Home Editor's Choice Adventures in Crossing the Racial Divide

Adventures in Crossing the Racial Divide

My first two years in Madison, at least by typical metrics, were a success.

My mother congregation, Community of Life, sent me to plant a church in the the zip code of 53713, the most diverse zip code in Dane County. God quickly opened up doors to connect with the Leopold neighborhood, and soon our fledgling church was helping start community gardens, leading family crock-pot cooking classes, and partnering with the police to host block parties. I didn’t want to look like a drive by ‘do-gooder,’ so I chose to live within a quarter mile of the local school, Aldo Leopold Elementary.

Yet despite all the work I did, virtually everyone in my personal circle looked just as white as myself. I’ll wager my experience is shared by many of my fellow community workers. This is the beginning of my journey to change that reality – and then I want to inquire a bit about your journey as well.

At the time, everyone in my social network came from the same type of upbringing, played the same kind of board games, and celebrated the same flavor of micro-brews. Not surprisingly, the makeup of my new church wasn’t much different. We had a touch more diversity in ages, but still, MLK’s quote that ‘the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” still rang true.

For years, I had preached how beautiful and diverse the church was meant to be, yet two years after starting my own congregation, my day-to-day activities were just as segregated as the rest of the country. It quickly became clear that the reason I wasn’t doing life with people of color was because the places I chose to do life were all safe, white spaces. The activities I enjoyed were all predominantly white activities.

Sadly, I came to realize most of my friendships with my “neighbors” could be characterized as patronizing. Not in the overt sense of condescension, mind you, but in the root of the word, a patron, or someone who gives aid to another. There was no equity in my relationships with my community, hence the relationships were shallow at best.

After that convicting epiphany, I realized the only solution to the problem was changing my way of life. Not just for a day, a week, or until it became uncomfortable, but a full shift in how I spent my free time.

First, I needed to figure out where the men of color spent time in my community. The answer in hindsight seems obvious, but the local basketball court was the spot.

This terrified me.

At the time I regularly worked out, but I’m the most deceptively unathletic person you’ll probably ever meet. If it wasn’t in the water, I’m straight-up atrocious at sports, and basketball was the bottom of the barrel in terms of skill level. Showing up at a court meant going to a place where I had no skills, didn’t know the language, and no one looked like me. No one would want me on their team. I didn’t want me on my team.

Still, I went and played, and it was a great experience. Not because I was good – I was still truly awful – but it gave me a perspective of what it meant to be an outsider. Eventually the older men of color in the neighborhood began teaching me how to shoot a lay up and what rules I needed to follow. They became my patrons.

Others became friends, and we helped each other move, celebrated holidays together, and I even became a godfather. But that’s a story for another day.

Last week, I was talking to a Madison principal, and she mentioned a presenter who talked about the “hallpass of good intentions.” She was referring to how we have so many good-hearted people (often white), whose attempts to help often only widen the gaps of segregation.

If we’re going to move forward, we’ll need to do it together. This series, Adventures in Crossing the Racial Divide, is my attempt to catalog what I’ve learned from my community, how I’m attempting to move beyond myself, and how much fuller life is when we embrace the rich diversity in our county.  

Yet I also want this to be a conversation, so here’s my question, what intimidates you most about moving beyond your own culture?