Watching all the children in Vacation Bible School this week brought back memories of my own childhood experience in Church.
When I was a child, I loved attending Sunday School. I had some amazingly loving and deeply faithful teachers whose influence profoundly affected the formation of my faith in a loving God. I can see them and hear their voices now as if it were only yesterday - Mr. Frantis, Mrs. Brittian, Mrs. Baber, and others. They loved us and shared their faith in Jesus with us. They reinforced the faith into which our parents were trying to guide us.
However, when I looked back on that time from the perspective of a young adult in the late 1960's, I realized something was wrong. They taught us to sing (with gusto) "Jesus Loves the Little Children." In that song, there is a line that says, "Red and yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight." But the church I attended was 100% white. From its members I overheard conversations from time to time about the place of our neighbors who were black, brown, and yellow. When I looked back, I realized that, while Jesus loves people besides white people, my white church people didn't. Jesus might love them, but they weren't really welcome in my church. Jesus might love them, but they weren't worthy of the dignity and respect enjoyed by white people. Jesus might love them, but our behavior toward them didn't have to look like we love them as he loves us. Jesus might love them, but they had better not act "uppity." (And what about brown children?)
If you grew up in a racist culture like I did, you know what I am talking about. Perhaps for you, as for me, recognizing that something was wrong was an epiphany, a time for repentance, and the beginning of transformation. My world could no longer be all white with a little color around the edges.
This all came to me during a time when black people were turned away from white churches. It was a struggle for one like me, who was taught that people of all colors are precious in the sight of Jesus, to reconcile that message with the actions I was witnessing. Given the rhetoric of the day, I suppose I could have rejected that message and clung to what seemed to be the majority view reflected in the rhetoric and behavior of my white world. But the security, control, and privilege of that world was slipping away. Abandoning it or confronting it could be dangerous. White people said harsh and hateful things to other white people who didn't participate in keeping non-white people "in their place." The message wasn't wrong; my white, privileged, dominant world was wrong and I couldn't live in it anymore. I had to set out on a journey toward someplace else. I'm still on that journey.
Recent events in our nation have brought me to the sad truth that many of my fellow white people are still trapped in that world. It is even sadder that they seem to be completely unconscious of it. They say and do things that are blatantly racist yet are oblivious. I know it's true because I've been there and I still find myself trying to overcome some of those prejudices that were planted in me long ago. People of color who loved me enough to point out the harm, sometimes hatefulness, of my words and actions stuck with me until I began to understand where they were coming from and how my words and my behavior affected them. Many of those people are still in my life. I give thanks to God for them. I've sort of been their lifelong project and I'm still not finished. They patiently continue on the journey with me. And as we travel, we sing that song hoping our rainbow beliefs are evident in our lives. Maybe the colors of our rainbow are still a little bit pastel, but we hope they are growing stronger with each step we take together. Together.
So, what I wanted to suggest today to my friends of all colors, races, religions, genders, and nationalities is that it might help heal our fractured, hurting world if we would sing this song and test ourselves to see if our words and actions show that we really believe it is true. Whether you believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, a wise prophet, or just a very gutsy nice guy, could it be true that he loves all the children of the world? Are all of us - red, yellow, black, white, brown - really precious in his sight? If I am one of the Jesus people, shouldn't they be precious in my sight as well? How do I love and treat people who are precious in Jesus' sight? Who are precious in my sight?
This isn't a final exam! It's a pop quiz to monitor progress in a lifelong course. I invite you to take it with me and see if we can be the difference we'd like to see in God's amazing, changing world.
I'll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral