Jad TaylorI spent my second Saturday as a Candler School of Theology student attending a Racial Healing and Dismantling Racism Retreat led by Dr. Catherine Meeks. As an author, racial healing consultant, and self-proclaimed midwife to the soul, Dr. Meeks began the retreat by inviting us into brave space, not safe space. According to Dr. Meeks, safe spaces are places where we can come, hide from honesty, and leave feeling good. Brave spaces, on the other hand, may not allow us to leave feeling good. Instead, they create opportunities to respect and care for one another as we engage in compassionate truth-telling. Dr. Meeks made no promises that we were going to leave the retreat undisturbed; I am glad she didn’t. I left the retreat with a new view of Candler and the possibilities seminary, ministry, and life offered.

After Dr. Meeks’ introduction, we continued by sharing our hopes and concerns for the retreat. My eyes opened wide as participants expressed skepticism about the retreat’s effectiveness and shared stories of mistreatment at Candler due to their race. As they shared, my understanding of Candler as a utopian community, located a few streets down from the gates of heaven, fell away. What remained was an understanding of the Candler community as a place filled with broken people in need of God’s continual sanctification, myself included. During the retreat, an important realization came into focus:

I am racist.

Dr. Meeks named racism as a “system of advantage based on race” and “the illness separating us from being who God wants us to be.” When Dr. Meeks challenged us that “you can’t heal what you won’t own,” I began to think about the ways I am naturally drawn to people who look like me, talk like me, think like me, believe like me, and worship like me. My first thought was, “Well, this is natural and how we have lived and operated throughout all of human history,” but then I thought about heaven. If heaven will be like a wedding feast and people from every nation will gather around the table, what if our life on earth is a rehearsal? 

Each day, I am given a choice. I can choose to only seek out conversations with those like me. As a white person, I would hear few, if any, stories about the ways in which people of color are disadvantaged each day, whether through microaggressions or deeply embedded racist systems. For example, “the talk” during my childhood meant a mildly awkward conversation about the “birds and the bees.” Whereas for parents of color, I’ve come to learn that “the talk” involves life or death conversations about dealing with law enforcement, a system I’ve always seen as protecting me. I could easily lead a life in which I believed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of living in a nation where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” had been achieved. I would then reap a significant benefit of racism: blissful ignorance. When I cloister myself from the suffering of others, I participate in racism and prevent humanity from being who God wants us to be.

What if we took time to consider how we’ve closed ourselves off to those of different races? If our time on earth is a rehearsal for a heavenly feast, our prejudices prevent us from seeing who is missing at our tables. I hope we can be more honest about our racial biases and more open to stepping outside our comfort zones.

When a friend recently shared a time she had been clearly discriminated against as a person of color, I was shocked. “There must be two sides to this issue,” the voice in my head declared. Not until I witnessed the discrimination firsthand was I able to silence the voice of racism in my head and fully believe her story. I apologized to her as I realized, as a person of color, she faces discrimination every day. As a white person, I choose to primarily spend my time with other white people. If I’m really honest, I am initially fearful of people who don’t look like me. When I drive through a primarily black neighborhood, I feel the impulse to lock my car doors. I realize that I’ve connected black neighborhoods with “bad neighborhoods” and places of danger. Why do I fear in these situations when I’m more statistically likely to be harmed by someone of my same race? When I spend most of my time with other white people, I find it easy to believe that racism is no longer a problem. This choice, the one I am naturally drawn to on a daily basis, perpetuates racism.

I can, however, follow the encouragement of Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and “get proximate to the problem.” I can begin each day with a prayer inviting God to allow me to see others as God sees them. I can pray to see the world through the eyes of the “other.” I can embody this prayer by resisting the powerful pull to live a segregated life. I can choose to approach the world and its people with curiosity. What would it mean if the tables I sat around, the teachers I learned from, and the friendships I pursued looked more like the heavenly feast? What if, instead of assuming I understand the experiences of people who didn’t look like me, I sought opportunities to be with people as they are?

Dr. Meeks closed the retreat by reminding us that racial healing, like all healing, takes time. Part of this healing means investing our time in this important work. If you, like me, find racism within, I invite you to prayerfully consider how we might rehearse heaven together each day. I have so much to learn from each of you and look forward to growing together into who God wants us to be.

Jad plans to continue reflecting on this subject, and will return to it on Enthused!  Look for Part 2 next spring as he wraps up his second year, and Part 3 in 2020 before he graduates.