God of the Gaps: Stories on the Race/Faith Divide: “My Name is Ben, & I’m a White Guy”

randomlychad  —  April 23, 2012 — 19 Comments

Today I’m privileged to host Ben Emerson, of the irreverently reverent The Whole Dang Thing. What is the “Whole Dang Thing?” It is Ben blogging his way through the entire Bible–one chapter at a time. Please check out his blog. But only after you’ve read today’s post. Ben also works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the Pacific Northwest, and married the love of his life, Andrea, last fall.

A word about this post: not long ago, I wrote about The First Time I Saw A Black Person. Ben commented on that post, sharing a little of his story. I asked him to expand his comment into a full-blown post because I believe it’s important to understand how peoples’ different life experiences shape their views of themselves, others, and the world. If you have a story you’d like to share, please drop me a line (contact info is on my About page), I’d love to read it (and perhaps share it here).

Without further ado, here’s Ben:

Hi. My name is Ben.

I am a white guy.

And I am only beginning to see all the ways that this has colored and shaped my life.

One thing that happens to a lot of us white folk is that we don’t realize we are white. We don’t realize that we have an ethnicity and a culture. We fail to see that “white” is not neutral or “default.”

I’d like to share with you some stories of times when this became clearer to me. I’m not going to offer answers or tips or lessons. Not yet anyway. Just stories. The first happened when I was in a leadership meeting in college. The second happened while trying to develop leaders after college.

——————-

“Now, Ben and Dan probably think that Nathan is just like them. He’s just one of the guys. Right?”

Jon looked at us for an answer.

Dan and I quickly glanced at each other and then back to Jon. “Yeah. Of course. Why would we treat him or think of him any differently?”

“But Nathan, on the other hand, I’m guessing is acutely aware of all the ways that he is different than Ben and Dan. He probably notices many of these differences every single day.”

It couldn’t be true. Nathan wasn’t that different from us! Sure, he was from Hawai’i and was ethnically Philippino and Native Hawaiian, and we were white guys from California, but that shouldn’t make that much difference. Should it?

When Jon was done speaking the two of us looked over at Nathan. He was nodding his head up and down with this impish grin on his face. His look said everything. “Yep. And you guys have no idea.”

I was shocked. I had been friends with him for over a year! And I was just now realizing that his experiences at the University of Oregon, as a student leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and as my friend had been vastly different than my own.

And the reason they were different was because of his ethnicity and cultural background.

—————–

Fast forward eight years or so.

After graduation I began working for InterVarsity at Oregon State University. In one of my Bible Studies was a Black student named Camille.

She was having a difficult time being at OSU (there are about 300 black students there; out of a total of 24,000 or so) and was talking to me about her experiences.

I had grown a lot since my conversation with Nathan. I was aware that ethnicity matters. As much as many of us well-intentioned white people would like to think that we don’t see color, many minorities feel the differences every day of their lives. So I was listening to Camille’s story.

She was thinking of transferring to Portland State, a much more diverse and urban school.

“Well Camille, I understand that it is hard to be a black student here. And that InterVarsity doesn’t even feel like the most welcoming place to you. I’m sorry. But I do think that we need to grow in our cross-cultural ministry skills. Why don’t you and I start hanging out at the Black Cultural Center so we can meet more black students?”

Then Camille said something to me I will never forget.

“Why do ministries always wait until there is a black person around to start reaching out to black people?”

I had nothing to say. I mean, what can you say to something like that?

Ben’s blog is The Whole Dang Thing, and you can follow him on Twitter @JBEmerson

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randomlychad

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Christ-follower, husband, dad, blogger, reader, writer, movie buff, introvert, desert-dweller, omnivore, gym rat. May, or may not, have a burgeoning collection of Darth Vader t-shirts. Can usually be found drinking protein shakes, playing with daughter, working out with his son, or hanging out with his wife. Makes a living playing with computers. Subscribe to RandomlyChad by Email

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  • Great question, Ben. And a great blog post. I think this will stick with me for a while.

    • Me, too, Adrian. For a long time.

  • Good post with a good question. The Church, as a whole, stinks at diversity.

