It was like a rolling party for our staff, a weekend of fun, fellowship and feasting on some of the most inspiring urban teaching anywhere. I had chartered a 47 passenger travelcoach to take all our ministry associates to the Christian Community Development Conference in Jackson, Mississippi, for three days of rekindling. The theme of the conference was racial reconciliation - important reinforcement for our diverse staff. Bus rides of racially mixed groups in Mississippi can evoke some powerful memories. On this ground some very costly sacrifices were made to secure racial equality. It seemed very good indeed for a group as racially and economically diverse as ours to be revisiting these roots, enjoying great fellowship, food and worship together. I pictured us as a snapshot of the reconciled Body of Christ - a reflection of the way the Kingdom is designed to function.
Somewhere along the road through Alabama, I slipped to the front of the bus and keyed the mike for a few "presidential" remarks - the significance of our journey, the inspiring sessions in store for us in Jackson, that sort of thing. Trisha, our administrative director, followed up my speech with some logistical details. Some of us, she announced, would be staying at the Holiday Inn where the conference was being held; others of us would be housed in the overflow hotel a block away. Disappointing, I thought. It would be nicer if we could all stay together but it was no big deal. But as she read off the list of those who would be staying in the Holiday Inn, a silence spread like a pall over the bus. All those with reservations in the Holiday Inn were white!
It was an innocent oversight, anything but an intentional racist act. I knew exactly how it had happened. Conference planners had assigned accommodations in the order registrations were received. It just happened that the first of our staff to register were white. None of us had noticed this until Trisha read the list. But by then it was too late.
Trisha went on with her announcements but many of our black staff had difficulty listening. A sensitive nerve had been struck that unleashed a torrent of troubling emotions. This unintentional inequity found a weak spot in the levy of our relationships. A murmur of "here they go again" comments began seeping underground. Motives were questioned. Suspicions soon surfaced. In a remarkably short time, hurt and anger broke through with Mississippi River force, tearing open an ugly racial breech in our relationships. Distrust swirled in among us. Explanations, like sandbags, did little to contain the flow; once the fortification of trust had broken, they were washed away as flimsy excuses. By the time the conference was over, we were swamped by a flood of accusations and counter-accusations. Inequities in comp time for the weekend, babysitting coverage, meal reimbursement and a number of other "we-they" issues contaminated our relationships. We were anything but reconciled as we headed back to Atlanta.
I had assumed that the relationships we had built together over the years were strong enough to fortify us against the River of Racial Separation. I had underestimated the power of that great divide that forever erodes foundations of trust and breaks apart the family of faith. Again it proved itself too strong, too persistent, too thorough for our imperfect fortifications to withstand. One small, overlooked breech was all it took to allow the murky waters to come pouring in.
But all is not lost. We immediately set to work cleaning up the damage and restoring the levy. Face to face dialogue was required before side by side work could continue. In this painstaking process, we began to understand better the nature of the force that would divide us. We have identified weak spots in our ways of relating. Our sensitivities have been sharpened and our commitment to candor deepened - essential reinforcements for the integrity of the ministry we have built together. There is still a contaminated well or two to purify but on the whole our restored relationships are stronger and deeper than before the break. The Mississippi bus ride may well be remembered as the trip that taught us the importance of vigilance to the art of Kingdom levy building.