My seventeenth summer was a little different from the rest. Through an odd little sequence of events, I flew with a group of 10 other soon-to-be seniors in high school to the other side of the world and spent six weeks learning Mandarin and exploring little corners of China from our home base at Qingdao University on the east coast. Although I’ve lost all but a few fragments of the language I picked up, it remains one of the more magical and transformative periods of my admittedly still pretty short life. It’s my only experience of being a stranger in a strange land where I don’t quite get the customs, don’t speak the language, don’t know my way around, and don’t know who it is or is not safe to ask for help navigating all those things, opening my heart to immigrant neighbors with a new empathy I hadn’t felt before. Unexpectedly, though, it also opened my imagination to the variety of ways American-born neighbors experience our home country differently than I do as well.
None of us had any Asian heritage to speak of, and it was obvious to folks wherever we went in China that we weren’t from the neighborhood. Three of us were African American and the rest were white, with one blonde among us who got the majority of the attention. One of our counselors, an American graduate student fluent in Mandarin, took a few of us to the beach one afternoon. Two men came over, curious about the out of place herd of teenagers building sandcastles on their shores. Our counselor told them we were American high school students participating in a study abroad program, but the men persisted, “Ok, but where are those students from?”
“The United States,” our counselor told them, “all these kids are from the U.S.”
“There are black people in America?” one of the men asked.
“Yes,” his friend assured him, “but they don’t treat them well.”
Powerful words from the lips of a man old enough to remember Tienanmen Square.
Scrolling through the links from news sources in my Twitter feed, I remember that story.
Catching the news on local radio during my morning commute, I remember that story.
Cringing at the comments of an elderly family friend who hasn’t faced the hurt it causes to retain the racial vocabulary of her youth, I remember that story.
Watching Confederate flags wave from t-shirts and truck beds and flag poles toted across the Capitol lawn through the wall of windows at Grace Place, I remember that story.
Opening the doors of the church building at 8:30am sharp to have breakfast with neighbors living in poverty whose faces are overwhelmingly darker than my own, I remember that story.
“There are black people in America?”
“Yes, but they don’t treat them well.”
At every turn, with each anecdote from a friend, with each new study published for public consumption, in each classroom full of teachers and students dissecting scholarly articles, their observation rings true. White Americans, we do not love our neighbors as ourselves. Maybe you as an individual love other individuals well, (and for that I am thankful!) but collectively, systematically, and repeatedly we have shown that as a group we are at best apathetic and at worst downright cruel to our brothers and sisters of color. And yet, many of our siblings are still inviting us into their lives. Especially in the body of Christ, the doors are still open to us to repent, to be humbled, to come in and sit down and listen. This is not nearly the end of the story. There’s time yet for the grace we don’t deserve and the justice they absolutely do.
Before dinner last night we circled up with all three siblings and our significant others linking hands with my parents to say grace in the kitchen while the dog curled up in the middle.
“Thank you for all my babies under one roof!” Mama prayed with a squeeze of the two hands in hers. “Help us to remember that every human being in the world is every bit as special to you as we are to each other. Help us to remember that we are all one human family.” Amen.