I used to hate the word lonely. Where I came from, to say you were lonely was to admit weakness. Even to utter the word was to confess vulnerability. You were exposed, out of control. And maybe a little incompetent. God forbid a white, educated, middle-class woman from the great American West should be incompetent!
I could not let the word lonely squeak past my lips for years. In my teens, it wasn’t included in my vocabulary. Now at forty, I know that to say the word lonely is simply honest.
I need people. Honest. Truth is, I am not self-sufficient, though I used to think so. I am not able to handle life alone. Never have, never will. All-American independence is a myth. And a sin.
What is real, I’ve learned, is that we’ve been created with an inherent need to have flesh, bones, and language surrounding us in breathing, feeling containers scientists call homo sapiens. I have other, more recognizable names for them: friends, spouses, neighbors, sisters, peers, colleagues, grandmas, allies, pastors, brothers, bosses, coaches, teachers, nieces, and so on. They come in little, big, wide, or thin sizes and are brown, pale, dark, gray, or yellow on the outside. As long as there’s red blood running through them and a heart that’s pumping it from head to toe, they qualify. Human beings. Friends. People. Community. God’s masterpiece. I need them. It’s the plain and simple truth.
Puritan writer Nathaniel Hawthorne said it as if he knew me: “It contributes greatly towards a [wo]man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little of his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.”
And so I got out of suburbia’s grip, the one that often mistakes space, grass, and big houses for “the good life” and went searching for other “spheres and abilities.” Maybe I’d find them in the city. What drove me out of comfort-land, out of suburban life, wasn’t any noble cause or radical agenda as much as it was a personal ache for relationships.
Besides the fact that I had always loved being in the city, I moved into Denver’s inner-city neighborhood for two reasons. First, I genuinely wanted to be closer to the people I had met volunteering for a children’s program called Hope Communities. It made life simpler if we lived next door to each other; that way, I wouldn’t have to spend so much time traveling in my car to visit them.
The second motivation was that I had a bad memory. When I was really honest with myself, I knew that if I did not see low-income housing projects, homeless families, or boarded-up buildings on a daily basis, I would easily forget that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in economic poverty, primarily in urban areas. I felt that if I ignored or overlooked their plight, my Christian faith would seem irrelevant, selfish almost. Why bother believing in an incarnational God who cares for the poor and outcasts, and whose Son modeled such compassion, if I wasn’t willing to do the same?
Not that I was the Great White Hope. That was abundantly clear when I realized I had no idea what I was doing moving into Five Points Apartments in 1989. I had no plans to organize the people, no strategies for economic development, no husband to share a vision with, not even a roommate, and no talents—that I knew of—to offer the community. I was just a suburban college English teacher who liked working with kids. The only thing I knew for sure was how I wanted to perform some praiseworthy act of Christian charity in the midst of this urban turmoil.
I had a lot to learn.
And lest I entertain any hint of superiority because of my background, my very first living experience in the city provided me a healthy dose of humble pie. When I moved into the old house I would call home for the next three and a half years, it was still being renovated by my Greek landlord and his two workers. The place had been abandoned for over twenty years. That meant mice were crawling around my closet—a frightening thing for suburbanites—and there was no hot water or heat yet; the pipeline wouldn’t be connected to the main source for at least three more weeks. I had no choice but to knock on my neighbor Cheri’s door each morning, look at the ground, and ask if I could use her shower before I left for the college where I was teaching.
“Of course, Girl, that’s no big deal,” Cheri would say. Then this strikingly beautiful, thirty-something African-American woman would show me to the only bathroom she and her three children shared in their apartment. For the next twenty-one days, my gracious neighbor never seemed to mind helping her new, sorry-looking blond neighbor.
Human need is a great equalizer.
A Christian Nation?
When my friend Janet moved in as my roommate, some of our neighbors weren’t sure what to make of it. Here was a professional, college-educated black woman with no children, sharing a house with a white woman who was a college instructor at some religious suburban campus. Were they gay? Were they nuts? Why in the world would these two live together in this neighborhood?
I didn’t care what they thought (though I have to admit I was glad when Janet started dating a great guy from church); I was just thankful to have a roommate, someone to process things with and pray with. Janet ignored the “meddlin’ “about us and continued serving as a consistent role model for many of the youth around us and at church.
