsin race was not a big part of our life. Most everyone was white. As a result our prejudices (and there were many) were shared and became our version of normal. There was two black families in our town and several handfuls of native Americans. When I was in high school Cuban immigrants started coming to our high school in very small numbers. I knew children from one of the black families and remember, at age 12, (perhaps after reading the book) to do what I could do to befriend the boy closest to my age. His name was Earl. We spent a day together and soon realized that we really didn’t have much in common so best friends was not our destiny but we always remained friendly. Thus, my first excursion into racial reconciliation.
I remember hearing that John Howard Griffin would be lecturing at what was then called Superior State University. Just 14, I wandered over and took my seat in an auditorium to listen to his story. To this day, I don’t remember much about what he said but just being there, in that room seemed important to me.
Before my freshman year in college I spent time with some other ‘work study’ types on campus. We were trying to earn enough money to actually attend classes. It was my first real experience of multi-culturalism. It was pretty clear that all of us on campus were poor and it was a diverse crew of folks. White folk, urban Black, Puerto Ricans, Bahamians, and residents of Hong Kong. That was the summer of 1968. Eugene McCarthy (an alum)visited the campus this summer I remember, even replacing me in softball game I decided to blow off. I still recall watching the Democratic convention with this mixed group of friends and we all wondered aloud how what we were watching would impact our society.
When our summer was over our little community broke apart. It split along racial lines pretty much. Nothing nasty. Still little nods to each other and occasional conversation but the ‘times were changing’ for sure. And I remember thinking how sad it all was.
Rereading ‘Black Like Me’ reminded me of those days and more. It helped inform the rest of my life.
Sometimes when I look around me I realize how blessed I am to have friends and acquaintances who are different than I am. And I realize that the blessing has happened because God is continually nudging me in the direction of the original vision he planted in my teenage heart. Why is it that I quit law school and started to volunteer at a south side Minneapolis boys club? Why did God drop me into the middle of the San Joaquin Valley where I allowed myself to be loved on by a group of Mexican-American kids, or why was Hug High School in Reno (the poorest of them all) the place where God decided to start Young Life in the state of Nevada? Why Evanston and why the south side of that city? Why Breakthrough?
I think God planted something deep in my heart. It’s like He’s saying over and over and over again something important about the Body of Christ and what my role in it is supposed to be as he seeks to create His version of the Beloved Community.
I went back to my future I think when I reread “Black Like Me”. The reminder of some early whispers of God and his unfailing attention to remind me of those murmurings throughout my life is greatly encouraging. But I'm also realizing that God isn't done with me. He's planted something deep inside of me for a reason. There's a purpose behind what He continues to do. It's quite humbling and invigorating.