It was Saturday morning, only days after the Charleston shootings. As part of the Huntsville Dream Center, believers from different churches were spreading out in the community to celebrate fathers in the housing project, to mow grass for elderly widows, to hand out quarters in laundromats.
And to visit the lonely in nursing homes.
That’s where I found myself. I walked into Mrs. WL’s room where a visit was already in progress by two teenage ladies in our group, Shelby and Bella.
They were talking with Mrs. WL, an elderly African-American woman stretched out in bed, still in her nightgown, her breakfast tray untouched. But she was wide awake and talkative.
She told us about her tall son-in-law who could reach the top of the TV. She explained why she took organ lessons growing up in Birmingham. She insisted Shelby open a cabinet to see her stuffed dog.
But between these ordinary things, she’d ask us a question:
“Did you hear about that boy that killed all those people?”
Ugh. “Yes, ma’am. We did. So awful.”
Then she’d change the subject. Talk about her children. About her husband working at the post office. About receiving so many birthday cards she couldn’t count them all.
But then it would rise up again, clearly on her mind, something she couldn’t quite put to rest:
“Did you hear about the boy that shot those folks?”
Nervous sighing. “Yes, ma’am. Such a tragedy.”
By the third time, she didn’t let go so easily. She followed up with:
“Why? Why did he do that? Do you know?”
Ouch. “Well, not exactly.”
And then it fell, her final question, the zinger:
“Were those people black?”
I wanted to lie.
Would it be easier to take if it had been a white-on-white crime? Or black-on-black?
But it wasn’t, and even Mrs. WL, secured away in a nursing home with her short-term memory, could figure this out.
So we had to answer, honestly, “Yes, ma’am. They were black.”
Now she knew. She said what we hadn’t wanted to, visibly hanging her head as her words came out:
“Then I know why he did it.”
Wham. I wanted to crawl inside my pale skin and turn inside out.
I was embarrassed to be white.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m afraid you’re right. He had hatred in his heart. It was horrible what he did.”
Then Mrs. WL led us in a conversation about how skin color doesn’t matter. About how we’re all alike on the inside—or as she put it, “We all have the same guts.”
We all have the same heart. We all have the same God.
“Yes, the same God,” she repeated.
How many times have we all offended our God? Not by our skin, but by our hearts?
Maybe it’s not really about being white—or black—but about being human. About being flawed. About being offensive, whatever our color, whatever our prejudices.
We’re not all prejudiced against skin shade, but there are other things. There are always other things.
- Maybe we’re judgmental towards a neighbor we deem lazy.
- Or are disgusted by a sister’s poor relationship choices.
- Or bitter about a church system that hurt us low.
The object of our prejudice may differ.
But the verb is the same.
Our only solution is to let God determine our identity. Starting from the inside. Scrub us clean with his righteousness, until we’re declared perfect through his Son.
No one should feel disgust with how God made them on the outside: red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in his sight.
But our true identity—in Christ—goes far deeper. Shame can’t reach there.
Mrs. WL moved on to tell us about her cat Hazel. About liking the new Pope. About her pink “#1 Mom” pillow.
And about how pretty our two young ladies were. Over and over and over she told them.
Even more times than she’d asked about the boy killer, she complimented Shelby and Bella on how beautiful they were.
“You’re the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen,” she told them. “I hope you remember that!”
I hope they remember, too. Fearfully and wonderfully made. Exactly as they are. Exactly as we all are.
* * *
When have you been embarrassed about who you are? Let’s talk about this in the comments.
- We need to talk about white culture by Joshua DuBois
“But if we’re serious about preventing future tragedies, we must confront some very old demons. . . . My brothers and sisters from the majority culture—White Americans—need to have the courage to drive this dialogue, and help us find some answers.”
- Books I’m reading – June 2015
- Nothing but zeros? Put a 1 in front