The Great Divide

Recently, 11 of us New Wine interns and students at both the college and seminary at Multnomah made a week long trip down to Jackson, Mississippi to work with the John M. Perkins Foundation and learn from those who have both lived through the Civil Rights movement and who are now key players in community development and reconciliation. The core of racism runs deep, and it wasn’t until I was in Jackson, hearing these people’s stories of discrimination and oppression that I began to understand what they not only wrestle with on a daily basis but also the challenges we all face today in addressing this race and class oppression.

After reading Dr. Perkins’ book Let Justice Roll Down, meeting with him personally in Jackson, and hearing his daughter among others speak about her experiences with racism, I was overwhelmed. It’s amazing how much more powerful a story it is when one hears it firsthand–when one hears their voices fluctuate and their muscles tighten and their body language transform. It was heavy hearing it, and it certainly was heavy for them to share. I felt a mix of guilt for feeling so detached and disconnected from these real issues, helplessness for really not even knowing where to start, and conviction–oppression and poverty in many ways demand redemptive action from us all.

One night it hit me in a personal way. About the 3rd night in Jackson, we had just finished watching Mississippi Burning, the true story about the disappearance of civil rights workers in the ’60s. My heart was heavy and I was overwhelmed as I laid down on my bottom bunk and stared up at the old wooden beams, feeling completely spent. These people here with the faces, the stories, the pains, the memories, the reality, are still affected by and still facing much of the same evil I had just witnessed in that movie. You may be thinking, “They need to get over it.” But how can they get over it, when it is still happening to them?

I should call my parents, I thought. Fill them in, share with them what I’m learning and the heaviness of this deep issue–the segregation and bigotry that is still a challenge to overcome in 2008. So I called. They eagerly put me on speaker phone, and started buzzing me with questions. But their interest seemed to quickly wane. I was so weary from the processing, from the stories of individuals who experienced the Civil Rights movement, and from my own experience with us coming from Portland trying to “help,” that I didn’t even know how to articulate what I wanted to say. “Racism is deep. Black people are still being oppressed. The education here is lacking. Jobs are scant. Opportunities are rare. It is no mystery why the poor areas are also the black areas. This isn’t right. And it’s amazing what the Perkins Foundation has committed to do.” I wanted to say something to that affect. But instead I sounded like a drone, and I felt so disconnected. I could tell they didn’t really want to hear it. At least not right at that moment.

“So, what do you mean by racism?” I am asked. “Are you calling it racism just because there are a lot of black people–and no whites–in the poor community?” Innocent questions–but still frustrating–after I have been speaking with individuals for whom racism is more a part of their lives than anything. This is the painful reality: to the majority of us white folk, we don’t even “get” racism. What does it look like now? Does it even have a face anymore?

Going to Mississippi, racism and the related issues became real to me. Yes, there was desegregation back in the 60’s. But today, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. It’s also about 80% black. There is need for change there. It’s not a quick fix. There is literally a black and white divide across the railroad tracks in Jackson. They are still deeply separated. What struck me most is that reconciliation and development for blacks takes intention and resources. Without the conviction that yes, there is something to be done, nothing will happen. As Bob Lupton, an Atlanta community developer, says in an article by Michael Barkey on Dr. John M. Perkins, “It’s not hard to create a ghetto. Just remove the capable neighbors. To produce a substandard school system, withdraw the students of achieving parents. To create a culture of chronically dependent people, merely extract the upwardly mobile role models from the community. That’s what happened to thousands of communities across the United States.” And this is exactly what I witnessed in Jackson. But the invigorating reality is that change is possible; it just takes awareness and solidarity among various groups. This need is not confined to Jackson; the need can be found even in Portland, OR, the whitest major city in America. Whether it knows it or not, Portland is begging for reconciliation and opportunity for all individuals, not simply for the privileged and white. As followers of a liberating Christ, I believe it is our call to respond to these challenges. I welcome your thoughts.

