By Paul Louis Metzger
The church in Northeast Portland was packed that hot, sunny afternoon a summer ago for the funeral of a leading African American minister’s wife. At one point in the service, a friend of the deceased spoke of the disease that killed her friend—lupus.* The woman spoke of her own battle with the disease. Eighteen pills a day for years. She spoke passionately about the need to fight against the disease, which has ravaged the African American community—especially women. Women of color are 2-3 times more susceptible to lupus than their Caucasian counterparts.** She also mentioned the widespread ignorance of the disease and how for years no one spoke about it due to the stigma. There is still no cure.***
The person who next spoke at the funeral asked the hundreds of mourners gathered there that day to raise their hands if they or someone they knew had the disease. Many raised their hands. I didn’t because I couldn’t. I didn’t know of anyone who had the disease. Or maybe I do know someone who bears this burden, but they have not confided in my wife or me. I wish I could have raised my hand—not in some morbid sense, but in a relational sense. When one part of the body grieves, the whole body of Christ grieves (1 Cor. 12:26).
Why don’t I know? Do you know anyone with lupus? Just because one doesn’t know someone with lupus doesn’t mean some people aren’t enduring the disease; it doesn’t mean the disease has ceased to exist.
The African American Christian community in the greater Portland area had come out in large numbers that day in support of my minister friend and his family at the historic African American church. I was one of a handful of Whites. I think that one reason I am not sufficiently aware of the disease is because I lack sufficient contact with those who endure it. I lack a sufficient relational network made up of diverse peoples.
Now I want to transition from talking about lupus to talking about racism. You might be surprised by this move. For one, lupus is not a sin; racism is. Moreover, lupus cannot be transmitted; racism can—by word of mouth, among other things. Furthermore, one cannot do anything to guard against contracting lupus, but one can guard against contracting and transmitting racism. So, why make this transition?
I think one reason for my lack of awareness about lupus is because of my racialized past and present. I have often lived separately from people of diverse backgrounds. I have attended churches that are most often white by complexion. I am not saying that my nuclear and ecclesial families of my upbringing are racist, but we are creatures of homogeneous habit—living and associating with those most like us. While this is normal, it doesn’t make it right. Living in white neighborhoods and attending white churches and going to white schools and attending only white people’s funerals (how could it be otherwise when we only associate with our own kind—whatever our ethnic background) incubate us and remove us from experiencing the struggles and keep us from encountering the joys of diverse others. I am not saying that we have intentionally sought to be exclusive, but we have not done nearly enough to be intentionally inclusive. We have not done nearly enough to break out of homogeneous ways that at some point in the past were likely shaped by intentional patterns of exclusion.
As I stated above about lupus, I think that one reason I am not sufficiently aware of the disease is because I lack sufficient contact with those who endure it. I lack a sufficient relational network made up of diverse peoples. The same goes for my lack of awareness of the disease called racism. Just because I/we don’t know anyone who has the disease of racism, it doesn’t mean people aren’t enduring or transmitting it. It doesn’t mean the disease of racism doesn’t exist. Perhaps those who carry this disease simply remain quiet about it. Perhaps they don’t even know they’re carriers. Perhaps I am a victim of this disease, too, and I don’t even know it.
So many people tell me today that racism no longer exists. They profess, too, that they themselves are not racists. We can only say such things when we lack exposure to those who carry the disease of racism, or when we fail to undergo a thorough check-up. How would we know if we do or don’t carry the disease of racism, if we do not have sufficient contact with diverse others? Sharing life with people who are different from us brings out the best and worst in us. We can never become immune to a disease if we do not have opportunity to build up immunity through exposure to bacteria—the bacteria that is within our own souls as we prejudge people based on their skin color and all of the associations that are made in relation to it.
If we want to be cured of our racialized history and experience in America, we need to do more than hug a black or white person. Don’t worry: you won’t catch what ills each of us from simply hugging someone who is different from you. But we will never cure what ills us if we don’t do more than hug one another. We need to share life with one another.
How many of you experience racism, or know someone who does? If so, raise your hand. Maybe you know or are someone who carries the disease, but there has never been an opportunity to share. Just because we don’t know doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Ignorance is not bliss. One cannot transmit lupus, but one can transmit racism through what we communicate to our children, to the little jokes we share, to failing to speak up when others make racial jokes, or by failing to share life with people of other ethnic backgrounds, seemingly immune to their stories.
But their stories are our stories. We may not all be susceptible to lupus, but we are susceptible to grief and death, stigma and shame, the fear of isolation and hopelessness. What we need is a longing for joy and the courage to hope. I came away that day from the memorial service with a sense of sorrow, but also with a sense of greater resilience. What we need is one another. Who will attend your funeral when you die? While you won’t be there to know, you can do a lot now to make it more likely that more than your own ethnic kind will be there.
The reason why I attended the African American minister’s late wife’s funeral is because he is my personal friend. We have shared struggles together. We have shared meals together. We have worked together. He has served as a mentor to me, and I am so honored to know him as my friend. God has used him in my life to move me one step closer to catching the love that Jesus gives—a love that breaks down our defenses of hate and indifference and tolerance so that we might love boldly and serve as his healing touch as we embrace one another as friends.
*In case you’re like me and didn’t know what lupus is, here’s a definition: “Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body)… Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening and should always be treated by a doctor. With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life.” (See here.)
***For more concerning the research and treatment of the disease, see here.