My neighbor George and his friend recently attended a local church workshop on racism/white privilege. Although he had studied a lot of American history, George said he’d never heard about the Tulsa race riots or even “Juneteeth” — the official news of the end of our Civil War, June 1865, in Texas. He went on to ask the question, “Why didn’t I know that?”
I raised the same question. Let me share with you a couple of my own times I’ve wondered, “Why didn’t I know that?”
Why didn’t I know that I was rich? I knew we were never poor but not Buffet or Gates rich. Then one day when I was on the Board of the Shepherd Staff, I met a woman who needed some items from our Blessing Closet. She asked where I lived and I told her. “Oh!” she said, “you live with the rich people.”
“Oh, no! We aren’t rich,” I responded. She quickly added, “Do you have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer? Do you have a car? Do you know where your next meal will come from or where you will spend tonight? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions you are rich!”
Why didn’t I know there is there is a major difference between knowing about someone and knowing someone? It really hit me when George Floyd was murdered. I know a lot about people. But what will change the world will be when we get to know one another — sharing our hopes and dreams, our pain and joy, our anger and our love! Is that really possible?
Why didn’t I know that it is not healthy to get all of your news from one newspaper, television station, website or political party? It may be more comforting to hang onto our unchallenged beliefs and to reinforce our biases and prejudices but it will never bring down the walls and bring us together. Maybe some people don’t want the “walls to come tumbling down.”
Why didn’t I know early in my ministry that it is more difficult to be the church than to go to (play) church? I can go to church, sing a few hymns, read non-threatening Scripture or hear a non-confrontational message, give a few dollars and go home the same person as I entered. “Playing church” can be a distraction from the serious issues we face every day. Jesus wasn’t murdered because he was sweet and lovely. He was killed because he irritated people, including religious leaders, government officials and even some of his followers who quickly drifted away when he turned his face toward the cross. The line “we will never change the world by going to church — we will only change the world by being the church” still challenges me. The Gospel message needs to be both comforting and confrontational both in the pew and in the pulpit.
Why didn’t I know it was easier to write “All men are created equal” than it is to live those words out in daily practice?
Why didn’t I know that as hard as I try to be open and accepting, I still am at times biased, prejudiced and even racist? They say that we learn prejudice as a child but at times I feel maybe it’s part of my genetic makeup. Maybe that is why those words from the Psalmist “create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” are part of my daily confessional! (51.10) I believe I am privileged because I was born white. There were a lot of doors that automatically opened to me but were closed to those of color.
Why didn’t I know that some people are content to tear things down rather than build things up? I remember once asking my friend George if some people are just naturally nasty and mean. He said, like he said about many things,” it’s all in the genes.” I would hate to believe that some people are just born that way. Born naturally nasty, mean and destructive. Here’s another personal question: Why do I let destructive comments or even destructive people get to me so I become one of them? I don’t believe that “nasty begets nasty” but it often seems to work that way. I remember someone once saying “if people want to live and play in the gutter that doesn’t mean you have to join them.” Do you think with a national election coming up we are going to have more people living and playing in the gutter? I hope not!
Why didn’t I know that some people will never accept responsibility for their actions, always blaming someone else? Why is it easier to blame someone else for your mistake or failure than accept it for yourself? “I made a mistake” is very hard for some people to say. They find it a sign of weakness. Maybe even a sign of failure. For some it is based on “I must win” and therefore “you must lose.” In that case, we all lose.
Why didn’t I know that the 1st Amendment to our Constitution guarantees free speech which apparently for some can be interpreted as — you don’t have to wear a mask, or practice social distancing, or stay at home, or it’s OK to cough in another person’s face. For some, the entire amendment is all about me and my constitutional rights, not the health of my neighbor. I heard about a man who shared his virus with seven other drinking buddies without them even knowing it. One of them is still in the hospital. Apparently some of us are big on sharing in America!
Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.
The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at email@example.com.