6 Responses to “The Great Divide”

  1. anon, ed ma. Says:

    Kelsi,

    i always wonder why Racism seems to denote only a Black- and- white divide.

    I observed that in the Pacific Northwest, the Mex and the Hispanics are also discriminated but are not given such emphasis- and probably so are the Asians. Their plight is hardly printed in the papers except young Hispanics, or Asians, involved in gangs.

    i learned from my daughter’s Grade 6 class that historically, Portland, if i remember right, seemed to be a place where the term “Shanghai-ed” was coined. I guess it has something to do with slave labor of Chinese immigrants.

    Dr. Metzger’s book highlighted not only the blacks struggling to regain their dignity but also the other cultures and races that came to America and are pursuing the American Dream. I believe this is important to emphasize because even in 1890s, the national hero of the Philippines commented as he travelled America: “America is a land par excellence for freedom… but only for the whites.” Thus, every other color and race were thrashed then as oftentimes still now, although maybe in lesser places and in more subtle ways.

    But this is the very irony that i think John Perkins noted in Mississipi: the white Christian missionaries were willing to go to the ends of the earth to bring the Gospel- to the African blacks, to the Asian Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, etc. etc.- but they were unwilling to cross the street to shake hands and break bread with their African-American neighbors. Such hypocrisy had stigmatized the Gospel message.

    On the other hand, the effort to reach out to present-day “visible minorities” have largely been confined to the African-Americans. Why is that?

    The efforts at reconciliation, reconstruction and development follow the Chinese adage: “One generation plants a tree and another enjoys its shade.”

    In regard to your thoughts about the heaviness and weariness of this racism yoke upon the white race, remember our Prophets class last term (Dr. Kim)? The Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel (18:2) saying, “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

    Thanks for being so graciously candid about your thoughts on Mississipi and Dr. Perkins. It still is… burning!

    SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI!

  2. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    Thanks, Kelsi. I too felt a weight that I could not bear alone. I searched for solidarity and consolation and found it difficult even then to release feelings of guilt, anxiety and pain. I agree with the previous comment, also, that we find it easier to go to far off places to :help” others and yet cannot manage as Christians to reconcile ourselves even among other American churches. I find it hard to love those nearest me, those who throw our broken dreams in my face, those who suffer from that which gives me greater advantage. And the truth is we do benefit from the suffering of others; across the world, across the globe and across town. It only seems to really come home, our responsibility and mandate to love and reconcile, when its in our front yard. I know I couldn’t fully understand until I sat on the front porch of our volunteer house in Jackson watching dilapidated cars drive by one after another without seeing a white face inside. I got a glimpse of what racism does and is doing as stories were told around those big tables each morning by John, Wayne and Elizabeth. Now at home, I sense its pressure on Lombard or on 82nd, that same tension, the same sort of burning.

  3. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    Ronaldo, thank you for commenting on racism taking different forms and being broader than just the African American community. I know for one, that I grew up in Central Washington, and none of my friends would consider themselves racist, because we didn’t use the n word or hate black people. But these same folks, myself included wouldn’t even stop to think for a second and make slurs about hispanics, who have traditionally been helpers on farms in Eastern Washington.

    I remember once being on a bus and making a comment that I had never thought would be hurtful to anyone, and realizing that I had highly offended my hispanic bus driver, who knew that I was a Christian and that my parents were leaders in my church.

    Last year I worked on a berry farm loading boxes onto trucks. I was the only white boy in the field, and in the first couple of days found myself having to confront a number of stereotypes and fears that I had held about the hispanic community. I was reading Dr. Perkin’s autobiography at the time and was quite convicted that I had been harboring racism without recognizing it.

    Even after that, it is something that I have to constantly check myself on. Just the other day I was at an event, helping set up and had a number of kids from the areas(all minorities) offer to help. My first thought before I had even begun to process was “can they be trusted, what if they steal the stuff?” It is in these thoughts that our racism begins, and is something that we must constantly confront with the truth of the Gospel, which tells us that we are reconciled, and that in Jesus there is no divider between Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female(rich or poor, white or black or brown or otherwise).

