How We Learned about Race and Racial Reconciliation (and You Can, Too): Part 2, Early Lessons about Race at Church and through Relationships

In my previous post, I mentioned our early learning about race received a huge boost from joining an African-American church in Waukegan and from our relationship with the Whiteheads. When I was discussing this time with my wife, Cheryl, we remember learning a few things during those first two years.

We Began to Notice Our Race

One of the striking points that we remember was noticing our race. At church, we were a White family surrounded by African-American families. We felt conspicuous in a way that we had not felt, even in our previous church (a Chinese church). Perhaps it was because we were reading and thinking about race. In any case, we began to think about what it might feel like to be an African-American in so many of their life experiences.

We had the opportunity to visit African-American neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. I remember going to a funeral, visiting the family of one of my students, and eating at a Harold’s Chicken. In all three cases, I was one of the only White people, and I felt strangely visible in a way that I had not felt before.

We Began to Notice Our Culture and the Culture of Those around Us

Our experiences at church, in our neighborhood, and through our growing relationships helped to immerse us in a different culture. These experiences highlighted our own culture and the culture of those around us. Church was a good bit longer, the music was more energetic, and the congregation responded to the pastor during the sermons. We are not musical people. It was challenging for us to sing, clap, and move back and forth all at the same time. We were probably entertaining to watch. The choir leader saw my frequent struggle to keep time with the music. She graciously gave me a CD with the songs that the choir was learning so that I could listen to it during my daily commute to work. She encouraged me to turn up the volume of my radio, look for the beat, and to try to keep time with it. This is how I discovered artists that I love to this day, like Fred Hammond and Yolanda Adams. When I feel down and discouraged, I go looking for them.

The pastor gave me opportunities to preach and started to coach me about how to preach in this new context. He encouraged me to listen to the responses that I was getting and to leave opportunities for people to respond. These preaching opportunities changed how I preached and how I was teaching my classes at school. The pastor asked me if I was excited about the Bible and what it had to say. I said, “Yes.” He replied, “Then you should preach that way.”

I had to learn at least one new handshake. It is hard to explain, but the men at the church exchanged a handshake that was not something that I had ever seen before. One of the men saw how confused I looked when one of the other men tried to initiate such a handshake with me. He grabbed me after church and asked me if I would like some tutoring. He was very patient and probably quite amused by the number of attempts that it took for me to become somewhat proficient. I felt so good the next week when the same man came up to me and I was able to initiate the handshake. This sounds like a small thing, but it was a step in helping me feel like I was starting to connect and fit in.

I did not have any good suits to wear, and no black suit at all. One of the other ministers noticed this and told me that I needed a black suit to wear if I was going to be sitting with the other ministers. He invited me to come by the clothing store where he worked. He gave me one of his own suits, and had it tailored for me. I still have it, and it is still the nicest suit that I own. I think of him every time that I put it on. It makes me feel like a million bucks, as the saying goes!

These are just a few examples of what we were learning. We remember thinking that church was a kind of adventure in a way that we had not experienced before. So many fond memories!