One night Janet invited me to join her for a political rally and fundraising dinner where she was the featured singer. When I arrived at the ballroom of the huge suburban hotel, I noticed that 99 percent of the thousand or so people who had come this night were white. (Living in a diverse community makes a room full of sameness stand out.) Red, white, and blue balloons hovered over miniature flags on each table of the banquet room. This was one of those meetings where white evangelicals were seeking to “restore America to her original purpose.” It was fall of 1992, and this particular conservative Christian political group was just starting to recruit support from around the country.
As the rally began, we were asked to pledge allegiance to the enormous striped symbol that hung behind the podium. Then Janet led us in a few “America the Beautiful” tunes. We were served a dinner of meat and potatoes and then listened to the evening’s guest speaker.
My program read that he was a “nationally acclaimed historian and evangelist.” Tonight his mission was to teach us of our country’s Christian roots and to walk us through several history lessons that confirmed this. He cited the Battle of Valley Forge as a heroic symbol of loyalty in founding this country, the techniques of early American educators who used the Bible to teach children the ABCs, and, of course, the righteous faith of our founding fathers. And though it was a fiery sermon with an ardent appeal, it stirred an uneasy reaction in my gut and raised several questions in my head. I suddenly felt anything but patriotic.
Janet saw me struggling; she smiled and reminded me that these were, in fact, “brothers and sisters in Christ.” She always was more gracious than I.
I wondered how this “acclaimed historian” could be so culturally selective in describing America’s past. How did the handful of people of color listening that night feel, hearing only half the truth of our country’s noble and horrible heritage? Why hadn’t the speaker told us that the conditions slaves (and other “minorities”) endured were far worse for far longer than what those brave soldiers who chose to be at Valley Forge endured? Why hadn’t he told of the shameful laws that forbade black children from learning to read at all while their white counterparts were learning from the Bible? Why hadn’t he revealed the truth that many of our “righteous” founding fathers, committed to liberty and justice for all, owned other human beings and called them slaves?
Why hadn’t this speaker told all the truth?
“Girl, they never do,” Janet told me. “You get used to it. And you keep challenging it by loving them.”
When I got back to our urban home, I couldn’t sleep. Not because of city noise—it was a welcome lull compared to what I had just heard. In fact, the only enjoyable aspect of the evening was hearing Janet sing. I wrote a letter to the speaker, asking him these same questions, encouraging him to take advantage of his opportunities to speak to predominately white audiences. Maybe, I said, this could be an exciting time to discuss racial reconciliation in the church, to give a more balanced view of our country’s history to white Christians who had long overlooked it. I dropped it in the mail the next day.
About a month later, I received a personal response from this renowned speaker. He thanked me for writing and raising these issues. However, he said, he did not have “sufficient time to talk about the attitudes of our founding fathers toward slavery” or the history of slavery in America. Besides, his historical expertise and personal calling uniquely qualified him to work toward restoring our original vision as a “Christian nation,” not to discuss “black/white relations” in this country. And he had to take issue with me that there were “two Americas” as I had claimed in my letter. “It is rather naíve,” he wrote, “to expect that these social sins will not be present in every society on the face of the earth. . . . Historically, ethnic groups that have come to America have slowly assimilated themselves into the American culture.”
He ended his letter with another astonishing statement: “I could understand how you as an African-American woman would feel deeply about these issues, but I must be faithful to what God’s called me to. Let me recommend some books that might help you understand.” I read it again. This man assumed I was black because I had encouraged him to discuss the racial history of our country! Even with a Czech name like mine, he presumed my concern was based on my own experiences as a woman of color! I had to write him back.
I assured him I was as European American as they came. “True, racial reconciliation and unity in the Body of Christ is unique to most Anglos but I don’t believe these issues ought to be,” I wrote. “Wasn’t Christ about crossing cultures by identifying with societal ‘outcasts’ and regarding all people with dignity? The Bible confirms for me that Christians should allow God’s love to transcend cultures while at the same time affirming the individuality of each.”
As to the idea of two Americas, I admitted that “perhaps I am more sensitive to racial issues because I live in an urban community where I have seen first hand many black friends denied jobs or harassed by the police simply because of their skin color. And I have seen our community denied economic development because major retail corporations refuse to build their stores in our neighborhood. That’s why I try to encourage Christians, the only true agents of change, to realize the reality and manifestations of racism and to take intentional steps to affirm the qualities and contributions of all of God’s children in our wonderfully diverse country.” I recommended some books (especially the books of John Perkins) to help him understand and mailed my letter.
I never heard from this speaker again.
Did most white evangelicals really think that only people of color cared about racial justice? This was a new kind of loneliness for me.