  4. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    Speaking on the subject of racism here in the Northwest, I stumbled across a story from a community blog I read that I thought I would share.

    The other day on the bus I was shamelessly eavesdropping on a conversation that almost made me cry. The bus was crowded and the speakers were standing in the aisle right next to me, but still, it was eavesdropping. I’m glad I did it, though — but I can’t get it out of my head and I’d so much like to know your thoughts . . .

    A young TriMet operator in uniform was talking with another, older, man who was not in uniform but was clearly a fellow employee. “Younger” (who was Asian) was on his way to his route and “Older” (who was Caucasian) was asking him how he was doing as a relatively new employee. They chatted a moment and then, in reply to some remarks Older made about the stress of driving routes, Younger confided that he was having a bit of a hard time dealing with race-based comments that he received.

    Older expressed surprise. Younger offered a few examples, such as “Well, ya earned yer rice today, huh?!” Older replied, “Oh well, that doesn’t happen very often.” The look on Younger’s face suggested that (a) yes, it did; and (b) once or twice can be as grating as multiple times. Then Older cheerfully concluded, “And most people aren’t like that.”

    I just felt like this fits with the current discussion of how it may be shaped differently but even here in Portland there are issues of racism to be addressed.

  5. Kelsi Johns Says:

    That blog excerpt depicts perfectly how we tend to undermine and justify racism! I can only imagine how that young employee must have felt: completely invalidated, unheard and told that offensive comments towards him are not only insignificant and “unusual” but he is also foolish for letting them affect him. I believe that this represents the problem of racism today: it’s not really that big of an issue–sure it still exists, but “most people aren’t like that”. So the grand economic and social chasm, the painful and perpetuated stereotypes, and the fear, misunderstanding and alienation isn’t “that big of a deal”? This strikes a chord with me because I feel like the mindset of Older on the bus is exactly what perpetuates the ignorance and oppression that spreads like wildfire and perpetuates from generation to generation.

  6. anon, ed ma. Says:

    Racism, huh?

    The problem is ignorance and apathy:

    “I don’t know… and I don’t care.”

    Theologically, the Dispensationalists amongst us would say, “Why even bother fighting it, exposing it, ranting and raving against it; there will be a new heaven and new earth and we are to suffer in this world of tribulations. Some day, after Rapture, there will be no more tears, no more racism. After all, this is not our home, we are just a-passing through.”

    The Covenantists amongst us would wince at that remark.

    The point is: every individual acts according to his/ her motive power, according to his/ her set of beliefs and idiosyncracies and prejudices, and especially faith.

    Thanks, B.D., for being so forthright and honest about your own personal experiences.

    Personally, i have long resigned myself to being condescended to by my white Caucasian brothers and sisters who seem to think that it is strange for an Asian like me to entertain thoughts and notions that are largely confined to the brilliant Caucasian minds. Far too often, i feel ignored and being given an indifferent if civil attitude as if i have no right, by virtue of the color of my skin in this part of America, to achieve, to excel, to think. My color of skin is judged more than the content of my character or the thoughts of my brain.

    Let me quote Shakespeare, Shylock’s Speech from Merchant of Venice:

    “He hath disgraced me, hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, and what is his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, passions, affections? fed by the same food? hurt by the same weapons? warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

    The context is that pound per pound of flesh and ounce per ounce of blood, we are equals at the foot of the cross at the feet of the Risen Lamb. And far too often, even especially painfully among Christians, there is the forgetting that we all are recipients of grace. We cannot condescend, we cannot be indifferent, we cannot ignore but as Paul said, “in humility, consider others better than ourselves.”

    Your Hispanic migrant worker, your Asian bus driver, your African-American friend, they hurt with either the stereotyping or the condescension this side of heaven. I wonder how you would see them in heaven.

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