A Matter of Distance

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"We want to be personally involved with inner-city families," the Sunday School class leader emphasized. "Not just collect clothes and drop them off at your thrift store." Last year a number of their class members had gone on a mission trip to Central America and it was the most meaningful thing they had ever done. They had stayed in the homes of peasants, ate native food and worked along side brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people building a mud brick church. This group of success-oriented Christians came back to their affluent homes with a dramatically altered view of what was important in life. "There are poor people right in our own back yard," they had discussed as they contemplated their next mission venture. And so they invited me to address their class and present some ways that they could minister closer to home.

I understood and appreciated their desire. These were Christians, caught up in the pursuit of the American dream, who had decided that they wanted their lives to count for more than the sum of their material possessions. There was a yearning in their spirits to spend themselves and their considerable talents for a cause that has redemptive, eternal significance. It was more than a good feeling or saving airfare that motivated them. Their spiritual appetites had been whet by the nourishing nectar of servanthood. And they wanted more.

But there was a distance problem with their close-to-home mission strategy that they had not yet calculated. Though the geographic distance may not be great, the social chasm between blacks and whites in our society is wide. The distance across the chasm of class is even wider. Brown-skinned people in a far away culture may be excited at the opportunity to host wealthy benevolent strangers in their homes. But black-skinned inner-city Americans, who everyday face the realities of racial inequity, are less likely to feel immediate warmth toward white people who have historically avoided social relationships with them. From the less privileged side of this divide, benevolence can look very much like condescension.

How shall I guide these rightly motivated white Christians on a journey of such great distance? A trip by jet to Central America is much shorter than the distance across the gulf of racial separation in their own city. And less costly, too. Fears at our own doorstep are much more unsettling than those we can isolate in distant places. There is always the risk that trouble might follow us home.

Yet my Sunday School friends insist that they are ready for the challenge. There is a seriousness in their eyes. Some of the men have attended Promise Keepers where they were confronted by the serious harm racial prejudice has done. They have grieved over the deep damage they and their fathers have inflicted on the spirits and psyches of African Americans and have repented publicly with tears. Their hearts responded to the challenge to become "the generation of reconciliation" and they are ready as never before to take practical steps that will move them forward on that mission.

In a strange twist of irony, however, at the moment of their readiness there is a discernable retreat in the black community toward separatism. A festering anger builds among poor blacks who have been left behind by the rest of society, including their upwardly mobile neighbors. And among achieving blacks, there is a growing "we'll-do-it-on-our-own" attitude that arises out of years of frustrated efforts to achieve peer status in the dominant white culture. My eager Sunday School friends are quite unaware that even as they make plans to traverse the racial divide, the separation is steadily growing wider.

Maybe their naivete is good. Maybe it's best to believe that the separation can be closed with a little helpfulness and understanding. One could make the case that our choir-swapping, pulpit-exchanging reconciliation efforts merely serve to lull us into the false belief that race relations are really getting better. I will not be so cynical. I will applaud any attempt, no matter how symbolic or simplistic, that moves us a step down the path toward greater unity, especially within the family of faith. Personal involvement with an inner-city family that my Sunday School friends desire is a great first step. It will move them toward the dividing issues. If they knew the trouble that lurks on the road ahead - the layers of distrust accumulated over generations, the animosity that boils beneath the surface, the deep-seated prejudices that lie largely concealed within themselves - they might lose courage and abort the mission before they begin.

So where shall we embark on this journey? A series of candid cross-cultural discussions with African American speakers could help sensitize the group to the issues and pitfalls they are likely to confront. An excellent first venture would be to build a house with a needy family. Very practical, very task-oriented, addressing a real need while providing plenty of time to get to know each other - at least in a surface way. And if the relationship deepens so that honest communication can be risked, my Sunday School friends may catch a rare personal glimpse of the world as seen through the eyes of the oppressed. Their hearts may be touched by the silent anguish of parents who must somehow prepare their bright children to be forever viewed as inferior by the dominant culture. They may even discover ways that their own attitudes and behaviors contribute to that suffering. And who knows, maybe one of them might even be captured by a vision to become a bridge builder and relocate where they can be reconciling neighbors.

It's a long, long journey but we have to start somewhere.

Bob Lupton

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