Like Little Children
Even before I had moved into the city, I noticed that some of the children in Five Points did not have the opportunities to play during the summers as I had always been given in the suburbs. It bothered me that there were parks and tennis courts nearby, the mountains only an hour’s drive away, and yet the children’s parents didn’t usually have the transportation means to get them there. It bothered me, too, that the local swimming pool cost only fifty cents, yet many of my neighbors—whom I knew loved to swim—would sit on their porches or play on the sidewalk all day long. Fifty cents was hard to come b y.
One spring day in 1990, I was talking with a few of my students in the campus center about this reality. Like me, they, too, had been given youthful summers to play, and they, too, were troubled that these urban kids didn’t have the same opportunities. They were eager to commit when someone came up with the idea of organizing a week-long summer day camp for the children on my block. We would make sure each child had a Bible, a T-shirt, a lunch, and a fun camp experience. In the mornings, we’d play games and teach Bible lessons in the gym of a church. In the afternoons, we’d pile into whatever cars we had and take a field trip to the zoo or a mountain lake or an amusement park.
Our summer J.A.M. (Jesus and Me) camps were a surprising testimony to the Almighty’s provision. We asked churches to donate money for camp T-shirts, women’s groups to make lunches, business clubs to pay for our field trips, and congregations to donate Bibles. We recruited children we already knew and asked their parents to register them, pay a two dollar camp fee, and join us if they could for a week of camp fun and organized chaos. JAM Camps never grew to more than forty children living on or nearby our block. We weren’t interested in building numbers but relationships. So, for the next seven years, the same African-American and Latino children and many of the same white and black college students spent a week of each summer together at day camp.
One of my white college students in particular was deeply affected by the friendships she built with some of the children and their mothers. Kathy had grown up much the same way I did—blond, suburban, athletic, churchgoing—but developed a growing restlessness in her early college years. She had heard from other students that I lived in the city, so she tracked me down to see how she could get involved.
“What makes you think you have anything to offer these kids?,” I asked her the first time we talked. It was a hard question, insensitive now that I think about it, but one I struggled with often. What made any of us think we could “do” anything for anyone? The last thing I wanted was for white college students to feel sorry for, or think they were better than, their urban neighbors.
“I have no idea. But I want to learn,” Kathy responded. With that, she helped plan JAM camps and became one of our first counselors during a summer when she was working two jobs to earn tuition for the fall. During the days of that first camp, Kathy taught Bible lessons during the day (though she barely knew the stories herself) and waitressed late each night.
And she became friends with seven-year-old Freddy Mae. One day while we were at the zoo, Kathy and Freddy Mae walked hand in hand past the lions, zebras, and elephants. They laughed and talked and pointed at the different shapes, sizes, and colors of each animal. Then all of a sudden, Freddy stopped, looked up into the white face of her camp counselor, and said, “Kathy, isn’t it neat how God made all these animals different? He’s pretty amazing, huh?”
Kathy could only nod her head at the truth of this child’s observation, but Freddy’s comment stayed with her the rest of the day. She couldn’t shake it that night either when she went home. She had been given the night off of work, and now she knew why: to get right with God. Kathy cried on her bed and asked God to give her faith like Freddy had shown her.
I was never quite sure who really benefited more from these urban/suburban friendships—the children who had special big brothers or sisters or the college students who had entered another world and discovered how much they had in common with their neighbors across town.
Or me. I got to watch the whole transaction.
I was changing. And Lonely was seeming a long time ago.
One day I got a call from the CEO of a company that published a biweekly news publication called the National and International Religion Report (NIRR). Was I interested in reporting for them part time?
I began traveling across the country to cover evangelical Christian conferences and events. From denominational meetings to missions or association conventions, from Orlando and Los Angeles to Minneapolis or Chicago, I spent January of 1993 to August of 1994 writing daily news pieces for the NIRR.
Every time I covered one of these meetings, I wondered why they were attended by predominately white men. Why were there so few people of color in these Baptist or Presbyterian denominations and even fewer in missions agencies or parachurch ministries? And almost nil in positions of leadership? Surely the Body of Christ in North America reflected more than white suburban evangelicals, didn’t it?
My own experience said it did. But as one black seminary professor explained to me, I was witnessing America’s great “spiritual apartheid.”
This selective and dominant white Christian subculture was confusing to me as I read the Scriptures, and as I continued to interact with neighbors in our urban community. It seemed to me that many Old Testament passages, the ministry of Jesus, and the Book of Acts all reflected God’s desire for unity—not separatism—in the church. Jews and Gentiles in all regions of the world in the early church days seemed to reflect a culturally diverse church.