    • Matt, could you unpack that for us? Do you mean the worldwide church, or just the American church that stinks at diversity? Do you have a story like Ben’s? As a pastor living in the south, would love your perspective.

  • First, I love blog mashups and it’s cool that two of my favorite blog guys are doing it here.
    Second, I daily have to recover from the prejudice of my youth. I was raised to be prejudice and find it deep in some places I didn’t realize was there.

    • Thanks, Larry! I’m sure I speak for Ben when I say we’re happy to be able to bring you a “mashup.” After a tweetup last summer, it took far too long to happen.

      I applaud your honesty in divulging your past; it is the rare man these days who’s willing to admit he was wrong. Rarer still is the person who is wiling to do something about it.

      How about sharing a little of your story here in this forum?

    • I am finding that listening goes a long way. Thanks for your honesty.

  • This can feel like an overwhelming issue. Where do you even start, if you aren’t reaching out and never have? Maybe the answer lies in find who does it best. When I visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle the spectrum of colors and variety was the most beautiful & diverse Sunday morning I had ever experienced. Except for getting my big toe run over by a kid in Heelys (EXCRUCIATING!) it was one of the best church visits ever. Those places are rare, but they do exist. We can learn from them, especially when we make it a priority.

    • Indeed it can. There is wisdom in your words, but experience has taught me that emulating the successful doesn’t necessarily always result in success. It has to come from an authentic place--not a place of “let’s do it like so-and-so because it worked for them.” Folks, like Holden Caulfied, are adept at sniffing out “phonies.” I think, like Ben said in his reply to Larry, we earn out right to speak by first listening. People are literally dying to share their stories, to be understood.

      Brooklyn Tabernacle may be a great model, but we really need two things: authentic hearts moved by compassion, and a move of God’s Spirit.

      Thanks for coming by, Lisa! Maybe you would like to share some of your story here in this forum? We’d love to hear it!

    • Its true that going to places like “black church” are great experiences. I encourage people to do that.

      But for me, the most profound experiences have been sitting with small groups or individuals and just listening. I had a chance to do that this last weekend and it was eye opening and incredibly humbling.

  • Ben,
    Thanks for the post and opening up this conversation (thanks Chad for hosting it). As for my own race/faith story, well I’m bi-racial. My dad is black and my mom is white. For many years I searched for identity and belonging among either white or black people.

    Then God made it abundantly clear to me that I didn’t “belong” anywhere, but in the family of God. If ever there was a place where race should dissolve away, it is the Body of believers. Of course, this is rarely the case, as your story pointed out.

    • I didn’t know you were bi-racial. Cool. One of my students is Bi-racial and doesn’t feel comfortable at all in predominantly latino/a settings.

      I think in both of my stories I was operating from a “race is dissolved away” mindset. The problem was, as a result, I was ignoring all the ways that race mattered to people. Or I was ignoring my own blindness on the subject. And that was hurting people.

      So I know that I need to learn to see it and all that it means for people so that I can understand and love them. And also see more of God’s beauty revealed through the different cultures.

  • Ben, I want to thank you for coming by today to share your story. Appreciate your heart, and your transparency.

  • Love it. I could talk more about how much I care about this issue, but instead, I’ll just link to a story on my favorite week of college and you can read if you’d like:

    http://blogs.belhaven.edu/alumni/2011/02/11/a-taste-of-heaven/

    • Oh, man! That was beautiful, dude! If this becomes a series, I want a story from you.

  • Oof. That’s a bucket of cold water, eh? Still shows we need to keep talking, thinking, looking. Wells aid.

    • Yeah. The first story was more eye-opening than anything. The second punched me in the gut. But you’re right, we do need to do those things. I might add “listening” to the list.

  • Thanks for sharing Ben. I think you gave the answer in this post, even if you didn’t mean to. The best way to approach this is to listen to each person’s story. Too often we assume things based on our opinions or what the news says about cultures/race/ethnicities. If you want to know how someone feels, listen to their story!

    • Evan, I think you hit the nail on the head: people want to know we’re listening. They want to know we care.

      To that end: do you have a story to share, something that fits within a similar paradigm as Ben’s post?