Not a red, white, and blue one.
I read the apostle Peter’s speech as he repented of his racism in Acts 10:34-35: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” I knew the men and women I interviewed at these conferences would never claim to be racist, nor discriminatory. They believed that race and color weren’t important, they’d tell me. I wondered, though, why I rarely saw people of color at these conventions, meetings, and conferences, or in leadership roles.
I also wondered why the predominately white evangelical subculture in this country, that is, the leaders of many international ministries, the publishers and editors of many Christian publications and publishing houses, and the pastors of megachurches had done so little to work toward racial justice. Why had there been no evangelical voice in the 1960s civil rights movement? Why had this not been placed on the agenda? And why, now in the 1990s, were so many of the headquarters of these evangelical organizations located in homogenous suburban areas like Wheaton, Illinois, Colorado Springs, or Grand Rapids, Michigan, away from even the possibility of diversity? Why did they have so few people of color on their staffs, telling me that they would hire African Americans—”Ours is a color-blind employment policy”—but they “just haven’t applied”?
Who goes where they know they’re not welcomed?
Being comfortable is easier than justice.
Let’s Be Real
For the next few years, I also wrote articles for Urban Family and several Christian magazines about cross-cultural ministries, urban issues, and racial reconciliation efforts happening among evangelicals. Editors recognized that I was concentrating my freelance writing efforts on these issues and began assigning me stories. This encouraged me that maybe we were getting somewhere after all in regard to race relations; still, I knew we had a long way to go.
Especially when a white managing editor from a major Christian women’s magazine called me and asked me to write a piece for them about race relations in the church.
“But let’s be real,” she said to me, suddenly whispering as if someone had just bugged the phone, “there’s not a race problem anymore in this country, is there?”
I tried to “be real” as I told her stories: of an African-American teacher friend of mine confronted by two older white women in one of Denver’s suburban malls for being in the “wrong” place and how they missed “the good old days when niggers knew their place”; of my roommate’s fiancé, a thirty-year-old business manager who refused to drive through some wealthy, white parts of town any time of the day because he has been pulled over so many times by white police officers for “looking suspicious”; of an African woman attending a Christian conference and asked repeatedly during the fellowship time in the hotel’s lobby for “more coffee”; of a young black couple, both with high-paying jobs, who were told by white realtors that no houses were available in the new suburban housing development where they wanted to buy, even though they saw eight “for sale” signs as they drove through the community.
Yes, I said to this editor’s silence, I think there’s still a race problem in our country.
(This editor, coincidentally, has since become a good friend, whose sincere desire to learn about the race issue and respond accordingly has really encouraged me. She’s made a conscious effort to be far more culturally inclusive in her Christian magazine than others have.)
How Long, Oh Lord?
In 1996, I decided to pursue a lifelong love affair I’d had with New York City, the city of all cities. I would move to the Big Apple, the capital of the world and the mecca of the publishing world. By February of 1996, I packed up another truck and recruited a friend to help me drive east. The view of the New York skyline from the George Washington Bridge stirred a strange excitement in me, as if I were coming . . . home.
The next week I met a short, athletic African-American woman named Elvon. We lived in the same building in a neighborhood called Washington Heights, and I was thankful that I had “instant” neighbors. When she invited me over to play cards and talk, I realized this woman’s vision for unity sounded pleasantly familiar. She told me about the racial reconciliation ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, a church I immediately felt drawn to when I visited, and about her work on staff there.
Soon after we met, Elvon invited me to join her and some other women for an evening of racial dialogue in Brooklyn. The room was crowded with a mix of white, Asian, and black women and men eager to discuss the principles and points Elvon and her team brought up. When a black woman raised a concern about how to continue on this road, others chimed in with equal passion. She continued by telling us of a recent time when she visited her college-age son in upstate New York one weekend. She took him to a church there, wanting him to find spiritual support during his college days, but when they walked into the sanctuary, the white usher asked whether she and her son were in the “wrong church.”
The woman’s story slugged me in the stomach. Hurt so bad I couldn’t help but cry.
How long, oh Lord?
I put down my head, trying not to let my shoulders shake. The discussion continued all around me as I tried to dry my face. Then I felt a gentle hand on my back, stroking it like a mother does a sad child. Elvon had made her way through that crowd of people, sat behind me, and without saying a word, touched my ache with dignity and understanding.
I eventually conquered the subway system, picked up some writing projects, and settled into church life in a city known more for its “rude New Yawker” stereotypes than the kindness I was encountering. By Easter, I was invited to a potluck at a friend’s apartment down the street, where I ran into one of the white women who had spoken with Elvon that night in Brooklyn. I couldn’t help but notice how she interacted with the various people there; her gentle eyes focused, head nodding in support, questions coming from her heart as if that person she was talking with was the only—and therefore the most important—human being on the planet.
I wondered if this wasn’t what Jesus would have looked like when he listened to his friends.
Her name was Andrea.
It wasn’t often I encountered white Christian women who seemed to care so deeply about people of color or racial issues, so I was curious about what motivated this woman. She told me about growing up in Baltimore with parents who always made sure she was exposed to people from different cultures, even though she struggled much of her life with her dad’s decision to leave her family for a homosexual lifestyle. Now, her faith in Christ led her to explore these problems and challenges as an adult; her friendship with Elvon had personalized many of them for her, and both had given her a deep sense of gratitude and empathy.
I wasn’t sure if it was the spicy Spanish food or the conversation that made tears roll down Andrea’s cheek then. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and apologized, “I’m sorry. Sometimes I just can’t believe how much God has done in my life.”
The beauty of a broken, tender heart is an engaging thing.
That first conversation grew into many, many more. Soon we began a home fellowship group to help build the kind of cross-cultural relationships we knew the gospel required. When Andrea told me she was thinking about relocating into a low-income neighborhood, either Harlem or the South Bronx, I asked her why she wanted to do that. Like me, she had been affected by John Perkins’s philosophy of ministry and relocation, by her study of Scriptures, and by her conversations with others. Consequently, she was feeling more and more drawn to live among the people with whom she worked. I was missing life in a neighborhood (as opposed to a big apartment building) and asked if I could join her search for a new home.
We talked many hours about what it would mean for two white women to move into a black neighborhood—how could we communicate our desire for reconciliation without appearing patronizing or offending the community? How could we become neighbors without coming across as privileged or arrogant? How could we keep the door and the conversations opened when there was so much “racial residue” to confront?
How in the world could two Waspy Christian women find a home in Harlem?
The combined support of friends—along with the direction of the Almighty—made it easier to move. Again. I was ready to stop moving and get rooted.
Denver was a suburb compared to Harlem. Though it was a community I had long admired from the literary pages of the Harlem Renaissance, I have to admit, I struggled with moving into this predominately African-American section of Manhattan; I was intimidated by its reputation and density. Was I ready to return to minority status for the sake of interracial dialogue in this intense world of concrete high-rises and brownstone houses?
Harlem. A place loaded with historic romance and contemporary rage, a place where working and middle-class families live next door to crack houses, where Japanese and German tourists pay big bucks to attend black church services,
while youth centers struggle to pay their staff. Harlem is what sociologists call a study in despair, what politicians call a symbol of urban decay and territorial tensions, and what television reporters call a crime-infested area. By their accounts, you’d think no real human beings lived here.
But they do, of course. Mothers raise their children in inner city America. And Harlem, I discovered the day I moved in, is a personal neighborhood in the midst of an often impersonal city. It is full of individual human beings who struggle and laugh and hope and bleed—like I do.
Could I go back to living as one of the few white women on the block, knowing the stares and questions and wonderful tradeoffs there would be? Could I handle the crowded dirty streets, boarded buildings, and the rich African cultures that had migrated to central Harlem much like southern blacks of the 1920s did? I’d see a group of African-American teenagers laughing and joking, rapping to each other and dancing to some hip-hop—safe just to be teenagers in one of the greatest black communities in the country. Would my white skin dampen their spirits and invade their heritage?
We could be neighbors, friends reminded me, chastising my guilt, helping me remember how much I needed these young people in my life, needed their unique talents and perspectives, needed to encourage them to succeed. I knew that learning and growing is never one-sided—it’s always reciprocal.
So maybe these teenagers would see in me one white woman who didn’t clutch her purse in fear and hurry by when she passed them on the street. In Harlem.
I met Maurice, Dewayne, and Junior that first day we moved, three eight-year-old neighbors who stood by watching us carrying boxes, clothes, and lamps. I shook their hands, introduced myself to them, and asked if they lived close by since I was going to be their new neighbor. Down the street, they told me, pointing with proud arms and eager eyes. They mumbled that they’d see me later, that they were going to the store for their mom. An hour later, when I was carrying another box, I heard a joyous sound I hadn’t heard since I left Denver: “Hiiiii Jooooo! Can we help?” Maurice and Junior smiled at the door.
And I was home.